hen approaching a new book by the immensely prolific Kenneth Koch, it is tempting to view it exclusively against the background of his associations with famous artists and the New York School poets. In other words, it is very difficult to set his reputation, his milieu, or his charismatic persona entirely to one side. As a result, his poems are too often read as extensions of his persona, his personality. Koch's latest book, New Addresses, is a book that should be read in precisely this way. It is a long series of odes, or, more specifically, apostrophes on personal subjects, to moments in life, to personal attributes, in spirit an open autobiographical compendium. Each of the poems works well unaccompanied yet exists in relaxed harmonic balance with the others. Like classical Greek and Roman odes, there is a certain stylistic stateliness, which is perhaps unavoidable given the form; unlike his classical Greek and Roman forebears, however, Koch never crosses into the ceremonious or pompous. Critics have for centuries divided the ode into the public and the private, the public being intended for shared occasions or state events, the private for personal occasions or reminiscences. Koch's apostrophes, being of the private variety, tend, as one would expect, toward the contemplative. Although wistful, they are also playful. He never forgets that there is something a bit corny about odes in the postmodern era. In an anti-heroic, self-conscious time, the role of the ode has been redefined, and Koch makes great use of its new role without ever seeming glib.
One finds in New Addresses much of the cosmopolitanism of his earlier work, but the poems fall a great distance from the European avant-gardism that influenced his earliest works, known at the time for their experimental fuzziness and difficulty. One finds instead much of the confessionalism enjoyed by other poets of the New York School, such as the gossipy Frank O' Hara (on rare occasion even the towering John Ashberry has indulged this urge). Koch's amiable confessionalism is displayed in a more frisky and elegantly informal way than one would find in, for instance, Robert Lowell's Life Studies or Anne Sexton's harrowing The Awful Rowing Toward God. It is closer to the frolicsome exposures of Allen Ginsberg's Reality Sandwiches than to the naked intensity of that same author's Kaddish. Koch's previous book, Straits, showed a broader landscape of urbane deliberation and insight, but there is a certain giddy inertia to New Addresses. He finds that many parts of his life are inseparable, and he builds from "To Jewishness" to "To Jewishness and China" to "To Jewishness, Paris, Ambition, Trees, My Heart, and Destiny". Like the ancient poets (and more recently the Romantics), Koch invests things and ideas with human character, addressing, for instance, his stammering: "Where did you come from, lamentable quality? / Before I had a life you were about to ruin my life." There is very little surface to the poems. They are frank, chatty, unpretentious. We come to care about his life, and he leaves us with few illusions about that life. We are made aware of his intellectual stamina without its being brought to bear on the poems themselves. If there is a depth it is one of comfortable wisdom rather than brainy verve.
Various speakers interpolate the warmhearted motion of the poems. The poems have a Whitmanlike expansiveness of line and focus. The ode "To Life" is itself bursting with life:
All one can say with certainty about anything that has you is "It moves!
Hey, wait a minute! look, it's moving! Look
At it, it's moving! It must have life!"
No, that's only an electric charge it's attached to a battery!
"No, that s life!" The wind blew it halfway across the street
Or from one edge of the table to another. It's not alive.
"Yes, it is! It moved by itself!
It has life! It's starting on a journey! Or is in the middle of one! Or near the end!"
This hysterical exchange seems to contain the very electrical impulse the cynic within it proposes as a reductive explanation for life. This humor is common to the collection, but there is a gravity and sadness underneath the humor. Addressing a poem to piano lessons is in itself a funny gesture, but one discovers midway through the poem that it was an experiment from which the poet walked away defeated: "Thanks, anyway; you were a partner / In an enterprise / That didn't work. We lost but have moved on." While one might be seduced by the juicy exclamation points that inflate the poems with a youthful breath, they also run the risk of being just too much, reminiscent of the exuberant outbursts of Walt Whitman but also the maudlin eruptions of Ginsberg's more Blakean, juvenile poems. In his own most Blakean moments (if this notion is not in itself too absurd), Koch is also at his most Nashesque. These outbursts are, after all, comic, as when he pokes fun at his young self in "To Psychoanalysis":
"I think you are nearly through,"
Dr. Loewenstein said. "You seem much better." But, Light!
Comedy! Tragedy! Energy! Science! Balance! Breath!
I didn't want to leave you. I cried. I sat up.
I stood up. I lay back down. I sat.
The reader constantly perceives the semi-iconic poet himself through the poetry. Koch achieves a timeless universal quality that all poets aspire to. There is an attentive, even cautious, avoidance of overbearing or philosophically-complex language characteristic of A.R. Ammons or Jorie Graham (one would feel that something had gone terribly wrong if he resorted to such language). There are, however, what could be called philosophical turns, the thrust and parry of ideas and angles.
This book, appearing as it does in the century's and millennium's pivotal year 2000, feels like a well-deserved look back over a very successful career (though it should under no circumstances be construed as a closing chapter). It is not autobiographical in a careerish way. There is no mention of his famous friendships with such giants as John Ashberry or Larry Rivers (with whom he collaborated on a series of picture poems, New York 1959-60). It is instead a very touching and funny look back over a life that exemplifies that of many New Yorker men of his generation, including such episodes as first moving to the city, fighting the Second World War, eagerly undergoing psychoanalysis, traveling through Europe, meeting the Europeans on their own terms as an artist. It is a lighthearted book with a solemn anchoring that leaves one feeling as if he has listened in on a series of discreet conversations between the author and his subjects, subjects that often speak back and leave their own marks on the personal history contained in these New Addresses.
Copyright © 2000 Ernie Hilbert.