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Kenneth Koch

1925–2002

Kenneth Koch was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on February 27, 1925. He studied at Harvard University, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree, and attended Columbia University for his PhD. As a young poet, Koch was known for his association with the New York School of poetry. Originating at Harvard, where Koch met fellow students Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, the New York School derived much of its inspiration from the works of action painters Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Larry Rivers, whom the poets met in the 1950s after settling in New York City. The poetry of the New York School represented a shift away from the Confessional poets, a popular form of soul-baring poetry that the New York School found distasteful. Instead, their poems were cosmopolitan in spirit and displayed not only the influence of action painting, but of French Surrealism and European avant-gardism in general. In 1970 Ron Padgett and David Shapiro edited and published the first major collection of New York School poetry, An Anthology of New York Poets, which included seven poems by Koch.

Koch's association with the New York School worked, in effect, as an apprenticeship. Many critics found Koch's early work obscure, such as Poems (1953), and the epic Ko, or A Season on Earth (1959), yet remarked upon his subsequent writing for its clarity, lyricism, and humor, such as in The Art of Love (1975), which was praised as a graceful, humorous book. His other collections of poetry include New Addresses (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), winner of the Phi Beta Kappa Poetry Award and a finalist for the National Book Award; Straits (1998); One Train and On the Great Atlantic Rainway, Selected Poems 1950-1988 (both published in 1994), which together earned him the Bollingen Prize in 1995; Seasons of the Earth (1987); On the Edge (1986); Days and Nights (1982); The Burning Mystery of Anna in 1951 (1979); The Duplications (1977); The Pleasures of Peace (1969); When the Sun Tries to Go On (1969); Thank You (1962); and Seasons on Earth (1960).

Koch's short plays, many of them produced off- and off-off-Broadway, are collected in The Gold Standard: A Book of Plays. He has also published Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (Scribners, 1998); The Red Robins (1975), a novel; Hotel Lambosa and Other Stories (1993); and several books on teaching children to write poetry, including Wishes, Lies and Dreams and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Koch wrote the libretto for composer Marcello Panni's The Banquet, which premiered in Bremen in June 1998, and his collaborations with painters have been the subject of exhibitions at the Ipswich Museum in England and the De Nagy Gallery in New York. His numerous honors include the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, awarded by the Library of Congress in 1996, as well as awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Fulbright, Guggenheim, and Ingram-Merrill foundations. In 1996 he was inducted as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Kenneth Koch lived in New York City, where he was professor of English at Columbia University. Koch died on July 6, 2002, from leukemia.


A Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Days and Nights (1982)
From the Air (1979)
Ko: or, A Season on Earth (1959)
On The Edge (1986)
On the Great Atlantic Railway: Selected Poems 1950-88 (1994)
One Train (1994)
Permanently (1961)
Poems (1953)
Poems from 1952 and 1953 (1968)
Seasons on Earth (1987)
Selected Poems 1950-82 (1985)
Sleeping with Women (1969)
Straits (1998)
Thank You and Other Poems (1962)
The Art of Love (1975)
The Burning Mystery of Anna in 1951 (1979)
The Duplications (1977)
The Pleasures of Peace and Other Poems (1969)
When the Sun Tries to Go On (1969)

Prose

Hotel Lambosa and Other Stories (1993)
I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry Writing in a Nursing Home (1977)
Interlocking Lives (1970)
Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (1998)
Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? (1973)
Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry with Essays on Reading and Writing (1981)
The Red Robins (1975)
Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry (1970)

Drama

A Change of Hearts and Other Plays (1973)
Bertha and Other Plays (1966)
One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays (1988)
Thank You and Other Plays (1962)
The Gold Standard (1996)
The Red Robins (1979)

Kenneth Koch
Photo credit: Larry Rivers

By This Poet

3

One Train May Hide Another

(sign at a railroad crossing in Kenya)

