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Kenneth Koch
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Matthew Paris
 

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 6:50 pm - Kenneth Koch
1

On October 10th I attended the Columbia celebration of Kenneth Kochís work as poet, librettist, playwright and movie maker at Miller Hall. It was a generous two and half hour show with over thirty performers including the incomparable Taylor Mead; it offered a whole one act opera, Bertha by Ned Rorem, based on Kochís late 50s play, an opera by Roger Trefousse and a vintage song by Virgil Thomson.
One heard first of all a shy and charming opening speech by Karen Koch, the woman who had married the bar mitzvah boy of this fete in his old age. She was herself quite young and sprightly. We also learned they had a dog named Andrew.
There were as well two brainless little movie shorts that brought back the bohemian 50s world, soulful Gallic sounding piano solos by Frank OíHara, cameo bits by other Koch collaborators along with generous portions of Kochís The New Diana, several very short plays of less than a minute, In many ways the concert was a museum piece, not merely of the perished poet but of the equally expired host, George Plimpton; if one has any memory of High American culture at all George Plimpton pitched himself to the educated fools for decades as the successor to Clinton Fadiman, a whimsical wimp who had an imaginary mandate to represent our supposedly klutzy intellectuals.
Without trying to be a necropolis this memorial certainly presented material that showed its age in many ways. I found myself feeing often during the evening that much of this Art was fashioned for another time I could barely remember myself and I had got to the hall stubbing out of an Access-A-Ride.
Millerís superb production team does everything right; there is the seasonís schedules beautifully printed in stacked white pamphlets on a far wall, the amiable overseer and help, the grades glass of wine at the feteís end, the warmth of the direction of the program, and frequently as in Julliard a preparatory hours of discursion of the spectacle. This time Miller outdid even itself; they gave out copies of Kochís first novel free, adding to generous excerpts from two of his plays.
If one couldnít say that one was at the Met the musical production was enthusiastic, competent, wedded to the vaporous whimsy of the offerings. The young singers and actors were very audacious and biracial armed with fussy stage business, perhaps to disguise the dated flimsiness and arch banality of the material.
Itís built into taking in Art of the long expired ghosts that some principle, wrong or right, has spared us the banality and tedium of savoring those for whom oblivion is not only just put an act of personal charity for the Creator of the universe. Of course these narrow fashions change; I remember in my lifetime when one simply couldnít her anymore than a few pieces of Schoenberg, Mahler was a marginal composer and nobody had ever heard of Alkan at all. Iím sure this seasonal process will continue. Yet the more one takes what is called modern Art but usually was dangerous stuff around 1915 one is likely to run across the many who are beyond resurrection even by God rather than the few who are unquestionably worthy of our attention.
I remember reading much of Kochís verse in 1960 thinking he was going to be one more sensational gadfly like Burroughs, a Savanarola like Ginsberg. I was very disappointed, what was worse, bored. Forty three years later, deep into the murk of my senescence but gamely refusing a cheap aide from Peru to get to the sacred groves of Miller Hall, I felt exactly about Kochís verse, plays and intellectual powers as I did in my mad puerility.
I couldnít help thinking as I listened to the very talented Miller performers and some interesting to erratically great composers that in some sense this nacral Koch tribute was a covert piece of historical revisionism that hoped to assert slyly and in a whisper that there was a viable Academic and conventional wing of that now nearly all expired revolutionary group whose tastes made them vulnerable to arrest during their heyday.
Now that most of the protagonists are dead who among our legitimate cryptkeepers on tenure would deny it? Not too many. It isnít worth arguing about. Ned Rorem, who looked very hale and wry at this bash, reading a very witty preamble to his opera, feisty as he was, wasnít even going to think of bucking a group that staged one of his operas this evening, was also giving him a birthday celebration later in the Fall.
