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The Art of the Possible by Kenneth Koch

The Art of the Possible: Comics mainly without pictures by Kenneth Koch. Soft Skull, 2004. 128 p., hardcover, $23.00.

Neil Cohn first brought up this book in relation to “pictureless comics”. Curious guy that I am, I decided I needed to check this book out, and Softskull was kind enough to offer me a review copy. I’ve not read any of Kenneth Koch’s work (though I have a copy of his Collected Fiction (Coffee House, 2005) on my shelf to be read) mostly because I am not much of a poetry reader. In this case the comics connection is too strong to avoid.

According to David Lehman’s introduction, Koch always loved comics and for a time considering making them. Instead he became a poet. He incorporated some comics elements into his poetry and in 1992 decided to write poems in the form of comics. Thus this book, published posthumously from a manuscript he had been working on for years.

The first thing to note about this book is that all the poems are handwritten/drawn. They look very amateurish, like something pulled out of a notebook and then printed for all to see. It makes me wonder if this is how Koch envisioned the book being published or if this is a matter of adhering to the manuscript form. It’s a real turn off for me. The pages look less like comics and more like kids’ drawings. Like a comic that is written by one person and drawn by another, the presentation of these pieces would have been hugely aided by someone taking these poems as a script for a more refined creation.

Many of the poems themselves have names like “Kenya Comics” or “Brer Comics” and exist in series of multiple poems. Koch uses the structural elements of comics: panel and balloons. Most frequently he puts a word or phrase into a panel and the poem is created from a number of panels containing these words. He does use the occasional representationally abstract images–outlines of shapes, objects, animals–to contain words or to accompany captions. What these comics end up being is probably more concrete poetry than comics, more a sense of laying out words in space than a real understanding of how comics work. In fact, Koch’s understanding of comics is, by all indications here, quite naive.

The content of the poems themselves remind me of Richard Brautigan with their sense of whimsy, fantasy, autobiography, humor, and sadness. Poems such as “You’re Amazing”, “Don’t Spoil It”, and “Sad About You” are such that I can’t help but think of Brautigan (which also makes me think how interesting Brautigan doing comics would have been). They are small poems: brief thoughts and images, a quick quip, a brief page of nostalgia, a short tale of heartbreak.

I’m hard-pressed to say how much these comics-poems are aided by the way they are done. Would they be any more or less effective as simple poems laid out in lines? Would they be more comics if they were drawn/typeset in a more refined way? I’ve decided to do a test. I’ve redone “Sad About You” (one without any images, so my hand can remain out of the picture) with my usual comics creating tools. I’ve also scanned the image from the book of the original, and I’ve written the poem out in lines.

Original “Sad About You”

My recreated “Sad About You” [EDIT: Lost this somewhere.]
“Sad About You” as conventional poetry[EDIT: Lost this somewhere.]

How does this change the poem? And does it change it at all? I’ll admit I’d be more likely to read the one I recreated as a comic, because to me it is visually the most interesting. But in this case, I’m not sure the words in panels are any more effective than lines of poetry.

An amusing book that is neither here (comics) nor there (poetry), but much more the latter than the former, and, in the end, too much a trifle.

Addendum: Richard Nash (publisher at Soft Skull) writes to inform that according to Koch’s widow the current form of the poems is the way which he wanted them published. A redesign (such as what I did) was turned down as against the author’s wish. He also notes: “I would say though that the New York School did not object to a certain texture of amateurishness. For example, Kenneth performed these at a gallery in the early 90’s with Larry Rivers playing on saxaphone. Larry was about as good a saxophonist as Kenneth was a drawer.”

In the comments Dan Visel (from the Future of the Book Foundation) prefers the nuance found in Koch’s handwritten poem, something lacking from my computerized version (handlettering (which I am horrible at) would probably help that a bit).