A CLOSER LOOK: John Koethe

Utterly recognizable, John Koethe's voice is unique among American poets.   In language that is often discursive, often plangent, always mesmeric in its lyricism, he explores how we experience our lives, taking the reader along, absorbing him or her in the motions of a mind that wonders, describes, celebrates, and laments.  Now approaching 65, Koethe's most recent collections, Sally's Hair (HarperCollins, 2006) and the just-published Ninety-fifth Street (HarperCollins, 2009), limn the contours of a life in retrospect:  "The afternoon / Is full of memories and silent passion," the "Sadness of a world . . . / Held together by memory   . . . ."  He again posits the primacy of memory, as well as its beauty, beautifully:

I love the way remembering lets the light in, as the sullen gray

Of consciousness dissolves into a yard, a pepper tree, a summer day.

And minor moments and details that had been buried in the past

Take on the clarity of dreams, with a transparency they never had in life.


(from "The Lath House," Ninety-fifth Street)

A philosopher of language, Koethe is a poet of linguistic beauty:


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.

(from "Sally's Hair," Sally's Hair)

A few comments on Koethe's books illustrate his place in American poetry:

To describe with uncompromising candor the inner life of a man adrift in the waning of the twentieth century is one thing, but to do it without a shred of self-pity is another.  John Koethe, with a riveting and limpid intelligence, manages to do both.  The poems of Falling Water are like no one else's.  In them, even the most extreme exertions of consciousness are transformed into the luminous measures of beautiful speech.

—Mark Strand, on Falling Water

In this ravishing and haunted book, John Koethe comes face-to-face with the time when "more than half my life is gone," and must try to find the meaning of a "childish / dream of love, and then the loss of love, / and all the intricate years between."  As funny and fresh as it is tragic and undeceived, Falling Water ranks with Wallace Stevens's Auroras of Autumn as one of the profoundest meditations on existence ever formulated by an American poet.

                                                            —John Ashbery, on Falling Water


John Koethe is an immensely literary and profoundly philosophical poet whose poems never seem literary or philosophical:  they seem true—true to how it feels to have a mind, to live in its movement, to think and feel through a lifetime's accumulation of experience.  Koethe sounds like nobody else, and Sally's Hair is his best book—at once his most intimate and his most worldly.

                                                            —James Longenbach, on Sally's Hair


The voice is sober, meditative, rising now and then to the austerely lyrical.  The intelligence is lucid, unsparing, yet infused with love of the world, the only world there is.

                                                            —J.M. Coetzee, on North Point North


For more extended considerations of John Koethe's poetic achievement, I recommend Robert Hahn's critical writing, first, his penetrating essay, "Drawing by Michelangelo, Color by Titian: Of Originality, Influence, and the Poetry of John Koethe" (http://www.cstone.net/~poems/essahahn.htm),which appeared in the fall 2004 issue of The Kenyon Review, and second, Hahn's review of Sally's Hair (http://www.cstone.net/~poems/essakoet.htm), which appeared in the May/June 2006 issue of Boston Review.  Also, an essay by Paul Kane titled "Philosopher-Poets: John Koethe and Kevin Hart," which appeared in Raritan, can be downloaded here.

From 1973 through 2009, John Koethe was Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the first Poet Laureate of Milwaukee.  In 2005 he was a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin, and in 2008 he was the Elliston Poet in Residence at the University of Cincinnati. He is currently the Bain-Swiggett Professor of Poetry at Princeton University.

John Koethe generously shares with the readers of Innisfree 24 poems from seven books.  To read the poems, please click here.

Domes (Columbia University Press, 1973)

winner of the Frank O'Hara Award for Poetry


Tiny Figures in Snow



The Late Wisconsin Spring (Princeton University Press, 1984)


The Late Wisconsin Spring

Partial Clearance

In the Park


Falling Water (HarperCollins, 1997)

winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award


The Secret Amplitude

Songs My Mother Taught Me

Falling Water


The Constructor (HarperCollins, 1999)


Threnody for Two Voices

What the Stars Meant

The Constructor


North Point North (HarperCollins, 2002)


The Proximate Shore

Moore’s Paradox

Gil’s Café

North Point North


Sally’s Hair (HarperCollins, 2006)


The Perfect Life


Sally’s Hair




Ninety-fifth Street (HarperCollins, 2009)



On Happiness

This is Lagos

Ninety-fifth Street




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A CLOSER LOOK: John Koethe

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