Given the wisdom and tolerance of pill-ridden old age, itís rare that former dangerous men still take up jousts in their mellow ripeness. Itís counted on by such makers of monuments of piety from cornerstones formerly set in the architectures of casinos, brothels and butcher shops; shrugs from those who would say otherwise is part of the nature of such flexible approaches to thee past. Kerouac and Ginsberg had been Columbia students after all; Burroughs went to Harvard; letís not say what happened afterwards. Such posthumous tribute to those who canít receive it isnít only an American vice. In Hungry during the heyday of the Communists they played all the piece of Bela Bartok he wrote before he become Bela Bartok.
Bertha might have been dryly funny in the 50s if one hadnít read Jarry and Stein and was a witling in Junior High School; like almost all of Kochís work it is almost lethally derivative as a supposed satire on Shakespeare or 19th century cults of nobility and regal heroics. After Ubu Roi do we really need Bertha? Kochís playlet on Popeye is flimsy, empty, not either a commentary nor witty as the real Popeye cartoon was.
I suppose in the 50s when high art was building its imaginary cathedrals mentioning a comic strip character as all by itself a kick in the pants but Koch wrote this bit of vapor in 1986. The Miller people at least gave it some nice salsa by relating it in their executing to the sailor cult of Kochís crowd during the Second World War and immediately afterwards.
Yet Popeye Among The Polar Bears is dated at its creation as an Edsel, done long after others had taken a much more substantial look at Liíl Abner, Dick Tracy, Superman and Little Orphan Annie. Koch must have written it in a time warp.
Kochís other works werenít at all lacking as well in all too discernable models much better than his glosses and the faint odor of culturally faded flowers. His Catherine of Siena verse was plainly and embarrassingly imitated of Gertrude Stein. Like Jarry, Stein herself had produced many verse dramas in a style she invented herself, had imitated from nobody.
If one thinks at the same time his close pal Frank OíHara, collaborator as a pianist on a labored and unfunnily goofy car movie short in this Miller production, was inventing a particular White hipster lingo in his poetry that is still imitated as much as Ginsbergís repetition is without the mimics realizing to whom they are indebted, Koch wisely for an American career didnít have the talent or intent to be a departure from anything or anybody.
Twisting oneís name to seem more haute was a common joke of the Europe, a time in which many claimed noble blood besides the late Princess Anastasia. Balzac always demanded to be known as de Balzac. Itís a mark of not being much of a republican to claim such fabled ancestry in a trough, latrine or delta where the garbage of the world has settles in a vast affluent heap.
Yet it is built into the vanity of creative people to assume that are in some way natural princes. In America W.C. Fields made it a joke in one of his films, Souse is pronounced as an artificial French word, not the name of a lush.
We have had James Levine and Leonard Bernstein both at some point change the vowel sounds of the last syllable of their names to suggest something other than the antagonist in Sam You Made The Pants Too Long. At the core of this amusing pose is a comical Old World hunger to disdain the uncouth populace and elevate the lately unappreciated nobility.
I think of all his friends Koch was the only one that insisted like the W.C. Fields character that everybody but himself was pronouncing his name wrong. By the way, I hope everybody pronounces my own name Sirap. I am, entre nous, I am not merely the crown prince of upper and lower Romania but King of the Jews; I expect to have my own name read from right to left. Donít mess with me neither; I might get nasty.
Kochís terminal eclecticism might be the secret of very existences his small circle of adorers in the 50s. When one does something original even as a short order cook in a Greek diner one offends many people, makes other uncomfortable, annoys the producers of oneís effusions looking for the easy hook that will tell the craven they are getting more of the same pap they enjoyed yesterday.
Koch never piqued anyone with anything that one had never heard before. He had a manner that implied that whatever he was doing was very wise and witty if one only knew French and Albanian. He certainly was easier to sell than Kerouac or Burroughs.
