Kenneth Koch: an interview by Jordan Davis.
- Jordan Davis
When I read Louis Untermeyer's anthology, Modern American and British Poetry, I liked almost all the poets in it. They had skills I'd never dreamed of. I was very young (seventeen). I was like somebody from a country where there are no machines coming to a place where he sees cars and power saws and telephones. I was astonished at what these poets could do.
Without Pound I don't know if I'd ever have read Provencal poetry or ever have read Chinese poetry and Japanese Noh plays so seriously. As it was, he made them part of the great secret literary fiesta of my time. I spent lots of (happy if somewhat uncomprehending) afternoons and nights at the old Chinese theatre under the Manhattan Bridge. I translated troubadour poems to be sung. I fastened myself to Golding's Ovid - (Pound said it was the most beautiful book in English). Nobody else was telling me anything, it seemed. Pound's writing had a way of moving right into my head and bossing me around. I went anywhere I could to see a Noh play put on. Helpful in another way was George Saintsbury's History of English Prosody (recommended by Pound). Saintsbury for me changed the deadly dry "technical" part of poetry into a lively joyful even sexy part. Variations in lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter became as exciting as the variations in the Art of the Fugue, Debussy's snowdrifts; dissonances, sprechstimme, Chopin's legato or lack of it. Metre, which had seemed a task - and a task probably, to be "modern," to be avoided, was, it became clear, a big party, a lot of costumes to try on.
Among the poets who gave me early ideas of what poetry was were Shelley and Yeats. A bit later came Eliot. I remember being spellbound when I first read "The Waste Land." It seemed more than a mere work with its vaguenesses, its solemnity, and its dissociations, it was like a big spacious mystery voyage (I didn't care, almost didn't notice what it said). I'd forgotten about that. I've gotten used to being a little annoyed by Eliot and forgot how marvelous "The Waste Land" was. "Shantih Shantih Shantih." It seemed to go beyond human possibilities. Eliot later was useful to "write against." In an Eliot-dominated poetic ambience, even the slightest sensations of happiness or pleasure seemed rare and revolutionary poetic occasions. If "happy," positive, excited poetry were the "scene," I might have been looking for the nuances of the losses and sorrows in my life for the subjects of poems.
After I read Whitman I felt I could write about anything - I love Whitman's tone
I am the poet of the body and I am the poet of the soul I see the great secretaries The houses and rooms are full of perfumes
I can't imagine this man, hardly at all. His lines seem to rise from the pages of a book like trumpet sounds from microscopic chips embedded there. No it's really a person, a slightly strident or corny one sometimes, but where did he get that tone? It sounds a little manic, euphoric, but full of so much odd and interesting thought. It's as if some wild Marlovian hero had wandered into nineteenth-century America.
Discovering French poetry was like discovering a new kind of art. When I was much younger I thought about the excitement of finding a new art altogether. French poetry was a little bit like this. There were fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry, and French poetry. An odd thing was that its classic phrases were as wonderful to me as its avant-garde ones. From Racine: "Pour qui sont ces serpents qui sifflent sur vos tetes?" (For whom are those snakes intended that are whistling on top of your heads?) I was fascinated by the alexandrine. For one thing, you get to go on for longer than with a pentameter. Then too there was the restraint and the elegance in highly-charged situations (those snakes) unlike anything I'd known in Life or in poetry in English. I loved du Bellay, pleased and complaining about Rome. Lamartine was able, say in "Le Lac," to detach a sentiment, a strong feeling, and then reconstruct it as a large beautiful aquarelle or pavane. I heard spooky voices coming out of these French poems. Who were these people (Lamartine - "on ramait en silence"), who were so young and so grand? Were they some form of me? They had to be connected to me in some way - but to whom could I ever say such things? I loved a few medieval works, especially Aucassin et Nicolette - I liked the story and the poetry (it was alternating poetry and prose). I even liked the spelling -
Qui vauroit bons vers oir del deport du viel antif de deus biax enfans petis Nicholete et Aucassins des grans paines qu'il soufri . . .
