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From the Archive: Kenneth Koch's 1969 Letter

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February 25, 2016

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Kenneth Koch's 1969 Letter

Kenneth Koch's 1969 Letter

In this 1969 letter from our archive, Kenneth Koch responds to Betty Kray, the Academy of American Poets’ first executive director, regarding his suggested reading list for high school English students.

In a letter Kray sent to Koch in November 1969, Kray asked Koch for “a list of the books of contemporary fiction and poetry that you would put on the shelf for your students to read if you were a junior or senior high school English teacher.” Kray had apparently requested a book list from several other poets and prose writers as well, as she writes in her letter: “We plan for writers to give courses on contemporary literature to students in the classrooms of the junior or senior high schools, to teachers gathered in special in-service courses, and to parents invited to night study sessions.”

Koch includes the following list, though he does so with some reservation, saying, “the two questions that pose themselves to me are what does contemporary mean? and How many books do you want listed? So, not knowing the answers to these questions, I thought I would do best to make a short list of books which I would want to have in a high school or junior high school library if I were going to teach contemporary literature there”:

     Whitman: Song of Myself, Original Edition of 1855 (paper)
     WC Williams: Collected Poems
     Wallce Stevens: Collected Poems
     Ezra Pound: Cantos
     D. H. Lawrence: Collected Poems or Selected Poems
     WH Auden: Collected Poems
     John Betjeman: Collected Poems
     ee Cummings: Collected Poems
     Yeats: Collected Poems
     Roethke: Words for the Wind
     Allen Ginsberg: Howl
     Gary Snyder: The Back Country
     John Ashbery: Rivers and Mountains & The Tennis Court Oath
     Frank O’Hara: Meditations in an Emergency & Lunch Poems
     James Schuyler: Freely Espousing
     Joseph Ceravolo: Spring in This World of Poor Mutts
     David Shapiro: January
     David Schubert: Initial A (it’s out of print, but perhaps could be reprinted)
     Dylan Thomas: Collected Poems
     Books of poems in translation of Rimbaud, Henri Michaux, Apollinaire, Rilke, Lorca, Pasternak, Mayakovsky
     Anthologies: The New American Poetry; French Poets from Nerval to Valery [The Anchor Anthology of French Poetry: From Nerval to Valery in English Translation]; others of modern poetry in various languages

     …

     Prose: Isaac Babel: Collected Stories
               Pasternak: Safe Conduct
               Gertrude Stein: Three Lives
               Hemingway: In Our Time
               Borges: Ficciones
               Kafka: some collection of his stories

              (It occurs to me some kids would be turned on by Jack Kerouac’s novels also.)

Koch also adds later in the letter: “I think it’s important to include some non-British-&-American writers. Also I’ve noticed that children are often more responsive to and intelligent about ‘difficult’ poetry and poetry that ‘doesn’t make sense’ than adults are.”

Koch mentions that he has “been feeling very rushed and behind, what with my children’s poetry book and various other seemingly pressing matters, and so on.” The “other seemingly pressing matters” likely refers to his busy schedule, as Koch taught for several decades at Columbia University and also worked with the young students in P.S. 61 in New York City. His publishing output was also vigorous; within a few months of writing this letter, he had published The Pleasures of Peace and Other Poems (Grove Press, 1969) and When the Sun Tries to Go On (Black Sparrow Press, 1969), a book-length poem that Koch wrote as part of a friendly competition he was having with Frank O’Hara to write poems that “included everything.” (O’Hara was writing his long poem “Second Avenue” at the time, in which he even mentions Koch.)

The “children’s poetry book” Koch mentions is Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry (Chelsea House Publishers, 1970), which he wrote based on his experiences at P.S. 61. In the book, he writes, “Children have a natural talent for writing poetry and anyone who teaches them should know that. Teaching really is not the right word for what takes place: It is more like permitting the children to discover something they already have.”

Koch, who was first sponsored by the Academy of American Poets and then the Teachers’ & Writers’ Collaborative to teach in this poets-in-the-schools (PITS) program, was known as a passionate teacher from his time at P.S. 61 and Columbia, as well as The New School and a nursing home. A stalwart in the literary community, Koch maintained important relationships with New York School poets such as O’Hara and Ashbery, who were his peers at Harvard University, and taught a diverse group of poets including Bill Berkson, Joseph Ceravolo, Jordan Davis, David Lehman, Ron Padgett, and David Shapiro.

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from American Poets
2014
for Children
2016