A bit of Depart Malgache, Roger Trefousseís opera setting of a stray Koch playlet displayed the melodic skill and charm for which Rogerís music is known. Roger once said to me: ďIím not going to write music that drives people out of the concert hall.Ē His setting of Kochís text are true to his word. Rogerís music is graceful and elegant as Faureís. His unobtrusive but telling musical strokes give a kind of subtle perfume to whatever he sets, much as did Ravel in a light mood or Reynaldo Hahn.
Rogerís movement of consonance to augmented chords in a steady but exquisite style was very 19th century. Ned Rorem sounded much more dense and thorny in Bertha, filled with polytonality, major sevenths and oddly spiced chords.
I think Nedís setting of Bertha was a presumptive mistake. It takes what aims to be a light satirical spoof of heroic theatre and gives it a dense and sober setting the flimsy material imitations of Ubu Roi of Jarry and Four Saints In Three Acts of Gertrude Stein canít embrace at all. In the earnest manner of his art songs, itís very well crafted music with some dour beauty. Maybe Ned who had been Virgilís friend and copyists didnít want to imitate Virgil. He didnít.
One wasnít likely to hear more persuasive executions of the music than the very enthusiastic and clever performers of this evening. I can't mention them all; there were thirty or more of them. Taylor Mead, once the king of underground movies of the early 60s, now of a ripeness, walking with a cane, stood out in The Red Robin, a play based on a novel of Koch. Michael Barrett in several pieces including Bertha gave an industrious performance which included conducting the ensemble at times as well. I was looking over his shoulder from the second row at various scores; whatever the composers threw at him Barrett went through with great efficiency.
The Miller ensemble was particularly effective and charming in a short opera, The Gold Standard by Scott Wheeler, music that had benefitted considerably from the composersís attention to Stravinskyís The Rakeís Progress. A serviceable if not memorable piece by Mason Bates called Your Genius Makes Me shiver was sung with some nuance by Joseph Kaiser. This man has a talent for the subtle psychology one can find in many lieder. If The Gold Standard in style was eclectic to put it politely, at least Scott Wheeler stole from the best; it was given an arch performance as if it were rare caviar by Joseph Kaiser and David Adam Moore as leads. One should say that the cutesy Asian manner Koch has in this playlet cloying and empty as if those qualities were virtues.
One has to be particularly thankful and grateful to the Miller ensemble for presenting a large perspective of how various people dealt with Kenneth Kochís talent or lack of it. The concert ran over two and half hours; the price of the tickets were minimal. If in the end the center of the concert was a talent not entirely negligible but possibly the least important among his 50s peers both in original use of language and in innovative intellectual power nobody had a contract with Koch demanded that he be a genius; they gave this hagiographic fete the best advocacy they could.
Kochís appearance in a video made on Columbiaís campus of a reading of poem about peace he made thirty years or so before in the later years of the late Vietnam War was offered as a peroration to the show. One had to be struck with how eclectic and empty the verse was. It imitated Allen Ginsberg as many young tyros in the repetition of a single phrase such as one finds in Howl, it attempted to be wild and labial; in fact it didnít establish as Ginsberg did the necessary decor for singing a lot of baroque fustian about political subjects. Ginsberg said in Howl that if the corporate state is reality, it is proper to be mad and even locked up. Then he describes a kind of high madness in his peroration.
Koch doesnít seem to have understood that Ginsberg got the power he did in Howl because it was from the first word to the last itís a logical Miltonian argument. On should say that in person Ginsberg, like him or not, was that kind of earnest idealist who never dismissed anything whimsically. Ginsberg translated into the typical Koch facile whimsy is pretty awful stuff. It postures with Old World half digested derivative ideas, even mentions the reaccented French novelist Raymond Roussel, whom Koch knew few have heard of. It is in a word pretentious.
Beyond that it was shoddily and metriciously crafted. Itís simply want true as Kochís poems said that while the Vietnam War was thriving the birds and every other life form in the cosmos were living in peace.
