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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)

This is Lagos

             . . . hope would be hope for the wrong thing

                                                                  —T. S. Eliot

Instead of the usual welcoming sign to greet you
There's the brute statement: This is Lagos.
If you make it to the island—if you make your way
Across the bridge and past the floating slums
And sawmills and the steaming garbage dumps, the auto yards
Still burning with spilled fuel and to your final destination
At the end of a long tracking shot, all of it on fire—
You come face-to-face with hell: the pandemonium 
Of history's ultimate bazaar, a breathing mass
Whose cells are stalls crammed full of spare parts, 
Chains, detergents, DVDs; where a continuous cacophony
Of yells and radios and motorcycles clogs the air.
They arrive from everywhere, attracted by the promise
Of mere possibility, by the longing for a different kind of day
Here in the city of scams, by a hope that quickly comes to nothing.
To some it's a new paradigm, "an announcement of the future"
Where disorder leads to unexpected patterns, unimagined opportunities
That mutate, blossom, and evolve. To others it's the face of despair.
These are the parameters of life, a life doled out in quarters, 
In the new, postmodern state of nature: garbage and ground plastic
And no place to shit or sleep; machetes, guns, and e-mails
Sent around the world from Internet cafés; violence and chaos
And a self-effacing sprawl that simply makes no sense
When seen from ground zero, yet exhibits an abstract beauty 
When seen from the air—which is to say, not seen at all.

Across the ocean and a century away a culture died.
The facts behind the Crow's whole way of life—the sense 
Of who and what they were, their forms of excellence and bravery
And honor—all dissolved, and their hearts "fell to the ground,
And they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened"
(Plenty Coups), meaning nothing they could do made any sense, 
Beyond the fact of biological survival. It's easy to forget
How much of ordinary life, of what we value, long for, and recall—
Ambition, admiration, even poetry—rests on things we take for granted,
And how fragile those things are. "I am trying to live a life I do not understand,"
A woman said, when the buffalo and the coups they underwrote were gone.
They could have tried to cope. Instead they found their solace
In an indeterminate hope, a hope for a future they couldn't yet imagine,
Where their ways of life might somehow reemerge in forms
Of which they couldn't yet conceive, or even begin to understand.
It was a dream of a different life, a life beyond the reservation
Without any tangible location, predicated on a new idea of the good
With no idea of what it was, or what achieving it might mean—
Like listening to a song with no sound, or drawing an imaginary line
In the imaginary sand in an imaginary world without boundaries.

It feels compelling, and I even think it's true. But these are things
I've only read about in magazines and book reviews, and not experienced,
Which was Plato's point—that poets don't know what they talk about.
It doesn't matter though, for most of what we think of as our lives
Is lived in the imagination, like the Crows's inchoate hope, or the fantasies
Of those who leave a village in the country for the city in the smoke. 
And when I look in my imagination for the future, it isn't hope and restoration
That I find but smoldering tires and con men in a world of megacities
And oil fields, where too much has been annexed to be restored.
I have the luxury of an individual life that has its own trajectory and scope
When taken on its terms—the terms I chose—however unimportant it might seem
From the vantage point of history or the future. What scares me is the thought
That in a world that isn't far away this quaint ideal of the personal 
Is going to disappear, dissolving in those vast, impersonal calculations
Through which money, the ultimate abstraction, renders each life meaningless, 
By rendering the forms of life that make it seem significant impossible. 
Face me I face you: packed into rooms with concrete beds
And not a trace of privacy, subsisting on contaminated water, luck, 
And palm-wine gin, with lungs scarred from the burning air, 
These are the urban destitute, the victims of a gospel of prosperity
Untouched by irony or nostalgia—for how can you discover
What you haven't felt, or feel the loss of things you've never known?
I write because I can: talking to myself, composing poems
And wondering what you'll make of them; shoring them
Against the day our minor ways of life have finally disappeared
And we're not even ghosts. Meanwhile life regresses
Towards the future, death by death. You to whom I write, 
Or wish that I could write long after my own death, 
When it's too late to talk to you about the world you live in, 
This is the world you live in: This is Lagos.

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


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.

I took the train back from


“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

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