Kenneth Koch’s Melancholy


I saw the sign above on a wall during a visit I recently made to a school to talk to their sixth form about poetry. During the visit I was asked which poets I liked reading the best and my mind went blank, as it always does. The specific purpose of the morning was to discuss poems of ‘love through the ages’. Floundering a little I spoke a bit of the poets I had chosen for us to talk about, and the ones they reminded me of, and the ones that got me interested in poetry in the first place.

But somehow I managed not to say that I love the work of Kenneth Koch. I know this because I was irritated with myself on the drive back from the school: how could I have forgotten him, especially when I managed to remember to mention his colleagues James Schuyler, John Ashbery and Frank O’ Hara?

I first came across this poem in the review of New Addresses, from which it comes, by Mark Halliday in Poetry Review (posted at the bottom of this piece). If you will forgive the pun, I felt it was the game-changer. There is something more than autumnal about the piece, the voice dropping to a conversational murmur which is intimate and troubled. In a poem about a summer pastime which is played out on a grand scale in front of crowds, this is refreshingly ironic.

I think the poem is playful on other levels (please forgive that pun also). I think Koch is playing with his public persona of ‘wackiness’. Read the first four and a half lines out loud: there is more than a hint of Edward Lear about them. I think those famous ‘contemporaries’ of his also ghost this poem, with the inevitable comparisons that were and are and probably always will be made between that famous school of New Yorkers, who were after all friends who supported and encouraged each other.

I delight in this poem, even though I know next to nothing about baseball. Underneath all of these plays for attention, the poem unleashes the twin terrors of a ball coming ‘smashing toward you’ in the ‘sudden’ darkness. The ‘great step’ we take toward it may indeed be a ‘thrill’, but the poem is careful not to prescribe anything so definite as an outcome. 

Finally I think Koch is playing with the idea of poems being words that can knock you for six (forgive the pun). That is what this one does to me.

To My Heart at the Close of Day

At dusk light you come to bat
As George Trakl might put it. How are you doing
Aside from that, aside from the fact
That you are at bat? What balls are you going to hit
Into the outfield, what runs will you score,
And do you think you ever will, eventually,
Bat one out of the park? That would be a thrill
To you and your contemporaries! Your mighty posture
Takes its stand in my chest and swing swing swing
You warm up, then you take a great step
Forward as the ball comes smashing toward you, home
Plate. And suddenly it is evening.

Kenneth Koch, from New Addresses (Knopf, 2001)

Lifesaving Poems

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