My fascination with the spelling may be related to the fact that my French at the time (my first year in France, when I was twenty-five) was in some way "medieval" too, the way being my uncertainties about which word was which and about spelling and pronouncing them. The new French poetry that overwhelmed me was first Apollinaire, whose poems I sat for days figuring out in Cincinnati, Ohio (my home town), before I went to Paris for the first time. Once I was there, there were wonderful French paperbacked books, almost as cheap as a glass of wine, and I remember reading them the way I drank those glasses, too, not too much but quite naturally day after day. Max Jacob's Cornet a des was funny and gorgeous -
Et toi, Dostoievsky!
Mysterious shadowy Reverdy had a poetry that almost wasn't there. Eluard was a wonderful possession, with his seriousness about the eroticism of everything. Breton had lines
Si seulement il faisait du soleil cette nuit
that I liked as well as anything. I loved Perse, though he was distant, flinging out phrases like the unending surf. I liked Char but didn't understand him and still don't. He is an encouragement, though, for the dry Southern climate of his language and for its unyielding, even stony kind of insistence on saying something not clear. (I liked Ponge and I liked Michaux.) Thinking of them now, I begin to have some idea of how odd these poets were, where their art was coming from, what the personalities that went into making their poetry must have been like. At that time, though, in summer, autumn, and winter, sunny and rainy days of Paris and Aix en Provence in 1950 and 1951, they affected me the way girls affect boys (and vice versa). I was just crazy about them, about their attractiveness, their secrets, their spontaneous generosities and enthusiasms, their taking, as it were, one off into the corner quite unexpectedly for a kiss. My crush on them extended to some extent to the French language and almost everything written in it, even Virgil's Ecologues, translated into French which I read in Aix.
My favorite poet in Poeti italiani del novecento is Guido Gozzanno, who lived just at the beginning of the century. He seems a poet who by being so good shows how strange and unpredictable poetryland is. Gozzanno is mild, "psychological," bourgeois, ironic, "romantic," things that, in combination, one might expect to do him in, but there he is, a great one. Montale liked him a lot. But my Italian isn't good enough for my taste to be taken seriously. I did read a great deal of Ariosto and was much affected by him. I like a number of Renaissance poets of course, too - Cavalcanti (more medieval I suppose), Poliziano - "Chi non sa come e fatto il paradiso/Guardi l'Ipollita mia negli occhi fiso"; Petrarch. Just as I fell in love with French poetry in 1950, I fell in love with Italian Renaissance poetry in 1954, when Janice and I spent six months in Italy. I remember coming home with a little gray book I'd just bought (Edizioni Einaudi) with the title Tutta la Poesia Italiana. Janice and I were both really excited at having this treasure in our hands. Within a few moments though we saw that Poliziano was not the editor but the author and these were all the poems HE had written in Italian, not all the poems everyone had. But that was good enough.
It's true that sometimes I write in standard poetic "forms" and sometimes I don't. I like doing both. The worst is not feeling any music coming with the words one is writing, enough music to make it convincing. There was a year or two when I couldn't feel any of this music. That was awful. The music has to be there. I can look for sense afterwards, or along the way. But the pull of a phrase or a line is the only true sign that something worthwhile may be beginning. Whether it's in quatrains, couplets, blank verse, ottava rima, or free verse doesn't matter at all in that respect. It's like the difference between being attracted to someone at court or in a bowling alley. Along the way one may say something memorable. That is not the object of writing a poem but it's very nice
if we make a desert of ourselves, we make a desert
Humanity goes around with this in its head, one of the many delightful products of being attentive and inattentive, loose and tense at the same time as my tennis teacher used to confusingly tell me to be. When I'm revising, the outlines of what's possible are much stricter and more evident - I'm only "inspired" so far, then I bump into the side of the pool. Free verse, one doesn't really write free verse nowadays any more than one practices free love. Anyway, unrhymed unmetrical verse is wonderful for getting feelings and sensations just as they occur and with your regular voice. Rhyme and metre give orchestral and otherwise festive accompaniment. Rhyme in stanzas I like for narrative poems of more than a few pages. The first poem I remember writing was a rhymed quatrain. Then when I was nine my chief work was a rhymed poem about a comic criminal named Randy Moore -
Randy Moore was a dirty crook Everything valuable Randy took
(I guess he is something like my later heroes Dog Boss, Papend, and Bertha, for example). Reading (much later) Byron and Ariosto helped me refine my rhymes beyond these. When I was about twenty I discovered (in Saintsbury really) blank verse and wrote an intensely serious poem (of about five pages) in it, of which I've lost track. It begins
Peter you bastard, you know stammering Has implications as profound as love -
How happy I was to make stammering last for three syllables, two of them stressed; and the mysteriously lifted-up you bastard and the equally mysteriously poeticized implications. Soon I gave such pleasures up - the verse seemed grandiose -
I read Auden a little late. At first I found his intellectuality and also his masterful use of all kinds of forms not to my taste. Then one day I caught on to his poetry and found it irresistible. It gave the sheer pleasure of form on its own - ballads, sestinas, canzones, even Chanson de Roland stanzas, consonant-rhyme couplets, all those fascinating things. In a little apartment on West Tenth Street (in NY) in 1948 I remember dedicating weeks to a Canzone, a form which I had seen only in Auden, though Dante had written one.(*) It has twelve-line stanzas with only five end words in each stanza, a sort of compounded sestina. My canzone was about Persephone, her picking flowers, her kidnapping by Dis, etc. I was happy with the repetitions, at the ends of lines, of my key words: Flowers, Hell, I forget the rest. Auden's Selected Poems was for me a great poetic amusement park, a park of poetic forms to try out.
