Going out to sample (my own) lilacs
on John Koethe’s work
by Gerld Schwartz

The role of the public poet/philosopher is such a distinctly 19th-century idea, and it came to seem so passé in the last century, that it's doubly difficult to imagine a time when the public, not just readers of poetry, would look to poets, especially philosophical poets, to interpret -- not to have our lives, our society, our universe defined for us, but to see things we recognize described in a memorable and graceful way.

John Koethe's approach to poetry is not unlike that of Emerson's. Whereas, in Emerson's relationship with the church, he struggled to break out of the rigid, time-honored forms, Koethe's struggles with impermanence and existence have made him forge a poetry from within outward, in which entity is an ideal--- where the organic is equivalent to the intrinsic in a philosophical sense. It has made Koethe address entity, wherever the whole is to the part is to the whole and where the nature of the materials, the nature of purpose, indeed, the nature of the entire production, becomes clear as a necessity. Out of this, Koethe brings poems whose nature is the character of particular situations made universal.

As Emerson's poetry was a fusion of the everyday and what he considered to be universal myths, taking the calculated, deliberate broadening and narrowing of scope so effectively drawn from his study of, and admiration for, Hindu and Buddhist texts which he said, dealt "with worlds and pebbles freely," Koethe, who considers the most ordinary, simple images to be the most powerful and striking in the conveyance of ideas and their emotion, has written in "North Point North": "A poem can seize and hold a moment fast, yet it can/limit what there is to feel, and stake a distance from the world." More than meditations and reflections, Koethe's poems are collections of reinforced ideas, construction soft cantilevered expressions of leaps of faith, extensions of belief placed beside the flow of life, making life over and above its flow upon several "terraces" upon which a man who is passionate, one who thirstily listens in on life, might well live.

And below it all is always fear, "Not the fear of the unknown, but the fear of growing old/ Unchanged, of looking in the mirror/ at a future that repeats itself ad infinitum." In Koethe's hands, the most inauspicious or intimate beginnings consistently lead to the greater ideas embodied in his philosophy, name our place -- and how we're here.


Koethe's poems are clear and accessible, their structures simple, graceful, uncomplicated. Their reflective power comes from an accumulation of precise images and precisely worded themes.Indeed, thoroughness is a watchword -- for his craft and the life that craft bears witness to. If he were to take up an occupation you feel he would soon turn it into an obsession. (In actuality, he's refined his palate so far as to become a gourmet chef: often the wrong spice is as jarring to him as a wrong note played in a quiet piece of Chopin.) This same care characterizes his poetry. Waiting for the right season, writing perhaps three lines a day, he spend much of his time quarrying the right word. When he's done the poem is as quiet as a piece of music by Chopin-- and as exacting.

As casual readers my not notice this precision, they may also respond to different things in his poetry than those that take their time, "listening" in on a more sentimental and revealing poetry, a poetry at once expressive and intimate (from "Montana"):

"I get lost in your dresses. The grace
you enlist as you join me
In the room that is smaller than both of us
Is emptier than you are and more part of us."

Emotional, but controlled and direct. And all the more moving because of its emotional propulsion.

In the second part of the three-part poem, "In Italy", (dedicated to poet Henri Cole), Koethe describes the _expression framed by Adam and Eve's distorted mouths in Masaccio's fresco "Expulsion from the Garden":

"What are we now? What will we become?"

I said he was describing the _expression framed by Adam and Eve's distorted mouths, but he's in fact projected his own... and perhaps ours, rendering perhaps Massacio's original intention.

As with the philosopher-essayist-poet from Concord, who summed up his view in his journals, saying, "When you assume the rhythm of verse and the analogy of Nature, it is making the proclamation, 'I am now freed from the trammels of the Apparent; I speak my mind," Koethe, (who teaches philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and, specifically, his books and essays on linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein will have last impact), fits the ancient and honorable role of the public poet-to-serve as the genus, rather than the generic voice of life's endless questions.

His poetry, as spokesman, is quick to add:

"Yet the questions, raised anew each day, is the same one,
though the person raising it isn't the same:
What am I now? What have I become?"


