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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Number 5: Kenneth Koch "To The Roman Forum"


After my daughter Katherine was born
I was terribly excited
I think I would have been measured at the twenty-five-espresso mark
We—Janice, now Katherine, and I—were in Rome
(Janice gave birth at the international hospital on top of Trastevere)
I went down and sat and looked at the ruins of you
I gazed at them, gleaming in the half-night
And thought, Oh my, My God, My goodness, a child, a wife.
While I was sitting there, a friend, a sculptor, came by
I just had a baby, I said. I mean Janice did. I'm—
I thought I'd look at some very old great things
To match up with this new one. Oh, Adya said,
I guess you'd like to be alone, then. Congratulations. Goodnight.
Thank you. Goodnight, I said. Adya departed.
Next day I saw Janice and Katherine.
Here they are again and have nothing to do with you
A pure force swept through me another time
I am here, they are here, this has happened.
It is happening now, it happened then.

- Kenneth Koch

Hap Notes: Well, first of all, when you buy a volume of Kenneth Koch's (1925-2002) poems and you open it up and start reading, you may feel as though you've been tossed into an ocean full of LSD-laced Kool-Aid and Pop Rocks. He's so effusive and spontaneous and joyous and thoughtful and it all goes to your head in a dizzying rush. So I've selected an a much shorter poem than is typical of his work.

Koch (pronounced "coke" you may be relieved to know) is part of a loose conglomeration of poets known as the "New York School" of poetry which included Frank O'Hara and John Ashberry. I say, loose, because there's really not much that holds the "school" together save for a certain enthusiasm for life and the arts. They were really more crocheted together than knit. The group was familiar with lots of visual artists (Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan et al) partly thanks to O'Hara's work at Art News and the Museum of Modern Art. They're sort of the poets of abstract expressionism which, when you start really thinking about it, doesn't tell you a hell of a lot.

Koch's writing leaps and bounds with energy. He's everywhere at once, standing on a table shouting, sitting next to you on the couch whispering, up in the attic rummaging around, passing you a secret note under the table, down the street bleating out his joy and sorrows (mostly joy.) His emotions fly along the top of every poem.

Even in these few lines you can hear how energetically moved he is; living in Rome, having a child, meeting a friend, sitting in front of the Roman Forum; he feels like he's had 25 espressos, this rich life is happening now! To him! Remember that the poem is addressed to the oldest and most famous place in the world for people to congregate. He's writing an excited postcard to civilization past and present. In the midst of these ruins he's contemplating new life- not just for the child-- for him, his wife, the world. The baby has already become a part of "we."

His sculptor friend wisely sees that he needs to be alone. But Koch himself is never alone, the parade of life from the past to the future engulfs him as he writes his postcard. There's a tang in this poem of knowing that while he is the father and had something to do with the child (maybe a part of that "pure force") it was his wife who had the baby, they are also separate from him in the midst of his loving joy. And all the people who ever crossed the pavement at the forum got there the same way. There's a loving wonder in the poem that never fails to move me.

Koch was an enthusiastic teacher of poetry and his book Making Your Own Days is a tremendous help for understanding the pure pleasure of reading and writing poetry. His poetry is personal in that he often addresses people in his life but he wants to share it with the page and you. His joyous rantings are often difficult to absorb unless you just let the images flow into you and sort them out later. By the by, as wacky and madcap as he may seem when you read his work, don't forget that he had a Ph.D. from Columbia University. He taught literature there for forty some-odd years. He may seem like a crack-pot jack-in-the-box when you read his stream-of consciousness multi-hued rivers but he knew a ponderous lot about literature.

The best part about Koch, though, is that whatever your interpretation of a poem is, he'd be overjoyed that you saw anything at all. He was never sealed up about interpretation with a set of harsh disciplines with which to judge it. He is always saying yes, you may have a point, yes, I see that, yes you might have something there, yes. Yes.

You can find more of Koch's poems here:

Here's what he says at the beginning of Making Your Own Days : "Poetry is often regarded as a mystery, and in some respects it is one. No one is quite sure where poetry comes from, no one is quite sure exactly what it is, and no one knows, really, how anyone is able to write it."

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