* His poem beginning
Amor, tu vedi ben che questa donna La tua virtu non cura in alcum tempo, Che suol dell' altre belle farsi donna . . .
I guess I learned how to tell three or four stories at the same time from reading The Faerie Queene and Orlando Furioso, and how to digress from reading Byron. Though Byron was the original inspiration for my writing Ko I didn't read him while I was writing it. I was afraid of being overwhelmed by his sophistication. He seemed to know everything about everything, and I so obviously didn't. Especially everything social and he was able to be witty about everything and I was socially unsophisticated.
Frank (O'Hara) maybe could have written such a poem in Byron's way, but I don't think Frank was interested in writing a long poem in ottava rima though there's a pretty Byronesque wit and breadth and sophistication in Biotherm. Instead, I read Ariosto and hardly made any comments at all; I made my poem entirely PLOT.
Reading Don Juan was a startling experience. I've never liked a poem more. It's so witty and so SWEET. It's so generous in the details it gives. The plot is mainly an excuse for talking, as life seems sometimes to be. I read Paradise Lost late (I was twenty-five) and when I did I stayed up all night and read it all the way through. It was a very large edition with illustrations by Gustave Dore, demons and angels with great cross-hatched wings. The poem seemed stunningly BIG. I wrote Miltonics for weeks after I read it.
I like narratives in prose, too, of course, though the pleasures of verse are hard to make up for. But I've never felt anything lacking when I've read Stendhal. He makes prose seem like the real party the way Socrates made conversation seem like the real philosophy.
I remember John Ashbery and I were reading The Faerie Queene at the same time (1949 or 1950). When I asked him how he was liking it, he said it was wonderful, like reading an endless comic strip.
Comics influenced my writing. I read them as sheep graze grass. When I was ten years old my "ambition" was to draw comic strips. I was deterred, though, by my fear that I wouldn't be able to draw the characters so they would look the same every time. But everything about them was intriguing. In a comic strip you can emphasize ANY detail or moment of a story - the pattern of the hero's necktie, a bus passing outside the window, a grin, a tear drop. I enjoyed doing things like that a lot in Ko.
Actually a few years ago I spent some months (quite a few) making some comics of my own, which I called The Art of the Possible, Comics Mainly Without Pictures. I was attracted to doing something like that not only because I like comics but because the comics format suggested new ways of talking about things and dividing them up - putting words or phrases into comic strip squares, for example, instead of into lines.
