In the week and half since Kenneth Koch's death, nobody has written about his life or his work as well as David Lehman did four years ago when Koch was still alive. Koch is one of those literary figures more known for where he was (Greenwich Village in the '50s) and the company he kept (John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler) than for the things he wrote. Among these four poets, who referred to themselves collectively as the New York School of Poetry, Koch was both the funniest and the least famous. (He was also the only one who was not gay.) His was the kind of obituary that shocked many people because they had no idea that he had still been, up to this point, alive.
The Last Avant-Garde is David Lehman's highly underrated 1998 profile of the four men who did for American poetry what Pollock and de Kooning did for American art. Lehman describes Koch as "our funniest poet," a man who set out to write stuff "as fizzy as soda, as American as pop." Koch railed against "false poeticisms" and "overly earnest poems"—and damn it, so does the Nightstand. (And if any of you favor us at a reading with one more poem about light cutting through fog or steamed milk in a cup, your obituary's next.) A poem that Kenneth Koch wrote when he was 5 years old—"I have a little pony/ I ride him up and down/I ride him in the country/ I ride him in the town"—is better than most things we've heard in years. But better to end this memory of him on an even lighter note, with, say, his parody of the poetry of D.H. Lawrence. It's called "I Like Rats":
I never saw a rat
Sorry for itself.
I never saw two rats
Consoling one another for being rats.
Rats live good full rat-lives with other rats.
Rat mind and rat heart plunge them into rat sex with other impassioned rats.
People say they are poison and ugly and cause disease.
I say people cause disease.
I never caught a cold or syphilis or gonorrhea or manic depression from a rat.
We say people cause diseases, too. They also die from them. Good night and goodbye, Mr. Koch.
A new poem by Kenneth Koch may be found in this week's New Yorker.