“Major American poetry is the best philosophy ever written on this continent,” Marilynne Robinson once wrote. I wonder what John Koethe would say about that. Author of The Continuity of Wittgenstein’s Thought (1996) and Scepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning (2005), Koethe was a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee until 2010. Yet he is better known for his eleven books of poetry, which have won him many honors, among them the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. A short book of essays, Poetry at One Remove (2000), makes a brief for the existence of overlapping epistemological aims in some poets (like Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, and John Ashbery) and some philosophers (like Plato, Kant, and Thomas Nagel). Yet Koethe steadfastly rejects an easy resolution of his twin vocations, or his double-mindedness: “I have continued to think of my role as a philosopher as a professional and academic one and of the writing of poetry as at some level an essentially gratuitous act.”
“Gratuitous”—in its slightly discordant senses of unwarranted and, etymologically, a gift—suggests that the nature of poetry is essentially free and wayward, in contrast to philosophy, which is labor tightly constrained by rules. If Koethe’s two roles were ever in conflict, it seems to have played out in mid-career when he stopped publishing poems while advancing himself in the academy. After a couple of early books derivative of the New York School, Blue Vents (1968) and Domes (1973, the year he began teaching in Milwaukee), he waited eleven years to publish his third volume, The Late Wisconsin Spring (1984), then another thirteen to publish his fourth, Falling Water (1997). From then onward, there has been an upwelling of verse collections published two, three, but never more than four years apart: The Constructor (1999), North Point North (2002), Sally’s Hair (2006), Ninety-Fifth Street (2009), ROTC Kills (2012), The Swimmer (2016), and now Walking Backwards, which spans fifty years and contains sixteen new poems.
While some may read his meditative, discursive, and resolutely clarifying blank verse as a kind of philosophizing by other means, what Koethe wants to be doing—his interviews and essays testify to this—is shoring up an American tradition of poetic thought that distinguishes those great poets who write sub specie aeternitatis, from the perspective of the “eternal” or objective point of view. The term comes from Spinoza but the idea is also present in Plato’s forms, Kant’s metaphysical sublime, and Nagel’s “view from nowhere.” In a prefatory poem, an ars poetica written to launch this chronological selection, Koethe unabashedly takes us back to where it all began: “Yeats and Frost, Pound and Eliot,/Stevens, Moore, seen as from a peak in Darien in a college course.” What flows forward from this backward-looking poem is an evolving, cohering, always-recapitulating testament to…
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