Illustration by Hadley Hooper
KENNETH KOCH, MY FAVORITE LIVING POET (IN A FIELD OF, MORE or less, one), recently became a formerly living poet. I don't have a favorite living poet now; I could find one, I suppose, if I read more poetry, or really felt that a favorite living poet were something I needed to have. In fact, I don't know much about poetry, in a learned, quiz-this-Friday sense; given enough money and coffee I could possibly cook up a reasonably persuasive (i.e., C+) essay on the Kochean oeuvre, but the way I like Kenneth Koch is no different, really, from the way I like the Kinks, or the Gilmore Girls, or coffee, which is to say my response is instinctual, emotional, visceral, chemical, unthinking. I found something there that spoke to me, and afterward reflexively bought all his new books as they came out, and found all the old ones in used-book stores, where they never cost much at all, so little, in fact, that I buy extra copies with the vague idea that I will pass them on to likely prospects. (I rarely meet a likely prospect.) It is just something I do, as other people enjoy model railroading. Which I suspect I would enjoy as well!
I WAS A CHILD IN AN AGE OF EXCLAMATION MARKS, from the Zap! and Pow! of Batman the comic and Batman the TV show, to the Day-Glo-bright magnifications of Pop Art and the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake prose of young Tom Wolfe, to the barking DJs and Sunday! Sunday! drag-race ads (a kind of automotive exclamation point in itself, drag racing) of AM Top 40 Boss Radio. It was a time of stripes and polka dots — I mean, of stripes! Of polka dots! Of pop songs drowned in screams! Of allegiances proclaimed by poster and button! Of parody, but not so often of irony! Of unbridled, even dumb enthusiasm!
From our privileged position on the edge of Now, it all seems quaint and deluded, and yet it left its mark upon me — its exclamation mark. Though you would not know it to see me working here so low-key and studious, with my weak tea and lap rug and professorial patched-elbow beige corduroy coat, I grew up believing in the power of large irrational affection, of stripes and polka dots and screams. I look like a deep thinker — looks, they are deceiving — but I am, as I blunder through the world, first and foremost a fan.
THEY SAY THERE IS NO ACCOUNTING FOR TASTE, AND while this is usually said in the sense of “I don't understand what you see in that shit” (work of art, new boyfriend, new frock), I like to think it also means that taste doesn't need to be accounted for, that one's passions are superior to explanation. I don't have to show you no stinking essays. You can love things of no demonstrable merit; this is not only perfectly acceptable, it is in a way the essence of fandom — the becauseness of it all. (Collecting action figures or shot glasses is not qualitatively different from collecting, say, Beckett first editions — which you can get, after all, with all the same words, more cheaply in paperback; it's all fetishism.) And of course the more you love something, the harder it becomes to say why; inarticulateness increases with intensity of affection (i = an). “Why do you love me?” is the worst of all lovers' questions; it must be talked around, because to catalog is to demean the mysterious whole of the love object — especially since what one ultimately wants is to be loved for one's inexplicable self, or, perhaps more precisely, in spite of oneself (miserable creatures that we know we are). “I don't know why I love you like I do,” goes the old song. “I don't know why, I just do.” That is correct.
IN MY OWN LONG CAREER AS A HUMAN, I HAVE BEEN moved to ardency, fantasy and/or rhapsody by persons and products including but certainly not limited to: Hardy Boys mysteries, Get Smart!, The Prisoner (voice of Patrick McGoohan currently featured on this computer), the dancing of Fred Astaire, Popeye cartoons, the Orange Julius, the (early) Mothers of Invention, Daredevil (or anything else) as drawn by Gene Colan, Mort Drucker's caricatures in Mad, TinTin, the films of Robert Altman, Luis Buñuel, Richard Lester, Red Grooms and the French New Wave, the photographs of William Eggleston, Four Saints in Three Acts, Bulgarian vocal music (and, may I say, years before that Women's Choir album got everyone hot and bothered), the Incredible String Band, Patti Smith, Françoise Hardy, Yo La Tengo, the choreography of Twyla Tharp (news of recent collaboration with Billy Joel a crushing disappointment, however), the writings of Henry Miller and Robert Benchley, the comedy stylings of Steve Coogan, Freaks and Geeks, The Powerpuff Girls, and almost anything to do with Paris, France.
I am partial to blues and greens and am pretty sure my favorite number is four. But it might be 27.
I've never been a sports fan, though I did feel a sort of kinship with Sandy Koufax as a fellow left-handed L.A. Jew. I approve of sports fandom, however, in others, so long as it does not lead to fat men getting topless.
“IT'S LIKE TRYING TO TELL A STRANGER ABOUT ROCK and roll,” goes another old song. The day after the first night I saw Bruce Springsteen play, I wandered around school like the Ancient Mariner, fixing friends with my glittering eye, boring them with my newfound faith. I doubt I made much sense. Especially to my fellow Velvet Underground fan-friends. But then fandom, like the more organized religions, often defines itself in terms of opposition, the oppression real or imagined of the nonbelievers: One likes feeling part of an Aware Minority — it's special! I somehow felt that Kenneth Koch was my own personal property; though he wouldn't have had such a big obit in The New York Times if that were so. And as I write I'm listening to some bootleg Tom Petty, an artist who I always feel needs me to defend him, in spite of the fact that millions of people buy his records and he's doing just fine. He's singing covers of “Satisfaction” and “Gloria” and “You Really Got Me”; one of the things that makes me his fan is that he's obviously such a fan himself. Enthusiasm is transferable, like heat.
THE BIRDS ARE DISAPPEARING FROM THE TREES, AND the trees are disappearing from the forests, and experts on every subject say that things will get worse before they get better — and they might not get better. And, even if they do, you are going to die. Given that, you might as well love life, and if you can't manage that, you might as well cultivate the things that can provide temporary uplift: a pop song, a poem, whatever. Care outrageously about small things! Do not fear the exclamation mark! Kenneth Koch did not fear the exclamation mark — maybe that's why I like him. Any sentence becomes a celebration with the right punctuation! It feels a little ridiculous at first, but with time you might start to believe it. Stripes! Polka dots!