Birds spend most of their active life eating prey if their fare is often seeds and not worms. His poem was nonsense and false; he didnít seem either to know it or that Ginsbergís talent and power came from developed moral perception that was large true in a Miltonian way. This eclectic side of Koch shows that he couldnít move beyond the flip and whimsical though he tried as best he could to claim such takes and a general capacity of language were very civilized, French and had a wisdom one had to spend years in the Old World even to began to fathom.
I was during this rather erratically amusing evening drawn to make some very dour Emperors New Clothes observation which I am sure will be uncomfortable to nearly all. The audience was programmed at this hagiographic rite to laugh at everything and never nothing at all as if the most delicious spates of wit and involute sagacity were being offered them in a rare high tea replete with cunning jams and subtly spiced tarts.
Random shots of cars circa 1947 drive them to paroxysms of giddy titters, guffaws, chortles and assorted epiphanies. It was as if the ghosts of Morey Amsterdam, Henny Youngman and Red Foxx were whispered silent one lines to them just out of hearing.
If a university crowd is supposed to be anything at all, one expects it to be other than brainless, critical and discerning. This bunch has the cognitive power of a laugh track made by a computer.
I expect to see people laughing at nothing sitting in the gutter in the Bowery, waving a bottle of Gypsy Rose to imaginary celebrities as they pass by. Why was I treated to a performance that was as much a rite of the audience as of the performers? The canít all be in a conspiracy to claim that America has high art somewhere, it thrived at Columbia, it is still alive and well there.

2

Though Kenneth Koch lived until 2002 he was basically a minor 50s bohemian poet of the most rich period of American homosexual Art that had flourished in a very different and more sleepy America. Homosexuals in New York in those days really were in diverse ways our juggernaut of intellectual conscience as a nation in that age although of course there were plenty of heterosexuals with the same high intent. These Artists spoke to the center and were heard by them. Howl is still the most socially important poem of the last century.
The very unspeakable character of their private lives, the sting operations out there in the nationís sainted latrines to net and arrest them, to raid their bars and brothels as an odium personally despised by God, put them all in a position where they could dare to be honest with little to lose.
Sometimes they were prophetic social critics like Allen Ginsberg, were evangels of friendship and high living like Jack Kerouac, harsh critics of the loss of native roots in America as it smoothed over national life like Tennessee Williams and William Inge, were great and ferocious satirists of the national follies like James Purdy, or one who revolutionized both what a novel was and the use of English might be like William Burroughs.
Among musicians, they were leaders as well of the high Art of the time. Virgil Thomson, John Cage, Ned Rorem, and Lou Harrison alone changed American culture in different major ways in the 50s we still live by. In the visual arts friends of Koch like Larry Rivers, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol were bringing popular culture to the world in very dramatic and sensational fashion that culminated in movies made by Warhol and Paul Morrisey.
If Koch only got an uptown sendoff to Elysium, commercial movies have been made about Warhol and Kerouac seen by millions; it shows how much these prophets became themselves myths for the center in the heartland of America. Resident magicians who had utterly transformed the intellectual character of American Art and exports the inferentially republican values of their populist focus to the whole world, the whimsy and satire of Koch and Warhol may not different in their campy flavor; one has a powerful social message, the other offers pure vapor.
Koch was one of the boys; he had been antholgizied by the famous Beat anthology, published by Grove Press. Yet he was elusive and indirect in the way the others werenít, much more European, his roots in Gertrude Stein, Jerry and Apollonaire, seeming more a French provincial than an America republican on of the former trash of the Old World, much like the Academics whose neo-medieval nations were the very realm from which the shunned homosexual coterie was rebelling.
Koch unlike all of them, some of whom were living in warehouses lofts on the Bowery, taught in a university; Columbia. He straddled the New York homosexual creative life and the university Tory heritages with skill. Many students of his told me that Koch was the doorway for them into a much larger urbane world of New York while he was teaching on Morningside Heights. Yet I never heard of anybody describing Koch as one who redefined anything in and out of the Arts, was original or was some kind of moral and prophetic leader as twenty or more of these other of his 50s contingent were.
