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John Koethe

1945–

Originally from San Diego, John Koethe was born on December 25, 1945. He began writing poetry in 1964, during his undergraduate studies at Princeton University and went on to receive a PhD in philosophy from Harvard University.

Koethe's Ninety-fifth Street (Harper Perennial, 2009) won the 2010 Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He has published numerous books of poetry, including The Swimmer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), North Point North: New and Selected Poems (Harper Perennial, 2003), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; The Constructor (Harper Perennial, 1999); Falling Water (Harper Perennial, 1997), which won the Kingsley Tufts Award; Domes (Columbia University Press, 1974), which won the Frank O'Hara Award for Poetry; and Blue Vents (Audit/Poetry, 1968). His most recent collection, Walking Backwards: Poems 1966–2016, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2018.

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."

Koethe is also the author of three collections of essays: Skepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning (Cornell University Press, 2005); Poetry at One Remove (University of Michigan Press, 2000); and the scholarly work, The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Thought (Cornell University Press, 1996).

He is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Koethe's work has been nominated for The New Yorker Book Award and the Boston Book Review Award. He is a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin, and received a lifetime achievement award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers. From 2000 through 2002, he served as Milwaukee's first poet laureate.

Koethe served as the Elliston Poet in Residence at the University of Cincinnati and as the Bain-Swiggett Professor of Poetry at Princeton University. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he resides with his wife.
 


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
The Swimmer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)
Ninety-fifth Street (Harper Perennial, 2009)
North Point North: New and Selected Poems (Harper Perennial, 2003)
The Constructor (Harper, 1999)
Falling Water (Harper Perennial, 1997)
Domes (Columbia University Press, 1974)
Blue Vents (Audit/Poetry, 1968)

Prose
Skepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning (Cornell University Press, 2005)
Poetry at One Remove (University of Michigan Press, 2000)

By This Poet

13

A Perfume

There were mice, and even
Smaller creatures holed up in the rafters.
One would raise its thumb, or frown,
And suddenly the clouds would part, and the whole
Fantastic contraption come tumbling down.

And the arcade of forgotten things
Closed in the winter, and the roller coaster
Stood empty as the visitors sped away
Down a highway that passed by an old warehouse
Full of boxes of spools and spoons. 

I wonder if these small mythologies,
Whose only excuse for existing is to maintain us
In our miniscule way of life,
Might possibly be true? And even if they were,
Would it be right? Go find the moon

And seal it in the envelope of night.
The stars are like a distant dust
And what the giants left lies hidden in full view.
Brush your hair. Wipe the blood from your shoes.
Sit back and watch the firedance begin.
--So the rain falls in place,

The playground by the school is overrun with weeds
And we live our stories, filling up our lives
With souvenirs of the abandoned
Factory we have lingered in too long.

Hackett Avenue


I used to like connections:
Leaves floating on the water
Like faces floating on the surface of a dream,
On the surface of a swimming pool
Once the holocaust was complete.
And then I passed through stages of belief
And unbelief, desire and restraint.
I found myself repeating certain themes
Ad interim, until they began to seem quaint
And I began to feel myself a victim of coincidence,
Inhabiting a film whose real title was my name --
Inhabiting a realm of fabulous constructions
Made entirely of words, all words
I should have known, and should have connected
Until they meant whatever I might mean.
But they're just fragments really,
No more than that.


                 A coast away,
And then across an ocean fifty years away,
I felt an ashen figure gliding through the leaves
-- Bewitchment of intelligence by leaves -- 
A body floating clothed, facedown,
A not-so-old philosopher dying in his bed
-- At least I thought I felt those things.
But then the line went dead
And I was back here in the cave, another ghost
Inhabiting the fourth part of the soul
And waiting, and still waiting, for the sun to come up.
Tell them I've had a wonderful life.
Tell Mr. DeMille I'm ready for my close-up.

Sally's Hair

It's like living in a light bulb, with the leaves
Like filaments and the sky a shell of thin, transparent glass
Enclosing the late heaven of a summer day, a canopy
Of incandescent blue above the dappled sunlight golden on the grass.

I took the train back from Poughkeepsie to New York
And in the Port Authority, there at the Suburban Transit window,
She asked, "Is this the bus to Princeton?"—which it was.
"Do you know Geoffrey Love?" I said I did. She had the blondest hair,

Which fell across her shoulders, and a dress of almost phosphorescent blue.
She liked Ayn Rand. We went down to the Village for a drink,
Where I contrived to miss the last bus to New Jersey, and at 3 a.m. we
Walked around and found a cheap hotel I hadn't enough money for

And fooled around on its dilapidated couch. An early morning bus
(She'd come to see her brother), dinner plans and missed connections

And a message on his door about the Jersey shore. Next day
A summer dormitory room, my roommates gone: "Are you," she asked,

"A hedonist?" I guessed so. Then she had to catch her plane.
Sally—Sally Roche. She called that night from Florida,
And then I never heard from her again. I wonder where she is now,
Who she is now. That was thirty-seven years ago.

And I'm too old to be surprised again. The days are open,
Life conceals no depths, no mysteries, the sky is everywhere,
The leaves are all ablaze with light, the blond light
Of a summer afternoon that made me think again of Sally's hair.