Poet Kenneth Koch
November 28, 1996
A conversation with Kenneth Koch, winner of this year's Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now a conversation with Kenneth Koch, winner of this year's Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry. It's a privately-funded award, $10,000, given under the auspices of the Library of Congress. Last year, Koch won the $25,000 Bollingen prize given by the Yale University Library. He received these awards for his book "One Train" and for his lifetime achievement. He has published eight collections of poetry, a novel, short stories, plays, and several works on teaching children about poetry. I spoke with him late last month.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you for being with us.
KENNETH KOCH, Columbia University: Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I've been reading your poetry. Much of it is very funny, very playful and witty. It's not what many people expect poetry to be. There's this view that poetry should be kind of somber, isn't there?
KENNETH KOCH: Oh, I suppose some people have that view. It's a confusion between seriousness and solemnity. The intention of my poetry is--I mean, I don't intend for my poetry to be mainly funny or satirical, but it seems to me that high spirits and sort of a comic view are part of being serious.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you like that in other writers too.
KENNETH KOCH: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I've read that you like Aristophanes. You like the comic in Aristophanes.
KENNETH KOCH: Yeah.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you like the comic in Wallace Stevens.
KENNETH KOCH: And in Byron. Yeah. Yeah.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Was it always that way, or when you were say 20, did you feel tortured about things and write more tortured poetry?
KENNETH KOCH: I guess I felt more tortured in a way at 20, but I don't know that my poetry was ever tortured, although when I was at Harvard, there was a time when I was very influenced by the poetry of Yates, so everything that happened to me tended to turn into mythology and legend, I remember. But that stopped happening.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read from "One Train" for us, or read the poem about John Asbury.
KENNETH KOCH: All right. Maybe we can--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we should say that the sistina that you refer to here is a poetic form.
KENNETH KOCH: Okay. This is a very short excerpt from a poem called "A Time Zone." It's about a 10-page poem which is about life in New York in the 50's and early 60's, when I was very close to John Asbury and Frank O'Hara and James Sklyer and Larry Rivers, and Jane Frylocker and other friends. And it seemed to me a very dramatic time for all of our work. And we collaborated a lot. And this is the brief passage about some collaborations that I did with John Ashbury. "He is not writing much this year, but he likes to collaborate. So do I. We do a set of sistinas as a speedy rate, six sistinas, each about an animal, with one concluding one called ‘The Bestiary'. There is also a three-page poem in which all the lines rhyme with the title, ‘The Casuary.' Next, we do a poetic compendium called ‘The New York Times, September 8, 1951,' both with and without rhymes. Our poems are like tracks setting out. We have little idea where we're going, or what it's about. I enjoy these compositional duets, accompanied by drinking coffee and joking on Charles and Perry Streets."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I love that image of the two of you playing and working at this poetry the way some people would go out and play golf or ball or something.
KENNETH KOCH: Well, it was--I've always found it a great pleasure to collaborate with other poets and also with painters, which I've done too, but it's like having the muse in the room with you. I mean, I get some ideas, some ideas come into my head, but if I write a line and then John or Frank writes another line, then I have to respond to that, and it's--it's interesting. I like it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You write in that poem "Our poems are like tracks setting out." When you're working alone, how do you get started? Do you just start writing? Does an idea come into your head?
KENNETH KOCH: It varies. You know, I think a lot of poetry just comes from what you might call the language of poetry. Paul Valerie said that poetry's sort of a language within the language. And what makes it different from the ordinary language is that music is just as important as grammar and meaning. And--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mean the music of the poem?
KENNETH KOCH: Yeah. The music that you have in the words, in the lines, which is really sound, and the rhythm. And then there are all these other inclinations of the poetry language like comparisons, exaggeration, omniscience, lying, being in all times and places at once, and once one starts to--once one writes a line or two, this language kind of takes over and suggests other lines, but as to how the--how the first line comes into one's head, I don't know. With the poem "One Train," which you asked me to read a little of, the way I was inspired to write that poem was I was in Africa, I was in Kenya. And I was on a bus going from one game preserve to another, these 10,000-mile expanses where you see wild animals in their native habitat. And we had just passed a Masai village and right at the end of the Masai village, in the middle of the bush, were railroad tracks and a sign that said, "One Train May Hide Another." And it seemed--I figured out after a while what it meant, but in the middle of the bush of Kenya, it seemed to me to mean everything, very mysterious. And this sort of stayed in my mind for six years, and then I wrote the poem about it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you read the poem, or read from it.
KENNETH KOCH: Well, I'll read some of it because of time limitations. It's called "One Train." I'll read the beginning and the end. "In a poem, one line may hide another line, as at a crossing, one train may hide another train. That is, if you're waiting to cross the tracks, wait to do it for one moment at least after the first train has 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. So always standing in front of something, the other, as words stand in front of objects, feelings, and ideas." Now I skip to the end. "One sidewalk may hide another, as when you're asleep there, and one's 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, then when you get up to leave, there is another whom you'd have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher, one doctor, one ecstacy, one illness, one woman, one man may hide another. Pause to let the first one pass. You think, now it is safe to cross. Then you're hit by the next one. It can be important to avoid it at least a moment to see what was already there."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It seems like this poem has everything that you've been doing in it, paying attention to this very specific--whether it's a person or a train or whatever it is--it has humor, but it's also very full of meaning. It's full of energy. Each line's full of energy, which you call for. Do you feel that way about it?
KENNETH KOCH: Oh, Picasso said that you shouldn't be your own connoisseur. I don't know. I hope it's good.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you thought about that line for six years, and then you just kept adding to it?
KENNETH KOCH: It's not so much that I thought about it. It's just that it would keep coming into my mind. And I didn't--once I started to write the poem, I wrote the poem. However, I did work on the poem for a long time, because once I sort of understood what that sign was saying as far as my poetry was concerned, I could write hundreds and hundreds of lines, but that's too much. So after I wrote a lot of lines, I had to cut it, and then, you know, it was like that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Kenneth Koch, thank you very much for being with us.