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About this poet

Originally from San Diego, John Koethe was born on December 25, 1945. He began writing poetry in 1964, during his undergraduate studies at Princeton University and went on to receive a PhD in philosophy from Harvard University.

Koethe's Ninety-fifth Street (Harper Perennial, 2009) won the 2010 Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He has published numerous books of poetry, including The Swimmer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), North Point North: New and Selected Poems (Harper Perennial, 2003), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; The Constructor (Harper Perennial, 1999); Falling Water (Harper Perennial, 1997), which won the Kingsley Tufts Award; Domes (Columbia University Press, 1974), which won the Frank O'Hara Award for Poetry; and Blue Vents (Audit/Poetry, 1968). His most recent collection, Walking Backwards: Poems 1966–2016, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2018.

Critic Robert Hahn notes, "Koethe's poetry is ultimately lyrical, and its claim on us comes not from philosophy's dream of precision but from the common human dream that our lives make some kind of sense. What Koethe offers is not ideas but a weave of reflection, emotion, and music; what he creates is art—a bleak, harrowing art in all it chooses to confront, but one whose rituals and repetitions contain the hope of renewal."

Koethe is also the author of three collections of essays: Skepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning (Cornell University Press, 2005); Poetry at One Remove (University of Michigan Press, 2000); and the scholarly work, The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Thought (Cornell University Press, 1996).

He is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Koethe's work has been nominated for The New Yorker Book Award and the Boston Book Review Award. He is a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin, and received a lifetime achievement award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers. From 2000 through 2002, he served as Milwaukee's first poet laureate.

Koethe served as the Elliston Poet in Residence at the University of Cincinnati and as the Bain-Swiggett Professor of Poetry at Princeton University. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he resides with his wife.

Selected Bibliography

The Swimmer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)
Ninety-fifth Street (Harper Perennial, 2009)
North Point North: New and Selected Poems (Harper Perennial, 2003)
The Constructor (Harper, 1999)
Falling Water (Harper Perennial, 1997)
Domes (Columbia University Press, 1974)
Blue Vents (Audit/Poetry, 1968)

Skepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning (Cornell University Press, 2005)
Poetry at One Remove (University of Michigan Press, 2000)

Creation Myths

Some have the grandeur of architecture,
The grandeur of the concert hall: the sentimental
Grandeur of an idea lying just beyond recall
In someone's imagination, compelled by an even
Greater music at its most monumental, 
That begins with the explosion of a drum
In chaos and the dark, the twin wellsprings of a world
That slowly comes to lie before them—a natural
One, apparently designed for them alone, 
That somehow lifts them in the end, a woman and a man, 
To Paradise and the certainty of God.

It's lovely to believe—lovely, anyway, to hear.
The chaos is still there, but rather than a distant state
From which the patterns of this life emerged, 
It feels like part of it, like sex or sleep, 
The complex workings of a dream made visible. 
This afternoon I took the S-Bahn into town, 
Getting off at a half-completed shell
In the middle of what felt like nowhere, 
One stop before the Friederichstrasse station.
I picked my way along a maze of barriers and fences, 
Down an open street and past a makeshift balcony
Overlooking a pit, the site of the creation 
Of the Hauptbahnhof to come. It was echt Berlin: 
A panorama filled with transcendental buildings to the south, 
And in the foreground towering red and yellow cranes
Branded with the initials DB, a cacophony
Assembled to articulate some inarticulate design,
But closer to the truth: a half-baked world, 
The perfect setting for a half-baked life. 
I used to think one finished what the past began, 
Instead of moving things around inside a no-man's-land, 
A landscape always on the verge, always unrealized . . . 

Purpose and design; a sort of purpose, with a form
Still waiting to emerge; and finally, lack of any
Strategy or plan, as entropy increases—
On my way back from a puzzling museum
I found myself rehearsing various ideas of order
And disorder, ideas of intent, deliberation, and control.
Three hours earlier, strolling through its galleries
Full of different kinds of cocks, encaustic cunts and oddly moving 
Piles of junk from the Berlin equivalent of OfficeMax
or Home Depot, all strewn about the floor
Of what until the war had been a neo-Renaissance
Train station, I'd suddenly felt the wonder of uncertainty
At how these things so stubbornly neglected to emerge
From the rubble of Creation's threshing floor,
But simply lay there—all this stuff—deliberately chosen, 
I suppose, yet out of context signifying nothing but themselves.
I'd felt absurdly happy. Maybe it was the notion
That the realm of the imaginary coincided with the present,
With an ordinary day spent wandering here and there, 
And later on that evening, The Creation at the Philharmonie.
At any rate, I'd seen enough. There was no place else
I especially wanted to go—no more exhibitions
Or architecture—and nothing I particularly wanted to do
—Window-shopping in the stores along the Ku'damm—
And so I wandered through its massive doors
Into the afternoon and the museum of the future.

From Ninety-fifth Street. Copyright © 2009 by John Koethe. Used with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

From Ninety-fifth Street. Copyright © 2009 by John Koethe. Used with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

John Koethe

John Koethe

Born in 1945, John Koethe is the author of several collections of poetry, including Falling Water, which won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.

by this poet


“After all,” that too might be possible . . .
—John Ashbery

It isn’t too late, but for what I’m not sure.
Though I live for possibility, I loathe unbridled
Speculation, let alone those vague attempts
At self-exploration that become days wasted
Trying out the various modes of

. . . humming in the summer haze.

Diane christened it the Bean House,
Since everything in it came straight from an 
L.L. Bean Home catalog. It looks out upon two
Meadows separated by a stand of trees, and at night,
When the heat begins to dissipate and the stars
There were mice, and even
Smaller creatures holed up in the rafters.
One would raise its thumb, or frown,
And suddenly the clouds would part, and the whole
Fantastic contraption come tumbling down.

And the arcade of forgotten things
Closed in the winter, and the roller coaster
Stood empty as the visitors sped