Kenneth Koch was born in Cincinnati on February 27, 1925. He studied at Harvard University, where he received a bachelor of arts degree, then attended Columbia University for his PhD.
As a young poet, Koch was known for his association with the New York School of poetry. Originating at Harvard, where Koch met fellow students Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, the New York School derived much of its inspiration from the works of action painters Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Larry Rivers, whom the poets met in the 1950s after settling in New York City. The poetry of the New York School represented a shift away from the Confessional poets, a popular form of soul-baring poetry that the New York School found distasteful. Instead, their poems were cosmopolitan in spirit and displayed not only the influence of action painting, but of French Surrealism and European avant-gardism in general. In 1970, Ron Padgett and David Shapiro edited and published the first major collection of New York School poetry, An Anthology of New York Poets, which included seven poems by Koch.
Koch’s association with the New York School worked, in effect, as an apprenticeship. Many critics found Koch’s early work obscure, such as Poems (Tibor de Nagy Gallery 1953), and the epic Ko, or A Season on Earth (Grove Press, 1959), yet remarked upon his subsequent writing for its clarity, lyricism, and humor, such as in The Art of Love (Random House, 1975), which was praised as a graceful, humorous book. His other collections of poetry include New Addresses (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), winner of the Phi Beta Kappa Poetry Award and a finalist for the National Book Award; Straits (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998); One Train and On the Great Atlantic Rainway, Selected Poems 1950–1988, both published by Knopf in 1994, which together earned him the Bollingen Prize in 1995; Seasons of the Earth (Penguin, 1987); On the Edge (Viking Penguin, 1986); Days and Nights (Random House, 1982); The Burning Mystery of Anna in 1951 (Random House, 1979); The Duplications (Random House, 1977); The Pleasures of Peace: And Other Poems (Grove Press, 1969); When the Sun Tries to Go On (Black Sparrow Press, 1969), which was illustrated by Larry Rivers; and Thank You, and Other Poems (Grove Press, 1962).
Koch’s short plays, many of them produced off- and off-off-Broadway, are collected in The Gold Standard: A Book of Plays (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996). He has also published Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (Scribners, 1998); the longer play The Red Robins (1975), a novel; Hotel Lambosa and Other Stories (Coffee House Press, 1993); and several books on teaching children to write poetry, including Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry (HarperCollins, 1999) and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012). Koch wrote the libretto for composer Marcello Panni’s The Banquet, which premiered in Bremen, Germany in June 1998. Koch’s collaborations with painters have been the subject of exhibitions at the Ipswich Museum in England and the De Nagy Gallery in New York.
Koch’s numerous honors include the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, awarded by the Library of Congress in 1996, as well as awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Fulbright, Guggenheim, and Ingram-Merrill foundations. In 1996, he was inducted as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Kenneth Koch lived in New York City, where he was a professor of English at Columbia University. Koch died on July 6, 2002 from leukemia.