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.


john koethe | from the porch

17 08 2010

PoetryDispatch No.331 | August 16, 2010

John Koethe


The stores were bright, and not too far from home.
The school was only half a mile from downtown,
A few blocks from the Oldsmobile dealer. In the sky,
The airplanes came in low towards Lindbergh Field,
Passing overhead with a roar that shook the windows.
How inert the earth must look from far away:
The morning mail, the fantasies, the individual days
Too intimate to see, no matter how you tried;
The photos in the album of the young man leaving home.
Yet there was always time to visit them again
In a roundabout way, like the figures in the stars,
Or a life traced back to its imaginary source
In an adolescent reverie, a forgotten book—
As though one’s childhood were a small midwestern town
Some forty years ago, before the elm trees died.
September was a modern classroom and the latest cars,
That made a sort of futuristic dream, circa 1955.
The earth was still uncircled. You could set your course
On the day after tomorrow. And children fell asleep
To the lullaby of people murmuring softly in the kitchen,
While a breeze rustled the pages of Life magazine,
And the wicker chairs stood empty on the screened-in porch.

[from NORTH POINT NORTH, New and Selected Poems, Perennial, 2002]

John Koethe was born in San Diego, California in 1945. He was educated at Princeton and Harvard Universities and is a Professor of Philosophy at UWM. His award-winning poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Brooklyn Review, Cream City Review, Epoch, The New Republic, Paris Review, Southwest Review, TriQuarterly, and The Yale Review. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Blue Vents (1969), The Late Wisconsin Spring (1984), and The Constructor (1999). His 1973 book of poems, Domes, won the 1973 Frank O’Hara Award for Poetry, and his 1997 collection, Falling Water, received the highly coveted 1998 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award from Claremont Graduate University. Additionally, the poem “A Pathetic Landscape” from Falling Water received the 1998 Elizabeth Machette Stover Award from Southwest Review. Prof. Koethe has received Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships and he is also author of the well-received scholarly study, The Continuity of Wittgenstein’s Thought (1996). In presenting the Tufts Award to Falling Water, the award’s panel of judges cited Prof. Koethe’s “precise, unpedantic pavanes and sarabandes, written with a philosopher’s ear for the spare beauty of abstraction … They move the reader both as music and as meaning.” On February 20, 2000, John Koethe was honored by being named Milwaukee’s first poet laureate.