John Koethe was born in San Diego in 1945 and received an AB from Princeton and a PhD from Harvard in philosophy. He has taught since 1973 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, from which he will retire at the end of 2009 as Distinguished Professor of Philosophy. He has published eight books of poetry, most recently North Point North: New and Selected Poems (2002), Sally's Hair (2006), and Ninety-Fifth Street (2009), all from Harpercollins; two books of philosophy, The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Thought (1996) and Scepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning (2005), both from Cornell University Press; and a book of literary essays, Poetry at One Remove. He has received the Frank O'Hara Award for Poetry, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA. He was the first Poet Laureate of Milwaukee, and has been a Fellow at the American Academy of Berlin and the Elliston Poet in Residence at the University of Cincinnati. He will spend the spring semester of 2010 as the Bain-Swiggett Professor of Poetry at Princeton.
Always thoughtful and heartfelt, Koethe's poems have become simply heartbreaking. Koethe—a 60-something professor of philosophy—writes meditative, introspective poems that have long encouraged comparisons to Wallace Stevens. "That's what poetry is," the title poem muses, "a way to live through time,/ And sometimes, just for a while, to bring it back."
- Publisher's Weekly
The book's energy originates with its title poem, a lengthy account of a party uptown, at which Koethe, as a young student, befriended the poets John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara and other major figures of the fabled New York School of poets. They become models for Koethe, both of how to live life as an artist, and of how to age and die. The memory of this evening, and subsequent experiences with these older poets, gives Koethe a vitalizing excitement about the whole of his life: He notes that Ashbery has "practically become / A national treasure, and whenever I look up I think I see him. Floating in the sky like the Cheshire Cat... / ...it makes me happy."
- Craig Morgan Teicher
This Is Lagos
...hope would be hope for the wrong thing
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 emails
Sent around the world from Internet cafés; violence and chaos
And 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 experience,
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 Crow'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.