Two Kenneth Koch Poems About Time

When you’re young and of a certain un-Eeyore sensibility, each day dawns pregnant with possibility, and once you’ve stretched out and shaken off whatever thickness might linger from the previous night’s indulgences, you can easily enough conjure the “Work hard, Play hard” mantra displayed on t-shirts and billboards, assuring you that all of life is there for the taking if you’re just bold and desirous enough to grab its lapels.

Then you get older, and while you may still feel some or most of that pulse-quickening sense of open-endedness regarding the course of your dawning day, what is even more quickening is the pace of the sun as it arcs across the sky without you having all that much to show for it.

…Koch assumes an intimate stance akin to a favorite wise uncle who has our very best interests at heart regarding something important that he knows so well at this point in his life that he can impart it with an undertone of almost bemused detachment.

Really now: the sun has stayed true to its daily mission, but what happened to you?

Is it simply that you haven’t worked and played hard enough? To some degree, sure. There’s little doubt that one’s youthful stamina for both mental and physical expenditure wanes over time, only partially compensated for by working smarter/more efficiently.

But here’s the more important point for people of any age, via another, dueling maxim to “Work hard, Play hard,” and which tends not to make its way onto t-shirts for obvious reasons: “You can’t have it all.”

I realize that sounds like anathema to America’s and youth-everywhere’s can-do spirit, but bear with me just a moment as I set up a poem that will elaborate on this theme far more lyrically than I, from a poet I think you’ll be glad to learn a little about (so you can feel you’ve accomplished a little something on this day…).




                      By Kenneth Koch

You want a social life, with friends.
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What’s true
Is of these three you may have two
And two can pay you dividends
But never may have three.

There isn’t time enough, my friends–
Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends–
To find the time to have love, work, and friends.
Michelangelo had feeling
For Vittoria and the Ceiling
But did he go to parties at day’s end?

Homer nightly went to banquets
Wrote all day but had no lockets
Bright with pictures of his Girl.
I know one who loves and parties
And has done so since his thirties
But writes hardly anything at all.

“Highly energized by the mystery and pleasure of being alive.” I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t happily settle for that as a remembrance of them in a eulogy, or inscribed lovingly below their name on a tombstone.

That’s the way Ron Padgett happily described his fellow poet and friend Kenneth Koch in the introduction to the volume of Koch’s “Selected Poems” that Padgett edited and had published in 2007, five years after Koch’s death from leukemia at age 77.

Kenneth Koch

In addition to his poetry, Koch wrote dramas, songs, and was a much beloved professor at Columbia, known for his theatrical, sometimes raucous presence in front of classrooms. He was in many ways a hard-charging, fun-loving free spirit, willing to go to the edge of social and poetic conventions, but most always with an accessible, direct style.

That accessibility is nowhere more evident than in the poem above, in which Koch assumes an intimate stance akin to a favorite wise uncle who has our very best interests at heart regarding something important that he knows so well at this point in his life that he can impart it with an undertone of almost bemused detachment. This is so that you, too, can accept its veracity without anguish, disappointment or, perish the thought, guilt.

I love the way he sidles up to us with knowledge borne of the very time of which he speaks, yet which he intones both casually and confidentially, as the self-evident truth it is: “There isn’t time enough, my friends–…”


He’s right, of course—there never is!

All the t-shirt maxims in the world exhorting us to just push a little harder—so that we might stop time, appreciate time, reverse time, relativize time, make the most of time or slow time down—cannot overcome time’s own relentless chewing through the universe at large, along with our own universe of experience and relationship, our joys and loves and losses all eventually eclipsed.

It’s not that we can’t live and enjoy ourselves. Two out of three here, maybe three of four over yonder and seven of eight on a good day or a fortunate life. Not bad!

But only gluttons with unlimited means get all they want, only to discover that getting it all somehow manages to fall short anyway, and now they have run out of the time to pursue whatever else the all may have been.