Architecture is a metaphor often embedded in Koethe's most philosophical poems. "Falling Water", both the title of his forth full-length book and its lengthy title poem housed within, embraces the image of Frank Lloyd Wright's domestic masterpiece-- both in its meditations and it style.

In its use of extended horizontal line as a "true" natural or human line, he finds freedom in expansion. And with its complete allusion to the house built on the falls, the poet seeks always to make distant connections and to illuminate them by the flow of his insight and imagination. The results are breathtaking:

"I wish that time could bring the future back gain
And let me see things as they used to seem to me
Before I found myself alone, in an emancipated state-
Alone and free and killed with cares about tomorrow.
There used to be a logic in the way time passed
That made it flow directly towards underlying space
Where all the minor, individual lives converged."

And we walk along with Koethe as he finds his way. This poem brims with much brought to radiance, beginning slowly, building tentatively, working its way to a crystallized argument-in-an-image, as he finds himself one winter afternoon:

"Remembering a quiet morning in a class room
And inventing everything again, in ordinary
Terms that seemed to comprehend a childish
dream of love, and then loss of love,
and all the intricate years between."

"Falling Water", which is poised at the extreme limits of the sayable, turns on many themes, but mainly it is about disappointment. The language of the poem is serene, tautological, even abstract, and there is a current of anguish running throughout, an undertow of complex and baffled emotion. It is about relying on your mind to get through life. And in this case, the poem, written with an intellectual rigor and clean beauty that may remind some readers of T. S. Eliot, and, perhaps, even more so of Wallace Stevens, is about the poet's divorce.


Kant believed that through a metaphysics of the immanent or empirical world was possible a transcendent metaphysics was not. Koethe subscribes to this belief but writes about the empirical world as if a transcendent metaphysics WERE possible. It is because of the tension between possibility and impossibility that he is able to make the statements he makes. The very title of his book, "The Constructor" (1999), deals with this tension. The 'constructor' is unidentified, although in image after image, line after line-- (especially in the title poem)-- it is Koethe himself, making the constructions the very forms this and the other poems take become the way the poet, with his distrust of-but-embrace-of the abstract, ceaseless visions of the ineffable -- stay on track following ancient patterns. Although Platonic questions about 'how' and 'why' and 'where', mind/body experience, along with the ways we come to know what we think we know, are fixed and the sense of these things shifts, only with construction can anything be marked, in poems, in life, in passing.

The title poem, spanning seven and a quarter pages, is grand move toward greater understanding and the challenges this requires. The challenge to Koethe is that his is metaphysics of absence-- What is most important to him is what is NOT in the picture. As C. K. Williams sentences do, spilling over time and again, Koethe also do, as he writes:

"That understanding lay in childhood; that in emancipated
language one possessed in a real way of merging opposites, of
joining the discursive tone of reason with the weight of the
Emotions to create a finite, early music, that any person
By a simple ct of will, could meld the substance of his life..."

Further on in the poem he shows us his method: to make the metaphysical statement, as he considers his construction of "stock narratives" along with their origins and implications,

"... I feel a part of their confusion, and at
one with them in aspiration, sharing those desires."

And still a little farther along:

"One reads the histories
of art and solitude for what they say about tomorrow
and decipher the illusions of the past for what they
might illuminate about today, for they were once alive."

Koethe acknowledges the idealism of most metaphysics that have come before, and against this he questions his own foundations, with a wistfulness at times that is part of the paradoxical nature of so many of his statements. And in his pacific interrogation come expressions, using everyday language with stunning clarity:

"Why must there be so many ways to disillusionment, of
coming to believe that no one else can feel and that
one really is alone?"

He ends the poem: "...like/ breaths, like intermittent glimpses of some /imperfect gratitude," and "imperfect gratitude" expresses John Koethe's philosophical view, par excellence. It also takes the pragmatic view, wherein "imperfect gratitude" works only as a phrase -- a powerful phrase, but existing, as Wittgenstein would have it, apart from any concrete manifestation-- a trick of words in the mind. And as you move through Koethe's poetry, you see he trades strongest at these instants when he floats his reader through vision cantilevered vision, recreating the world here and now, summing up as much of it all as possible. Philosophers and poets can do this for us. Poets who also philosophers can show us the very limitations of our presence and immanence.