cover image The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch

The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch

Kenneth Koch, . . Knopf, $40 (761pp) ISBN 978-1-4000-4499-3


Reviewed by John Ashbery

Some poets have difficulty putting pen to paper. Kenneth Koch, on the contrary, could simply not stop producing poetry. Writing and living were all but synonymous for him. The results are brought together in his almost 800-page Collected Poems , which doesn't even include long poems like the Byronic epic about a Japanese baseball player, "Ko, or a Season on Earth." (Koch's Collected Longer Poems are scheduled to come out next fall.)

Koch and I became friends at Harvard in the late 1940s. We renewed our friendship when I moved to New York in 1949; Frank O'Hara arrived there two years later, and we all met up with James Schuyler and Barbara Guest shortly afterward. Caught up in the effervescent art world of that time, along with our painter friends Jane Freilicher, Nell Blaine and Larry Rivers, to name but a few, we began to be looked at as a school—the New York School, of which Kenneth, by then a professor of poetry at Columbia, was headmaster and ringmaster. Teaching poetry was a close second to writing it as his occupation of choice; in time he would collaborate on books like Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? which has become a standard text for teaching poetry in secondary schools.

His missionary zeal also led him to write his ars poetica , a poem called "Fresh Air," about a Zorro-like alter ego called the Strangler whose task it is to suppress poetic dullness, violently if necessary: "Oh GOODBYE, castrati of poetry! farewell, stale pale skunky pentameters (the only honest English meter, gloop, gloop!)," and replace it with, well, fresh air. Trashing lines like "This Connecticut landscape would have pleased Vermeer," the Strangler summons the spirits of Mallarmé, Shelley, Byron, Whitman, Pasternak and Mayakovsky to help him cleanse the Augean stables of poetry.

But Koch loved poetry of all shapes and sizes, even "skunky pentameters." One of the many delightful surprises in this rich collection is "The Seasons," an homage to the epic poem of that title by the bland 18th-century poet James Thomson. Koch's rollickingly pentametric version begins: "Now pizza units open up, and froth/ Streams forth on beers in many a frolic bar/ New-opened-up by April." His poetic prodigality began, as Koch explains in "Days and Nights," when "It came to me that all this time/ There had been no real poetry and that it needed to be invented." The products of a lifetime of continual inventing are beautifully on display in this awe-inspiring banquet of a book.

John Ashbery's most recent collection, Where Shall I Wander, has been nominated for a National Book Award.