A Lost Poem by Kenneth Koch

Kenneth Koch, August 1978. Photo credit: Katherine Koch.

The current issue of Poetry magazine has a great special feature devoted to a newly-discovered, unfinished poem by Kenneth Koch.  In a brief accompanying essay, Kate Farrell, who lived with Koch for several years in the 1970s and edited several books with him, explains the very personal and moving circumstances of this remarkable poem’s genesis, as well as the reasons why it never became part of the Koch canon.  As Farrell tells it, Koch wrote the poem in 1978, just as their relationship was foundering:

In July 1978, Kenneth Koch sent me his new poem “At the Ramp, ovvero Alla Rampa” — or “Alla Rampa” as he referred to it in the letter that accompanied it. After living together for several years in New York and elsewhere, Kenneth and I and my two children (the “babies” mentioned mid-letter) had spent that spring in Rome, where he was teaching Italian schoolchildren to write poetry. In June, I’d returned with the kids to New York for a trial separation which later that summer became permanent … Rediscovering “Alla Rampa” in my files a few years ago, I was struck by what a good poem it was — however unfinished. The Rome-drenched verve and charm of the letter that arrived with it was another surprise, bringing the moment of the poem’s writing to life.

After discussing the contents of the letter and giving some context for the poem and its musings on “time, love, loss, poetry,” Farrell explains what eventually happened to the poem:

The letter containing “Alla Rampa” was delayed in the mail, and the arrival of the poem just as we were breaking up muted the pleasure of reading it. I filed it away for my upcoming move, and I don’t think we ever discussed it. Luckily our friendship and collaborations continued: I remained his writing assistant for years afterward and we coauthored two books about reading and writing poetry.

Paul Celan’s idea of a poem as “a message in a bottle” seems to me especially apropos of “At the Ramp, ovvero Alla Rampa.” Not just a matter of how it showed up, redolent of another time, but of its letter-like tone, the vivid sense it gives of Kenneth at his Olivetti, the present-tense allegro of the endless search intact.

In addition to Farrell’s piece, the Poetry feature also includes a facsimile of the letter Koch sent to Farrell enclosing the poem, and the poem itself.

First page of “At the Ramp, overro Alla Rampa” by Kenneth Koch

Koch’s “At the Ramp, ovvero Alla Rampa,” unfinished or not, is a fascinating and moving poem, a welcome and exciting addition to Koch’s body of work.  With its disarming meditation on the poet’s own earlier writing, its anxious struggle to locate the self who had written those poems, it immediately calls to mind one of Koch’s finest works, “The Circus,” which he’d published a few years earlier:

Reading my own work to get some new inspiration
I found someone who resembled me who had gone away.
He had just gone a moment ago, in fact,
Since what I was reading was something I had just written.
Yes, now that this exists in time, I thought,
It is no longer the truth I am always looking for…

Consumed (like “The Circus”) by the problem of “our existence in time,” the poem meanders and ruminates, circling around “the discrepancy between thought and 
experience,” gnawing on questions of change and loss.  It ends:

Now, this person — I had better sum up — this one who is always different
Is also, since he is I myself, always the same.
He went last night to the restaurant and he wrote the poem
In which there was someone who was not quite completely himself.
He is writing this poem, and thinking, Oh, you’re not going to like me
Because I talk about changing so much and don’t stay on the subject
Of how much I love you and how I care so much more about this
Than about everything in the restaurant magnified to infinity, and the whole sky
And all the music, and he knows that the awareness of this feeling
Will pass, but the feeling — well, I don’t think that ever will, unless I die.

The emergence of this lost poem (as well as the facsimiles of the letter and poem, the great photos, and the essay that accompany it) is a treat for fans and scholars of Koch and the New York School, and contemporary poetry more broadly.  For more on the poem and the story behind it, the check out Poetry magazine’s monthly podcast, in which editors Don Share and Lindsay Garbutt talk with Kate Farrell herself.

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