Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Poet John Koethe

John Koethe. North Point North: New and Selected Poems. New York. HarperCollins Publishers. 2002. 254 pages. ISBN 0-06-620982-X.

John Koethe is one of the most distinctive poets of our time: his work presents ordinary life and its’ contemplation with eloquence; it’s a philosophical poetry of deep feeling and true tones—and yet reading his book North Point North: New and Selected Poems was sometimes painful. The pain was not his fault: I kept remembering formerly well-forgotten feelings regarding two unresolved relationships with uniquely intelligent and sensitive acquaintances. The honesty of Koethe’s work calls forth one’s own honesty—and I remembered lies I told myself and believed (one, that we had understood each other and achieved a genuine intimacy; and two, that I no longer loved them after I realized we had not understood each other). I had shared with one of these acquaintances Koethe’s The Constructor, specifically a poem (“Threnody for Two Voices”) that concludes: “I want to see myself as I am, and look at you the way you are—/Is that a form of hatred? Or an intricate form of care/That lets another person be? Or a form of self-deception/Leaving both of us alone, but with our disparate lives/Uneasily together at the end, within a blank and/Intimate expanse? Maybe now you see.” And the acquaintance said he thought the poem brutal, while I said I thought it tender—two different ways of seeing that mirrored what Koethe himself was writing about.

John Koethe, educated at Princeton and Harvard, is a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and he wrote The Continuity of Wittgenstein’s Thought. In the essay “Poetry and the Structure of Speculation” Koethe wrote, “I think that poetry and philosophy are both speculative activities, in that both involve the entertainment of propositions in the absence of certainty about their truth and often the absence of any means of even establishing their truth.” Koethe names as his influences John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Eliot, and makes reference in his poetry to art and music (Satie and the Supremes), childhood, family, marriage and separation, work and teaching, and cities and neighborhoods—and Koethe’s voice, simultaneously critical, affectionate, and melancholy, seems its own confirming evidence and inspires belief in the significance of Koethe’s observations. Koethe has gained a growing readership, including the appreciation of other poets and also leading critics. His handling of language is so deft that it took me a while to realize that some of his poems contain rhymes. His poems are a means of facing the world and also fruits of “evasions” that are full of “melodramas of the mind” in a world that often “remains indifferent to our needs.” Koethe’s words are a splash of cool water from an elegant pitcher. In “Argument in Isolation” he writes, “I think the truest language is the one translated by the leaves/When the wind blows through them, and the truest/Statement is the one asserted by the sun/That shines indifferently on loneliness and love;/And that neither one is bearable…”

Koethe’s North Point North is a book that illuminates; it is also as satisfying as it is chilling.

(c) DG, 2002/2003