an interview with Kenneth Koch      
Kenneth Koch

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  Could you say a few words about New Addresses?

They are addresses in the sense that they are addressed to something or to several things. It's a book in which I'm essentially talking to what seem the most important things in my life. The rhetorical term for this is I think apostrophe. I wrote a few almost by accident and I think the first one I wrote is one I didn't include in the book. It was sort of a joke poem to a small Russian province urging them to continue with their good work. It was ridiculous, but I like the tone of talking to things. In the few weeks after that I wrote about six or seven or eight of the poems that are in the book. I had a big shot of energy and I wrote "To Piano Lessons", "To Tiredness", and some of the other early ones in the book. I was fascinated by what I was able to remember by doing this. I found eventually that I could talk about many things that were very important in my life and which I had never been able to write about before. My experiences as an infantryman in World War Two, for instance, I'd hardly been able to talk about it except as jokes because it's so strange to be out there with people trying to kill you and you're trying to kill them. I was in combat in the Philippines. When I addressed myself to World War Two I found that I could talk about it and I remembered all sorts of things that I had forgotten, such as that I believed, quite insanely, that I couldn't be killed because I had to write poetry. As I say in that poem, "If I'm killed while thinking of lines, it will be too corny / When it's reported (I imagined it would be reported!)." The egomania was extraordinary, but I was nineteen years old. Also, another subject I could never write about was Jewishness. By addressing it directly I could put a lot of things together that I couldn't otherwise. The same is true of stammering, because I used to stammer when I was a child. If you write a poem about that you have to be sorry for yourself or say that it was supposed to symbolize something else, but when I addressed it directly I could be angry at it. That was true with many poems in the book. I felt I was discovering things.

These poems seem to have taken on a certain inertia after a time. Did you begin to envision them as a single project?

After I talked to some of the subjects I mentioned, I thought that there were more important things for me to talk to than piano lessons. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of these poems. The ones in the book are the ones that worked out. There are several poems in the book that are addressed to more than one thing. At a certain point I realized that the things I was talking to in the poems weren't in my life separately, but together.

You mentioned the rhetorical form of apostrophe. Would you consider any of your poems odes?

Odes seem more celebratory. When John Donne writes "Death be not proud", that's not really an ode. When Shelley talks to the west wind that is an ode. It is a high level of praise. When Frank O'Hara talks to the sun on Fire Island, that is not an ode. Odes just seem a little highly toned.

What drew you to this form?

It's a rare example, for me anyway, of poetry coming from criticism. I became interested in this form when I was writing a book entitled Making Your Own Days, the Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, published by Scribner's, which came out about the same time as Straits in 1998. One thing that helped me to be clear about poetry was a remark by Paul Valery that poetry is a separate language that exists inside the larger language. What if one took this seriously? Linguistically speaking, if "poetry" is a language unto itself, how would it differ from the larger language? The sound of words, which is useful only for identification in the ordinary language, is terribly important in poetry, as important as the meaning. If you say "two and two are rather blue", it means more in poetry than "two and two are quite green."

The music of the language.

If music is the main thing, I also thought about the inclination in poetry. If you're sitting at the poetry piano you're likely to play not only meanings but comparisons and personifications and apostrophes and lies and wishes and so on. So I thought a lot about apostrophes. What is John Donne really talking to when he's talking to death? He's not going to get rid of death. He might get rid of his fear of death for a while.

What do you feel are the limitations of the form?

I don't know. I suppose every form has a limitation. What do you feel the limitations might be?

From our standpoint, looking back over centuries of poetry, the apostrophe seems somewhat archaic to us, a bit funny, but our usage is, for the most part, consciously archaic. We're aware of what we're doing. We don't want to trivialize our subjects, so we are cautious when using certain rhetorical techniques.

Many forms feel antiquated, but there's often a way to revive them, as Frank O'Hara does in his poem addressed to a "Leaf! You are so big!" The champion apostrophizer of all time is probably Walt Whitman. When he's crossing Brooklyn Ferry, he's addressing drops of water on the railing, smoke rising from buildings, everything. I suppose what one has to look out for is archness. As if to say "oh, ho, I'm funny because I'm using an old-fashioned technique." One of the early poems in the book that helped me to get a certain tone I wanted was "To the Italian Language". I just remembered how excited I was when I heard people my age when I was in my twenties speaking Italian. I loved the language and I wanted so much to learn it. I found for the poem that the tone of tenderness and longing seemed right.

What writers do you find yourself influenced by?

I'm the kind of writer who likes a lot of writers and certainly likes to be influenced. I like to find a writer who excites me in some way, who shows me new things I can do. Some writers of my own generation have been very important to me. The ones I've been most moved by have been Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery. Before that the ones who affected me the most were William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens and sometimes Ezra Pound, in the Cantos. Artistically I was excited by Pound. In New Addresses I felt free to use tones and lines and phrases from other poets. For example, in the poem "To the Unknown", I have the line "Let me know in advance, and I will come down to meet you / As far as the open part in which you live."

Li Po, via Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound.

Yes. They're not in there to make people think, for instance, of Li Po or Pound. They feel like a natural part of the language of poetry. Writing New Addresses I often felt the benign influence of Frank O'Hara. His wonderful poem addressing the sun on Fire Island is an example of an easy and conversational way of talking to something overwhelmingly big and powerful. My poems have also been very influenced by French poets and, oddly enough, some of the poems by Ariosto.

You're known for your friendships with many Abstract Expressionist artists.

Yes, really the generation after the Abstract Expressionists, Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, and Alex Katz, and with the poets John [Ashberry] and Frank [O'Hara], we were always together. If you invited one of us, you got all of us.

Thank you for taking the time to talk.

Thank you.

interview by Ernest Hilbert
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    Photo credit © Larry Rivers