Thursday, April 21, 2011

Poem: Kenneth Koch

I'm not sure why I'm obsessed with this poem, which I did not know before I heard Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) read it as part of the Poetry Foundation's Essential American Poets podcast, but I have listened to it repeatedly, and it's begun to sediment in my head. I very well may write something based on it. As for Koch, he's a writer I have read quite a bit, especially when I was younger. I believe he was the only one of the four major male New York School poets who appeared in the non-Norton middle-school anthologies I had to read, and I think it was one of his parodies, perhaps "Mending Sump," which sends up Robert Frost's iconic "Mending Wall," that I read and laughed at. It was and is quite a funny poem. At that point, and for many years after--until I met Thomas Sayers Ellis, I think--I was under the impression that while poems could be witty, ironic, sly, as cutting as a stropped razor, they ought not be outright silly and funny. Such poems were basically jokes, and politically suspect. Encounters with the Language school and Black Arts poets didn't help (wit, irony, etc., yes, goofiness, no sirree.)

That did not mean I wasn't reading Koch, however, but I found that I was more drawn to his three dear, queer friends, each of whom shot through my consciousness like a rocket: John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler. (I didn't read Barbara Guest or the subsequent generations of this school till somewhat after.) Ashbery was the poet on people's tongues in college; O'Hara I happened upon one day in the library, and could not put down; Schuyler, I was told, I had to read, because he'd co-written a novel with Ashbery and had won the Pulitzer Prize. I'm glad I made my way through his work, and still adore it. But what about Koch? I dutifully went back and tried to get through all those long poems of the 1960s, which are insistently playful and often quite lyrical but also a bit of a slog, I'm sad to say, lacking as they did something--the campy lightness mixed with gravity that O'Hara's long poems often possess, or the sort of dizzying quality Ashbery's do, or the groundedness in the real and nature that Schuyler's have. From Koch I drifted away.

Until I was teaching the youngsters, and realized that he'd written a number of marvelous, effective books about teaching poetry to children that really did reach children and adolescents. And that took me to his poetry, and plays, and little stories inspired by Yasunari Kawabata's Palm of the Hand stories, and his very late, delightful poems, funny and profound in equal measure, New Addresses (Knopf, 2000), which comprises a series of addresses or apostrophes, to various entities. Open it and you'll see. I even heard him read in the late 1990s. But somehow, though I'd read Koch's earlier poem entitled "The Circus," from 1961, I had never come across the later one, which I think is superb. (I also worked with his late wife Janice Elwood Koch's brother briefly, but didn't put two-and-two together until a friend pointed out the link. By then, though, that Mrs. Koch was no longer with us.) So here it is, and I think you'll see why. (You can hear him read it here.)

(PS: An incident involving Kenneth Koch--once in 1968, the anti-art affinity group Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers showed up at his reading at St. Mark's Poetry Project and, incredibly, a member of the group pointed a gun at Koch, screamed out "Koch!," and fired--a blank! Koch, from what I heard on the Poetry Foundation's Avant-Garde All the Time podcasts, didn't cry out with fear or duck or faint or have a heart attack. I don't even think he pissed or shat his pants. Instead, after regaining his composure, quickly, he retorted to the hooligan revolutionary the one thing he probably needed to hear: "Grow up!")


I remember when I wrote The Circus
I was living in Paris, or rather we were living in Paris
Janice, Frank was alive, the Whitney Museum
Was still on 8th Street, or was it still something else?
Fernand Léger lived in our building
Well it wasn’t really our building it was the building we lived in
Next to a Grand Guignol troupe who made a lot of noise
So that one day I yelled through a hole in the wall
Of our apartment I don’t know why there was a hole there
Shut up! And the voice came back to me saying something
I don’t know what. Once I saw Léger walk out of the building
I think. Stanley Kunitz came to dinner. I wrote The Circus
In two tries, the first getting most of the first stanza;
That fall I also wrote an opera libretto called Louisa or Matilda.
Jean-Claude came to dinner. He said (about “cocktail sauce”)
It should be good on something but not on these (oysters).
By that time I think I had already written The Circus
When I came back, having been annoyed to have to go
I forget what I went there about
You were back in the apartment what a dump actually we liked it
I think with your hair and your writing and the pans
Moving strummingly about the kitchen and I wrote The Circus
It was a summer night no it was an autumn one summer when
I remember it but actually no autumn that black dusk toward the post office
And I wrote many other poems then but The Circus was the best
Maybe not by far the best Geography was also wonderful
And the Airplane Betty poems (inspired by you) but The Circus was the best.

