John Koethe: Ninety-fifth Street (Poems)

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[Posted by BR]

Ninety-fifth Street : poems

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“Koethe gives us the sensation of thinking itself, of a certain fleeting, daily, solitary consciousness rescued from oblivion and held aloft.” — Edward Hirsch

I just received in the mail an advance copy of John Koethe’s newest book of poems, entitled Ninety-fifth Street (Harper Perennial), and I wanted to let people know that it will soon be out. As I mentioned in an earlier post, John is quite unusual for being both a distinguished philosopher and an important contemporary lyric poet. The connections between his philosophical and his poetic writings are not obvious (and not, in any case, direct or simple), but his approach to lyric poetry is clearly shot through with distinctly philosophical concerns inherited from the Romantic era (a connection he’s explored in a number of wonderful essays of literary criticism, many of which are collected in the volume, Poetry at One Remove). The lovely poems collected in Ninety-fifth Street continue John’s long engagement with the philosophical and poetic legacy of Romanticism, and one of them even explicitly takes up Wordsworth’s great unwritten work — The Recluse — as its theme and title.

As a sample of John’s poetry for those who are unfamiliar with it, let me reproduce “The Recluse” here (with John’s kind permission):

The Recluse

Nothing gets finished, and so much
Is never even begun, dogging your life forever.
No one wants to be like someone else,
For each one thinks he’s special, and indeed he is.
Friend, I speak to you from Vernon Manor
In Cincinnati, where the Beatles stayed
When they played America over forty years ago.
My life is your life. What I want to say to you
Is what you’d say to me if I were you and you were me,
Which I know is impossible, and makes no sense.
It’s been raining off and on all day. I’ve stayed in my room
Reading a book about the bamboo fly rod, musing on The Prelude
And the even longer poem of which it was to be a kind of coda—
“O let it be the tail-piece of The Recluse,” Coleridge wrote,
“For of nothing but The Recluse can I hear patiently.” Wordsworth
Never wrote it. His idea of God became more orthodox
As he aged into a public figure, the identity of God and Nature
And the sense of the sublime that it occasioned
Fading away, becoming just another part of His design,
The freshness of the language lost, becoming—
What? Not more self-absorbed (that was hardly possible),
But self-absorbed in an increasingly distant way.
We know what happened to The Prelude.

I remember reading the poem about the daffodils
In high school, just around the time I started floating
Gently down those streams of consciousness
Where modernism chronicled the dissolving soul—
The old inside the new, uneasily together in a spot of time,
A trick of consciousness the mind plays on itself.
I remember spending a whole summer working on a poem
That ended with a prospect of some floating mountains
Defining the world, contained (to steal a phrase)
In an “imagination of the whole” that seemed to coalesce
“Above this frame of things,” before it disappeared
Into a blizzard of confused perceptions. It’s all so
Strange now: visions and deflating theories come and go,
And yet whatever they concern remains unchanged. The rain
Descends on Vernon Manor, where I’m waiting for a phone call,
Wondering what had made it once seem so important. Was it
Simply a desire to be different—to not be someone else, to not be
Something else? “You are an I,” I heard a voice exclaiming, “you are an
Elizabeth, you are one of them. Why should you be one, too?”
To be an object in a world of things: it’s what the recluse fears,
And what his argument portends. The face in the mirror
Might be anyone’s or no one’s, slowly becoming dead to itself,
Like a word’s becoming meaningless through repetition.
I want to hear the Beatles. I could look up what they played
When they played here (you can find nearly anything on the web),
But there’s no CD player in my room. I have my bamboo
Rod to fool around with, but I’ve done that a few times already,
And might as well save it for the future, or at least next week.
Meanwhile I think I might have talked myself into a poem,
Waiting out the weeks in a hotel room in a small city
Far from home, as the rain is ending and it’s time for bed.

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