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In Memoriam

Kenneth Koch
Kenneth Koch
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Kenneth Koch, longtime professor of English and comparative literature, died on July 6 at his home in Manhattan. He was 77, and had lectured on literature and inspired budding writers at the University for nearly 40 years. Equally well-known as a poet of the New York School, an avant-garde poetic movement that was forged in Manhattan in the 1950s, Koch’s literary career spanned more than 50 years and resulted in the publication of at least 30 volumes of poetry and plays.

Koch and his New York School co-founders, poets John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara and painters Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers, took up the brash, anti-establishment mantle of their beatnik predecessors, but with less machismo and facial hair. According to an article about Koch in the July 17 Spectator, the New York School “departed from confessional poetry and the legacy of academic early modernists Pound and Yeats (as evidenced in Variation on a Theme, by William Carlos Williams) to express the joy and possibility of urban America in the 1950s. The iconoclastic movement carried on the flame sparked by the beatniks, yet infused a classical European influence with humor and pop culture.”

At Columbia, “[Koch] was a trailblazer in the teaching of poetry, and the trail he blazed was colorful, replete with wonderful surprises, deeply felt and fun — as was Kenneth’s poetry,” Professor of Writing Alan Ziegler said. “As a colleague, Kenneth was instrumental in helping us start the Columbia College Creative Writing Program. He seemed ageless and timeless.”

Koch also was admired by his students for unorthodox teaching techniques, such as making up impromptu poems to show the relation of lines and rhymes. He was known to rewrite famous poems to show how a simple change in diction or structure could drastically change the entire poem. For many years, Koch taught writing to grade-school children, claiming that poetry was as thrilling as stickball.

Koch was born on February 27, 1925, in Cincinnati, the son of Stuart Koch, who owned a furniture store, and Lillian Koch, who wrote amateur literary reviews. After graduating from high school, he served in the Philippines during World War II, a harrowing experience that he did not translate into verse until the very end of his life. After the war, he enrolled at Harvard, where he studied writing with poet Delmore Schwartz and embarked on a lifelong friendship with Ashbery. By his own account, he was hungry for the poet’s life but naïve about the art of making poems. “I was so dumb, I thought Yeats was pronounced Yeets,” he said in an interview in 1977. Koch finished his education at Columbia, earning his Ph.D in 1959.

“I think we [in the New York School] may have been more conscious than many poets of the surface of the poem, and what was going on while we were writing and how we were using words,” he said in the same interview. “I don’t think we saw any reason to resist humor in our poems.” Indeed, Koch’s poetry is at once lyrical and humorous, aching with emotion and achingly funny. He managed to write verse that is breathy and expansive in tone, yet still rooted in the American predilections for pop-culture references and proper nouns. This is an excerpt from Thank You:

    The only thing I could publicize well would be my tooth,
    Which I could say came with my mouth and in
        a most engaging manner
    With my whole self, my body and including my mind,
    Spirits, emotions, spiritual essences, emotional substances,
        poetry, dreams, and lords
    Of my life, everything, all embraceleted with my tooth
    In a way that makes one wish to open the windows and scream
        “Hi!” to the heavens,
    And “Oh, come and take me away before I die in a minute!”

Speaking of Koch’s long poem, The Duplications, one reviewer said it read like a collaboration among Lord Byron, Walt Disney, Frank Buck and André Breton.

Collaboration was, in fact, a crucial part of Koch’s art. He and Rivers, for instance, worked together on a series of painting-poems called New York, 1950–1960 and Post Cards. He also wrote the librettos to operas set to music by, among others, composer Ned Rorem.

This fall, two of Koch’s books will be issued posthumously — one contains many of his previously unpublished poems from the early 1950s, and the other is a gathering of new works. His most recent book, New Addresses (2002), is a collection of apostrophes to things such as World War II and Judaism. It received the inaugural Phi Beta Kappa Poetry Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Koch won numerous prizes during his career, including the Bollingen Prize in 1995 for One Train (Knopf, 1996) and On the Great Atlantic Rainway, Selected Poems 1950–1988 (Knopf, 1994). He also won the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry in 1996, and was awarded three Fulbright scholarships and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Koch is survived by his wife, Karen; daughter, Katherine; and grandson, Jesse Statman.

Eric L. McKitrick, 82, a University historian who chronicled the evolution of the American republic, died on April 24 in Manhattan.

McKitrick was best known for Andrew Jackson and Reconstruction (1960), a pivotal work in the reinterpretation of the history of Reconstruction, reissued by Oxford University Press in 1988. He was the co-author, with Stanley Elkins, of The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800 (Oxford University Press, 1994), which won the Bancroft Prize. Both books remain in print. McKitrick also wrote about included slavery and the Old South and the development of the American party system.

Born in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1919, McKitrick graduated from General Studies in 1949 and received a master’s in 1951 and a Ph.D. in 1960 in history from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He taught at the University of Chicago and at Rutgers University’s Douglass College in the 1950s before joining the history faculty at Columbia in 1960. McKitrick retired as an emeritus professor of history in 1989 and is remembered by Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, as “a superb teacher, writer and mentor, and a gentleman in the best sense of that now somewhat arcane word.”

McKitrick is survived by his wife of 55 years, Edythe Stevenson McKitrick; sons, Frederick L. II ’94 GSAS and Charles K.; daughters, Enid L. and Mary C.; brother, Keith G.; and nine grandchildren.

Kenneth A. Lohf, a University librarian who in a quarter century more than doubled the University’s collection of rare books and manuscripts, died on May 9 at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center. He was 77 and lived in Manhattan.

Lohf had various jobs in Columbia’s libraries for 40 years. He also was a published poet, a bibliographer, a literary scholar and a collector. During his tenure as rare books librarian, which began in 1967 and ended with his retirement in 1993, Columbia increased its collection of rare books by 275,000 volumes, and its collection of rare manuscripts and documents rose to 24 million, from 3 million. Almost single-handedly, Lohf raised $3 million to renovate the rare books library. At his retirement, the University honored him with three separate exhibitions — one of items acquired during his tenure, one documenting his life at Columbia and the third displaying books that he donated to the University.

Lohf was born in Milwaukee on January 14, 1925. He attended Amherst College, but left to serve in the Army Air Force in India during World War II. After the war, he graduated from Northwestern University. He received a master’s in English and comparative literature from the School of Arts and Sciences in 1950 and a master’s in library science from the School of Library Science in 1952. He was a fellow of the Morgan Library since 1980 and a member of The Grolier Club since 1961.

Lohf is survived by Paul Palmer, his companion of 53 years, and three nephews.

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