Kenneth Koch on His Bad Teenage Poetry, His Influences, and Teaching Poetry to Children

In his groundbreaking books Wishes, Lies, and Dreams and Rose, Where Did You Get that Red?Kenneth Koch laid out a set of creative and inspiring ideas about teaching children how to write poetry that continue to serve as an invaluable resource for teachers and anyone interested in helping children unlock their imaginations and linguistic creativity.

Now Teachers & Writers Magazine has done us a great service by reprinting a piece from their archives: a talk Koch gave in 1993 called “Educating the Imagination.” (Although the piece is available in Koch’s Art of Poetry, I don’t think it has been readily accessible on the web until now).

In the piece — which the editors describe as “a more or less extemporaneous talk” — Koch ranges far and wide, reflecting on his experiences teaching poetry and especially on his own evolution as a poet.  He recalls some amusingly bad sonnets he wrote under the influence of Shelley at the age of 15:

And as a growing eaglet feebly tries
To spread his new-formed wings and soar through space
Alas, he cannot leave his nesting place….

and discusses how he came to see poetry as a means of escape:

I was brought up in Cincinnati, Ohio. My parents were very nice. The first time I wrote a poem, my mother gave me a big kiss and said, “I love you.” The whole idea of writing poetry had a lot to do with escaping, escaping from the bourgeois society of Cincinnati, Ohio, escaping from any society of Cincinnati, Ohio, and escaping from any society anywhere. The first thing I had to find out to be a poet at all was that there was a bigger world, a bigger world than that of my school and my parents and their friends. I had to find out that there was a world where people talked to the moon or said, “O wild west wind,” that there was a past that was more exhilarating and interesting than the Egypt and Ethiopia that I studied in fourth-grade geography.

Then, I had to find out that there was a bigger language than the one that I spoke and my friends and parents spoke. Instead of “Oh, there’s the most darling blouse down at Altman’s. Let’s go down there tomorrow,” I had to find out that you could say, “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being.” I had to find out you could say, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.” In saying so, I was lifted way above all these troubles of Cincinnati, Ohio, these troubles that seemed to be suffocating me though I had a relatively happy childhood. I had to find this big language with words like “impediment” and “wild west wind” and the idea of talking to everything. Then, I had to find some bigger poetic forms than I knew about, bigger poetic forms than nursery rhymes. I had to find sonnets, odes, and things like that. That was the first stage.

No sooner had I found all of these things than I had to start getting rid of them. I was writing corny poetry like “When young I feared two things, cancer and war” or “And as a growing eaglet feebly tries.” No sooner had I found these things which made me a poetthe bigger subject matter, the bigger language, the bigger formsthan I had to find which forms and diction were right for me and which big subjects were right for me to talk about.

Koch then offers a quick but illuminating tour of the poets who showed him the way in this effort, who most influenced his development as a poet — Shakespeare, Keats, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and his close friend Frank O’Hara.

The whole piece is a great introduction to Koch’s characteristic obsessions and enthusiasms.  Plus Teachers and Writers has included a couple of wonderful photos of the young Koch in the classroom, teaching children poetry, like the one above and this one:


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