I like plays that are astounding in some way - like a Noh play, a magnificently unpredictable game, a hurricane. Something that turns time and space upside down. It's hard to write and produce such works when there is no active tradition of having such works. One has to make it all up each time. Which isn't bad, is in fact exciting, but it means you have to have money, devoted actors and other helpers, a place to put them on, and then, even when you have if you have, all this, you have to find an audience, people who will look at what you've done, and who will get it, participate in it, like and dislike it, be open to it and willing to see more. Still, theatre in its best moments is one of the best things. I think it is even more happiness-making to write and put on a play than to see it. When you see it it ends. When you do it, it's always rehearsal. I never have been able to resist getting involved in it. I started writing "plays" when I was eleven, they were satires of our extended family life, all fairly benign caricatural stuff - Uncle Nate was "nervous," Uncle Leo ate too much, etc. No one varied from his character in these early dramatic works and nothing ever happened. It was fun, I remember, writing ENTER and EXIT and ENTER AUNT MARIAN IN A RED COAT. Which reminds me of Virgil Thomson's wonderful discrimination - opera's all about saying good-bye and ballet is all about saying Hello. From these hellos and goodbyes I moved on to Yeatsean symbolic drama, in a play I wrote at Harvard, called Little Red Riding Hood; it was full of gongs, slow-downs, freezing in position, iambic pentameter -
Yes, I seem to recognize the place As though its weather were indelible And formal in my mind
As though its weather were indelible! I have to laugh at my somewhat inflated baby-poet self but how I loved those lines. I said them over and over to myself. At Harvard I was reading every verse drama I could find - Lorca, Eliot (Sweeney Agonistes), Yeats, Auden, Delmore Schwartz, even William Vaughan Moody. . . . I was searching for the "secret" (one of a number of times I did that), the secret way to write a play "in poetry"; it seemed like a delicious mystery, that Shakespeare could do it, so perfectly, and that there was no way to do it now. Of course I was also reading Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, and the Romantic verse plays, Bed-does, Byron, Keats, Shelley. These verse dramas, though, couldn't give me what I needed to write the kind of play I wanted to write, though they showed me how to versify dramatic speech. When I finally wrote some plays I liked (Pericles was the first one), it was because "dramatic" and even more so "crazy" were added to or substituted for "poetic" - I read Ubu roi and everything was turned upside down. There is an entire scene in Ubu that consists of Ubu's coming onstage, saying, I am going to kill everybody! then going off. It made me happy. Aunt Marian in her red coat could return! Though now, free from restrictions of family legend, she could be not simply an obsessive golfer but Aphrodite, Astarte, the Spirit of Progress and Industry, Juliet, or Herself who could be all these. Then I was also struck by Pound's and Fenellosa's translations of Noh plays and the Chinese plays I went to see downtown and, a little later, Futurist plays, in which the entire action might be turning on blinding light after a long prelude of darkness (v. Light! by Cangiullo). Anything that got me away from the dreary Broadway-type plays I'd been taken to see in Cincinnati and was still menaced by in the pages of the Sunday Times, artificial and stilted arrangements of stale persons and staler ideas; people who carped at one another, discussed issues, were false, were true. Who would ever want to write plays? Of course now they have been replaced by TV shows just as horrible (I think no worse) and who would want to write plays now either? A big problem in the theatre is that if there aren't good plays to see, almost no one is ever going to be inspired to write one. In the thirty or so years I've taught writing at Columbia, I had as students quite a few good, even brilliant poets and fiction writers but only one who wanted to write plays. Hard to want to if you don't see them, it's like wanting to build a temple to Isis in Idaho. "This one will be really good!" Anyway I didn't have this problem. I wanted to write "epic" and "poetic" and "avant-garde" plays. Frank shared this interest and so to some extent did John. I wrote George Washington Crossing the Delaware on commission (no fee) from Larry Rivers for his son's high school production; but the auditorium collapsed, there was no place to rehearse, so the play wasn't done by high school students but by adult actors some years later. By the time I wrote the mock-heroic pentameter of George Washington and Bertha I'd been able to take in the pentameter of Marlowe's Tamburlaine and that of its parodists, especially Henry Carey, who wrote Chrononhotontologos. I didn't write much for the theatre for quite a while after that, but then I saw a few of Robert Wilson's early productions (A Letter to Queen Victoria and Einstein on the Beach) and the incomprehensible mystery and grandeur of theatre got to me again and I started writing