The Poet Philosopher: John Koethe in Conversation
An excerpt from an interview with John Koethe, originally published by Verse Wisconsin
Wendy Vardaman: Place seems to figure more and more prominently in your work. In Ninety-fifth Street it is everywhere—the California of your childhood, New York City, Boston where you went to grad school, Milwaukee, Europe. How do you use place? For its own sake? Metaphorically?
John Koethe: In several ways. First, I have a natural tendency to write abstractly, and tying a poem to an actual place helps counterbalance this a bit. And second, one of the pervasive themes of my work is the romantic opposition between the individual subjective consciousness and its external objective setting in the world, which is what all those places represent. Beyond this, Ninety-fifth Street is really a book about cities. In addition to the ones you mention, there are also Berlin, Venice, Cincinnati, and Lagos.
WV: Has your use of place changed over time? It seems to me, for instance, that a poem like "The Late Wisconsin Spring" feels much more like a traditional, even Wordsworthian, lyric, whereas the more recent poem, "The Menomonee Valley" is looser, more conversational, more pessimistic—it's about collapse, rather than expansion. Is that a trend in your work, or just the difference between two poems?
JK: I don't think of my work as pessimistic, but rather as disillusioned. I think we're drawn to romantic illusions even though we know perfectly well they're illusory. I think "The Late Wisconsin Spring," as well as "In the Park" from the same book, indulge those lyric illusions a bit more than much of my later work, though ultimately those poems undercut them too.
WV: I read that you only write poems during the spring and summer. Is that still true? Why do it that way?
JK: While I was teaching I'd work on philosophical writing in the fall and winter, and then shift to poetry sometime in the spring. I have a feeling that lying fallow half a year made my poetry feel fresh when I returned to it.
WV: The sense of time in your work is unhurried, not frenetic, very different from many contemporary poets. The pacing of many of the poems underscores that, too, and they often unfold in a leisurely way, reading as though they were composed slowly and with great care. How long do you typically write at the first draft of a poem? How much time do you spend revising work?
JK: I think your observation about the pace of my work is quite accurate. I write slowly, in small bits, in the morning, with lots of revising and then more revising in the evening. Then the same thing the next day until the poem is finished. I rarely complete a full draft of a poem, but rather build it up by accretion. I usually have a sort of architecture in mind for the poem, but not too much of its contents. It's exciting to me to fill it in, to discover, as it were, what the poem is about. This was especially true of a long poem I wrote in the 1980s, "The Constructor," in which I started with the last line and then worked backwards to the beginning.
WV: I want to know more about your dual life as a philosopher and a poet. Poets who know your work know you are a philosopher, but do philosophers know you're a poet? How do they respond to that?
JK: I think a fair number of philosophers know I'm a poet—there are really only one or two other philosopher poets that I know of. My colleagues in the philosophy department were very accommodating and generous in recognizing and allowing me to pursue my poetry. Of course, I kept up my end of the bargain by writing a reasonable amount of philosophy too.
WV: Philosophy is a major source of themes, of ideas, in your poems. Has it affected your poetry in other ways?
JK: I think the abstract, discursive rhetoric of philosophy has influenced the way I write poetry. I know that lots of people associated with poetry hate that kind of language and think poets should avoid it, but I think it opens up all sorts of possibilities [that are] foolish to ignore.
You can see this sort of rhetorical influence in T.S. Eliot's work, especially in "Four Quartets," a poem a lot of the "no ideas but in things" people loathe. It's no accident that Eliot was trained as a philosopher, unlike, say, Wallace Stevens—another philosophical sounding poet who never seems quite as at home with the idiom as Eliot. There's a popular stereotype of philosophical writing as murky and unintelligible, but actually just the opposite is true of good philosophical writing.
WV: In "Moore's Paradox," (North Point North) you write, perhaps ironically or facetiously, about a dislike of poems about philosophy, and yet your poems are always about major philosophical problems: identity, memory, belief, God, time, perception, the mind, epistemology...though not, it seems to me, ethics. Are the beliefs in your poems your beliefs, or do they belong to a persona?
JK: You're right—ethics isn't much reflected either in my poetry or in my professional philosophical work. What I meant by that somewhat facetious line is that I don't like poems that present themselves as vehicles for conveying or doing philosophy, as some (though not all) language poems do.
The themes you mention are ones I think philosophy and poetry share at some deep level, but they approach and develop them very differently. Philosophy is subject to severe constraints of consistency, coherence, argumentative rigor, addressing of objections, and so on, with the aim of arriving at the truth of the matter. Poetry isn't subject to these constraints, but is free to inhabit and explore ideas and themes without worrying too much about their correctness, as long as they feel sufficiently powerful to move us.
WV: At the end of the poem "Ninety-fifth Street," you talk about "two versions of myself / And of the people that we knew, each one an other / To the other, yet both indelibly there: the twit of twenty / And the aging child of sixty-two, still separate." So there's that question of whether we are the same person over the course of a lifetime, and in what sense, and although you simplify it here to a dualism (twenty or sixty-two), those lines imply a calculus of endless other selves spilling across time. Philosophically speaking, where, if anywhere, do you locate identity? Is that different when you think poetically?
JK: It's a question that obsesses me, but to which I don't know the answer. At one extreme the self is a real thing existing throughout a person's lifetime (or after-lifetime if there were such a thing). At the other it's fleeting and momentary, or not even real at all. The first is probably a deep and inescapable illusion, while something like the latter is probably true but unbelievable. I sort of oscillate between them in my poetry, taking them up and inhabiting them as I described earlier.
WV: Writing about the "regret / And disappointment" that hangs over your poetic landscape, you say "The happy and unhappy man inhabit different worlds, / One still would want to know which world this is," which reminds me somehow of William James's essay, "The Will to Believe." Do we have the capacity to choose which world to occupy? To exercise belief rather than doubt?
JK: "The happy and unhappy man inhabit different worlds" is a quotation from Wittgenstein's Tractatus which has always puzzled me. He can't mean it literally, given what he means by "world." In any case, I don't think belief can be voluntary. I think we're often drawn to believe things we know at a higher level to be false. My favorite example of this is philosophical dualism, the idea that the mind or self is something real and distinct from the physical body. I think it's deeply embedded in our self-experience, even though we know it can't be true.