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Kenneth Koch, 77; a Founder of N.Y. School of Poets


Kenneth Koch, whose humorous, passionate, casually erudite poetry drew as freely on comic books, movies and other pop-culture ephemera as it did on Surrealist art and French Symbolist verse, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan after a lengthy struggle with leukemia. He was 77.

A founding member of the so-called New York School of Poets in the 1950s, along with his friends John Ashbery and the late Frank O'Hara, Koch reveled in a form of lyrical production regarded by some as the verse equivalent of Abstract Expressionist painting: a robust, acerbic, self-contemplating, nonconformist, purposefully irreverent and often erotically charged mode of artistic communication.

Boisterous and uninhibited, Koch's poems revealed his love of puns, tricky internal rhymes and what one critic described as his "kind, flexible, winsome, soulful irony." Another critic in the New York Review of Books once observed that "Koch is fond of making poetry out of poetry-resistant stuff. Locks, lipsticks, business letterheads, walnuts, lunch and fudge attract him; so do examples of inept slang, silly sentiment, brutal behavior and stereotyped exotica and erotica."

In addition to about 30 volumes of poetry, Koch (pronounced "coke") also wrote short fiction and several plays produced off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway. Most of these were spirited pastiches of Western myth and burlesques of national folklore that, despite their lightly mocking tone, invested their subjects with a kind of rapturous childlike innocence reminiscent of Pop Art.

Friends and former students said Koch brought that same ardency and freewheeling adventurism to teaching, whether his pupils were Columbia University undergraduates, elementary schoolchildren or elderly patients at a nursing home on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Under Koch's guidance and encouragement, a number of these patients produced a 1977 collection of poems titled "I Never Told Anybody; Teaching Writing In A Nursing Home."

"Often I wondered, 'Why is he so intense about this [teaching]?' " said painter Jane Freilicher, who became friends with Koch after he began graduate work at Columbia University in the late 1940s. "But he really had a mission. He had almost a naive faith in the value of poetry that was rather admirable."

Rejecting the highbrow literary attitudes of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and their academic apostles the New Critics, Koch and his New York School colleagues sought to capture the more spontaneous, improvisational voice of postwar American society--the bearable lightness of being alive in a time of peace, prosperity and dynamic social change. While the energetic O'Hara was the group's catalyst, Koch performed a different role.

"Kenneth was a great professor who could be likened to a sort of sorcerer who attracted a lot of apprentices to him, like a pied piper," said David Lehman, a poet and author of "The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets." "He was very committed to a certain aesthetic point of view, and he was very hard-line about it."

Much as Abstract Expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were often perceived, somewhat simplistically, as hurling paint at a canvas and letting meaning take shape from the inchoate splatters, New York School poets were sometimes regarded, both by critics and admirers, as flinging words at a page and letting readers determine the subject--if they could.

Attuned to the staccato rhythms of modern city life, the rumble of subway trains and the flutter of bebop jazz, the New York School's urban-populist sensibility can be glimpsed in poems such as Koch's "Spring" (from the anthology "On the Great Atlantic Rainway: Selected Poems 1950-1988"):

Let's take a walk

In the city

Till our shoes get wet

(It's been raining all night) and when

We see the traffic

Lights and the moon

Let's take a smile

Off the ashcan, let's walk

Into town (I mean

A lemon peel)

One signature of Koch's poetry was a slapstick wit worthy of a Catskills comedian. Sometimes this would erupt into language that was irrepressibly silly, but usually with an undertow of seriousness: "I have a knocking woodpecker in my heart and I think I have three souls/One for love one for poetry and one for acting out my insane self." In book-length contemporary epic poems like "Ko; or, A Season on Earth" (1959) and "The Duplications" (1977), written in Byronic ottava rima stanzas, he grappled with trying to make sense of the absurd human condition. It was a more measured and comically savvy version of the famous beatnik howl.

A gifted mimic, he would break into imitation of movie stars, politicians and other famous personages to illustrate a point or act out an idea that had seized him.

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