Kenneth Koch (27 February 1925 – 6 July 2002) was an American poet, playwright, and professor, active from the
1950s until his death at age 77.
He was a prominent poet of
the New York School
of poetry, a
loose group of poets including Frank
and John Ashbery
eschewed contemporary introspective poetry in favor of an
exuberant, cosmopolitan style that drew major inspiration from
travel, painting, and music.
(pronounced coke) was born Jay Kenneth Koch in Cincinnati,
He began writing poetry at an early age,
discovering the work of Shelley
in his teenage years. At the
age of 18, he served in WWII
U.S. Army infantryman in the Philippines.
service, he attended Harvard University, where he met future New
York School crony John
Ashbery. After graduating from Harvard in 1948, and
moving to New York
City, Koch studied for and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University.
In 1951 he
met his first wife, Janice Elwood, at UC Berkeley; they married in 1954 and lived in France and Italy
for over a year.
Their daughter, Katherine, was born in Rome
in 1955. In 1959 he joined the faculty in the Department of English
and Comparative Literature at Columbia, and he taught classes at
Columbia for over forty years.
His first wife died in 1981; Koch married his second wife, Karen
Culler, in 1994. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts
in 1996. Koch died from a year-long battle with
While a student at Harvard, Koch won the prestigious Glascock Prize
in 1948. In 1962, Koch was
writer in residence at the New York City Writer's Conference at
The 1960s saw his first published books of poetry, but his poetry
did not garner wider popular acclaim until the 1970s with his book
The Art of Love: Poems
(1975). He continued writing poetry
and releasing books of poetry up until his death. Koch won the
(1994) and On The Great Atlantic Rainway: Selected
(1994), followed closely by the Phi Beta Kappa
Poetry Award winner New
In 1970, Koch released a pioneering book in poetry education,
Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children To Write
. Over the next 30 years, he followed this book with
other books and anthologies on poetry education tailored to
teaching poetry appreciation and composition to children, adults,
and the elderly.
Koch wrote hundreds of avant-garde
over the course of his 50 year career, highlighted by drama
collections like 1000 Avant-Garde Plays
(1988), which only contains 116 plays, many of them only one scene
or a few minutes in length. His prose work is highlighted by
The Red Robins
(1975), a sprawling novel about a group of
fighter pilots flying for personal freedom under the leadership of
. He also published a book of
short stories, Hotel Lambosa
(1988), loosely based on and
inspired by his world travels. He also produced at least one
, and several of his poems have
been set to music by composers.
Koch taught poetry at Columbia University, where his classes were
popular. His wild humor and intense teaching style, often
punctuated by unusual physicality (standing on a table to shout
lines by Walt Whitman
) and outbursts of
vocal performance often drawn from Italian opera
, drew non-English majors and alumni. Some of the
spirit of these lectures is contained in his final book on poetry
education, Making Your Own Days
(1998). His students
included poets Ron Padgett
, David Shapiro
, Alan Feldman, David Lehman
, Jordan Davis, Jessy Randall,
David Baratier, Loren Goodman, and Carson Cistulli
His poems were translated in German by the poet Nicolas Born
in 1973 for the renowned
"red-frame-series" of the Rowohlt Verlag.
Koch had a brush with the infamous anti-art affinity group Up Against the Wall
in early January 1968. During a poetry reading at
St. Mark's Church
, a member of the
group walked in and pointed a handgun at the podium, shouting
"Koch!" before firing one blank round. The poet regained his
composure and said to the "shooter," "Grow up."
Koch asked in his poem Fresh Air
(1956) why poets were
writing about dull subjects with dull forms. Modern poetry was
solemn, boring, and uneventful. Koch described poems “Written by
the men with their eyes on the myth/ And the missus and the
midterms…” He attacked the idea that poetry should be in any way
Koch wrote of how:
The Waste Land gave the time’s most accurate data,
It seemed, and Eliot was the Great Dictator
Of literature. One hardly dared to wink
Or fool around in any way in poems,
And critics poured out awful jereboams
To irony, ambiguity, and tension –
And other things I do not wish to mention.
