WNET (Koch and Ashbery) – Kenneth Koch

Another of the WNET poetry films that we’ve been featuring. This weekend – Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery  – Today, the young  Kenneth Koch

KK: There’s an awful lot in my poems that I don’t understand at the time of writing them and if I understand them as I write them it’s usually a bad sign but I don’t think that’s ever happened.

“There are certain constants in my work and one is this interest in juxtaposing one thing against another in such a way that it’ll be dramatic and beautiful and funny and interesting. Incidentally, my work is funny, not because I think that that’s an end in itself, but I find that some of the juxtapositions that make something beautiful to me are also funny. Obviously, wit and beauty are very close together in certain ways.”

“Sometimes it’s beautiful to turn away from a person and to look out the window or to turn away from the window and look at a person. I’m interested in that juxtaposing thing, putting things together.”

The poet and playwright Kenneth Koch lives on Perry Street in New York City.

“I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1925, and I lived there tilll I was eighteen. I was drafted into the army. I ended up as a rifleman in the infantry in the Pacific. I got out of the army in 1946 and then I went to Harvard. Then I came to New York and I got a job as a bobbin boy in a hand weaving place, but then I quickly went back to school and got an M.A. from Columbia. I went to France for a year on a Fulbright grant. Then I was a teaching assistant at the University of California for a year. Then I’ve lived in New York ever since (except for two years I spent in Europe). Now I teach at Columbia.”

“Sometimes people have found my poems obscure and they’ve looked for hidden meanings. There are no hidden meanings in my poetry. And yet, if, I think, my poems are hard to understand, they’re hard to understand in a different way than, say, (Ezra) Pound or (T.S.) Eliot’s are, because Pound and Eliot’s usually have a meaning, which, if you’ve read the right book, or are thinking about the right thing, you’ll find the meaning.”

[At approximately two-and-three-quarter minutes in, Kenneth Koch begins reading two poems] – “I’ll read an early poem called “To You” (it’s fairly early, anyway)” – (“I love you as a sheriff searches for a walnut/That will solve a murder case unsolved for years…”…”…the sun/Receives me in the questions which you always pose”)  – “And another poem from the same time called “Spring”” – (“Let’s take a walk in the city till our shoes get wet…”…”as you are seen to be bathed in a light white light. Come on”)

“I started to write poetry seriously when I was seventeen, I guess. I had a very good teacher in high school who encouraged me to write. And I read John Dos Passos’ USA, and I was very inspired by these stream-of-consciousness parts And I started to write stream-of-consciousness, which was encouraged by Mrs Lapham, my teacher. And she encouraged me to express all kinds of things such as sadistic feelings and sexual feelings and feelings of disgust, and so on. And the way I first wrote anything that I think was any good was by doing this stream-of-consciousness thing and then looking at it afterwards and picking out certain things which seemed to me good. I tend to write a lot and then to just take what, what I like best and work on that.

A mock-epic poem by Kenneth Koch titled Ko, or A Season on Earth was published by Grove Press in 1959. The volume Thank You And Other Poems was published by Grove in 1962 and in 1966 Bertha and Other Plays. One of the plays in this experimental and highly original collection is entitled “The Revolt of the Giant Animals”

“This is a sort play which stars some characters who were in a play I wrote some years ago called “Guinevere- The Death of the Kangaroo and, at the time of the New York production of this play, I was inspired to write three more plays about the same character. This is “The Revolt of the Giant Animals” (“Kangaroo: Here shall we – Giraffe: Revolting animals – Hippopotamus: Gather our forces by the sea…”…”It’s the giant animals in revolt. End”).”

The poetry of what critics have called “The New York group” [“the New York School“]Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and others – has been described as bringing to American poetry many of the aesthetic qualities of modern painting. Certainly there has been some very successful collaboration between poets and painters in the New York group, particularly in the production of plays. But probably the major poetic influence on the poets work has been that of French poetry.

“I think, going to France and speaking French a lot and reading only French for a year, made me aware of certain surface beauty in language that, I think, is indispensible to poetry (at least the kind of poetry I want to write). I went to France for a second time and I got on to something else that interested me very much which was narrative poetry I don’t quite remember all the things that made it come about but one ting was that I went to London and I saw a production of a play which was made out of Peter Pan, And it was very beautiful. And also very simple and simple-minded. And I tried to get that kind of thing in my poetry then.”

“There was another thing that stayed in my mind for a long time that Frank O”Hara had said a few years before about a novel about the circus by…James Scully? – I don’t remember the man’s name who wrote the novel, [editorial note – perhaps Jim Tully – Circus Parade?]  but.. it was obviously not a very classy novel, but Frank said “It’s very..It‘s good, it’s very simple and direct”. I think he said something like that. And I remembered that, especially when I wrote a poem called “The Circus”, which was… I tried to get this sort of very. almost.. almost childish, sort of simple style of relating events, because.. I wasn’t particularly interested in any of the events I wrote about but in juxtaposing one event to another, which I found there was a lot of beauty and excitement in, in what you put next to something else.”

[At approximately nine-and-a-half minutes in (and concluding at approximately sixteen-and-a-quarter minutes in, Kenneth Koch reads his poem, “The Circus “          ( I – “We will have to go away, said the girls in the circus/ And never come back anymore….”.)…..( XII – ….“The soft wind of summer blew in the light green trees”)


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