Perhaps his not very profound cognitive powers, his facile whimsy was all he had to bring to the ghostly arena of Elysium; it didnít cut the mustard much in a world of frenzy, sleaze and prophecy. Itís always a boon to the purse if not the soul to know how one is going to pay the rent; on the evidence it didnít help Koch as a creative spirit in an S.R.O. world to be working uptown in a hermitage.
To be fair to Koch he could not read the future; he didnít know the 60s in America and then Europe was going to change the world in a very profound way with populist ideals as a kind of intellectual basis for a planetary anti-colonialism; he was still involved as were Americans in his immediate past in looking to France and the Old World Bohemia generally as his source for a hedge against the deeply vulgar corporate state.
As we know the aims of corporations are rarely also the intents of a real or imagined airiest. Koch was looking at the one class, the French that had traditionally been opposed to both the nobility and priesthood and the bourgeoisie demons of finance. It did give a withered rose aspect to anything I heard tonight.
At this point we would think it absurd to look to France for any direction in anything besides how to talk haute Gallic enough to make oneís way though the captain at an overpriced Yuppie New York restaurant or perhaps read the sage captions describing masterful painting by the long dead at the Louvre. Paris today is filled with tawdry American plays and movies, rather empty of any major cultural or prophetic element.
The once sleepy and provincial America is not merely the one military super power on Earth but, to paraphrase Shelley, the sole legislator of the world, acknowledged by all but those who claim it is there business on tenure to make those discerning identifications.
We are the nation that has freedom the populace from its autocrats more successfully than anybody in extant history. Koch had wagered that relief from the corporate state would come from elsewhere, America cultural history would go in a direction it didnít at the very time when it was preparing to take another severely Jacksonian route. The one in this crew who picked it up was Andy Warhol.
It makes the whole hipster clandestine coterie phenomenon of the 50s, Grove Press, and the general epicurean mein of the old bohemians seem pretty tame compared to the red hot Jacksonian populists who for better or worse have transformed our planetary society as Marx never could. Of course the solution from the days of Lafayette is to have the high imitate or admire the low rather than the other way round.
There was no literary movement in the West after the 50s, no poetry, after awhile not even prose; the prophetic sell resided in movies and rock and roll for the rest of the century to this day. We can all guess wrong, there was no reason for Koch to think in the 50s to think that the Jacksonian ethos which had already risen and surfaced in the jazz age to decline into a debased Bolshevism would come back with renewed energy; once it happened Koch didnít react at all.
One might speculate why. The 60s was as Warhol and Ginsberg understood perfectly well fundamentally a social revolution with a honky tonk mandate from the colon population of the world that demanded a sweaty embrace of a populace formerly deemed by bother the old crowd of nobles and priests and the new bunch of barrages and bohemians as cattle. It was a call to the trash of the world to leave the catered slaughterhouse designed for them by their new masters and honor themselves.
In fact we are now living in the oceans of egregious excess of that once just revolution if one values the diverse and mercurial qualities of our species at all: the taste for frenzy, the Luddite ignorance, the illiteracy, the contempt and disdain for the past, the best of which might have had some value for our time, the peculiar veneration of Asian varieties of faith and politics that had been as lethal as they were for Asians, the sensual excess of drug, the obsessive concerns with lobotomized amorousness and so on.
What Matthew Arnold called the natural conservative instincts of the aristoi havenít made a comeback; it seems to be not merely dead but extinct. One wonít find too many celebrations of those on the Tory side of that 50s revolution, a perfectly respectable point of view. Koch was lauded this evening because he was as close as he was socially to the fey Jacksonians, yet far from them as well as hacks on tenure ever get.
