by John Koethe
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022
Reviewed by PJ Krass
John Koethe is both a philosopher and poet, yet he is neither a philosophical poet nor a poetic philosopher. Instead, this is a plainspoken poet eager to explore where an abstract thought could take him in this all-too-material world.
Still, Koethe is a genuine philosopher. He’s published two books on the subject, including one on the notoriously difficult Wittgenstein, the other on forms of reasoning. And until his retirement in 2010, Koethe was a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. The man does philosophy.
But simultaneously, Koethe has also maintained a lifelong career as a poet. He published his first book of poetry, Blue Vents, in 1968, and now his twelfth, Beyond Belief. Released in late 2022 by FSG—among the last of the big-name poetry publishers—the book contains 25 poems arranged in three numbered but unnamed sections. Most of the poems are longish; one runs to six pages, while hardly any fill less than a page. That’s about what you’d expect from a poet who, taking issue with William Carlos Williams’ famous dictum, “no ideas but in things,” uses his poems to explores ideas—both with and without “things.”
Philosophy and poetry: For Koethe, never the twain shall meet. “I don’t like poems that present themselves as vehicles for conveying or doing philosophy,” Koethe told one interviewer. Philosophy, he explained, is subject to severe constraints. Poetry, by contrast, 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.”
Another poetic dictum Koethe actively disagrees with is Allen Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought.” Despite that line’s koan-like flavor, it was probably more a reflection of the Beats’ admiration for bebop improvisation. Koethe is a jazz lover, too, but unlike the Beats, he seems fully cognizant of just how many long hours of practice—all those second, third, even thirtieth thoughts—jazz musicians must endure, even embrace, to master their difficult art. In his latest book, Koethe even writes, “I think the truest thoughts are always second thoughts.”
To understand Koethe’s method, you could start with the book’s opening poem, “What Was Poetry?” In the initial stanza, Koethe’s first-person narrator bemoans how poetry has lost its cultural power. “Poems come and go,” he sighs. Where a poem might have once merited earnest argument, now it just gets “appreciation and indifference / Measured praise that’s followed by forgetting.” Ah, but then comes his second stanza, starting a second thought: “And yet despite all this it matters.”
That’s not to say Beyond Belief is overly argumentative. It’s not, in large part because Koethe agrees with Harold Bloom’s contention that poetry is basically an elevated form of talking to yourself. And as for suitably poetic subject matter, Koethe has written, “You can talk to yourself about just about anything.”
Indeed, Koethe here takes on subjects as various as marriage and divorce, a pre-pandemic visit to Mexico City, the fiction of John O’Hara, and the ‘70s rock song “Layla.” Fortunately, where a Koethe poem starts is rarely where it ends. Or, if his narrator does return to his starting point, it’s only after a long voyage, like traveling from New York to Pennsylvania via Hawaii.
Koethe’s poem “Layla” offers a good example. It starts with the narrator expressing his general dislike for the guitar stylings of Eric Clapton. Then he recalls (though not too clearly) a wedding he once attended, considers how “chance associations…come to color your world, as though its underlying nature were coincidence,” marvels at the way memory fades but feeling persists, and finally begins to compile a playlist for his own forthcoming wedding—with the song “Layla” very much not included.
The book’s second section deals with the pandemic, and lockdown game Koethe world enough and time to reflect. But even here, the pandemic is presented almost as a second thought, a thing that follows, an aftermath. In one of this section’s key poems, “The Dogs of Mexico City,” Koethe remembers the last notable thing he did before the pandemic, namely, vacationing in Mexico City. He’s amazed by the city’s dogs, which, he says, are “everywhere” and “deliriously happy.” So happy, they never bark. Then the pandemic begins, and Mexico, the dogs and much more “slipped back into memory.”
In another key pandemic poem, “Sheltering at Home,” Koethe surprised me with his unhappiness. I assumed that as both a philosopher and poet, he’d be perfectly happy staying at home. But no: “I hate it,” hi8s poem begins. The speaker always thought of home as “a place to depart from / Or come back to, not a state of being in itself.” Occasionally he goes for a drive just to remind himself that the outside world still exists. But mostly, like all of us, he was stuck, and “the nostalgia for the ordinary, for the world / Of just a month or so ago” leaves him overwhelmed. Sound familiar? Yet the deeper issue, he muses, is that without a destination, a goal, “life feels like nowhere, like a story without an ending.” And almost as if he were anticipating my earlier expectation, he adds, “We like to think of the imagination / As inexhaustible and transcendent, but it’s as earthbound as we are.” Even a homebody needs to get out now and then.
The book’s third and final section is where Koethe fully demonstrates the important difference between thinking philosophically and “doing” philosophy. Poems, by his reckoning, are for the former, not the latter. “I’ve always / Hated poems about philosophy, and I hope I still do,” he writes here. Yet there is also his speaker, “musing on my ends and my beginnings one more time.” Life, he adds, “means having something on your mind, whether you understand it or not.”
It’s also a section of poems about getting older. Koethe, now in his seventies, jokingly refers to old age as the “late, late show.” With the passage of so many years, life’s flavor changes, mostly not for the good. The promise of the future “shrinks,” the “thrill of the unexpected” now something to miss. Perhaps the best he can say is that “diminished / Expectations are a kind of happiness too.” Yet he still loves life, still loves both the highs of “lovely morning sunlight” as well as the lows brought on by the evening news. Besides, “there’s nowhere else to go, and even if there were it would be just another home, / Another life within its limits.”
On second thought, maybe Koethe is that philosophical poet after all.