‘Amid the Freed Trees’

John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and the ‘New York School of Poets’

I had always thought of John Ashbery as “the young one,” so I was a little taken aback that he had reached 90 when he died over the weekend. I had always thought of him in the context of his friends, poets like Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, who were a little older and never cracked the firmament of “American Poetry” the way Ashbery eventually would. The “New York School of Poets” may have been an imprecise label, but it meant a lot to me. These poets were the bridge between the gateway drug of the Beat Generation and serious professional poets that leaves most readers behind as they get older.

I liked Ashbery’s work from the start thanks to a great teacher — Al Filreis’ English 88 class at Penn, which introduced hundreds of undergrads to 20th century American poetry. The first thing about Ashbery I noticed was his ability to lead you to think about how you think, about the difficulty of real communication and the challenge and importance of poetry. He did gracefully in poems like “Some Trees,” “And Ut Pictora Poesis is Her Name,” and “What is Poetry?”, poems that seem to really strike a chord with you when you are young and already suspect that poetry is going to be a thing in your life. Then he asks you to come along with some more intricate trips, like “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the Tennis Court Oath poems.

As an English major I would complete a semester-long independent study of Frank O’Hara, and latter in journalism school at Columbia I wrote a proilfe of Kenneth Koch, who taught across campus. I was in a weird place in J-school, having left behind poetry and fiction for something practical like journalism (ha), about which I was already having serious misgivings. I would explore that at great length in my masters project, which was about MFA writing programs and the path I did not take. It was a subtext in my interview with Koch, about the comparative values of poetry and journalism. He helped me put it in perspective. “Even if they assign you to just write about the trapeze artist, you still get to go to the circus.”

Anyway, I found that profile of Koch I wrote back then, hiding in a file I thought I’d lost on my hard drive. Ashbery makes an appearance at the end…

***

Kenneth Koch

December 1999

By Christopher Marcisz

The poet walks into the seminar room on the fourth floor of Hamilton Hall. He plops a dozen battered old books on the table in a messy heap and opens a folder of student poems covered with big, clumsy letters in red ink.

A young man raises his hand to get the professor’s attention.

“Doctor Koch…”

“Yes nurse,” he answers without missing a beat.

After chatting with the student, Kenneth Koch turns his attention to the day’s work. The assignment they will discuss required the students to imagine themselves as another person and write about other people. Changing personae is one way, he says, “to escape from the lyrical prison.”

This class of Columbia University undergraduates is titled “Imaginative Writing,” and offers a crash course in Koch’s poetics: traditional European avant-garde ideas set within a uniquely American sensibility. He is antiestablishment and antiacademic, and does not take art too seriously — in fact he has a sense of humor about it. At the same time, there is a rigorous and disciplined program behind his method. His students learn that he is quick to chop down work that veers into solipsism, or is obtuse or sentimental.

Koch looks the part of a slightly eccentric college writing professor. At 73, he still has a full head of salt and pepper hair. He wears a brown satin jacket and corduroy pants. His tortoise shell classes are a distinctive part of his look: they are much like the ones he wore in old photographs from the 1950s that show him posing with his circle of poet and painter friends.

He has written more than a dozen books of poetry, two of prose, and four collections of plays. Koch is also well known for his books on how to teach children to write poetry, which he has done in diverse places like the New York City public schools, China, and Haiti. This year, he released both a book of new poetry, Straits, and a collection of essays on the pleasures of the form entitled Make Your Own Days.

His work has been favorably reviewed throughout his career. But he is not regarded in a way that leads his name to be bandied about when the nation needs a new poet laureate. Although he won the biennial Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1995, he has never won the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award. More than his peers, Koch’s influence is personal; it is the way his ideas and personality have shaped the friends and students who have known him.

The writing class is run in the spirit that has guided him through his fifty-year career. There is a sense of collaboration involved. He reads the work of some students aloud, though he does not say who wrote what. He does not grade individual assignments, relying on comments instead.

Professor Koch’s class is well-known among students. On the first day, thirty students showed up for a dozen places in the class. Those who wanted to stay had to submit writing samples and were interviewed before Koch made decided who could stay.

Half-way through the class, he moves along to the next assignment, a verse play. It is another effort to get his students to think about poetry by, essentially, not thinking about poetry.

“I talk not so much to teach you how to write a play,” he says, “but rather to inspire you to write one.”

He presents examples of what works. He cites Shelley, Beddoes, Hardy, Yeats. He reads extensively from Eliot’s “Sweeney Agonistes,” Frank O’Hara’s “Awake in Spain,” and some obscure Italian Futurist dramas from the First World War. He encourages the students to look into his suggestions, although it is not required.

He suggests methods to get them started. He tells them to sit in a room, imagine a stage, and ask themselves what it is they would like to see on it. Or they should take a magazine and clip out pictures of people that interest them. Make them characters and give them lines of dialogue. He warns them that under no circumstances should their plays have cliched, pretentious characters — poets, clowns, old men, or children.

His demeanor is slightly menacing and confrontational, especially when his face is set in a disbelieving scowl, his mouth half-open and his lips turned down at the edges. With students, he is quick to argue over anything that he perceives might upset his aesthetic balance, or his patience.

Discussing his idea of poetic verse, he cites the four-stress line of Yeats’ later plays. A student boldly interrupts that Dr. Seuss did the same thing. “What?” Koch says incredulously. He harshly insists that these are entirely different things, and is able to quote Dr. Seuss to prove it.

