David Shapiro: Three years ago [in 1969] Kenneth Koch and I conducted a taped interview in my rooms at Clare College, Cambridge, England, on the nature of his work. Considering the astonishing variety of his published and unpublished pieces — lyrics that resemble French poetry more than they do anything in English, comic epics in ottava rima with a rather clear narrative, and his recent work, including the still unfinished novel, ‘The Red Robins’ — and attempting to deal with some of the stylistic elements that bind and separate these works proved to be a rather difficult task. Consequently, I think the best way to present the interview is to offer a scenario of excerpts from Koch’s responses.
I began by asking Koch about the influence of the French language and the influence of any specific French poets. One may think of Koch’s freshness and immediacy as the kind of empiricism which F.S.C. Northrop has identified with the advantages of an impressionistic method.
Koch: When I first went to France I was 23 years old. I knew French but not very well. I read a lot of French poetry and enjoyed reading it, even though I didn’t entirely understand it. And I was interested in this quality that a work of literature could have — that it could be exciting and at the name time slightly incomprehensible. I wanted to get this kind of quality into my own work, the excitement and mystery of a language that is not entirely understood but suggests a great deal.
Shapiro: Though Koch’s is an art ‘unmixed with theory.’ His experience of Italy and of Ariosto seems to have changed him greatly. I questioned him about the development of his tesselated narratives.
Koch: My being in Italy had a lot to do with my writing of Ko. For one thing it give me a good chance to do something I’d wanted to do for a long time, which was to read Ariosto. I lived in a little villino outside Florence near the viale Michelangelo, and every morning I’d wake up and go sit in the pretty little garden that went with the house. It was the beginning of Spring (late February), and I’d drink coffee there and read Ariosto. Just a few stanzas of Orlando Furioso would be enough to set me off, and then I’d write as many stanzas as I could of Ko, which was in the same meter. Don Juan, which I think is one of the greatest poems I’ve read, is in ottiva rima too. But I didn’t want to be influenced by Byron. I was afraid of being overwhelmed by him.
What I found in Ariosto was a poetry that was all action. There’s almost no reflection in the whole of Orlando Furioso. It’s one action after another, as in certain early Mack Sennett comedies; I love that quality.
Another thing about Florence that inspired me was just living there. Every morning after I’d worked for a few hours, or sometimes before I worked, I would take a walk, and it was the most beautiful nature I’d ever seen. The fruit trees began to blossom in March, I think it was, and there were new flowers every day or every other day. I remember that when I was writing Ko I began to feel that I wanted to put into it every pleasure that I’d ever experienced — the taste of plums, the smell of certain hallways, the way the hill looked behind my house when I was a child, the way snow looks through a window. I remember once when I was walking outside my house and smelled something coming from another house; I didn’t know what it was, but it reminded me faintly of the smell of the roller coaster in the Cincinnati amusement park, and I felt a little crushed that I hadn’t gotten that pleasure into the poem yet.
What I was trying to do in Ko in a way was to write about the earthly paradise. I found suggestions of such a place in certain paintings that were in Florence and in other places in Italy. I think there may be something about Tuscany, especially in the springtime, that makes it easier to be clear and direct. What’s given is so pleasant. The art around one, nature, everything is so beautiful that it seems foolish to be ambiguous, a pleasure to be straightforward.
Shapiro: Since Koch has been particularly successful as a teacher, I questioned him about his own development, mentors, and some of the origins of his style.
Koch: I began to write poetry when I was five, and I remember the pleasure I got from writing certain poems when I was five; it was similar to the pleasure I get from writing poems now. The first good poems I wrote (when I was 17 or 18), or the first poems I wrote that interest me now, were a result of two things. One was reading USA by John Dos Passos, more particularly the ‘stream of consciousness’ passages in the book. I started to write stream of consciousness of my own, that is, writing down whatever came into my mind. The things I wrote tended to be very sexy and sadistic.
I had a very good teacher in high school at the time — I was either a junior or senior. Her name was Katherine Lappa, and she was interested in my writing. I showed her these sexy and sadistic things I wrote, afraid that no adult would like them, but she said ‘That’s fine.’ Once I felt free about what I was feeling and writing, I began to be influenced by a number of poets. I remember being particularly influenced by e. e. cummings, by Kenneth Patchen, and by a Baudelaire prose poem I translated.
I also read a lot of William Carlos Williams and was very influenced by him. Williams has been a big influence on my work, partly because he wrote about things I saw at the time when I was a child and adolescent. He wrote about the beauty of a vacant lot, the pieces of a broken green bottle. The suburban world he wrote about in New Jersey was very much like what I saw all the time in Cincinnati. It made me very happy that somebody could write poetry about that.
Shapiro: The subject of painting, and the major turbulence of abstract expressionism arose. Koch, Ashbery, and O’Hara may be regarded as innovators in language on the same scale as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline in painting, although the critical literature had tended to ignore or degrade these innovations in a mostly arbitrary fashion.