plays again. Not that I could do what Wilson did, but his example was in the air of what I did, like great fall weather. Then I wrote The Red Robins (a dramatic version of my novel) and Don Sanders directed it. For him I wrote The New Diana, another "full-length" play. When I wrote One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays (there are actually only 112 of them), I had the idea, of course it is only in the plays and I can't explain it, that everything, almost absolutely everything was potentially dramatic and could be made into a play. This insight came to me from watching actors, and moments, in my plays while they were being rehearsed - by Don Sanders and, later, by Barbara Vann - from my being illuminated and excited simply by the way an actress peeked out from behind a door or the way an actor (in this case it was Taylor Mead in The Red Robins) said Hello. Also, I noticed I could be in tears from watching a TV movie for thirty seconds and laughing happily after switching to a different one for the same amount of time. Why not get this on stage, in a way that wasn't accidental? The practical problem was finding people willing to get dressed up, go out, take a cab, and spend one hundred dollars to spend three minutes in a theatre, because that's about how long each play lasted. This is an example of why poetry poses fewer problems to the artistic experimenter. When the plays were done Barbara Vann did seventy-two of them in one evening. Other productions have included ten or five. The play I wrote this year, Edward and Christine - ah, all I can say about it is that I can't wait to see it produced, which it is far from being, no theatre, no money, no nothing as yet but I love the play. It seems to me there are some very great directors around but I don't have the same impression about new plays. The great directors often do old works or adaptations or conglomerates of old works or else use texts less interesting than the skills they deploy in staging them. Brilliant, life-enhancing moments there certainly are in these gorgeous performances. Peter Brook's Mahabharata may be the best play I've ever seen; Ariane Mnouchkine's Shakespeares are astonishing; Luca Ronconi won eternal glory for me with his Orlando Furioso, in which people being rushed back and forth standing on flat trucks shout out lines of Ariosto's epic. I've already spoken of Robert Wilson.
The first play I saw that knocked me out was a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Tamburlaine I & II in New York. Having all of Asia (and more, in Tamburlaine's vaulting ambition!) on stage instead of a disgruntled couple was suggestive of a lot.
I think the one person who has given me more pleasure in the theatre than anybody else is George Balanchine. My friends and I used to go to Balanchine's ballets very often in the 1960s. Sometimes we'd sneak in (without paying) at the end of intermission. I remember the absolute JOY I felt once coming in out of "nowhere" (that's what it seemed like) and seeing two of Balanchine's dancers high in the air. The floor of the stage didn't seem to exist for Balanchine, just the space above it. His work kept stressing this impossibly beautiful world which in fact, being as it was and enduring so, became, or was all along, completely possible, in any case a part of the possible. I remember Larry Rivers being angry at Balanchine, and at Edwin Denby along with him, for being so stuck on this "ideal" world - "It's not everything!" said Larry, but that is a part of his story and not of this one.
I love opera but there is nobody I've ever seen "do" opera the way Balanchine did ballet. That's too bad. Maybe it's not possible. I liked what Peter Brook did with Carmen. Anyway opera at its best gave me ideas of what a play could be like.
So did churches. I was in Mexico when I realized that a church was a theatre, the altar the stage, etc. Not a new insight but it got me to have interesting ideas and feelings while looking at a lot of Mexican churches.
So did certain plays I read but didn't see on stage - Strindberg's "crazy" plays (Spook Sonata, The Dream Play); all the Medieval English Mystery and Morality Plays; Hardy's The Dynasts, with its huge scope and stage directions (The French army descends the slopes of the Pyrenees and enters under a stormy sky); Pirandello; and of course Chekhov.
What relation is there between my teaching and my poetry? I never tried to "teach" anything in a poem before the poems in The Art of Love, the "instructional" tone of those poems came to me from the lectures I was giving and the books I was writing at that time on how to teach children to write poetry. As I wrote out the sentences, those instructional sentences began to have funny interesting tones and angles, began to have a physical existence that could make them pleasant to use in poetry -
All this suggests the possibility of teaching literature in the schools in conjunction with writing
(Wishes Lies and Dreams)
Nailing a woman to the wall causes too much damage (Not to the wall but to the woman . . .)
(The Art of Love)
The instructional dry sound tends to make everything seem plausible -
You may wish to fire ten cannons at once
It was another way to bring everything I wanted to into a poem.
