Kenneth Koch taught his Columbia students how to write verse by copying everyone else’s: Make up the first scene of Hamlet without actually reading Hamlet; turn a Wordsworth poem into Wallace Stevens.
One story has Koch leaping onto desks and, Dead Poets style, shouting out stanzas. “I only did that once!” he protested. This from a writer who tried just about everything.
Koch (who died in 2002) was known as a joker, a teacher, and most of all, a core member of the New York School of poets. He was also a most extraordinary dilettante, producing over his 40-year career famously antic poetry, experimental prose, landmark manuals on teaching writing to children, and varied collections of plays. This is only a partial list. Koch hammered out, on a daily basis, a couple dozen pages; the New York Public Library archives hold more boxes of his writing than by any other author, according to Koch’s editor and assistant Jordan Davis. The poet dreamed of cartooning, but worried he wouldn’t be able to draw the characters the same way every time. (Soft Skull published a comic collection in 2003: loose and funny panels that look about the size of napkins.) Whenever Koch “found something that was attractive or interesting to him, he wanted to try it,” Davis explains. About fiction, he felt that “anyone who heard a story” would want to give it a shot.
Davis, a poet of the prolific school himself (he’s undertaking a “million poems project”), maintains a strict distinction between the broad sweep of Koch’s approach and the ambitiousness of his work. Koch’s fiction has received little attention, but Davis insists it deserves real consideration. “When poets write anything other than poetry, people say, ‘Well, you’re not playing by the rules,’ ” he notes. The Collected Fiction looks, in sum, like a bull in a prose slop: a seven-page Hardy Boys epic nestles next to a Proustian riff off a postcard, while longer works have a hard time deciding whether they’re made up of chapters or stories. With The Red Robins, a word-trip of a novel first published in 1975, Koch “was trying to outdo Joyce.” It’s not a flattering comparison—the novel’s idiosyncrasies are best blown through quickly—but their turgid joy offers a horse-sized capsule of Koch’s easy way with prose.
Putting together the plot seems almost beside the point. The less is known of it—after a tortured attempt at reconstruction—the better, for the perpetually dumbfounded reader. The Robins are “in no specific time, and are unconnected to specific political events,” Koch told his friend Allen Ginsberg in a 1978 interview. “They’re without developmental problems, they’re full of passion, excitement and yearning. They are pilots and each has his or her own airplane.” Red Robins of sorts themselves, in popular imagination, Koch and his New York School cohort made plot but a premise for their rapid swoops and dives. The Robins’ primitive planes aren’t going anywhere in particular, except for the jungles of their own messy psyches.
Not that the Robins have much in the way of pathos: Blissfully undifferentiated and sexually indiscriminate, they appear mostly half asleep. Whole chapters could be constructed out of Lyn’s desire to remove her clothes: “Lyn took off her sweater and performed ‘semi nude’ imitations of all the Japanese prints of Hokusai.” “It was a strange dream, and Mr. Uterus gave Santa Claus the five dollars for Lyn’s body.” Like Koch’s hypothetical comics, she can’t keep herself contained. In other places, Lyn turns up sounding like a half-baked revolutionary: “Americans should not play dominoes with other countries as counters. Critics should recognize that the work the artist does is more important than their own. Though it is hard to know what that work is and thus what is its importance.” Like all the Robins, she’s less a human than a dream, of people who don’t draw distinctions between each other’s bodies, between their lives and art.