Koch: I came back to New York from Paris in 1951. I went to California where I was a teaching assistant for a year. I didn’t do much to develop the abstract or When-the-Sun-Tries-to-Go-On-style until 1952. I came back to New York then and met Frank O’Hara again. He was a tremendous influence on my work — his spontaneity, the way he could sit down in the middle of a crowded room and write a poem with no affectation at all. It was from Frank that I got the idea of collaborating with other poets also. And from Frank I learned that the silliest idea that is really in one’s own head is worth more than the most brilliant idea that is really somebody else’s.
From 1952 on, in New York, John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara and I saw a lot of each other. We used to show each other poems all the time; we also saw a lot of Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher; we were always hanging around, looking at paintings and reading each other’s poems and sometimes collaborating on works. In my poetry then I was trying to get a very hard, concrete, and shining quality in language. What I wrote was often unsyntactical and, in a way, ‘irrational.’ There seemed to me something in any word in the language — take the word ‘floor’ ‘book’ ‘table’ ‘cheek’ or ‘hand’ — which would be weakened if I put it in any expected context.
Shapiro: We proceeded to discuss the evolution of Koch’s more ‘understandable’ style, one which developed from the ‘earlier déreglement’ to substantial clarity.
Koch: First of all, I fell in love. I guess I had the technique all built up from writing a long poem in a sort of glittery, bright, unsyntactical language, and I found that the emotion I was feeling was so strong that I couldn’t help but make sense, in a different way. Poems in Thank You like ‘Spring,’ ‘To You,’ and ‘In Love with You’ were written out of this feeling.
The next thing was that I got interested in narrative poetry. I got married, and I went to France again, lived in Paris and then in Rome for a while. A couple of things got me interested in writing simple, narrative poetry. One was a remark that Frank O’Hara had made. He was telling me about a novel called The Circus by Frank Scully. I was sort of a snob about literature when I met Frank; he was more sophisticated. I asked him if the novel was good, and he said ‘Yes. It’s very quiet and modest and direct and dear and simple.’ I’d never thought those were good things; I’d thought novels — literature — had to be deep and complex to be good.
My wife and I went to the theatre in London to see a production of Peter Pan . It was a children’s production, but very moving. Its simplicity, even its ‘dumbness,’ seemed an important part of what was good about it.
And then I had always liked the old miracle and morality plays in which no word has any ambiguity at all. I don’t like ambiguity. I suppose it’s all right if the ambiguous things a work means are interesting and exciting, but often they’re not. In the miracle plays you get something like ‘I am Mary fair and dear. I will do a dance now here’; ‘I am Jesus baby child. / I am little, sweet and mild.’ The words can’t mean anything but that one thing they mean, and there’s something beautiful about that. Each word is like a little pink or white chiclet. ‘I am Mary Queen of life. / Joseph took me for his wife.’
In narrative poems like ‘The Circus’ and ‘Geography’ I wanted to avoid all symbolism and all kinds of obvious significance in the story. I didn’t want them to be like ‘The Secret Sharer’ or ‘The Heart of Darkness,’ or Joyce’s stories. I wanted them to be very simple-minded stories, the way I wanted the words to be just words almost in ‘When the Sun Tries to Go On.’ I wanted the incidents in my narrative poems to be just incidents, to have the same kind of clarity and simplicity.
Shapiro: The next subject concerned Koch’s plays, polemics, and ‘drab’ poems. The influence of Raymond Roussel toward a certain homogeneity or two-dimensionalism of texture was discussed.
Koch: My earliest plays, like ‘Pericles,’ ‘The Merry Stones,’ and ‘Guinevere’ (which I wrote while I was writing ‘When the Son Tries to Go On’), are pretty difficult to understand. I wanted to get that poem’s kind of brightness and hardness of language and a kind of brightness of action on stage.
I have much the same feeling about the theatre as I do about poetry: I don’t want it to be smothered or drowned in meaning and syntax, but to present pure experiences. The best play I ever saw was Tamburlaine Parts One and Two when it was done in New York by the English Shakespeare Company. It was extraordinary. I like the big, strong, epic effect in the theatre a lot more than plays in which people sit around carping at each other. I like the idea of bringing the whole world onto the stage.
I like doing that in my poems, too, bringing in everything. In poems like ‘The Pleasures of Peace,’ ‘Faces,’ and ‘Sleeping with Women,’ I felt a desire to bring in everything, not just the pleasures, but everything. Of course, you really can’t put everything in because then there’s no end to the poem; it becomes identical with the English language in all its possible combinations. But I like to give the impression of totality, of endlessness in as short a form as I can.
At the same time that I changed from an abstract to a narrative style in my poetry, I also wrote very clear plays like ‘Bertha’ and ‘George Washington Crossing the Delaware,’ which to a certain extent are parodies of heroic drama; but I don’t mean them mainly as parodies.
