Kenneth Koch once said of his early poems that he wanted to keep the subject in the air as much as possible, because any subject, according to Wittgenstein, is a limitation of the world. But Koch, who died in 2002, knew that a subject emerges sooner or later, so it makes sense that he would choose happiness, an expansive one, as his own. In the long poem “Seasons on Earth,” he writes that he thought about happiness “As being at one’s side, so that one [had] but / To bend or turn to get to it . . .” This obsession, amply displayed in the near-simultaneous publication of his Collected Poems and Collected Fiction, began as a reaction to the suffocating aesthetic of what he saw as New Critical drips—poets Koch referred to as “the castrati”—who thought suffering the only form of intense feeling. For Koch, it was unethical to deny any part of experience, which is why his poems ask us time and again what it means to lead a good life—with “good” meaning both pleasurable and ethical. In the broad view of his career that these new books afford, we see Koch preserving the comic as a serious way of arriving at “ecstasy, unity, freedom, completeness, dionysiac things,” poetic ambitions he talks about in a 1995 interview with the poet Jordan Davis, his student and the editor of his Collected Fiction.
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