From issue two of Ladowich. The conclusion of a previously unpublished interview with Kenneth Koch.
Kenneth Koch: What I wanted to finish saying was that Whitman seemed to inspire a lot of poets and also make them think they couldn’t do what had been done before, and the result is that 20th century poets (in America anyway) have wanted to have the good qualities of Whitman along with wit, sensuousness and everything. For the generation after these poets who wrote these strange wonderful works like Stevens, Williams, Pound, well I don’t know. I was talking about my taste. The poets I really like of my own generation who have come through that poetry of Rilke and Pound and Stevens and so on, have made a poetry that is still full of life, energy and excitement, and that seems either to really be about or to represent something that is important either in physical or social or artistic experience. Ashbery seems eccentric the way Rilke does, maybe even more so, but his work has almost always affected me as pretty close to one center of what I’m concerned about. And since he’s such a good writer it’s what I’m concerned about but didn’t know I was concerned about until he wrote his poems. But he comes through this whole modern barbed wire with, really, for all the decadent-seeming things about his work, with a lot of energy, happiness and ambition. It’s strong stuff. He doesn’t give up. He keeps turning out ambitious things. It seems like John’s always trying to solve some problem that can’t be solved. One side of his brain seems to think he can solve the great problem of what everything means and the other side knows he can’t, and it’s like a ping pong game between these two sides and that’s where the energy comes from. He never tires of this friendly game with himself. He loves or his poems love this combat the way one likes to play tennis.
In any case, the poets who come through merely wanted to, without the kind of genius or energy that O’Hara and Ashbery have, want to write poems that are merely in the center of experience and that are formally more conventional or central, using the discoveries of Pound, William Carlos Williams, Stevens, taking all this raw material (actually finished poetry) and making conventional poems. Maybe I’m just theorizing — I think the mistake is you can’t do that. You really have to create something wild and original of your own in order to use that stuff. A lot of modern academic poetry is full of echoes of Rilke and Lorca and Rimbaud and Baudelaire and other very great poets but it seems to be put in by some sort of aesthetic interior decorator. Frank O’Hara, starting all over from this very wild impulse writing very original poems, I don’t mean in quality, caught up with Mayakovsky. It’s like he could use Mayakovsky. A mild academic poet writing like Rilke can’t use Rilke. I think probably the only road to really being able to use our great strange predecessors, in France, in Russia, in America and other places, the only chance is to have something like their kind of energy, wildness, to take the risks they took. I don’t think you can sit back and use the techniques of Attila the Hun or Alexander the Great. I don’t think it’s like science where you can take the discoveries of a real original like Einstein and make the machine work. Poems aren’t machines.
Ladowich Magazine is available in the Apple Newsstand — https://t.co/bhbBwDr0F9 — offering just enough poetry and one longread a month. The interview excerpted here appears in issue two. An excerpt from issue one was posted on May 14. If you enjoyed this, why not click the green “Recommend” button below?