And it is ever thus, the all always elusive, fleeting, like a mirage of water in the desert to a thirsty man who ends up with his tongue in the sand.

Koch did not want to be that man, which led him to pursue a more playful, often whimsical poetry that he once described as “having as one of its main subjects the fullness and richness of life and the richness of possibility and excitement and happiness.”

So I will leave you here with another such poem, also about time but in the sense of a particular time and era of one’s life—Koch’s 20s. It’s in the form of a loving ode to that delicious decade (Oh, I know it may have been challenging, but they all are, in their own way!) of exploration, of trying on adulthood, often finding it deficient but soldiering on anyway, in a spirit of openness and play.

Koch writes of it in probably my favorite lines: ” I find there on/The street instead, a good friend,/X—N—, who says to me/Kenneth do you have a minute?/And I say yes! I am in my twenties!/I have plenty of time!”

And indeed he did, which he seemed to make the most of, while it lasted.


          TO MY TWENTIES

          By Kenneth Koch

How lucky that I ran into you
When everything was possible
For my legs and arms, and with hope in my heart
And so happy to see any woman—
O woman! O my twentieth year!
Basking in you, you
Oasis from both growing and decay
Fantastic unheard of nine- or ten-year oasis
A palm tree, hey! And then another
And another—and water!
I’m still very impressed by you. Whither,
Midst falling decades, have you gone? Oh in what lucky fellow,
Unsure of himself, upset, and unemployable
For the moment in any case, do you live now?
From my window I drop a nickel
By mistake. With
You I race down to get it
But I find there on
The street instead, a good friend,
X—N—, who says to me
Kenneth do you have a minute?
And I say yes! I am in my twenties!
I have plenty of time! In you I marry,
In you I first go to France; I make my best friends
In you, and a few enemies. I
Write a lot and am living all the time
And thinking about living. I loved to frequent you
After my teens and before my thirties.
You three together in a bar
I always preferred you because you were midmost
Most lustrous apparently strongest
Although now that I look back on you
What part have you played?
You never, ever, were stingy. What you gave me you gave whole
But as for telling
Me how to best use it
You weren’t a genius at that.
Twenties, my soul
Is yours for the asking
You know that, if you ever come back.



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Koch portrait from the public domain

2 comments to Two Kenneth Koch Poems About Time

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Time is a contradictory concept. Time, especially when young, possesses a certain degree of eternality. “Hey, I’m just 25. I’ll work a few years, save up some dough and then take a summer off to travel around Europe. I’ve got lots of time.” Unfortunately, time is as cruel as April. It moves too fast. “Damn. I’m 75, and the doc says I need a hip replacement.” The Eiffel Tower, Sistine Chapel or Trafalgar Square will likely be nothing but photos in a travelogue. It brings to mind the dilemma that plagued J. Alfred Prufrock. He thought “there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet…and time yet for a hundred indecisions and for a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of a toast and tea…I grow old … I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind?” I was fortunate enough to spend a summer in Europe when I was still in college and figured I’d have lots of time to return. However, as way leads on to way, I’ve never made it back. Raising a family and teaching for 40 years devoured my time. Finally, a few years ago, Claire and I booked a two-week European vacation, and COVID hit. Maybe next year…

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Robert, it seems time has bedeviled pretty much everyone since humankind first captured a sense of its passing with our outsized brains those eons ago. Philosophers and physicists have been taking good hard whacks at it for a very long TIME now, but it’s slippery by nature—a greased pig mocking our every effort to sit it in a chair for closer examination. So it is good and proper for the poets to hold forth on it, like Koch and the T.S. Eliot snippets you cite here. A line from Wikipedia I had in this post but ultimately removed still tickles me and says a lot about both of them: “Though not against T. S. Eliot, Koch opposed the idea that in order to write poetry one had to be depressed or think that the world is a terrible place.”

      P.S. Sorry you missed Europe. Maybe we could’ve crossed paths in Scotland or Ireland, if our trip, too, had not been aborted/Covided. “Maybe next year,” indeed…

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