Five-Phrase Friday (35): Satirist Koch

After perusing my tattered because well-loved go-to resource for poetry, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th Edition, and considering many candidates for a final National Poetry Month set of phrases, I decided on a sample from Ohio-born poet Kenneth Koch (1925-2002).

His work is often funny, satirical, off beat, and tongue in cheek. The sample I’ve chosen shares these qualities through Koch’s use and discussion of the nature of language.

As a famed member of the informal collective known as The New York School of poets (1960s), Koch published numerous anthologies and other works. The article “A Brief Guide to the New York School” at Poets.org summarizes their style:

Heavily influenced by surrealism and modernism, the poetry of the New York School was serious but also ironic, and incorporated an urban sensibility into much of the work.

Kenneth Koch’s grammatical poem “Permanently” sounds a bit like a Mad Libs story, with some blanks filled in, others waiting to be. At the same time, there’s a deliberate mismatch between parts of speech and their labels–for instance, “Adjective” and “Sentence” each represent a noun in grammatical context.

In this sense, Koch’s piece could be seen as a parody of the formulaic, color-by-numbers travesty of linguistic creativity that is the Mad Libs word game, as if it’s a cheap thrill at the expense of the English language. My words, not his. Not that I actually hold that opinion (I refrain from deciding today), but Koch may have viewed things in similar terms.

Here are five lines from the middle of the poem “Permanently” by Kenneth Koch:

Each Sentence says one thing--for example, "Although it was a dark
     rainy day when the Adjective walked by, I shall remember the pure
     and sweet expression on her face until the day I perish from the
     green effective earth."
Or, "Will you please close the window, Andrew?"

Satire, whether in art or writing, uses the tools of parody, irony, randomness, nonsense, odd juxtapositions, and other devices to create absurdities that mock and criticize, as a way of dethroning the powerful, rooting out hypocrites, and exposing the flaws of its targets.

Note the irony of the statement before the excerpt’s first example, given the complexity of that example. Also ironically, the poem has no obvious adverbs, though its title is one.

What other satirical tools do you see at work in the sample?

The poem has a more serious ending, turning to love, and the whole is well worth the read.

Among those collections that house the full poem “Permanently,” Permanently, Tiber Press, 1960, must surely be one. However, Amazon.com lists the book as currently out of print with limited availability.

Fear not! Kenneth Koch’s books are also available from Amazon.com and other booksellers. To find a free print copy of the book Permanently, borrow one from a library near you, perhaps using WorldCat. According to their About page, it’s “the world’s largest network of library content and services.”

To learn more about Kenneth Koch and other New York School poets, visit these dedicated poetry resources.

Poets.org / The Academy of American Poets’ Kenneth Koch profile page

The slightly longer bio at The Poetry Foundation page on Kenneth Koch

Note: Koch’s Wikipedia page is annotated as flawed, and I often find sites like Poemhunter, Poetrysoup, and other unofficial databases to be half baked and unreliable. I never direct my students to these less reputable resources, though I’ll use them in a pinch to get a gist.


Final thought: Check out the pictures from his later years; Kenneth Koch looks remarkably similar to Bernie Sanders, don’t you think? Very different New York “schools” . . . . Koch would have had a field day with today’s presidential candidates.

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