Kenneth Koch
Kenneth Koch was an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 poet, playwright, and professor, active from the 1950s until his death at age 77. He was a prominent poet of the New York School
New York School
The New York School was an informal group of American poets, painters, dancers, and musicians active in the 1950s, 1960s in New York City...

 of poetry, a loose group of poets including Frank O'Hara
Frank O'Hara
Francis Russell "Frank" O'Hara was an American writer, poet and art critic. He was a member of the New York School of poetry.-Life:...

 and John Ashbery
John Ashbery
John Lawrence Ashbery is an American poet. He has published more than twenty volumes of poetry and won nearly every major American award for poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. But Ashbery's work still proves controversial...

 that eschewed contemporary introspective poetry in favor of an exuberant, cosmopolitan style that drew major inspiration from travel, painting, and music.


Koch was born Jay Kenneth Koch in Cincinnati, Ohio
Cincinnati, Ohio
Cincinnati is a city in the U.S. state of Ohio. Cincinnati is the county seat of Hamilton County. Settled in 1788, the city is located to north of the Ohio River at the Ohio-Kentucky border, near Indiana. The population within city limits is 296,943 according to the 2010 census, making it Ohio's...

. He began writing poetry at an early age, discovering the work of Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the major English Romantic poets and is critically regarded as among the finest lyric poets in the English language. Shelley was famous for his association with John Keats and Lord Byron...

 and Keats
John Keats
John Keats was an English Romantic poet. Along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, he was one of the key figures in the second generation of the Romantic movement, despite the fact that his work had been in publication for only four years before his death.Although his poems were not...

 in his teenage years. At the age of 18, he served in WWII
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 as a U.S. Army infantry
Infantrymen are soldiers who are specifically trained for the role of fighting on foot to engage the enemy face to face and have historically borne the brunt of the casualties of combat in wars. As the oldest branch of combat arms, they are the backbone of armies...

man in the Philippines
The Philippines , officially known as the Republic of the Philippines , is a country in Southeast Asia in the western Pacific Ocean. To its north across the Luzon Strait lies Taiwan. West across the South China Sea sits Vietnam...


After his service, he attended Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

, where he met future New York School
New York School
The New York School was an informal group of American poets, painters, dancers, and musicians active in the 1950s, 1960s in New York City...

 poet John Ashbery
John Ashbery
John Lawrence Ashbery is an American poet. He has published more than twenty volumes of poetry and won nearly every major American award for poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. But Ashbery's work still proves controversial...

. After graduating from Harvard in 1948, and moving to New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

, Koch studied for and received his Ph.D.
Doctor of Philosophy
Doctor of Philosophy, abbreviated as Ph.D., PhD, D.Phil., or DPhil , in English-speaking countries, is a postgraduate academic degree awarded by universities...

 from Columbia University
Columbia University
Columbia University in the City of New York is a private, Ivy League university in Manhattan, New York City. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the country's nine Colonial Colleges founded before the...


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 and Letters in 1996. Koch died from a year-long battle with leukemia
Leukemia or leukaemia is a type of cancer of the blood or bone marrow characterized by an abnormal increase of immature white blood cells called "blasts". Leukemia is a broad term covering a spectrum of diseases...

 in 2002.


While a student at Harvard, Koch won the prestigious Glascock Prize
Glascock Prize
The Glascock Poetry Prize is awarded to the winner of the annual Kathryn Irene Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Contest at Mount Holyoke College...

 in 1948. In 1962, Koch was writer in residence at the New York City Writer's Conference at Wagner College
Wagner College
Wagner College is a private, co-educational, national liberal arts college with an enrollment of approximately 2,400 total students located atop Grymes Hill in New York City's borough of Staten Island...


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 Bollingen Prize
Bollingen Prize
The Bollingen Prize for Poetry, which is currently awarded every two years by Beinecke Library of Yale University, is a literary honor bestowed on an American poet in recognition of the best book of new verse within the last two years, or for lifetime achievement.-Inception and controversy:The...

 for One Train (1994) and On The Great Atlantic Rainway: Selected Poems 1950-1988 (1994), followed closely by the Phi Beta Kappa Poetry Award winner New Addresses (2000).

In 1970, Koch released a pioneering book in poetry education, Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children To Write Poetry. 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
Avant-garde means "advance guard" or "vanguard". The adjective form is used in English to refer to people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics....

 plays over the course of his 50 year career, highlighted by drama
Drama is the specific mode of fiction represented in performance. The term comes from a Greek word meaning "action" , which is derived from "to do","to act" . The enactment of drama in theatre, performed by actors on a stage before an audience, presupposes collaborative modes of production and a...

