john koethe | re-visited

16 09 2010

Poetry Dispatch No.333 | September 16, 2010


As much as I think (or pretend) to know about writers and their work locally, nationally, internationally, I am always surprised to discover a writer in my own backyard (the Midwest, Wisconsin) that I had never read. Never even heard of before. This is true of John Koethe, a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, whom I read for the first time during a recent hospital stay in Madison. Poet and friend Alice D’Alessio brought me some old copies of The New York Review of Books where I found a review of Koethe’s work, ordered one of his books (NORTH POINT NORTH: SELECTED POEMS) , and ever since have been in hot pursuit of everything he has written.

Just recently I acquired, NINETY-FIFTH STREET (highly recommended) and THE LATE WISCONSIN SPRING, yet another beauty and somewhat hard to find.

You always wonder how you could have missed such a fine writer in your own backyard, then again…it’s impossible to keep up. I might add, though, that a poet of his caliber ‘hiding’ in the philosophy department of a university instead of beating the drum of the usual poetry circuit may be part of the reason.

In any event, I’m here to celebrate this man’s extraordinary work, again. (Scroll down to see the previous dispatch featuring his beautiful poem, “The Porch”)

Here are three more poems of Koethe I can’t live without. –Norbert Blei


Another day, which is usually how they come:
A cat at the foot of the bed, noncommittal
In its blankness of mind, with the morning light
Slowly filling the room, and fragmentary
Memories of last nights video and phone calls.
It is a feeling of sufficiency, one menaced
By the fear of some vague lack, of a simplicity
Of self, a self without a soul, the nagging fear
Of being someone to whom nothing ever happens.
Thus the fantasy of the narrative behind the story,
Of the half-concealed life that lies beneath
The ordinary one, made up of ordinary mornings
More alike in how they feel than what they say.
They seem like luxuries of consciousness,
Like second thoughts that complicate the time
One simply wastes. And why not? Mere being
Is supposed to be enough, without the intricate
Evasions of a mystery or offstage tragedy.
Evenings follow on the afternoons, lingering in
The living room and listening to the stereo
While Peggy Lee sings “Is That All There Is?”
Amid the morning papers and the usual
Ghosts keeping you company, but just for a while.
The true soul is the one that flickers in the eyes
Of an animal, like a cat that lifts its head and yawns
And looks at you, and then goes back to sleep.


Nothing gets finished, and so much
Is never even begun, dogging your life forever.
No one wants to be like someone else,
For each one thinks he’s special, and indeed he is.
Friend, I speak to you from Vernon Manor
In Cincinnati, where the Beatles stayed
When they played America over forty years ago.
My life is your life. What I want to say to you
Is what you’d say to me if I were you and you were me,
Which I know is impossible, and makes no sense.
It’s been raining off and on all day. I’ve stayed in my room
Reading a book about the bamboo fly rod, musing on The Prelude
And the even longer poem of which it was to be a kind of coda—
“0 let it be the tail-piece of The Recluse,” Coleridge wrote,
“For of nothing but The Recluse can I hear patiently.” Wordsworth
Never wrote it. His idea of God became more orthodox
As he aged into a public figure, the identity of God and Nature
And the sense of the sublime that it occasioned
Fading away, becoming just another part of His design,
The freshness of the language lost, becoming—
What? Not more self-absorbed (that was hardly possible),
But self-absorbed in an increasingly distant way.
We know what happened to The Prelude.

I remember reading the poem about the daffodils
In high school, just around the time I started floating
Gently down those streams of consciousness
Where modernism chronicled the dissolving soul—
The old inside the new, uneasily together in a spot of time,
A trick of consciousness the mind plays on itself.
I remember spending a whole summer working on a poem
That ended with a prospect of some floating mountains
Defining the world, contained (to steal a phrase)
In an “imagination of the whole” that seemed to coalesce
“Above this frame of things,” before it disappeared
Into a blizzard of confused perceptions. Its all so
Strange now: visions and deflating theories come and go,
And yet whatever they concern remains unchanged. The rain
Descends on Vernon Manor, where I’m waiting for a phone call,
Wondering what had made it once seem so important. Was it
Simply a desire to be different—to not be someone else, to not be
Something else? “You are an I,” I heard a voice exclaiming, “you are an
Elizabeth, you are one of them. Why should you be one, too?”
To be an object in a world of things: it’s what the recluse fears,
And what his argument portends. The face in the mirror
Might be anyone’s or no one’s, slowly becoming dead to itself,
Like a word’s becoming meaningless through repetition.
I want to hear the Beatles. I could look up what they played
When they played here (you can find nearly anything on the Web),
But there’s no CD player in my room. I have my bamboo
Rod to fool around with, but I’ve done that a few times already,
And might as well save it for the future, or at least next week.
Meanwhile I think I might have talked myself into a poem,
Waiting out the weeks in a hotel room in a small city
Far from home, as the rain is ending and it’s time for bed.


In the end one simply withdraws
From others and time, one’s own time,
Becoming an imaginary Everyman
Inhabiting a few rooms, personifying
The urge to tend one’s garden,
A character of no strong attachments
Who made nothing happen, and to whom
Nothing ever actually happened—a fictitious
Man whose life was over from the start,
Like a diary or a daybook whose poems
And stories told the same story over
And over again, or no story. The pictures
And paintings hang crooked on the walls,
The limbs beneath the sheets are frail and cold
And morning is an exercise in memory
Of a long failure, and of the years
Mirrored in the face of the immaculate
Child who can’t believe he’s old.




7 responses

16 09 2010
Annamarie Causer

Really really heart-warming and gentle feeling…enjoyed them all…..

16 09 2010
Jean Casey

Phew! ” Nothing” can probably “ever happen” to someone with that staggering density of thought racing around like a gerbil on a wheel. “To be or not to be” squared!
Prufrock revisited?
Mean Jean

16 09 2010
Barbara Fitz Vroman

Not so much a comment, as a question to myself. Why did the last poem
somehow erase or diminish my initial applause for his words, for the self
behind the words, into something lesser? The something lesser…a sadness,
a losing of the grandeur of the ordinary…suddenly dust in corners, the smell of milldew, a statute falling over and breaking into pieces. Maybe he is telling me that those more melancholy times of life are also part of the beauty, part of
the grandeur of the ordinary.

16 09 2010
jude, hey

Yegads … what I can understand of his work, reads downright dreary to me. But yes ~~ its been a tough year Mr. Bleeeee.

16 09 2010
Mike Koehler

The Late Wisconsin Spring is one of my favorite home-grown books. I salute your discovery of Koethe. Enjoy.

27 09 2010

Hey look, this poet is also a philosopher. So he’s writing about subjects dear to the wisdom-loving community, such as Consciousness, the Soul, Fullness and Emptiness, Form and Formlessness, using English instead of jargon. He also has a keen psychological eye for the mind’s well-oiled mechanisms of defense—ah yes, the defenses, always the defenses—”the intricate evasions” of our lives universally engendered by the “nagging fears” of existence.

Which reminds me of stepping out the back-stage door after tenth-grade play rehearsals. Suddenly I was no longer Reverend Lloyd in “Life with Father.”
The linoleum was shining back at me in front of the Principal’s office.

2 02 2012

The Poem, THE RECLUSE, is really cool to me, lol, loved it… thank you… WS

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