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.
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. During the 1950s, he met his first wife Janice, who traveled Europe with Koch during his Fulbright fellowship. Their daughter, Katherine, was born in 1956. In 1959, he joined the faculty in the Department of English at Columbia, and he taught classes at Columbia for over forty years. His first wife died in 1981, and Koch married his second wife, Karen, 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 classes 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.