 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 Santa Claus
Santa Claus
Santa Claus is a folklore figure in various cultures who distributes gifts to children, normally on Christmas Eve. Each name is a variation of Saint Nicholas, but refers to Santa Claus...

. 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 libretto
A libretto is the text used in an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata, or musical. The term "libretto" is also sometimes used to refer to the text of major liturgical works, such as mass, requiem, and sacred cantata, or even the story line of a...

, 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
Walt Whitman
Walter "Walt" Whitman was an American poet, essayist and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse...

) and outbursts of vocal performance often drawn from Italian opera
Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance...

, 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
Ron Padgett
Ron Padgett is an American poet, essayist, fiction writer, translator, and a member of the New York School. Bean Spasms, Padget's first collection of poems, was published in 1967 and written with Ted Berrigan...

, David Shapiro
David Shapiro (poet)
David Shapiro is an American poet, literary critic, and art historian. He has written some twenty volumes of poetry, literary, and art criticism...

, Alan Feldman, David Lehman
David Lehman
David Lehman is a poet and the series editor for The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City.-Career:...

, Jordan Davis, Jessy Randall, David Baratier, Loren Goodman, and Carson Cistulli
Carson Cistulli
Carson Cistulli is an American poet, essayist and English professor. His works of poetry include Some Common Weaknesses Illustrated, Assorted Fictions, and A Century of Enthusiasm.- Early Years :...


His poems were translated in German by the poet Nicolas Born
Nicolas Born
Nicolas Born was a German writer.Nicolas Born was - together with Rolf Dieter Brinkmann - one of the most important and most innovative German poets of his generation...

 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 Motherfuckers
Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers
Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers was an anarchist affinity group based in New York City...

 in early January 1968. During a poetry reading at St. Mark's Church
St. Mark's Church
St. Mark's Church is a Serb Orthodox place of worship in Belgrade, Serbia. The church is located in the Tašmajdan park in Belgrade, near the Parliament of Serbia. There is a small Russian church for Russian Orthodox faithful next to St. Mark's.-History:The Church of the Holy Apostle and...

, 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 stale.

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
T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns "T. S." Eliot OM was a playwright, literary critic, and arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century. Although he was born an American he moved to the United Kingdom in 1914 and was naturalised as a British subject in 1927 at age 39.The poem that made his...

, Koch 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 O'Hara
Frank O'Hara
Francis Russell "Frank" O'Hara was an American writer, poet and art critic. He was a member of the New York School of poetry.-Life:...

 and John Ashbery, along with painters Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers
Larry Rivers
Larry Rivers was an American artist, musician, filmmaker and occasional actor. Rivers resided and maintained studios in New York City, Southampton, New York and Zihuatanejo, Mexico.-Biography:...

, 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 (1975) Koch 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 poems:
  1. He mixed word usage with various levels of imagery;
  2. He set two contrasting tones next to each other, simplicity and silliness at the same time;
  3. He spoke to everything, animate and inanimate objects;
  4. 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 Rorem
Ned Rorem
Ned Rorem is a Pulitzer prize-winning American composer and diarist. He is best known and most praised for his song settings.-Life:...

 on an opera, Bertha
Bertha (Rorem)
Bertha is an opera in one act, with music by Ned Rorem to an English libretto by Kenneth Koch, an original work parodying Shakespeare’s histories. Rorem wrote the work originally at the request of the Metropolitan Opera Studio in the 1960s, intended as an opera for children. However, the Met...

, which received its premier in 1973. His short play, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, was produced in 1962. Numerous others of his plays have been produced.

Selected works

  • Days and Nights (1982)

  • From the Air (1979)

  • Ko: or, A Season on Earth (1959)

  • On the Edge (1986)

  • On the Great Atlantic Rainway: Selected Poems 1950–1988 (1994)

  • One Train (1994)

  • Permanently (1961)

  • Poems (1953)

  • Bertha, & other plays (1966)

  • Poems from 1952 and 1953 (1968)

  • Seasons on Earth (1987)

  • Sleeping with Women (1969)

  • Straits (1998)

  • Thank You and Other Poems (1962)

  • The Art of Love (1975)

  • The Burning Mystery of Anna in 1951 (1979)

  • The Duplications (1977)

  • The Pleasures of Peace and Other Poems (1969)

  • When the Sun Tries to Go On (1969)
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