Teaching itself didn't seem interesting to me until I'd been doing it for a few years. Before that it seemed "dry," even slightly dead. Instead, I imagined such careers as being a stand-up comedian (I never tried this out); owning and operating a motel that would be open for only three or four months a year and I'd have the rest of the time off to write (someone told me I'd have to keep the rooms clean, which I hadn't thought of, and I gave up the idea); writing commercial fiction, my first idea in this regard being what used to be known as "pulp fiction" after the kind of paper used in the magazines in which such fiction was printed - True Detective, Spicy Western, Weird Tales, etc. However I tried to write "pulp" fiction and could write only parodies of it. It was lucky that once I started to teach I got to like it enough to make myself good at it.
The books I wrote about teaching I found very hard to write. The introduction to Wishes Lies and Dreams (which is about thirty pages) took more than six months, and the introduction to Rose, Where Did You Get That Red took almost as long. I had always had the idea before Wishes Lies and Dreams that I was unable to write clear prose. But I forced myself to do it. I had to be clear if I wanted my experiences to do any good.
It's true that I've written poetry in a number of different styles. Joyce's writing in so many styles in Ulysses was exciting to me and all sorts of parodies. The revolutionary ideas in linguistics and cultural anthropology seemed right, too, I mean the ones I encountered when I was in college and shortly after, ideas that the style, even the language a work was written in, to a significant extent determined its content. I was attracted to the idea of being inclusive as well as to that of getting to a truth beyond the regularly announced ones, so stylistic "experiment," if that's what it was, anyway stylistic variety, seemed a good way to get what I wanted.
The first way I wrote that felt completely my own to me was the style of When the Sun Tries to Go On. When I wrote that poem I felt positively bardic; I felt that I had come upon a new use for words, a means of communication that enabled me to say things never said before. I sat in my one-room apartment on Charles Street in New York and wrote this poem every day for three months. Several times I remember my heart beating so fast that I was afraid I was going to die. I never supposed many people aside from Frank, who seemed to love it, would catch on to and like my poem, it just kept paddling me along through those spring days of 1951. The "rules" (not conscious to me but practiced), as I look back on them now, were something like these: don't "make sense" in an ordinary way; don't make sense in a Joycean way; don't make non-sense in a Steinian way; make a sense you never heard before, if you understand how you're doing it you're not doing it right; no puns; no jokes; no hidden meanings. There were "meanings" of course,
near "to be" An angel is shouting, "Wilder Baskets!"
I suppose it could be thought of as "funny" (inappropriately low) that an angel would shout, as well as that he would shout about something as apparently unclear (unclear in the sense of unfamiliar) as "wilder baskets"; however I've always felt perfectly happy with the metaphysical implications of this description, which has the advantage of letting me bring in angels without completely believing in them but believing in the idea "angels"; and if there could be such beings, would they find "mere being" enough or urge us on to "wilder baskets"?
This Sun Tries to Go On style I tried to hang on to for a while after I seemed to have nothing more to say in it. It was hard to believe I'd ever be done with it. For a time I thought that like some intense obsessed painter I might be able to go on that way forever. One thing that happened is I fell in love and suddenly found myself using that Sun-style to be more or less clear, at least syntactically and rhetorically -
It's the ocean of Western steel Bugles that makes me want to listen To the parting of the trees, Like intemperate smiles . . .
Next was the style of most of the poems in Thank You. Then I wrote Ko, which was quite different from these earlier styles - in the first place, it rhymed, which I had hardly done before, it was in stanzas, and it told a story. Story-telling was a great find. Writing Ko I went on what seemed a wonderful binge of story-telling - love stories, adventure stories, crime stories, sports stories, all kinds, some speeded up, some slowed down, long, short, full of all kinds of details. There were four or five stories going on at the same time (as in Ariosto). Nothing in the stories was thought out in advance; with my rhyme scheme ABABABCC and the happy Tuscan spring weather, I just let the stories "happen" - the need to rhyme had a lot of effect on the action. I didn't comment, didn't psychologize or analyze in any way, my main demand being that I be surprised and delighted by what happened. Then, too, to stay in the poem, a passage had to surprise and delight me one week, one month later as well. In letting the stories unravel, as it were all by themselves, by avoiding any planned stories, any stories that had a "point" to make, I thought I might come on a true story or two, something that could be true in a way regular stories weren't. Writing about this time in Seasons on Earth I described this idea I had then as a belief that
The truth might lie in the right mix of actions
Such sequences, perhaps, if gotten right, Might find the truth, as flowers find the light.