Parody gets into my other work as well. I’ve written some poems that are just parodies of Frost, Pound; William Carlos Williams. There are a number of lines in Ko that are parodies of other poets. And throughout my work there are echoes of other poets whom I’m making fun of. Parody is a quick way to get the atmosphere and style of a particular writer, and of his way of looking at the world. If you can get just one line that sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins in a poem of 200 lines, in this one line you can get a reference to the whole Hopkinsonian way of writing and seeing things.
I wrote ‘Fresh Air’ in 1956 or 1957. The literary magazines in America and England were controlled by academic and conservative poets. I thought I was a good poet, and I knew John Ashbery and Frank 0’Hara were, and it was extremely difficult for any of us to publish anything. Meanwhile there was all this terrible, structured, elegant, mildly ironic drivel being published. And then there was an article by Donald Hall published in New World Writing called ‘The Silver Age in American Poetry,’ in which he claimed it was such a wonderful age in American poetry because all of this stuff was being written. It was hard to take. I wrote ‘Fresh Air’ out of feelings of rage and excitement. I was pretty sure that Ashbery, O’Hara, and I would win, but I was mad at what was happening just then.
Although ‘Fresh Air’ was an attack on academic poetry, I also wanted it to be a celebration of good poetry. It’s also lyrical and about love, the whole love affair of the narrator with the art student who is ‘fresh air,’ who is a sort of muse. I don’t think I’ve ever written a purely satirical poem. When they’re satirical or funny, my main intention for my poems is that they be lyrical. For example, in ‘The Pleasures of Peace’ I meant to make fun of professional ‘peace poets,’ though my main desire was to write a poem which, instead of talking about war, would show how good peace is.
‘The Railway Stationery’ was inspired by a poem of Raymond Roussell about someone who starts writing a letter on hotel stationery. It’s a long poem, somewhere between 20 and 50 pages, and you never do find out about the letter. It’s all a description of the picture in the upper left hand corner of the stationery. In ‘The Railway Stationery’ and in ‘Departure From Hydra’ I was trying to be dry, even a little drab. I was feeling depressed. I felt tired of what seemed to me the gaudiness of some things I had been writing. I was depressed when I wrote that poem, but it made me very happy to write it, to find that, even there in that sort of real stupidity, obvious thought and putting down every detail, I could make something.
I like opera because you can celebrate anything. You can open the window and say: ‘The window is open. The sun is shining. My hand is on the window, and I love you.’ And somehow the music can make that beautiful enough.
Shapiro: One of the central and abiding metaphors of Koch’s art has been, as with Frank O’Hara’s work, the energy of art-making itself. A collaboration that dealt strikingly with this theme was his ‘Construction of Boston’ with its funny factuality and vibrant immediacy reminiscent of [Danish physicist Niels] Bohr’s ‘restless universe’.
Koch: ‘The Construction of Boston’ was a play that I did with Nikki de Saint-Phalle, Jean Tinguely and Robert Rauschenberg. The artists built the city of Boston on stage, and I wrote a kind of heroic Shakespearean text in blank verse and rhyme (which two characters recited) about the city’s history. Working on this play was exhilarating, somewhat the way opera is — things were big and simple and spectacular, and a lot was going on. The collaboration part is something I like very much. Working with artists turns out to be a surprising source of ideas.
Shapiro: We returned to the specific French sources of Koch’s aesthetic, its cubism, its crescendoes and cornucopias that derive from Apollinaire largely and from Koch’s irrepressible and unique desire to celebrate.
Koch: I remember my excitement when I first read Apollinaire, the way he goes on without any punctuation, without strong metrical beat, and the way his lines flow into each other. I found that immensely exciting. Nothing stops. Everything just goes into everything else, different places and times are simultaneously there, and everything seems larger and richer and stronger for it.
I was very moved by Max Jacob, particularly his prose poems in Cornet a des. Those poems of Jacob are dream-like, lyrical and at the same time very funny. From Jacob I learned the possibility of being funny and lyrical at the same time, and that meant a lot to me. Reverdy is another French poet I read a lot. And Char. I also liked Paul Eluard very much, though it’s difficult to be influenced by him, he’s so pure and cool. It’s like a chef being influenced by a glass of water.
One other French poet who affected me very much is Rimbaud. Reading him is bound to change what one thinks about everybody’s poetry. I feel that way about Lorca, too. When I get to thinking, ‘Well my poetry’s fine, and a lot of what I’m reading in magazines is fine,’ then I happen to come across a poem by Lorca, such as ‘Landscape of the Urinating Multitudes’ all is changed. There’s a little bit of great poetry in the world which is astonishingly beautiful.
And, finally, I suppose I think that is the only poetry that matters, poetry that is, in Frank O’Hara’s phrase, a ‘reminder of immortal energy’.’