Getting the World into Poems

Versed

by Rae Armantrout
Wesleyan University Press, 121 pp., $22.95; $14.95 (paper)
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Joel Meyerowitz/Cincinnati Art Museum
Joel Meyerowitz: Dairy Land, Provincetown, 1976; chromogenic print from Starburst: Color Photography in America 1970–1980, with essays by Kevin Moore, James Crump, and Leo Rubinfien, just published by Hatje Cantz. The exhibition was organized by the Cincinnati Art Museum and will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum, July 10–September 26, 2010.

John Koethe was born in San Diego, California, in 1945. He is not only a fine poet, but also a professor of philosophy and the author of a book on Wittgenstein’s thought and another called Scepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning. The best introduction to his work is North Point North: New and Selected Poems, published in 2002. Reviewers inevitably compare him to Wallace Stevens because both are supposedly fond of philosophizing abstractly. There’s no question that he occasionally sounds like the older poet, as we can readily see in these lines from a poem called “Songs of the Valley”:

And the face of winter gazes on the August day
That spans the gap between the unseen and the seen.
The academies of delight seem colder now,
The chancellors of a single thought
Distracted by inchoate swarms of feelings
Streaming like collegians through the hollow colonnades.

The difference is that Koethe examines ideas in a far more autobiographical way. He tells us about his life and his feelings with a directness that Stevens would never have allowed himself. In a recent essay, “Poetry and Truth,” Koethe says that he considers poetry basically an elevated form of talking to oneself. “And now it seems like years and years ago,” he writes in a poem called “The Narrow Way,” “I started, out of a perverse curiosity/This imaginary conversation on the border between my self/And the unimaginable pith or emptiness within.” For him, what poems do is attempt to convey the experience of an individual consciousness as it tries to make sense of its own existence. Thinking is an important part of it, but the poems he writes are not dry and abstract. They are in the long tradition of the Romantic lyric in which typically some experience or mood summons back an older memory upon which the poem then quietly deliberates.

Something marvelous is gone,” he writes in a poem. Almost every one of his lengthy, elegiac, and introspective poems has an air of regret and disappointment as they search for a way to recover some moment of complete contentment, “uncontaminated by reflection,” as he says. Koethe compares what he does to poking through the trash for something you threw out by mistake. There are no secrets revealed in his poems. It’s the mystery of small, never-before-remembered events that he is after. Whatever drama or suspense is present in his work comes from the struggle of a mind trying to reach back to a moment lost in time out of which, so the speaker thinks, his true identity was formed:

FROM THE PORCH

…a life traced …

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