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The exuberant and funny poet Kenneth Koch (“coke”) died at 77 on this date in 2002. A poet from an early age, he studied with Delmore Schwartz at Harvard in the late 1940s, following extensive military combat in the Pacific during World War II, and became an important member of the so-called “New York School” of poets, which included John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and several others. The New Republic described the New York School as assembling its “own outsider identity from some of the same sources as the Beats: an urban male savvy, sometimes inflected with Jewish and gay sensibilities, and an openness to avant-garde work in other media.” Koch (who was heterosexual and twice married) began publishing books of poetry in the 1960s, but became well known with The Art of Love: Poems, published in 1975. He taught at Columbia University for over forty years and, in addition to a generous output of poetry books, also wrote about education in Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry (1970) and other books and anthologies. In addition, Koch wrote more than 100 avant-garde plays as well as short fiction. Two-time winner of the Bollingen Prize for One Train (1994) and On The Great Atlantic Rainway: Selected Poems 1950-1988 (1994), he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1996. David Lehman in Newsweek called him the “funniest serious poet we have.” To hear five of his poems read, look below.
“One person in a million finds out something
Perhaps each fifty years and that is knowledge.
Newton, Copernicus, Einstein are cunning.
The rest of us just rise and go to college
With no more hope to come home with the bunting
Than a stray dachshund going through the village.
However, what a treat our small successes
Of present and of past, at various addresses!” —Kenneth Koch, “Bel Canto”