I was extremely excited and pleased by a review of Ko, which I misinterpreted. The author of this brief review wrote that Ko was a "true tale," and I thought, Yes, somebody caught on to it, and I've actually done it, written a story that goes beyond plain stories and tells a TRUE one. Of course what the reviewer meant was not that, but simply that my poem really told a story and wasn't just a symbolic or impressionistic narrative "front." Well that was okay but not what gave me that sudden gust of "glory" (for a few minutes). Later there were instructional poems in The Art of Love, influenced as I've said, by my teaching. These poems were very flat and plain and about as far as possible from When the Sun Tries to Go On, but I guess you could say the two were alike in both being extreme.
I felt again, writing On the Edge, that I had found the "secret," at last the form or style in which I could say everything and anything, as I had felt before, writing When the Sun Tries to Go On and again writing Ko and The Art of Love and again, later, writing The First Step. In On the Edge, which is autobiographical, the dissociations (or whatever they are) have most to do with re-creating (in a precise way) past moments -
The journal of I forget
The pink air was guzzly a little and fashionable
I was writing as if a little to the side, trying to get the main things and feelings but not committing my lines to instances so specific that they'd weigh them down. As in
Martin McScrumbold who controlled the sedge For fifteen companies of marble fusions
in which I want to get a little mixed-up music out of big business. Prose (friction) was a great treat to write when I finally found a way to do it - in my novel The Red Robins - opening up, as it did, what seemed uncountable new varieties of how to put words together. One of the main inspirations for this book (The Red Robins) were a couple of books, perhaps not totally "bad" but certainly written to a non-literary audience for presumably "commercial" purposes, by a writer whose pseudonym was Warner Fabian - the books were Flaming Youth and Summer Bachelors. The mix of behavioral and syntactical simplicity with an atmosphere constantly perfumed with sexual innuendo - it was even better than Love Comics, which I also liked. Boys' airplane books, Hardy Boys stories, and others of that genre were in back of it, too. I didn't feel close to the writers of minimalist or absurdist prose, though Don Barthelme was kind enough to include me in collections with them. I felt a lot closer to Fantomas; I read three or four volumes of it. I didn't see Roy Lichtenstein's comic strip paintings (he hadn't painted them yet) till I was about five years into the novel, but when I did see them they were encouraging. I admired some of Don Barthelme's sentences. The way they started out in one place and ended you up entirely in another, all the while including some bitter parody or other or some little intense bit of sensuality. I already knew, of course, Proust's sentences, those phenominally tidal things. Later, too late to use in The Red Robins but in time for my stories in Hotel Lambosa I discovered Viktor Shklovsky, Leonardo Sciascia, Isaak Babel, and Yasunari Kawabata. Later still I found Jim Salter's sentences and he told me to look in Out of Africa and there are great sentences there. I know that sentences alone don't make good stories but I was interested in paying attention to them in a particular way. When I wrote Hotel Lambosa I wanted to write in a way just about completely unlike that of The Red Robins - "real prose" not "poetic" in the way the Robins might be said to be. The sentences there aren't the same but I still wanted them to surprise and to snap around suddenly like a not necessarily unfriendly snake. St. John Perse's sentences were an inspiration for the Red Robins' prose - they had an "elevation," a wonderful twentieth-century French operatic elevation, subtler and more perfumed and nuanced even than Whitman's. Oh, another influence on its prose were the early short stories of Pasternak and his autobiography Safe Conduct. Pasternak wrote sentences that took me by surprise with every word; I'd never seen anything like them.
Some readers think of a poem as a sort of ceremony - a funeral, a wedding - where anything "comic" is out of order. They expect certain feelings to be touched on in certain conventional ways. Dissociation, even obscurity, may be tolerated, but only as long as the tone remains solemn or sad enough. (This is why John (Ashbery) gets away with a lot of craziness, I believe.) Frank O'Hara's comic technique is aerated by a feeling of vivacity and variety. I love the quality in Frank's work that makes its "message" always that life is so rich, so full of variety and excitement that one would be crazy to think that anything else was the theme and crazier not to participate in it as much as one could, "to live as variously as possible"
What spanking opossums of sneaks are caressing the routes!
