Kenneth Koch has been called “one of our greatest poets” by John Ashbery, and “a national treasure” in the 2000 National Book Award Finalist Citation.
Now, for the first time, all of the poems in his ten collections–from Sun Out, poems of the 1950s, to Thank You, published in 1962, to A Possible World, published in 2002, the year of the poet’s death–are gathered in one volume.
Celebrating the pleasures of friendship, art, and love, the poetry of Kenneth Koch has been dazzling readers for fifty years. Charter member–along with Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler–of the New York School of poets, avant-garde playwright and fiction writer, pioneer teacher of writing to children, Koch gave us some of the most exciting and aesthetically daring poems of his generation.
These poems take sensuous delight in the life of the mind and the heart, often at the same time: “O what a physical effect it has on me / To dive forever into the light blue sea / Of your acquaintance!” (“In Love with You”).
Here is Koch’s early work: love poems like “The Circus” and “To Marina” and such well-remembered comic masterpieces as “Fresh Air,” “Some General Instructions,” and “The Boiling Water” (“A serious moment for the water is when it boils”). And here are the brilliant later poems–“One Train May Hide Another,” the deliciously autobiographical address in New Addresses, and the stately elegy “Bel Canto”–poems that, beneath a surface of lightness and wit, speak with passion, depth, and seriousness to all the most important moments in one’s existence.
Charles Simic wrote in The New York Review of Books that, for Koch, poetry “has to be constantly saved from itself. The idea is to do something with language that has never been done before.” In the ten exuberant, hilarious, and heartbreaking books of poems collected here, Kenneth Koch does exactly that.
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Kenneth Koch published many volumes of poetry, most recently A Possible World and New Addresses. His short plays, many of them produced off- and off-off-Broadway, are collected in The Gold Standard: A Book of Plays and One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays. He also wrote several books about poetry, including Wishes, Lies, and Dreams; Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?; and Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry. His fiction is brought together in Collected Fiction. He was the winner of the Bollingen Prize (1995) and the Bobbitt Library of Congress Poetry Prize (1996), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (1995) and the National Book Award (2000), and winner of the first annual Phi Beta Kappa Poetry Award (2001). Kenneth Koch lived with his wife, Karen, in New York City and taught at Columbia University. He died in 2002.From Publishers Weekly:
[Signature]Reviewed by John AshberySome poets have difficulty putting pen to paper. Kenneth Koch, on the contrary, could simply not stop producing poetry. Writing and living were all but synonymous for him. The results are brought together in his almost 800-page Collected Poems, which doesn't even include long poems like the Byronic epic about a Japanese baseball player, "Ko, or a Season on Earth." (Koch's Collected Longer Poems are scheduled to come out next fall.)Koch and I became friends at Harvard in the late 1940s. We renewed our friendship when I moved to New York in 1949; Frank O'Hara arrived there two years later, and we all met up with James Schuyler and Barbara Guest shortly afterward. Caught up in the effervescent art world of that time, along with our painter friends Jane Freilicher, Nell Blaine and Larry Rivers, to name but a few, we began to be looked at as a school—the New York School, of which Kenneth, by then a professor of poetry at Columbia, was headmaster and ringmaster. Teaching poetry was a close second to writing it as his occupation of choice; in time he would collaborate on books like Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? which has become a standard text for teaching poetry in secondary schools. His missionary zeal also led him to write his ars poetica, a poem called "Fresh Air," about a Zorro-like alter ego called the Strangler whose task it is to suppress poetic dullness, violently if necessary: "Oh GOODBYE, castrati of poetry! farewell, stale pale skunky pentameters (the only honest English meter, gloop, gloop!)," and replace it with, well, fresh air. Trashing lines like "This Connecticut landscape would have pleased Vermeer," the Strangler summons the spirits of Mallarmé, Shelley, Byron, Whitman, Pasternak and Mayakovsky to help him cleanse the Augean stables of poetry.But Koch loved poetry of all shapes and sizes, even "skunky pentameters." One of the many delightful surprises in this rich collection is "The Seasons," an homage to the epic poem of that title by the bland 18th-century poet James Thomson. Koch's rollickingly pentametric version begins: "Now pizza units open up, and froth/ Streams forth on beers in many a frolic bar/ New-opened-up by April." His poetic prodigality began, as Koch explains in "Days and Nights," when "It came to me that all this time/ There had been no real poetry and that it needed to be invented." The products of a lifetime of continual inventing are beautifully on display in this awe-inspiring banquet of a book. John Ashbery's most recent collection, Where Shall I Wander, has been nominated for a National Book Award.
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