“Why did you bring this up?” he demands. The students all laugh as Koch picks up a book and slams it on the table in mock horror. After several weeks, they have grown accustomed to these playful outbursts.

His office down the hall has a dark rug on the floor, and three wood chairs facing his desk. Books are crammed into the shelves; most have that tattered and yellow quality that comes with decades of occasional use.

Koch says teaching is a useful way to stay organized in his work.

“I teach because I like it,” he says. “It’s very nice work. You get to be with smart people and read books all the time.”

When he was younger, he says, he eagerly kept abreast of different poets and movements in an effort to scout ideas he did and didn’t like. Now, he is set in his ways: he knows what he likes and sticks to it, regardless of the trends and fashions that breeze through contemporary poetry.

Koch was born in Cincinnati in 1925 and raised in a suburban, middle class home. He says he began writing comic plays about his extended family when he was four years old. His first poem was a little ditty in which he imagined he had a pony.

He served in an infantry unit in the Second World War, and saw combat in the Philippines. After that, he went to Harvard, where he met Ashbery. He graduated in 1948 and moved to New York, where he quickly became a part of the downtown arts scene, including the “second generation” of New York abstract expressionist painters. He traveled in Europe in the mid-1950s on a Fulbright fellowship, and earned a doctorate in literature from Columbia University in 1959. He began his career on Columbia’s faculty shortly thereafter.

Koch’s career is intimately linked with his friends and peers in New York at mid-century who are now considered some of the most accomplished modern American poets. Together with Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler, Koch was a part of the so-called “New York School of Poets.” Koch’s playful personality led Ashbery to nickname him “Doctor Fun” for awhile in the late 1950s.

His style developed over years, with the help of his friends. He cites two instances when he noticed that they were on to something.

In the spring of 1952, he and O’Hara had been reading their most recent poems to each other. Koch was working on “When the Sun Tries to Go Down,” O’Hara on “Second Avenue.” The two had urged each other on for weeks, trying to see how long their respective experiments could go on. They would share new lines over the phone, or meet for lunch to show off their latest ideas. The poems are remarkably similar: each is long, and both are abstract to the point of unintelligibility. In those moments, they went out on a limb and looked back at how far they had gotten.

The second came a few years later, and also involved O’Hara’s immediate influence. The latter had just completed a collaboration with painter Larry Rivers entitled “Stones.” Koch immediately decided that he should collaborate across mediums too. He and Rivers worked on canvases in which the painter would create a figure and the poet would scrawl on text. Koch had discovered a new way of looking at his poetry, another method to break free from the “lyrical prison.”

The poets struggled through critical indifference through the 1950s and 1960s, relying mostly on each other for support and encouragement. There were setbacks and tragedies. In 1966 O’Hara died in a dune buggy accident on Fire Island, and Schuyler’s ongoing battles with mental illness probably prevented him from achieving his full potential.

But by the 1970s, their movement began to reach critical acclaim. Ashbery was vaulted into literary prominence in 1975 when his book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the poetry trifecta — the Pulitzer, the National Book and the National Book Critics Circle Awards. Posthumous releases of O’Hara’s poetry brought him a wider audience. All the while, Koch continued to teach and churn out volumes of poetry.

Today, Koch is still close to his friends (Schuyler died in 1991). In November, he and Ashbery spent a week in Sweden together, where they were helping to launch the first Swedish-language collection of their poems.

Shortly after their return, the New School hosted a retrospective panel on their work, to celebrate the release of David Lehman’s book about the group, The Last Avant-Garde. Koch and Ashbery attended, as well as Rivers and painter Jane Freilicher. The event drew a near capacity crowd to the large auditorium in the West Village.

For part of his presentation, Koch read some of O’Hara’s poems. He told the audience about the day the group heard about O’Hara’s death. Koch and Rivers led an expedition to his apartment with an empty suitcase to recover poems that the oft-disorganized O’Hara had left lying around.

Koch can charm an audience. He makes jokes and tells stories in a natural and familiar manner. His voice is soothing in a peculiar way, even and relaxed. As he reads, a slight nasal whine jabs the listener when he pronounces the short, stressed syllables, and blends away as he stretches the longer, vowel sounds.

His presence at the podium is significantly different than Ashbery’s. His friend is shorter and heavier, with white hair. He read in a soft, gently voice. They seemed to match the roles often assigned to them: Koch as the funny, outgoing one and Ashbery as the shy, thoughtful one.

Later, Koch read from his own work. The crowd made an audible gasp of appreciation as he read his more renowned poems, some nearly half a century old.

Among them was “Where Am I Kenneth?”, a poem about an identity crisis he wrote while still a young man new to New York. He wrote it while riding a bus from his librarian job at Hunter College to the Cedar Tavern in the Village to meet his friends.

Amid the freed trees. Is this Boston?
Look around you. Am I Kenneth?
“The changing sighs of her disgust,”
A young man said, “am blue-kneed dust.”
Kenneth waddled into a store and said
“Pick me up,” and said “Apples, down.”

Toward the end of the evening, Koch and Ashbery went up to the podium and read a poem they wrote together in the mid-1950s entitled “Gottlieb’s Rainbow.” Koch was traveling through Europe and had visited Ashbery, who was living in Paris. They wrote the poem in a bar, and alternately composed lines back and forth about a pinball machine in the room.

Before the began, they stood in silence for a moment looking at the text.

“You wrote the first line,” Ashbery reminded him.

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