Educating the Imagination: Kenneth Koch on Poetry

Photo of Kenneth Koch via Teachers & Writers Magazine

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.

Kenneth Koch, in a talk at the Teachers & Writers Collaborative’s Center for Imaginative Writing in 1993. Published originally in Teachers & Writers Magazine in 1994, this transcript is now available in their online archives.

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