This cartoon-comedy vision of sneaker possums sexily spanking their way down the highway positively sings and fizzes with something - without which poetry is something a lot less than it could be. The comic, in a poet like O'Hara or Wallace Stevens or Byron, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Lautreamont, Max Jacob, is a part of what is most serious for art to get to - ecstasy, unity, freedom, completeness, Dionysiac things. One can get a hint of this ecstasy, a whiff from these heights even in a small parody, in one funny line somebody writes. There may be a perfectly serious poem, and a good poem ("Resolution and Independence," for example) and some other person writes a parody of it and one line of the parody may have more truth than the whole original poem, or at least be freer to reach the intoxicating heights that sometimes seem where truth is from. One (rather tedious) view of the comic is that it is the "absurd," that means that the comic work is always referring to the ordinary world and to the ordinary ideas about it. The comic writer, the idea is, is comic because he thought the world sweet but has found it bitter and meaningless. There are some works like this but not great or the best things. Satire is wonderful and one needs it. Absurdity perhaps not. I guess it had its time. In any case, it's the "true tale" uses of the comic that interest me most.
The comic in our own time is probably slightly different from what it used to be. Look at Picasso, for example, Max Ernst ("Two Children Frightened by a Nightingale"). One contemporary comic effect comes from a sort of unconscious or irrational "letting go," saying whatever comes into your head in the interests of surprise. Or letting chance do it, as in the games the surrealists played
Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau
I love the combination of the comic and the sensuous-sexy with a mild air of wisdom all around in Ariosto and in Byron.
Do I still really "believe" in the poetic ambitions I've been talking about - about getting to the sublime, ecstasy, the truth. Well, I still write as if I do; I still believe in the poetry. And it's what shows me the life I want to goon having. To have it properly I have to go on writing more. One's own poems (those of others, too? probably less rapidly so) wear out. Somewhat. Once when I asked Frank why he thought (we were very young), we wrote poetry he said, Have you looked recently at any of the poetry that's already been written? ("Another filthy page of poetry," he said he wanted to write. There was a man!) I imagine now, for the first time, that his answer to me included the poems that he and I had already written.
The New York School
The New York school? You want me before we stop to come back to the New York school? We were very close friends, John, Frank, and I, and poetry was a big part of it. Being together so much and talking so much and writing poems and showing them to each other so much and telling each other what to read so much and all of that, we were a little bit, I suppose, like members of a team, like the Yankees or the Minnesota Vikings. We inspired each other, we envied each other, we emulated each other, we were very critical of each other, we admired each other, we were almost entirely dependent on each other for support. Each had to be better than the others, but if one flopped we all did. I used to have a fantasy that I was the middle number of this dynamic trio, John all prophesy and the sublime, Frank all excited conversation and the streets, I somewhere in between, a more "physical" Ashbery, a more "poetic" O'Hara. I have no idea what they thought - if anything - in this regard. But I remember when I wrote and published in Poetry, one of my excited, conversational (sort of) poems to Marina, "In Love With You," John wrote to me (I was in France), "Your poem in Poetry is beautiful. But have you gone over to Frank completely?" Or maybe what he wrote was, "But it seems an awful lot like Frank." Was John afraid of being left behind at Delphos while Frank and I skate-boarded off into the urban sunrise? I don't think so. The most remarkable thing I can remember about John's and Frank's poetry then is that it didn't have in it anything I disliked. Every piece of paper either handed to me or read was welcome, like a wonderful lemonade in the scorching summer of our post-adolescent souls. We had little resistance to each other's work, as one might have no resistance to heat or cold. I've loved other writers - Max Jacob, Eluard, Byron, etc. - but I haven't known them. They weren't there at the bar or in the studio or on the phone; they weren't fellow Vikings, shoving me around. What was really alike in our poems it's harder to say. I used to say, Very important to all of us was the surface of the language. It does seem that whatever our poems had to say, the words got there first. But that may have been only my impression.
Jordan Davis is the author of A Little Gold Book, published by Golden Books in 1995. He works at Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and with Anna Malmude, he coordinates the Poetry City reading series in New York City.
This interview is from The Art of Poetry, by Kenneth Koch, to be published by the University of Michigan Press in November 1996. Reprinted with permission.
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|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1996|
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