Kenneth Koch

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


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Career
  • 3 Poetry
  • 4 Selected Works
  • 5 References


Koch was born Jay Kenneth Koch in Cincinnati, Ohio. He began writing poetry at an early age, discovering the work of Shelley and Keats in his teenage years. At the age of 18, he served in WWII as a U.S. Army infantryman in the Philippines. After his service, he attended Harvard University, where he met future New York School cohorts O'Hara and 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 and Letters in 1996. Koch died from a year-long battle with leukemia in 2002.


The 1950s 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, with many career highlights coming in his last few years of life. Koch won the Bollingen Prize 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), possibly his most accessible work of poetry. 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 toward teaching poetry appreciation and composition to children, adults, and the elderly. He drew heavily on his experiences as a professor of English, combined with the world-hopping lifestyle expected of a New York School poet.

Koch wrote hundreds of avant-garde plays 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 Santa Claus. He also released a book of short stories, Hotel Lambosa (1988), loosely based on and inspired by his world travels. He also produced at least one libretto, and several of his poems have been set to music by composers.

Koch taught poetry at Columbia University, where his classes were popular among students in and out of his department. His wild humor and intense teaching style, often punctuated by unusual physicality (a man in his seventies standing on a table to shout lines by Walt Whitman) and outbursts of vocal performance often drawn from Italian opera, drew many non-English majors and alumni into his classes. Some of the spirit of these lectures is contained in his final book on poetry education, Making Your Own Days (1998), which was incidentally the primary textbook for his "Modern Poetry" courses. His students included poets Jordan Davis, David Baratier, Loren Goodman, and Carson Cistulli.

While a student at Harvard, Koch won the prestigious Glascock Prize in 1948.

His poems were translated in German by the poet Nicolas Born in 1973 for the renowned "red-frame-series" of the Rowohlt Verlag.


“Is there no one who feels like a pair of pants?”

Koch, drawing inspiration from everything, once asked in his poem Fresh Air (1956) why poets were writing about dull subjects with dull forms. More importantly, modern poetry, stagnant by academics that “tested” poetry, was solemn, boring, and uneventful. Koch described their poems as “Written by the men with their eyes on the myth/ And the missus and the midterms…” Indeed, it could be said that Koch, a mix of comedy and the ironic, attacked the idea that poetry should be in any way stale.

Purging poetry of its domination and oppression, Koch freely 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',’ 1959)

Though not against 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. His emerging ideas were fostered by a collaborative process with close friends Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, along with painters Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers, among others. These “New York School Poets” reacted more against the currents in art than attempting to establish their own school. 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 with his normal comedic playfulness. 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, teaching poetry to all ages, including children, possessed poetry that spoke in an adult way of “the refreshment of childhood.” Koch once remarked that “Children have a natural talent for writing poetry and anyone who teaches them should know that.” Laughter and comedy is something rarely used well in modern poetry, but Koch was able to achieve a balance between the serious and the hilarious. He did this well by doing a few things in his poems.

1) He mixed word usage with various levels of imagery:

    Is perhaps the relation that caused
    My daughter to be born.  Yet is she sacred?
    She is a woman with someone’s arm
    Around her shoulders.  She is of this world
    The way that pipe is, that goes from the well to the house,
    And the way the grass is that at this season leaps about up and 
    under it,
    And as the cigarette is that the gardener throws in the grass.               (Excerpt from The Human Sacrament, 1998)

2) He set two highly contrasting tones next to each other, using simplicity and silliness at the same time:

    Summer in the trees!  ‘It is time to strangle several bad poets.’
    the yellow hobbyhorse rocks to and fro, and from the chimney
    Drops the Strangler!  The white and pink roses are slightly agitated by    
    the struggle,
    But afterwards beside the dead “poet” they cuddle up comfortingly
    against their vase.  They are safer now, no one will compare them to
    the sea.                                                                                                        (Excerpt from Fresh Air, 1956)

3) He spoke to everything, animate and inanimate objects:

    Twenties, my soul
    Is yours for the asking
    You know that, if you ever come back.               (Excerpt from Ode to My Twenties, 2000)

4) He was a master of entering into the style of other poets and using parody to express his own views, both serious and comic.

    I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the 
    next ten years.  
    The man who asked for it was shabby
    and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.               (From Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams, 1962)

Koch, writing against proper poetry, received the label by some as just a comedic poet. He acknowledged this in an interview and offered his comments: “I don’t think the nature of my poetry is satirical or even ironic, I think its essentially lyrical...The comic element is just something that it seems to me enables me to be lyrical in the same way – not to compare myself qualitatively to these great writers – but in the same way that it enables Byron to write his best poetry and certainly Aristophanes and certain others too.”

Indeed, comedy extended from Koch’s poetry to his life. 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)

It was perhaps his use of comedy balanced with unhappiness and pain that was the best attribute of his work.

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 Railway: Selected Poems 1950-88 (1994)

One Train (1994)

Permanently (1961)

Poems (1953)

Poems from 1952 and 1953 (1968)

Seasons on Earth (1987)

Selected Poems 1950-82 (1985)

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)


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.

Kenneth Koch. Academy of American Poets. 21 Sept. 2006 <>.

Koch, Kenneth. Interview with David Kennedy. 5 Aug. 1993. 21 Sept. 2006 <>.

Koch, Kenneth. Interview with John Stoehr. City Beat. 17 May 2001. 21 Sept. 2006 <>.

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 Koch

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.

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