My first real introduction to Kenneth Koch was through the famous poem “Fresh Air”, with its timeless and still pertinent

It is time to strangle several bad poets.

Then I found how remarkable and dazzling his world of poetry was. How his expectations of poetry and his sense of the world were so huge. I’m not sure I’ve ever quite recovered. I’ve told this story before, but in 1990-something I drove Kenneth Koch from the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival to catch a plane from Heathrow back to the U.S. It was a mad drive. Kenneth came off stage at three, and his plane was at something like 5:30. I broke every speed limit in the book until, as we finally hit the approach to Heathrow on the M4 and joined the airport traffic he turned to me and asked if it would be okay if we slowed down now. And he gave me some work that I would publish in “joe soap’s canoe”. As he handed it to me he said something to the effect of, OK Stannard, tell me what it is you like about my work. And my whole life flashed before me, and then I said, It makes me want to be alive. And he said, I guess that’ll do. Or something like that.

Koch could be a pain in the arse. In 1992 when I was working in Ipswich for the local council as their one and only community arts worker, I worked alongside Rebecca Weaver, who curated the prestigious Wolsey Art Gallery in Ipswich. We asked Paul Violi to curate an exhibition of Koch’s collaborations with artists. And then we managed to get Koch and Violi over to England for the show. After the opening of that (at which they both read) I took them off on a brief reading tour of the UK. And Kenneth could be a pain in the arse. He wanted to be the centre of attention. He wanted sometimes the moon when all he could have was Ipswich, or a reading in a room at the top of a very long and steep flight of stairs in Huddersfield. But he was also lovely, and genuine and true, and I feel honoured to have spent time with him. This afternoon I re-read the poem “Marina”. It’s a wonderful example of how Koch’s exuberance and vitality is wonderfully controlled and emotional. You should read it. You really should. The poem is ten pages or so of doomed but inspiring and exultant love. The way the language and the line is used, how the so personal reference opens up into the universal marvellousness (and its opposite) of being in love -- this is how words can be.

I read Tolstoy. You said
I don’t like the way it turns out (Anna
Karenina) I had just liked the strength
Of the feeling you thought
About the end. I wanted
To I don’t know what never leave you
Five flights up the June
Street emptied of fans, cups, kites, cops, eats, nights, no
The night was there

And something like air I love you Marina
Eighty-five days

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