Kenneth Koch was a multi award winning writer who spent a good deal of his working life in New York City. He was a poet, playwright, novelist and musical composer and he dedicated much of his time to the New York School of Poetry where he exchanged ideas with fellow poets and taught up and coming writers all he knew about the art. He and his colleagues tried to instil a cosmopolitan, outward looking style into their students, influenced and inspired by great art, worldwide travel and music. Additionally he worked in New York schools and colleges as a teacher and he also took a great deal of pleasure from working in old people’s nursing homes.
Koch was born into comfortable circumstances in February 1925 in Cincinnati, Ohio. All through his school days he displayed a great talent for writing poetry and producing comics and he was encouraged by family and high school teachers alike. When America joined the fight in the Second World War, Kenneth was coming up to the age when he might well get drafted and he tried to prevent, or at least delay that, by enrolling at the University of Cincinnati in 1943. He studied meteorology but he still ended up fighting in the Pacific region where he narrowly avoided the worst of the military campaign there. He was certainly affected by this time because, unlike many other writers with wartime experience, he refused to write about it until some fifty years later, in a book with the title New Addresses.
On his return to America in 1946 he decided to go to Harvard to take up literature studies and he met a very influential poet here – Delmore Schwartz – while discovering the delights of poets such as Keats and Stevens. He obtained a BA at Harvard and later gained a PhD at the University of Columbia. Koch’s early attempts at poetry were described in some quarters as obscure but his style over the years changed. Work such as Poems in 1953 and A Season on Earth in 1959 were surpassed by humorous works like The Art of Love (1975) and the aforementioned New Addresses in the year 2000. Perhaps a good example of his work that some considered “obscure” was The Boiling Water. It was a series of verses considering “the serious moments” for such mundane topics as boiling water, ringing telephones, and striking matches. Here is the first verse:
Honours and awards gained included the Bollingen Prize which he won for two separate pieces of work:
…which were both published in 1994. Books also made the list of finalists for both the Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Award. In addition to his poetry he wrote a series of short plays which were performed off-Broadway. He had limited success as a novelist but he had some success in the musical field, writing the libretto for “The Banquet”, composed by Marcello Panni. This had a German premiere in 1998, in the northern city of Bremen.
In 1996 recognition of his long career in the arts and literature saw Koch inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His health was beginning to fail though and he did not live much longer to enjoy this honour.
Kenneth Koch died in July 2002 after a year long battle with leukaemia. He was 77 years old.