Why didnít he grow and adapt as Ginsberg and Warhol did? I think he was probably too comfortable. He was the only one of the whole crew besides Frank OíHara not to drop out of the conventional Academic world rather abruptly and never come back. One should say that the disciplines of getting a PhD then and later were very destructive to the spirit, sort of like Korean brainwashing, basic trainign, EST and Scientology combined with a niche fit only for crones one could get more easily by while collar crime and posh residence in a minimum security prison in Kentucky at stake, a chance to play mental shuffleboard before oneís first coronary. Itís a wager at the celestial casino if not quite a life and death matter than one loses only by winning the bet.

3

A necrophilic celebration of a very minor talent whose only real claim to our attention if we have any sechel is that he knew people worth remembering isnít going to make their case for turning back Andrew Jackson anymore than the other apostles of the covert Episcopacy they have run at us. As long as they canít come up with one champion of their Old Wold high church Arts who has written more than a stray limerick.
They are in the end doxologies in a defunct faith system as D.O.A. as a paean to Zeus. A world that has brought us the Crusades, the New World Conquest, the Secant Wold War and centuries of enslaving and murderous colonialism probably is not without flaws.
Their advocacy would be best served by pleading no lo contendere, baby, about these low Jacksonian matters, offering us Old World guidance such as it is in its true colors: the very culture nearly all Americans or their descendants risked their lives to depart from and avoid. Of course we al have second thoughts about those weíve abandoned when we meet their once seemingly impeccable replacements.
Yet the flow of the decade after Kochís heyday, the 50s, to the present has been from sleepy European provinciality to raucous American populism in and out of America. They are wearing jeans in Paris when they arenít listening to Radio Cairo.
Of this remarkable 50s crew, some were terrible drunks or used drugs heavily; they werenít happy leading men or heros. Kenneth Koch was not at all typical of this group of peers either in their ferocious lives, their savage indignation to use Juvenileís phrase, nor in the very substantial political and social contribution such homosexuals creative geniuses of that time made to the American definition of itself.
Virgil Thomson in the 1920 had brought to the attention of America musician that their definition of themselves lay in picking up the found troves in papillar music and culture. When Virgil moved into the Chelsea in the 30s every other one of the creative soldiers Iíve mentioned went through his salon; some of them like Cage and Rorem worked for him. Actually Virgil was an advocate for American culture in the 1920s in music as important as Hamlin Garland, Sherwood Anderson and Earnest Hemingway in literature and George Bellows and Edward Hopper had been in the visual arts.
Virgilís principal legacy to American music was to tell the harpers of this republic to look like Verdi to the popular music for their idiom. Virgil once told me he thought the greatest American writer of songs was Irving Berlin. That says it all if any composers are listening. Another was to be a very direct person who flaunted oneís qualities. Virgil practiced astonishing people all day long; when he went to write music he had prepared himself as well as he could to be original.
Certainly John Cage learned that from Virgil better than anybody else. Now even John has become Academic pharaoh was really dangerous. Yet he was not a Jacksonian but a bohemian. In the colleges these day anybody who can be a soldier against the armies of the easily irate auto-didact from Tennessee is now a White man.
This kind of pitch, the lack of critical power uptown to realize one is being duped among our intellectual gentry is a very common disease among their self invented patricians. One could name names among the older hustlers as jars of metaphysical peanut butter in the High Episcopal supermarket but at work in all cases as with the more vaporous of our lace curtain American angels is the faith and hope that the product exists at all. Thereís a general ancillary faith system among such folk that if the seraphs of the day actually influenced their culture, had substantial ideas and redefined his craft for all after him as Ginsberg did, he couldnít have been that good in the first place. Behind that is a kind of cowardice that invites one to take refuge from American reality in any way one can.
If one were a European prince immersed in notions of inequality one might have good reason to do so if one wanted to preserve oneís high character. Academic scenes donít have too many Bourbons and Romanovs. They have lots of imitation Hapsburgs about whom no questions are asked. Otherwise the whole culture goes poof and all have to repair with some lack of dignity to their television sets to take in Oprah and The Sopranos over a takeout order of noodles from the local caterers from Canton. With such central definitions of oneself at stake, such an audience needs a Kenneth Koch; it may chose however to support not Ginsberg but the imaginary talents and achievements of a Columbian prince in a sober Columbia that had no Medillin.
