Monday, December 5, 2016

Locus Solus: Kenneth Koch and Leonard Cohen



I’ve discovered a great blog called Locus Solus: The New York School of Poets. Andrew Epstein, an Assoicate Professor in the English Department at Florida State University Tallahassee, Florida authors it. A lot of his research and writing centers upon the New York School of Poets. He has authored Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (Oxford University Press), which focuses on Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Amiri Baraka, and a second book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture, Oxford University Press (in July 2016).

I should never be surprised at how wide the circle of friends and acquaintances were—the NY School reached into the emerging youth culture of the time and informed art on many levels. So, unsurprisingly, there is a connection between the NY School and the late Leonard Cohen.

Cohen was 82, Frank O’Hara would have been 90, Keneth Koch 91, Jane Freilicher 92, and James Schuyler. Of the original group only John Ashbery is still living, age 89. This is indeed sad.

Locus Solus reports: that Kenneth Koch and Leonard Cohen spent some time together on the Greek island of Hydra. From the blog:

Jordan Davis recently unearthed an unpublished interview he did with Koch where the poet talked about his friendship with Cohen and tells a funny story about the time Cohen tried to get him to try his hand as a rock musician too:
I met Leonard Cohen on the island of Hydra in Greece where Janice and Katherine age five and I had gone for a summer vacation. And we became very good friends. We traveled also to Turkey together, to Istanbul. I liked Leonard a lot and so did Janice. We saw each other then a few times after that, it was nice and intense, but never more than a day. After some years, we were already living on West 4th Street, Katherine must have been ten by then. I ran into him on a bus. “Leonard!” I asked him what he was doing and he said, “Don’t you know? I’m a singer.” He had been a poet and a novelist. I got him to tell me all about it. I invited him over to our place and he told me I should become a singer too. I should sing all my poems. It was wonderful because you met lots of women and made a lot of money and you got to travel around and it was very satisfying to sing your poems. I said, “That’s great, Leonard,” and of course I was interested. I said, “Leonard, I can’t sing.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I can’t carry a tune.” He said, “That’s good, that means no one else will be able to sing your stuff.” And I said, “Well okay, but also I don’t play an instrument.” He said, “You can probably learn — let’s try.There wasn’t anything that made noise except a vacuum cleaner. I plugged in the vacuum cleaner and I thought I’d be more in the mood to sing if I stood up on a chair. He said, “Sing one of your poems.” I said, “There’s no music to any of my poems.” He said, “That’s okay.” I sang, with intermittent noise from the vacuum cleaner, “You were wearing your Edgar Allan Poe printed cotton blouse” in a hillbilly voice.

Leonard interrupted me after a few bars I think they’re called — “You’re not serious.” Well there I was standing up on a chair and playing a vacuum cleaner. I stopped playing the vacuum cleaner and tried to be serious. He said, “I don’t believe you. Who are you singing to.” “Leonard, I’m singing to you, there’s no one else here.” “No — who in the audience. Who do you want to go to bed with after the show? Who are you addressing? Who do you want to like you?” “Twenty-two year old women.”

“No. Everybody wants 22-year-old women. Sing to somebody else. You know who I sing to? 
  14-year-olds and 40-year olds.” I’m not sure those are the exact numbers — something like 14 and 40. I said, “Okay, I’ll try to sing to 14 yr olds.” But trying to sing my poems? It didn’t work too well. I said I’d try. At my age how can I get started? I can’t carry a tune I don’t play an instrument and I’ve never sung before. I was already 40 at least by then. “There’s one way you can help me.” And he said, “Anything, what is it.” “Are you going to have tributes on your sleeve, put me on the record jacket. Say, ‘Even the legendary Kenny has come out of retirement to praise Leonard Cohen.’” I figured that people who respond to this kind of thing are not exactly scholarly. He promised he would put this on the record cover. Months went by. I never heard from Leonard. I did receive from him this big rectangle, his record. On the cover was this girl (I don’t know if she was 14 or 40) rising from flames, somewhere in between, and on the back was Leonard, his lyrics, and no tributes. And no Kenny, and that was the end of another career, another attempt to become rich.

Koch’s daughter Katherine — an artist and writer who has begun publishing pieces of a memoir-in-progress about her experiences growing up around the poets and artists of the New York School — recently published a lovely essay about her memories of “Hydra, in 1960.” Read more HERE.

Check it out.

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