Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Review of Kenneth Koch's New Addresses

New Addresses by Kenneth Koch. Alfred A. Knopf, $23.

Reviewed by Michel Delville

Kenneth Koch’s new collection undertakes a systematic exploration of the most important events and cultural forces that have determined the course of the poet’s life and career. Like Whitman, who addressed drops of water and smoke rising from buildings, and, more recently, Koch’s friend Frank O’Hara before him, Koch adopts the "address" form, a form of apostrophe in which he addresses a variety of objects, ideas, and past experiences ranging from his twenties, marijuana, and city life to tiredness, fame, and old age. Koch’s poems have the immediacy of personal content and leave us with a sense that each poem is testing the powers of poetry to draw us into unexpected corners of the poet’s life in a way that is freed of preconception and expectation.

Throughout the book, Koch also affirms his intention to write not for art’s sake but for the sake of remembering ideals and forms of experience writing can serve. Reflecting on his New York School years in a poem entitled "To Some Abstract Paintings," he comments that the aesthetics of abstract expressionism held the promise of "a meaning inside the meaning / That surpassed the meaning or would even come up with a new one / That everyone would see." Even though the author’s experience of abstractionism does not seem to have fully lived up to this project, Koch remains grateful to an art that taught him "how to develop / a certain kind of elation to non-objects," a statement that accounts for Koch’s gradual move away from the abstract and evocative linguistic experimentalism of his early years towards a type of lyricism that favors a more transparent form and a (deceptively) simple, straightforward diction.

Jewishness is the subject of three poems contained in New Addresses. In one of the most successful pieces of the collection, Koch explains that the influence of Jewishness and Judaism on his life was similar to that of poetry in that it rescued him from "the flatness of [his] life" by "[giving] ceremony / To everyday things, surprise and / Symbolism and things beyond / Understanding." Other, more obvious determining forces on Koch’s development as a poet include his experience as an infantryman in World War II ("I kept thinking of lines of poetry. One that came to me / On the beach in Leyte / Was 'The surf comes in like masochistic lions.' / I loved this terrible line. It was keeping me alive") and psychoanalysis ("You gave me an ideal / Of conversation--entirely about me / But including almost everything else in the world. / But this wasn’t poetry it was something else").

Central to Koch’s poems is an awareness of the incomprehensible mystery that presides to a life "famous for being horrible, wonderful, irreplaceable." As the poem "To Yes," the opening piece of the collection, recognizes, poetry grows out of a recognition that the world remains unknown, possibly even unknowable, but nonetheless deserves to be investigated in a way that celebrates the urges of the mind and body to collaborate on a process favoring self-reflexive analysis while seeking to avoid the traps of egocentric talk. New Addresses leaves us with a sense that poetry is there to help us see even the unknown in a new light:

... Am I a yes
To be posed in the face of a negative alternative?
Or has the sky taken away from me its ultimate guess
About how probably everything is going to be eventually terrible
Which is something we knew all along, being modified by a yes
When what we want is obvious but has a brilliantly shining trail
Of stars. Or are those asterisks? Yes.

From Verse, Volume 18, Numbers 2 & 3 (2001). All rights reserved. For more information about this issue, see Arielle Greenberg's poem below.

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