The author of several collections of poetry, including North Point North: New and Selected Poems (2002), John Koethe also publishes and teaches philosophy, focusing on the philosophy of language. Philosophical inquiry pervades Koethe’s poems, as they continually circle around time, memory, and art’s (in)ability to assure us of either concept, or any concept at all. Critic Andrew Yaphe calls Koethe “one of our foremost Romantic poets, an inheritor of the tradition of Stevens and Ashbery”. Koethe’s longer poems, occasionally formal or metered, show the influence of Elizabeth Bishop, William Wordsworth, Marcel Proust, Mark Strand, and Kenneth Koch.
When I was a boy
I thought a life just happened, or was there to find.
Wars were aberrations. Poems were another generation's.
I didn't realize you made it up, you made them up,
And that the self was not an object but an act,
A sequence of decisions bound together by a noun
But with the feel of a fact.
(from ‘Collected Poems’)
The self is inextricably tied to memory. Koethe’s poems return again and again to the past, as if “menaced by the fear of some vague lack”. His speakers, divided between past and present, the searching and the satisfied self, seek refuge in the imagination. Art, rather than serving as an escape from these dualities, allows them to coexist. The power of Koethe’s poems lies in their ability to accept such cognitive dissonance.
Is it so terrible to try to keep the world at bay,
To treat it as an exercise in make-believe? Some say so,
But to me what matters is the going back and forth
Between two different minds, both incomplete, the liberty to disappear
Into the freedom of a daydream or the freedom of the street.
(from ‘Piranesi’s Keyhole’)
As critic Robert Hahn notes, “Koethe’s poetry is ultimately lyrical, and its claim on us comes not from philosophy’s dream of precision but from the common human dream that our lives make some kind of sense. What Koethe offers is not ideas, but a weave of reflection, emotion, and music; what he creates is art – a bleak, harrowing art in all it chooses to confront, but one whose rituals and repetitions contain the hope of renewal.”
I think my life is still all conversation,
Only now it’s with myself. I can see it continuing forever,
Even in my absence, as I close the windows and turn off the lights
And it begins to rain. And then we’re there together
In the house on the meadow, waiting for whatever’s left to come
In what’s become the near future—two versions of myself
And of the people that we knew, each one an other
To the other, yet both indelibly there.
(from ‘Ninety-fifth Street’)
Koethe began writing poetry as an undergraduate at Princeton University and received his PhD from Harvard. He received the Kingsley Tufts Award for Falling Water (1997), the Frank O’Hara Award for Domes (1973), and the Bernard F. Connors Award. His poetry has been included in several anthologies, including Best American Poetry. Koethe has been granted fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has also received a lifetime achievement award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers. He is currently a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
Ninety-fifth Street, HarperCollins, New York, NY, 2009
Sally's Hair, HarperCollins, New York, NY, 2006
The Constructor: Poems, HarperCollins, New York, NY, 1999
Falling Water, HarperCollins, New York, NY, 1997
The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Thought, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1996
The Late Wisconsin Spring, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1984
Domes, Frank O'Hara Foundation, New York, NY, 1973
Blue Vents, Audit/Poetry, Buffalo, NY, 1968
Verse Wisconsin Online Interview with John Koethe
Poetry Everywhere: Chester, video