Kenneth Koch--American

    
Kenneth Koch
(1925-2002)
 
Kenneth Koch often said he couldn’t wait to grow up. As a student at Harvard and as a young poet, Koch was associated with the New York School of poetry which received much of its inspiration from the works of painters Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers. During World War II Koch was drafted into the Army and he saw action in the Philippines. “To World War Two,” is a powerful statement about his experience. Koch was revered as a teacher of writers of all ages. He taught at Columbia. His honors include the Bollingen Prize for Poetry and awards from the Guggenheim and Ingram-Merrill foundations and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Koch died in 2002.

 

To World War Two

Early on you introduced me to young women in bars
You were large, and with a large hand
You presented them in different cities,
Made me in San Luis Obispo, drunk
On French seventy-fives, in Los Angeles, on pousse-cafe's.
It was a time of general confusion
Of being a body hurled at a wall.
I didn't do much fighting.  I sat, rather I stood, in a foxhole.
I stood while the typhoon splashed us into morning.
It felt unusual
Even if for a good cause
To be part of a destructive force
With my rifle in my hands
And in my head
My serial number
The entire object of my existence
To eliminate Japanese soldiers
By killing them
With a rifle or with a grenade
And then, many years after that,
I could write poetry
Fall in love
And have a daughter
And think about these things
From a great distance
If I survived
I was "paying my debt
To society" a paid
Killer. It wasn't
like anything I'd done
Before, on the paved
Streets of Cincinnati
Or on the ballroom floor
At Mr. Vathe's dancing class
What would Anne Marie Goldsmith
Have thought of me
If instead of asking her to dance
I had put my BAR to my shoulder
And shot her in the face
I thought about her in my foxhole—
One, in a foxhole near me, has his throat cut during the night
We take precautions but it is night and it is you.

The typhoon continues and so do you.
"I can't be killed--because of my poetry. I have to live on in order to write it."
I thought--even crazier thought, or just as crazy—
"If I'm killed while thinking of lines, it will be too corny
When it's reported" (I imagined it would be reported!)
So I kept thinking of lines of poetry. One that came to me on the beach on
Leyte
Was "The surf comes in like masochistic lions."
I loved this terrible line. It was keeping me alive. My Uncle Leo wrote to me,
"You won't believe this, but some day you may wish
You were footloose and twenty on Leyte again." I have never wanted
To be on Leyte again,
With you, whispering into my ear,
"Go on and win me! Tomorrow you might not be alive,
So do it today!" How could anyone win you?
You were too much for me, though I
Was older than you were and in camouflage. But for you
Who threw everything together, and had all the systems
Working for you all the time, this was trivial.  If you could use me
You'd use me, and then forget. How else
Did I think you'd behave?
I'm glad you ended. I'm glad I didn't die. Or lose my mind.
As machines make ice
We made dead enemy soldiers, in
Dark jungle alleys, with weapons in our hands
That produced fire and kept going straight through
I was carrying one,
I who had gone about for years as a child
Praying God don't let there be another war
Or if there is, don't let me be in it. Well, I was in you. All you cared about was existing and being won.
You died of a bomb blast in Nagasaki, and there were parades.