In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line--
Then it is safe to go on reading.
In a family one sister may conceal another,
So, when you are courting, it's best to have them all in view
Otherwise in coming to find one you may love another.
One father or one brother may hide the man,
If you are a woman, whom you have been waiting to love.
So always standing in front of something the other
As words stand in front of objects, feelings, and ideas.
One wish may hide another. And one person's reputation may hide
The reputation of another. One dog may conceal another
On a lawn, so if you escape the first one you're not necessarily safe;
One lilac may hide another and then a lot of lilacs and on the Appia
     Antica one tomb
May hide a number of other tombs. In love, one reproach may hide another,
One small complaint may hide a great one.
One injustice may hide another--one colonial may hide another,
One blaring red uniform another, and another, a whole column. One bath
     may hide another bath
As when, after bathing, one walks out into the rain.
One idea may hide another: Life is simple
Hide Life is incredibly complex, as in the prose of Gertrude Stein
One sentence hides another and is another as well. And in the laboratory
One invention may hide another invention,
One evening may hide another, one shadow, a nest of shadows.
One dark red, or one blue, or one purple--this is a painting
By someone after Matisse. One waits at the tracks until they pass,
These hidden doubles or, sometimes, likenesses. One identical twin
May hide the other. And there may be even more in there! The obstetrician
Gazes at the Valley of the Var. We used to live there, my wife and I, but
One life hid another life. And now she is gone and I am here.
A vivacious mother hides a gawky daughter. The daughter hides
Her own vivacious daughter in turn. They are in
A railway station and the daughter is holding a bag
Bigger than her mother's bag and successfully hides it.
In offering to pick up the daughter's bag one finds oneself confronted by
     the mother's
And has to carry that one, too. So one hitchhiker
May deliberately hide another and one cup of coffee
Another, too, until one is over-excited. One love may hide another love
     or the same love
As when "I love you" suddenly rings false and one discovers
The better love lingering behind, as when "I'm full of doubts"
Hides "I'm certain about something and it is that"
And one dream may hide another as is well known, always, too. In the
     Garden of Eden
Adam and Eve may hide the real Adam and Eve.
Jerusalem may hide another Jerusalem.
When you come to something, stop to let it pass
So you can see what else is there. At home, no matter where,
Internal tracks pose dangers, too: one memory
Certainly hides another, that being what memory is all about,
The eternal reverse succession of contemplated entities. Reading 
    A Sentimental Journey look around
When you have finished, for Tristram Shandy, to see
If it is standing there, it should be, stronger
And more profound and theretofore hidden as Santa Maria Maggiore
May be hidden by similar churches inside Rome. One sidewalk
May hide another, as when you're asleep there, and
One song hide another song; a pounding upstairs
Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hide another, you sit at the
     foot of a tree
With one and when you get up to leave there is another
Whom you'd have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher,
One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man
May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.
You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It 
     can be important
To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

Talking to Patrizia

Patrizia doesn't want to
Talk about love she
Says she just
Wants to make
Love but she talks
About it almost endlessly to me.

It is horrible it
Is the worst thing in life
Says Patrizia
Nothing
Not death not sickness
Is as bad as love

I am always
In love I am always
Suffering from love
Says Patrizia. Now
I am used to it
But I am suffering all the same

Do you know what I did to her
Once?--speaking
Of her girlfriend--I kicked her out
I literally kicked her she was down on the floor and I
Gave her the colpi di piedi the
Kicks of my foot. She slided out.

She did this
To me promised to go on a trip
I am all waiting prepared
Suitcases and tickets
She comes and says her other friend finds out she
Can't go she guessed about it. I KICKED her out

Oh we are still together
Sometimes. But love is horrible. I thought
You might be the best
Person to talk to Patrizia since you
Love women and are a woman
Yourself. You may be right Patrizia

Said. But this woman who abandons
You I think you should
Disappear. Though maybe with this woman
Disappearing won't work.
I think not disappear.
It's too bad I don't know her

If I knew her if I could see her
Just for ten minutes--I'm afraid
If you saw her you might take
Her away from me. Patrizia
Laughs. No it hasn't happened to me
Thank God to like such young women yet

Why? When you are my
Age--still young--she
Is thirty . . . nine? you are close enough
To people very young to
Know how horrible they are
And you don't love them

You don't want to have anything
To do with them! Oh
Uh huh, I said putting
My hands down on the table and then off
Look at you excuse me but I have to laugh
At you sitting in this horrible

Restaurant at one o'clock
In the morning in a
City you don't want to be
In and why? For this woman.
It is horrible I know but
Also funny

I know I said. Listen I have
An idea. Do you know her address? You know where
She lives? You should go there
Go and hide there
Outside her house
In the bushes

Then when she comes out
You jump out
You confront her. You will see
If there is love
In her eyes or not. It can't
Be hidden. You will know It can't be mistaken

This works This has always worked
For me. It won't work for me. I can't
Go and hide there It is true
Patrizia says when there is love everything
Works when there isn't nothing does. Love
Is a god These Freudian things I don't believe at all

This god you have to do what
He wants you to you are
Angry but all you really want
Is to get her back. Then--revenge! If
This woman did something like this to me
I would simply dislike her in fact

I would hate her You may want to consider
Patrizia said that this woman is
Doing this test to you. No, I
Said. I know she's not. I know something. I feel
A hundred years old. Yet
You don't look so bad, Patrizia said.

Find another woman. I can't. I
Know Patrizia said. But one always thinks it
Is a good idea. But
If you can't you can't. I
Can't even eat
This food Patrizia I said.

I'm sorry I said Patrizia to be so
Boring I can't stop talking Forgive
Me. It doesn't bore me at all
Patrizia says It's my favorite subject
It isn't every day one sees somebody
In such a state you can help him by talking to stay alive

You know, Patrizia says if she
Does this thing to you now
She will do it again
And again so you'd better be ready
Maybe you can get the advantage
By saying she is right you

Don't love her Good bye You leave
However if you want her
You should go into the bushes
And surprise her when they see you
It always makes a difference
I can't go hide there Patrizia

That's insane. I went but not 
Hiding and not confronting.
Patrizia: What did she say? I said 
The same things. Patrizia said
Did you see love in her eyes? I said
No. I didn't. I saw

Something else. In Florence it's rainy
Her (relatively) short hair and
Her eyes along the Arno
The last time I'll ever see her again
As the one I am seeing again
When seeing again still has some meaning.

It's finished Patrizia's saying
For now but don't worry
I think you will get her back
But it will be too late. Oh Patrizia I
Let my back and head fall against
The chair Late isn't anything!

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