Back in 1982, I invited Kenneth to give the inaugural “lecture” in a series at Pace University in NYC. I know I meant to send him a copy of my intro. but somehow the check never got into the mail. This is it, with apologies for the somewhat lengthy delay.
There are very few contemporary poets that, as a writer, I pay close attention to. Kenneth Koch is one of them.
For more than two decades, he has been one of the most innovative, inspiring, and important poets we have in English. He has also been — and it comes as a surprise to some people that serious poets are permitted to be — one of the funniest. There have been well-known poets who specialized in wit, like Alexander Pope; and in irony (which is a kind of wit), like a host of 20th-century poets including T.S. Eliot; and Kenneth is a witty writer and a witty man. But he’s also genuinely funny — one of the few to have made a place for humor in serious poetry. Which, not incidentally, makes a poetry reading by him entertaining — something to look forward to being repeated, instead of, as so often, looking forward to the clock moving so you can breathe again!
Kenneth has, through the course of at least eleven books (I counted from his most recent dust jacket) — including six books of poems, two books of plays, and an utterly wild novel — ranged from the most experimental use of language all the way to book-length epic in rhymed, metered, masterful verse. Recently he has grappled directly with his own specific experiences past and present. He has written brilliant parodies, including a much anthologized one of Robert Frost; a book of quasi-instructional poems (which are actually as much about poetry and as filled with it, as about the advice they purport to give); and a number of marvelous, unclassifiable long poems, among them “The Pleasures of Peace,” written in the Vietnam War climate of the sixties.
With all his inventiveness and variety, Kenneth is hard to classify from any angle. His poetic “line” — which includes the kinds of language he uses, the tone, how long the lines are, the general “flavor” of the poetry — comes, it’s pretty clear, from Whitman: the lines are quite long, the language is clear, the music is often prose music, the momentum is often narrative. But a host of other influences are simultaneously at work-mostly international “modernist” influences — so that the poems perform all sorts of pyrotechnics within the line: you have to hold on tight: things happen fast. What emerges ultimately is a singularly contemporary poetry that frequently operates as dreams operate, mixing the coherent and the incoherent, lovely images with Mad Magazine-style jokes.
I first met Kenneth at a poetry workshop he was giving at the New School in Manhattan in the late sixties. At the time I was floundering, having been to college, graduate school, and (briefly) law school — and Kenneth’s workshop literally changed my life, or convinced me to change it. After all the other schools, I found Kenneth to be quite simply the best teacher I had ever encountered.
I know now, from having taught poetry writing myself, that the subject has something to do with it. For a would-be writer to discover that writing poems can be exciting, that poetry’s possibilities are limitless rather than the opposite (as the handed-down conventions too often suggest) is a heady experience. (In fact, it goes to some writers’ heads a little too determinedly.)
But Kenneth remains — I was originally going to say one of the best, but it really does seem to me that he is unparalleled as a champion of poetry; and that includes, apart from his own wonderful poems for which he has won numerous awards, his teaching of writing and literature at Columbia University, and at many other locales from elementary schools to old-age homes. His three books — now four? — teaching teachers how to teach poetry have had an enormous influence, and have helped to bring to light the widespread ongoing interest in poetry that gets hidden, or at least much subdued, by school, job, mass transit, daily living. I once wrote that going to poetry readings, at least some of the time, was like shaving with a dull razor. Kenneth’s readings are exhilarating.