(1925 - 2002)
Poet of the New York School with a zest for life and love
Friday 6 September 2002 01.54 BST
American poet Kenneth Koch, who has died aged 77 of leukaemia, was a member of the New York School of writers and painters, alongside poets such as John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler. Koch, a boundlessly inventive and joyful writer, went to New York to sit at Ashbery's feet in the early 1950s. While he remained the junior partner, the early Koch was a poet of great ease and voluptuousness with a teasing, laidback manner.
Although his prolific output included formal rhyming verse, his principal style throughout his career was a loose digressive lope that tried to pack everything in and somehow be as zingy as he felt life was. Most poets would never get away with saying, as Koch did in Desire For Spring, from his first major collection, Thank You (1962): "I want spring, I want to turn like a mobile/ In a new fresh air!"
The painters Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher were essential members of the New York School. As Koch put it in A Time Zone: "I am inspired by these painters/ They make me want to paint myself on an amateur basis/ Without losing my poetic status." This was late 1950s and early 1960s New York - post-beat. It was the time of bop jazz's apogee with Davis, Coltrane, Blakey and Mingus, and of abstract expressionism and pop art.
Koch was born in Cincin nati, Ohio, the son of a furniture store owner. Like John Betjeman, young Kenneth was never going to enter the family business. He went to Harvard University and then Columbia University for his PhD.
Before he could come into his own as a poet, the war started. He served in the Philippines and wrote about it with detachment: "...Well, I was in you./ All you cared about was existing and being won./ You died of a bomb blast in Nagasaki, and then there were parades."
The word "mock" (not in the cruel sense) was important to Koch. He wrote mock odes and epics, mock plays, pretty well everything he wrote was mock something. It can be a very productive poetic strategy, and it certainly went a long way with Koch. New York was a "Disgusting rectangular garbage dump/ Sending its fumes up to suffocate the city", which was just his way of saying he loved it.
An exuberant and happy heterosexuality runs through Koch's poems of all periods, reaching its peak in the long The Art of Love (1975): "Happy is the man who has two breasts to crush against his bosom,/ A tongue to suck on, a lip to bite, and in fact an entire girl! He knows a success/ Not known by any Mount Aetna or Vesuvius or by any other major volcano of the world!"
Koch's Selected Poems and the 1997 collection One Train are published in the UK by Carcanet. Two posthumous collections are on the way. New Addresses ( unavailable in Britain) must be one of the finest books written by a poet who knew he was facing the end. One poem, To My Heart At The Close Of Day, is now on my message board:
At dusk light you come out to bat
As George Trakl might put it. How are you doing
Aside from that, aside from the fact
That you are at bat? What balls are you going to hit
Into the outfield, what runs will you score,
And do you think you will ever, eventually,
Bat one out of the park?...
You warm up, then you take a great step
Forward as the ball comes smashing toward you, home
Plate. And suddenly it is evening.
· Kenneth Jay Koch, poet, born February 27 1925; died July 6 2002. He is survived by his wife, daughter and a grandson.