Our auto-didacts in the art of nobility have to perceive the many as a huge gaggle of louts, dunces in an opera buffa museum, whoopers, carnival barkers, mooing cattle and vulgar mountebanks. Beyond that they have to maintain that the Old Wold is the one papish source of civilization we have, the natural butlers, circus rodeos housemen and gaudy poltroons in New York are unworthy of the attention of one honorable and genteel at heart. The popular remedies for the woes of life have to be at least as brainless and ineffectual as the placebo anodynes for mortality to which I saw this audience resonate as if they were tickled perpetually by a nosegay of ghostly buffoons.
It made this evening very paradoxical; we pay attention to Kenneth Koch at all only because he was one of the crew if one of its least notable soldiers of Uranian populists who were brave as the prophets in the old marketplaces of Jerusalem and Ninevah.
They were all for the populace and a scrambling life beyond the Old World; with their chamber tastes even if they lacked talent and brains they were socially ostracized from anything like easy or presumptive respectability. Apparently Warhol shocked even his collegium by being celibate.
I wondered as I sat there in the tumid mists of my dotage about the uncouth capacities of fortune that had given Koch, one who from the get-go had asked the world to pronounce his name in a alte Deutche way. Klug iz mir! As Virgil used to say, the United States lacks an effective immortality machine like the Acadamy. In one oft he better pieces of Koch he himself reflects on the unlikely transmogrification of hamata to star status with some notable wit.
If people last as stellar points of light only as long as their political cronies and various causes around them can make use of them. When they both perish, as Walter Winchell used to say, pffft.
Afterwards the only ones that interest us are the artist with talent and achievement. We donít like to attend concerts of Mozart or Beethoven because of who their friends were and the vanished fashions they shunned or embraced. We certainly donít honor them Bacchus they ave part of a juggernaut whose reality beneath its guise is a gaudy machine to promote the flow of money.
Then I wonder, why brilliant homosexuals of the mid century had such an effect on the United States in the very time they were being snagged by sting operations in our republics capacious public latrines. Itís an intriguing question most only ask privately. On the evidence it was better for a creative intelligence to be homosexual, a juicer or a druggie than to be anything else.
This can be proven neatly by comparing the percentage of Artists who were one or more of these feral paradigms against the general percentages with such uncommon proclivities in the United States. Many have speculated on this data that homosexuals might be more intelligent and creative. Others haven concluded from the same evidence that heterosexuals are too busy making more of themselves to be artistic. A third group have suggests the facts imply that changing a diaper is central, Art is marginal.
Back in 1900 to 1940 it was better for a creative musician to be a whorehouse pianist, Black, Jewish, or at least play Melancholy Baby in a sleazy tavern than to work or come home to anything respectable.
Do we think there is something in the water in brothels and alehouses that makes pianists more creative there than in colleges? Or that Jews and Blacks have rhythm? Certainly observation insinuates nothing is worse for an Artist than marriage, a steady job and enough legitimacy to make oneís most feral hungers an nightly act of virtue and patriotism.
I think these dour statistics prove only that the corporate world and colleges donít turn out artistic talent; in fact they probably stifle it. Otherwise with all this tenure and the leisure of intellectual Welfare we would have a culture with at least one professor in it that has made a contribution to American life equal to Elvis.
I think in one form or another since the time of Jefferson and even before this part of the planet has had a continual struggle ďunder a thousand namesí in Jeffersonís phrase between rogues who are both free and socially unacceptable and cryptkeepers of imperial order who lack sociopathic talents and are consequently are affluent slaves at bottom even if they excel at I.Q. tests.
