A Possible World

A Possible World

by Kenneth Koch

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"For the last thirty years or more, Kenneth Koch has been writing the most exuberant poems in America. In an arena where such good spirits are rare, he has become a national treasure. In his book of personal addresses to what has mattered most in his seventy-plus years on the planet, there is a dimension of pathos and joy rare in the poetry of any era." &


"For the last thirty years or more, Kenneth Koch has been writing the most exuberant poems in America. In an arena where such good spirits are rare, he has become a national treasure. In his book of personal addresses to what has mattered most in his seventy-plus years on the planet, there is a dimension of pathos and joy rare in the poetry of any era." —National Book Award (2000) finalist citation for New Addresses

The three long poems — “Bel Canto,” “Possible World,” and “A Memoir” — in this brilliant successor to New Addresses are ambitious attempts at rendering the complete story of a life. Taken together they present a dazzling picture of the pleasures and confusions of existence, as well as the pleasures and difficulties of expressing them.

Other poems bring Koch’s questioning, lyrical attention to more particular aspects of experience, real and imagined—a shipboard meeting, the Moor not taken, or the unknowable realm of mountaintops. As in all of Koch’s work, one hears the music of unconquerable exuberance in stormy conflict with whatever resists it—death, the injustice of power, the vagaries of life in Thailand, China, or Rome.

Thomas Disch has written in the Boston Book Review that “Koch is the most capable technician on the American scene, the brightest wit, and the emeritus most likely to persist into the next millennium . . . His work is full of ribaldry and wit, musicianship, pitch-perfect mimicry of the Great Tradition, and the celebration of pleasure for its own sunlit sake.”

The ebullience and stylistic variety that one has come to expect of this protean poet is everywhere present in this scintillating collection.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Koch passed away this summer at 77 after a battle with leukemia, having recently produced some of the strongest work of his career: 2000's New Addresses (an NBA finalist). These two volumes-one of new work and one of poems that preceded his 1960 debut Ko, or A Season on Earth-show Koch at his various best. Sun Out catches Koch assembling the dictions (and plentiful exclamation points) he would later synthesize into his distinctive hall of linguistic mirrors, yet these '50s poems, like those of Koch's New York School brethren Ashbery and O'Hara, speak remarkably directly to our own "circumstances the Afghanistan flowers/ The feet under the hue of/ The mid-Atlantic." The long poem "When the Sun Tries to Go On" looks back to Stevens's "The Comedian as the Letter C," and forward to O'Hara's "Second Avenue." A Possible World's one-act verse plays, one-line poems, autobiographical reminiscences and long, mock-Byronic narratives display Koch's verve and light touch, but are unmistakably colored by requiem. The opening "Bel Canto" gives thanks "For love itself, and friendship its co-agent" in the ottava rima of Koch's long poem Ko, while "Variations on Home and Abroad" returns to Ko's thoughts about national origins. "To Buddhism" harks back to last year's New Addresses, and introduces the short poems about European and Asian travel that comprise much of the book. Those poems combine autobiographical nostalgia with a trademark whimsy: "The Acropolis has a uniform/ That no schoolboy can wear because it is invisible./ `It goes to the Periclean School!' " The title poem's typographical festival pays Mallarm an homage to "Mondo universal collectivity/ Mondo aggrandizement/ Mondo nothing left to teach," while the concluding "A Memoir," finds, wryly, "Someone is singing/ On the landing below/ The arc strike of a pen on paper/ Doesn't put one in the show." Koch, as these two books amply demonstrate, most definitely remains in our collective performance. (Oct. 19) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Given Koch's recent death at the age of 77, it is entirely fitting that his last collection, A Possible World, ends with a poem titled "A Memoir" that explores the entire concept of revisiting one's life (as poets so often do). "What shall I put in my memoir/ Kansas City/ Got off bus to get a haircut there, " muses the poet in lines that typify his style: off the cuff, vernacular, a bit tongue in cheek. That style has been evident throughout his distinguished career (he's won a host of awards, including the first Phi Beta Kappa Award for poetry, and was a National Book Award finalist in 2000 for New Addresses), and it's a pleasure to see him in good fighting form here. Though these poems were written near the end of Koch's life, they aren't terribly overcast or elegiac, and despite the final poem, he seems less interested in exploring his own life than in chronicling a whole array of "possible worlds." It is particularly instructive to read this book in conjunction with Sun Out, a collection of early poems that Koch observed "are in such a different style that they never seemed to fit into my books." Koch was hanging out with a lot of painters at the time, and these poems do have more concrete imagery and perhaps tamer lines than his other works, but Koch's classic snap, crackle, and pop are still there. These books serve as fine testimonials to an important American poet and should be considered by most libraries.-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.16(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.34(d)

Read an Excerpt


Les morts vont vite, the dead go fast, the next day absent!
Et les vivants sont dingues, the living are haywire.
Except for a few who grieve, life rapidly readjusts itself
The milliner trims the hat not thinking of the departed
The horse sweats and throws his stubborn rider to the earth
Uncaring if he has killed him or not
The thrown man rises. But now he knows that he is not going,
Not going fast, though he was close to having been gone.
The day after Caesar’s death, there was a new, bustling Rome
The moment after the racehorse’s death, a new one is sought for the stable
The second after a moth’s death there are one or two hundred other moths
The month after Einstein’s death the earth is inundated with new theories
Biographies are written to cover up the speed with which we go:
No more presence in the bedroom or waiting in the hall
Greeting to say hello with mixed emotions. The dead go quickly
Not knowing why they go or where they go. To die is human,
To come back divine. Roosevelt gives way to Truman
Suddenly in the empty White House a brave new voice resounds
And the wheelchaired captain has crossed the great divide.
Faster than memories, faster than old mythologies, faster than the speediest train.
Alexander of Macedon, on time!
Prudhomme on time, Gorbachev on time, the beloved and the lover on time!
Les morts vont vite. We living stand at the gate
And life goes on.

Meet the Author

Kenneth Koch published many volumes of poetry, most recently New Addresses and Straights. His short plays, many of them produced off- and off-off-Broadway, are collected in The Gold Standard: A Book of Plays and One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays. He also write several books about poetry, including Wishes, Lies, and Dreams; Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?; and Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry. He was a winner of the Bollingen Prize (1995), the Bobbitt Library of Congress Poetry Prize (2006), a finalist for the National Book Award (2000), and winner of the first annual Phi Beta Kappa Award for Poetry (2001). Kenneth Koch lived with his wife, Karen, in New York City and taught at Columbia University. He died in 2002.

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