There’s something daring about his way of talking, not only that he admits to feeling good—hard, it seems, for a poet, or maybe anyone these days—but also the deceptively prosaic form his art takes. Poetry, privacy, life “beyond the reach of physics” here refers in part to the poet’s origins. He is the child of a Juilliard-trained concert violinist turned interior decorator who, after serving as an NCO in the Navy, married a schoolteacher, the two of them raising a family in San Diego. In those days, the 1950s, the tallest building in San Diego was eight stories and the Padres were a minor league team. Koethe thought he was going to be a mathematician or a theoretical physicist, but he got sidetracked by—as he says in one poem—smoking, daydreaming, and poetry. Minus the smoking, that sidetrack—spurred on by his early readings in modernist prose—has lasted his whole life; he’s long been a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a position he’s just retired from, publishing eleven books of poetry, the latest of which is Beyond Belief. But from the earliest work, beginning with 1968’s Blue Vents, there’s been a lithe quality to Koethe’s writing that only heightens the physical, brainy, urgent force of the writing. The poems are addictive. Each line leads so easily and amiably to the next, neither dragging nor hurrying, and before you realize it the poem has drawn together a wide range of associations and moments and meanings, and you’re alive and caught in the brilliant net of it. You’re in the thinking of it, the poem thinking itself, and that’s the greatest pleasure of these lines. But for Koethe—it’s pronounced “Katie,” which is what happens when nineteenth-century German immigrants settle in Texas—the sentence is the unit of poetry, not the line, and his skill is in making you forget that: the work echoes prose in its meditative flow, but it never sacrifices its unobtrusive music, it’s poetry. Here’s the last poem in Koethe’s delicious new book:
Who cares whose voice it is, as long as it’s alive?
I’ve heard it now for sixty years, and yet I don’t know
What it says, or why it sometimes makes me cry.
It isn’t my story in particular, or anyone’s
Though it captures the tone of what it’s like to think so
For a while, and the way life feels as it goes by.
It all adds up to something in the end, even if it was there
All along and I didn’t see it. It doesn’t change
Or outlast anything, or reveal anything that isn’t clear—
It just touches me this way, and makes me glad.
JESSE NATHAN: How is philosophy different from poetry?
JOHN KOETHE: I think that poetry—some kinds of poetry anyway—and philosophy have certain similarities and shared concerns, but rather than being two forms underlying the activity that thought might take, they are more like twins separated at birth. Both can begin with a sense of puzzlement or wonder at a range of questions about various aspects of human experience, like consciousness and self-consciousness, the nature of the self and its relation to the world, the passage of time. But philosophy tries to formulate clear questions about these things and to propose and defend answers to them subject to the constraints of reason, plausibility and consistency, and its ultimate aim is truth. Poetry, on the other hand, is more concerned with the experience of being gripped by these questions, and its aim is not so much to defend true answers to them but to capture what it’s like to respond to them in various ways, and to inhabit or feel the force of those responses. Is the self real, or part of the natural world, or not? Philosophy might defend the answer “Yes, it is” against various objections to it, whereas poetry might try to capture the feeling that it can’t be, even if it is. It’s tempting to think that this difference between philosophy and poetry has something to do with the different styles these two form of reflective activity typically take, and to some extent this is true, in that (as I try to suggest in an essay “Poetry, Philosophy and the Syntax of Reflection” included in my recent book Thought and Poetry) the dialectical forms of thought required for philosophical clarification and argumentation are difficult to capture in the compressed linguistic style often associated with poetry, as opposed to the more relaxed and discursive styles associated with prose. But in the end, I think the difference between genuine philosophy and poetry lies not so much in their styles as in their goals, in the difference between the goal of truth and the human experience of contemplation. At least, that’s how the difference between these two activities strikes me when I engage in them, which is almost never at the same time. But whether this difference is as real as I like to think it is, and whether either of these activities can succeed in their aspirations, is something that continues to trouble me. I’m only sure that they’re both part of what makes us human and valuable.