The least predictable people of the hard nosed macho 50s were those at a polarity from such definitions of themselves. Some of them were genius though no more than any comparable cabal of Assyrian militarists. The rightwing genius worked for Boeing and Lockheed; the homosexuals often went into the Arts.
Recondite sexual tastes didnít make these unconventional amarants happy or satisfied; their generosity to their nation exceeded their gifts for private amusement. It made their life tough, socially painful at odd times, prompted in their hearts an alacrity more proper in adepts at grand larceny. Yet their detachment, severed from the polloi severed as an anguished fulcrum to bring the best of them back into centrist politics as our American bully philosophers.
When one is angling for a respectable corporate job or being properly unctuous to cadge an Academic professorship one aims respectably to be reliable and deceptively politic in oneís speech, if possible, even in oneís dreams. Oneís agendas if any must be secret, one must appear to be a good soldier. If one has qualities that make one presumptively an intolerable person or spends much time in a brothel, male or female, tavern or opium den one is liable to be more free in speech and direct in offering oneís opinions to oneís peers at the sacred pipe.
Creative people can't afford to be too acceptable. They need as they must alone in a room to have very idiosyncratic and strange nations about everything including how to execute their craft. They can't embrace the circumspection and star chamber secrecy one must offer to survive in most jobs and American social scenes, then repair home and have audacious ideas, savor odd and seemingly perilous ways of doing things they plan to display publicly as a libation to truth and an arcane reality.
I never met Koch, though all who have tell me he was an amiable fellow; I can testify that a conversation with Allen Ginsberg never lacked for several remarks in passing that made nearly everybody very uncomfortable.
It was equally true of Virgil Thomson. John Cage, and Ned Rorem. I presume from his biography and his friends that it characterized Frank OíHara. Andy Warhol outdid them all in attracting a run of sleazy White trash people to him. It fuels the artistic spirit to be in a room where one can think and say anything. One really can't do this often in any American college. One can however have a flip nihilist run of banter oneís colleagues can think of as harmlessly clownish; if one is mostly silent get through those horrendous committee meetings. One canít talk like any of the other people in this group and survive as one of the infantry or boys in the clubhouse for more than a semester.
Our institutions tend to net very clever young people, armed with talent and even genius into our college system and then immerse them in a debased religion of provincial sterility and supposed high Art in a country never far away from survivalist. After taking the roots what might have nurtured these puerile prey away from them, they give them small synthetic careers in the colleges along width day jobs training others as they age to be like them. Nobody puts a gun to their head to force them to live this life; after all we arenít Bolsheviks.
It is primally a low key seductive hustle adorned with all the crepuscular prestige and honor the colleges can give their very minor saints. One is one day a student, another flouting on the Prozack of tenure, a third a cunningly perfumed corpse in an imitation Westminster Abbey designed by Calvin Klein for an A and M in Dubuque.
One of the trusts about poets and ART that should have come home to Koch as he maunder through his flip and shallow asides on nearly nothing was that real poets think like John Milton or Allen Ginsberg are different than Clifton Fadiman. Superficial whimsy is not a major element in Arts any place anywhere at any time; at most it is a bon bon. Koch should have learnt that at Columbia. Educations is about learning two skill: the evidence of the past and independent and unfashionable thinking at all times. If one doesnít understand that poets mostly have strong, direct and clear opinions about many things on the evidence from Homer on, what does one know?
I have heard nothing but kudos from his pupils about Koch as a teacher; I suspect that he was if a warm and amusing fellow, like all of us he was not able to offer his pupils more than he understood himself. We donít value Art because it is superficial anymore than we praise plumbers or a garbage disposal crew because they are all philosophers.
It takes a mentality that can sniff manure beneath the imported cologne in such faery tale witchís houses on the prairie to depart the scrapple-scented temple of necromancy. Almost every one of Kenneth Kochís friends had that olfactory gift. Otherwise one is Kansas City meat in a slaughterhouse packs and ages in its quiet way porterhouse fare in one the great holocausts of some of the more intelligent gulls on the planet.
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