How Kenneth Koch Continues to Teach, by Mark Statman

Statman, Mark

Last week, I linked to a new memoir by Katherine Koch, daughter of the late Kenneth Koch.  I just learned of another touching memoir about Koch that I’d missed when it first appeared last year — this one by the poet and translator Mark Statman, Koch’s son-in-law and Katherine’s husband.

Statman’s lovely reminiscence appeared on the blog of the Library of America (publisher of Koch’s Selected Poems).  The post also includes a moving, plainspoken elegy titled “Kenneth’s Death.”  As he explains, Statman first got to know Koch when he was a student in one of Koch’s renowned poetry courses at Columbia.  He recalls Koch’s unusual and inspiring teaching methods:

He jumped on the giant conference table around which we all sat. He insisted I jump on the table with him. We read from The Tempest, Kenneth declaiming, me whispering.

Statman discusses how his relationship with Koch dramatically changed — and deepened into a close, decades-long friendship — once he fell in love with and eventually married Koch’s daughter.

He also meditates on the profound influence Koch had on his sensibility as a poet and as a person:

Kenneth influenced me in so many ways. As a poet, he taught me about hard work. That the first and fourth and fifth drafts were only the beginning. That every word mattered and that it was the poet’s responsibility to make sure the reader knew why. Once he said to me, “My problem isn’t writing good poems, it’s writing great poems.” At first I thought that was arrogance. Then I realized how true it was.

Statman closes by reflecting on what it means, for him and for so many others, to be a lifelong “student of Kenneth’s”:

One of my students, commenting on the wonderful reading this past March hosted by Charles North at Pace University to celebrate Kenneth—the readers included Ron Padgett, David Shapiro, Anne Waldman, Jim Jarmusch, Tony Towle, Siri Hustvedt, Jordan Davis, myself—noted that, ten years after his death, she felt she too was a student of Kenneth’s.

And in so many ways, since so many of us still are, she is.

 You can check out the full piece here.

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