Sometimes I feel I actually am the person
Who did this, who wrote that, including that poem The Circus
But sometimes on the other hand I don’t.
There are so many factors engaging our attention!
At every moment the happiness of others, the health of those we know and our own!
And the millions upon millions of people we don’t know and their well-being to think about
So it seems strange I found time to write The Circus
And even spent two evenings on it, and that I have also the time
To remember that I did it, and remember you and me then, and write this poem about it
At the beginning of The Circus
The Circus girls are rushing through the night
In the circus wagons and tulips and other flowers will be picked
A long time from now this poem wants to get off on its own
Someplace like a painting not held to a depiction of composing The Circus.

Noel Lee was in Paris then but usually out of it
In Germany or Denmark giving a concert
As part of an endless activity
Which was either his career or his happiness or a combination of both
Or neither I remember his dark eyes looking he was nervous
With me perhaps because of our days at Harvard.

It is understandable enough to be nervous with anybody!

How softly and easily one feels when alone
Love of one’s friends when one is commanding the time and space syndrome
If that’s the right word which I doubt but together how come one is so nervous?
One is not always but what was I then and what am I now attempting to create
If create is the right word
Out of this combination of experience and aloneness
And who are you telling me it is or is not a poem (not you?) Go back with me though
To those nights I was writing The Circus.
Do you like that poem? have you read it? It is in my book Thank You
Which Grove just reprinted. I wonder how long I am going to live
And what the rest will be like I mean the rest of my life.

John Cage said to me the other night How old are you? and I told him forty-six
(Since then I’ve become forty-seven) he said
Oh that’s a great age I remember.
John Cage once told me he didn’t charge much for his mushroom identification course (at the New School)
Because he didn’t want to make a profit from nature

He was ahead of his time I was behind my time we were both in time
Brilliant go to the head of the class and “time is a river”
It doesn’t seem like a river to me it seems like an unformed plan
Days go by and still nothing is decided about
What to do until you know it never will be and then you say “time”
But you really don’t care much about it any more
Time means something when you have the major part of yours ahead of you
As I did in Aix-en-Provence that was three years before I wrote The Circus
That year I wrote Bricks and The Great Atlantic Rainway
I felt time surround me like a blanket endless and soft
I could go to sleep endlessly and wake up and still be in it
But I treasured secretly the part of me that was individually changing
Like Noel Lee I was interested in my career
And still am but now it is like a town I don’t want to leave
Not a tower I am climbing opposed by ferocious enemies

I never mentioned my friends in my poems at the time I wrote The Circus
Although they meant almost more than anything to me
Of this now for some time I’ve felt an attenuation
So I’m mentioning them maybe this will bring them back to me
Not them perhaps but what I felt about them
John Ashbery Jane Freilicher Larry Rivers Frank O’Hara
Their names alone bring tears to my eyes
As seeing Polly did last night
It is beautiful at any time but the paradox is leaving it
In order to feel it when you’ve come back the sun has declined
And the people are merrier or else they’ve gone home altogether
And you are left alone well you put up with that your sureness is like the sun
While you have it but when you don’t its lack’s a black and icy night. I came home
And wrote The Circus that night, Janice. I didn’t come and speak to you
And put my arm around you and ask you if you’d like to take a walk
Or go to the Cirque Medrano though that’s what I wrote poems about
And am writing about that now, and now I’m alone

And this is not as good a poem as The Circus
And I wonder if any good will come of either of them all the same.

Kenneth Koch, “The Circus” from The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 2006 by Kenneth Koch. All rights reserved.

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