Kenneth Koch

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Kenneth Koch was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on February 27, 1925. Although he wrote his first poem when he was five, he did not begin writing seriously until he was seventeen, when he read the novels of John Dos Passos and was thereby stimulated to imitate their particular style of stream of consciousness. Koch served as a rifleman in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, he earned a B.A. degree from Harvard University in 1948 and a doctorate from Columbia in 1959. At Harvard, Koch was a friend of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, poets who held similar views about the nature of poetry. Later, when they had settled in New York, Ashbery, O’Hara, and Koch came to be thought of as principal poets of the New York School.

Koch spent three important years in Europe, mostly in Italy and France. During that time, he was influenced by the humorous, surrealistic verse of Jacques Prévert. In a brief autobiographical account that appeared in The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 (1960; Donald Allen, editor), Koch noted that French poetry “had a huge effect” on his own work. Moreover, he acknowledged that he tried to get into his own writing “the same incomprehensible excitement” that he found in French poetry.

During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Koch began teaching poetry writing at P.S. 61, a grammar school in New York City, and at a neighborhood museum in Brooklyn. A few years later, he taught similar classes at a New York nursing home. Out of these experiences came a series of books about the teaching of poetry to children and the aged. The first of these, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Young Children to Write Poetry (1970), is perhaps the best known. A companion volume, Rose Where Did You Get That Red?, followed in 1973. Both are noteworthy for their inventive approach to teaching poetry, especially for the imaginative ways they keep reading and writing poetry together. An additional value of the books and of two later volumes (I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry in a Nursing Home, 1977, and Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry with Essays on Reading and Writing, 1981), is that all reveal something about Koch’s poetic temperament and inclinations. The qualities that Koch encourages in his students’ writing animate his own poems. Open forms, loose meter, memory and feeling, joy and humor, colloquial language, imaginative freedom—these reflect Koch’s view that “there is no insurmountable barrier between ordinary speech and poetry.”

Koch taught at Brooklyn College (now of the City University of New York), Rutgers University, and the New School for Social Research. In 1971, he began his long tenure at Columbia University as a professor of English and comparative literature. Exhibitions of Koch’s collaborative work have been held at the Ipswich Museum, England, in 1993; at the Tibor De Nagy Gallery, New York City, in 1994; and at Guild Hall, East Hampton, New York, in 2000. He lived in New York City until his death on July 6, 2002.

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