(Excerpt from ‘Seasons on Earth,’ 1987)
Though not against T. S. Eliot
opposed the idea that in order to write poetry one had to be
depressed or think that the world is a terrible place. His ideas
were developed with close friends Frank
and John Ashbery, along with painters Jane Freilicher
and Larry Rivers
, among others. He once remarked
that “Maybe you can almost characterize the poetry of the New York
School as having as one of its main subjects the fullness and
richness of life and the richness of possibility and excitement and
happiness.” In his poem, The Art of Poetry
offered guidelines to writing good poetry. Among his 10 suggestions
are “1) Is it astonishing?” and “10) Would I be happy to go to
Heaven with this pinned on to my angelic jacket as an entrance
show? Oh would I?”
Koch once remarked that “Children have a natural talent for writing
poetry and anyone who teaches them should know that.” In his
- He mixed word usage with various levels of imagery;
- He set two contrasting tones next to each other, simplicity and
silliness at the same time;
- He spoke to everything, animate and inanimate objects;
- He used parody of other poets to express his own views, both
serious and comic.
Koch was labeled by some as just a comedic poet. He acknowledged
this in an interview and offered his comments:
He gives a picture of this in “To Kidding Around,” where the joys
of being a joker are proclaimed:
To be rid of troubles
Of one person by turning into
Someone else, moving and jolting
As if nothing mattered but today
In fact nothing
But this precise moment...
(Excerpt from To Kidding Around, 2000)
Koch collaborated with the composer Ned
on an opera, Bertha
, which received its premier in
1973. His short play, George Washington Crossing the
, was produced in 1962. Numerous others of his plays
have been produced.
- Ko: or, A Season on Earth (1959)
- On the Great Atlantic Rainway: Selected Poems
- Bertha, & other plays (1966)
- Poems from 1952 and 1953 (1968)
- Sleeping with Women (1969)
- Thank You and Other Poems (1962)
- The Burning Mystery of Anna in 1951 (1979)
- The Pleasures of Peace and Other Poems (1969)
- When the Sun Tries to Go On (1969)
- Benfey, Christopher. "Wise
Guy." The New Republic 13 Mar. 1995: 39-42. Academic Search
Premier. EBSCO. Texas a&M University, College Station, Tx. 25
Oct. 2006. Keyword: Kenneth Koch.
- Block, Avital and Umansky, Lauri. "Impossible to Hold: Women
and Culture in the 1960s." New York: NYU Press, 2005.
- Kenneth Koch. Academy of American Poets. 21 Sept. 2006.
- Koch, Kenneth. Interview with David Kennedy. 5 Aug. 1993. 21
- Koch, Kenneth. Interview with John Stoehr. City Beat. 17 May
2001. 21 Sept. 2006http://www.citybeat.com/2001-05-17]
- Koch, Kenneth. Selected Poems 1950-1982. First ed. New York:
Random House, 1985.
- Koch, Kenneth. The Art of Poetry. Ann Arbor: The University of
Michigan P, 1996.
- Merrin, Jeredith. "The Poetry Man." The Southern Review:
403-409. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Texas a&M University,
College Station, Tx. 3 Oct. 2006. Keyword: Kenneth Koch.
- Pettingell, Phoebe. "The Power of Laughter." The New Leader
May-June 2000: 39-41. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Texas a&M
University, College Station, Tx. 3 Oct. 2006. Keyword: Kenneth
- Rehak, Melanie. "Dr. Fun." The Nation (2006): 28-32. Academic
Search Premier. EBSCO. Texas a&M University, College Station,
Tx. 3 Oct. 2006. Koch.
- Salter, Mary J., Margaret Ferguson, and Jon Stallworthy. The
Norton Anthology of Poetry. 5th ed. New York: W.W. Norton &
Company, Inc., 2005.