Memories of a “Child of the New York School”: Katherine Koch’s new essay

I was excited to see that Kenneth Koch’s daughter, Katherine Koch, has published an affecting memoir about her childhood in the journal Hanging Loose, which, fortunately, was just posted on Poetry Daily.  It’s a lovely, impressionistic piece about Koch’s father, his friends, and what it was like to grow up surrounded by the witty, ironic banter and imaginative creativity that kept their circle humming.  As a note at the end of the essay explains, Katherine Koch is a painter, and this is her first published writing — as far as I know, she’s never reflected publicly before on being the daughter of a famous poet or on what it was like to be a young witness to the New York poetry and art scene in the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s a treat to read any first-hand memoir of the New York School poets in their heyday, but even more unusual and special to have one from the perspective of a child who grew up in their midst.  In fact, it’s one of the few memoirs I can think of by any child of a New York School poet (perhaps not surprising given that many of the central figures, like O’Hara, Schuyler, and Ashbery, didn’t have children).

There are lots of terrific moments in the piece — like her riff on a photograph of Koch posing somewhat stiffly in front of some ruins in Italy when his daughter was a baby (“he appears to be trying, under difficult circumstances, to be a poet at a Greek ruin”), or her memories of the “dark and harsh” paintings by Larry Rivers hanging in their art-filled home that creeped her out when she was little.

Koch does a wonderful job, in particular, of capturing the particular brand of irony practiced by her father and his circle, and the strange experience of growing up around a group of bohemian adults who exuded “art and ease, energy and glamor,” who were constantly playing with language and ideas, making wild imaginative leaps, and treating the wider culture with bemused and campy irony at every turn.  She also deftly captures her father’s competitiveness and self-regard (“he also couldn’t resist keeping the focus on himself”), but also his love and boundless charisma.

Koch reminisces about the funny, campy postcards her father and his friends loved to collect and send one another (a New York School specialty), and remembers receiving packets of silly old postcards from James Schuyler with his own captions written in (lucky her!).

She recalls the fondness she felt as a young girl for Kenward Elmslie and Anne Porter (Fairfield’s wife), and ponders the general indifference the adults of that world seemed to feel towards children (a far cry, perhaps, from the hovering helicopter parents of today): “They were most often uninterested in charming or listening to a child. Not always, certainly, but often. They wouldn’t tousle my hair or ask me fond questions about my life and my activities.”

Reading the piece reminded me of several tender, nostalgic moments in Kenneth Koch’s later work where he summons up memories of his daughter Katherine as a little girl, especially during the time they lived in Florence — as in this passage from “Days and Nights”:

I have certainly lost something
My writing makes me aware of it
It isn’t life and it isn’t youth
I’m still young enough and alive
It’s what I wrote in my poems
That I’ve lost, the way Katherine would walk
As far as the tree line, and how the fruit tree blossoms
Would seem to poke their way into the window
Although they were a long way outside

All in all, it’s a wonderful and revealing essay that offers a fresh perspective on the world of Koch and his pals.  Thankfully, the note mentions that “Hanging Loose hopes to publish future installments.” I, for one, am certainly looking forward to more!

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