The Center for the Humanities

The Correspondence of Kenneth Koch & Frank O'Hara 1955-1956 (Part I & II)

Editor: Josh Schneiderman
Part I: 38 pages, softcover, saddle-stitch binding
Part II: 34 pages, softcover, saddle-stitch binding

These two chapbooks contain the first published edition of a selection of correspondence between Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara. Written over an eighteen-month period from 1955 to 1956, these letters provide an account of Koch and O’Hara’s important, if often overlooked, friendship. Full of poems, literary gossip, and nods to artistic influences, Koch and O’Hara’s correspondence also chronicles a key moment in what would come to be known as the New York School of poets: O’Hara’s humorous, deadly serious skirmish with the critic Harry Roskolenko in the pages of Poetry magazine and the eventual publication of Koch’s “Fresh Air” in the dissident literary journal i.e. The Cambridge Review.

Author Biographies:

Kenneth Koch (pronounced coke) was born Jay Kenneth Koch in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1925. He served in World War II in the Philippines as an infantryman in the United States Army, and then attended Harvard University. Infatuated with poetry from a young age, particularly the poems of P.B. Shelley and John Keats, Koch worked as an editor of the Advocate, Harvard’s undergraduate literary magazine. At the Advocate, Koch met the poet John Ashbery, who later introduced him to Frank O’Hara. After graduation, Koch moved to New York, where he lived for the rest of his life. In the 1950s, he married Janice Elwood (1931-1981), had a child, Katherine (b. 1955), and traveled throughout Europe. He took a PhD from Columbia University in 1959 and taught English and creative writing there for over forty years, influencing a generation of poets. He published more than a dozen books of poetry and plays in his lifetime and achieved fame in the 1970s for Wishes, Lies, and Dreams and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, books on teaching children to write poetry. He married Karen Culler in 1994, won the Bollingen Prize in 1995, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1996. He passed away in 2002.


Frank O’Hara was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1926 but grew up in Grafton, Massachusetts. A sonarman in the United States Navy in World War II, he attended Harvard University, where he met John Ashbery in Ashbery’s last semester as an undergraduate. After graduating in 1950, O’Hara took a Masters degree in English from the University of Michigan in 1951 and won Michigan’s prestigious Hopwood Award. He then moved to New York, where his legendary gregariousness and personal warmth led to relationships with some of the most important American artists of the 1950s, including Willem de Kooning, Mike Goldberg, Larry Rivers, and Joan Mitchell. In New York, he also met James Schuyler and Barbara Guest and became the central figure in what would later be known as the New York School of poets. In the 1950s, O’Hara began working at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art, became a reviewer and editor for Art News, and in 1960 was promoted to an assistant curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. He published two major books in his lifetime, Meditations in an Emergency (1957) and Lunch Poems (1964). His life was cut short in 1966.

Selected Archives:

  • The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library, New York, NY

Editors