Throughout his life’s work, John Koethe has elegized a romantic sense of meaning, that is, an illusory if highly desirous union with the larger universe. As we see throughout Walking Backwards, a collection spanning fifty years, his poems often alternate between a highly textured, near-nostalgic portrait of himself as a young man when he enjoyed a sublime conjunction with the world and a correcting, more abstractly worded skepticism in which he is by definition solitary, because there is no sublime force in which he can immerse and transform himself. Because the contemporary elegy is no longer compelled exclusively by death but also by “the tragic aspects of life” (The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics), and since it can serve “as a marker for textual monumentalizing” (The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy), upon reading Koethe’s verse we might recall the Wallace Stevens of Harmonium. As in the threnodic moments of “Sunday Morning,” Koethe often memorializes a lost sensation in which the self once embraced a state thought to be transcendent.
In alternating between an old aspiration and a current doubt, Koethe frequently goes back and forth between sensory and conceptual language. He doesn’t mourn the death of anyone; he mourns the loss of a satisfactory personal sublimity in which he can feel, even briefly, at one with the universe. Most often, he inverts William Carlos Williams’s famous dictum “No ideas but in things.” Appearing in Williams’s epic poem, Paterson, the famous statement summarizes what is to this day the highly influential idea that poets should create concrete images that will immerse readers in experiential sensation while also suggesting resonances of meaning. Though Koethe provides a share of evocative imagery, his poems are usually saturated with intricately worded abstract cogitations. It’s as if he wishes large swaths of language to take on the work of the image without losing the power of the image. To work as poetic expression, such language must find its own, if different, paths to intrigue.
But, of course, poetic expression is not Koethe’s only professional concern. Virtually all his professional life, Koethe has been a philosophy professor who has published essays on both philosophy and poetry. And from the beginning one can sense in his poems two conflicting impulses that seem to parallel his youthful desire for transcendence and his long-developed antitranscendant stance: to write in the implicit, concrete style of late-modernist poetry or to write in the explicit, abstract manner of a more high-modernist verse. This tension arises from a deeply personal split in his sensibility. On one hand, like all philosophers, he muses on complex generalities and observations. On the other, he relishes tactile experiences that hint at a kind of oneness with the universe, especially the gratifications of romantic love set amid things of the built world.
Koethe is nothing if not reminiscent; as he admits in “Miss Heaton,” he’s “a sucker for the subtle sentimental.” He once told an interviewer for Verse Wisconsin that “I think we’re drawn to romantic illusions even though we know perfectly well they’re illusory.” But his skepticism is a counterpoint to his sentimentality; he doesn’t find the existence of an immaterial world—such as any connection to a divine force—likely at all. In his way of thinking, legitimate transcendence would mean an emotional connection to something that actually exists. For thinkers like Koethe, if there’s no proof of material existence, then existence is unlikely. Take his two-part, seventy-five-line poem “The Hand in the Breast Pocket,” which appeared in his 1973 volume Domes. Koethe closes section 1 with thirty-nine highly concrete, if simple lines describing his childhood environs, including these:
It was 1957, the year of Sputnik,
And I conducted “science experiments” behind the garage,
I.e., set off rockets filled with a mixture of sulphur and zinc dust.
Once one of my friends set fire to part of the garage.
I remember taking clarinet lessons
And selling chocolate for the Cody Marching Band.
In the second, highly conceptual section of this representative poem, however, he admits that the portrayals of childhood are nothing but “[t]he facts of a life which now has virtually nothing to do with my own.” The sensory perceptions he seemed to hold with great affection are now without adequate significance for him. When he was young and innocent, the world was flooded with meaning. Now he’s in an adult state of incertitude. And, pondering the unlikelihood of any sustaining surety, the second section of the poem consists almost entirely of generalizations:
Isn’t there a moment all this is closing on,
Innocent enough to breathe,
A moment innocent enough to bear its own interpretation?
Almost, that is, until the final stanza, when the poem offers up images that place us in a kind of middle state in which childlike imagination coexists with adult skepticism:
When I was ten I had this
Magic 8-Ball, filled with black ink
In which an octahedron floated, bearing my eight fortunes on its sides.
They were all useless and general;
But they were all true.
And they floated up to the window when I turned it over.
I find the poem moving, surely because it reenacts questions I often ask myself, and because, in the mystery of those last lines, it renders the strangeness of a consciousness caught between experience and interpretation. His deliberately opposing tropes manifest his desire to find expression equal to the ironic task of being meaningful about loss of meaning. The language of both sections intends a kind of prosaicness, as if Koethe is straining for transparency that will not draw attention away from his point of view. He avoids the kind of language play that suggests connections to metaphysical landscapes laden with preexisting implication (what he calls “tangible illusion”), but in his doing so the poem strains a bit, falling perhaps short of its potential.
Eventually his attempt to shape form into a vehicle congruent with his conflicted state of mind led him to his crowning achievement at midcareer. When we jump ahead twenty-four years from “The Hand in the Breast Pocket” to the astonishing title poem of Falling Water (1997), we find that a more affecting manner emerges as the poet turns to ghost pentameter, creating an equipoised voice with which to talk with himself (and his readers) in wistful terms about the ever-present past. Among the handful of great American long poems of the last fifty years, “Falling Water” employs Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Pennsylvania home of the same name as the key metaphor through which the poet applies his usual philosophical concerns to the gloomy failure he experienced in divorce—though, as it turns out, even the divorce is not the poem’s central concern.
As noted, Koethe is naturally a nostalgic man, and he therefore feels a need to maneuver his own brand of philosophical skepticism as a bulwark against sentimentality. And while that may be true to an extent, I’ve come to think that it’s equally or more likely that the innate skepticism itself gives rise to his nostalgia. If there’s no sustaining, a priori meaning in existence, then the past with all of its fulfilling illusions haunts him as both fantasy and respite. His nostalgia is escape from his truth. Even those moments from his past in which he’s presently skeptical, such as his early married life in California, nonetheless hold a kind of seductive quality for him. But it doesn’t stop at simple resonance. In most of his poems, he’s enamored with the sadness of his musing, as if sadness—like musical blues—offers solace. “Falling Water” lilts in familiar sorrow as Koethe reveals the barest specifics about his broken marriage, musing more on the metonymic architecture and natural elements of his suburban world while perorating threnodically in his ongoing consideration of the verity of meaning.
No part of the poem shows off his method more than the opening sixteen lines of the second section (lines 63–78), in which he sets four major elements in motion, if not always in opposition to one another: skeptical thinking, confession, romantic failure, and details of place:
Why can’t the more expansive ecstasies come true?
I met you more than thirty years ago, in 1958,
In Mrs. Wolford’s eighth-grade history class.
All moments weigh the same, and matter equally;
Yet those that time brings back create the fables
Of a happy or unsatisfying life, of minutes
Passing on the way to either peace or disappointment—
Like a paper calendar on which it’s always autumn
And we’re back in school again; or a hazy afternoon
Near the beginning of October, with the World Series
Playing quietly on the radio, and the windows open,
And the California sunlight filling up the room.
When I survey the mural stretched across the years
—Across my heart—I notice mostly small, neglected
Parts of no importance to the whole design, but which,
In their obscurity, seem more permanent and real.
Nearly all the key features of Koethe’s mature style appear here. He opens with a rhetorical question that establishes his skepticism about the very foundations of happiness. Then he parlays the emotional quality of that question into a moment of personal history while seeming to address his wife (“I met you more than thirty years ago, in 1958”). After the pleasant-seeming memory is recorded, he returns to the ever-contrapuntal habit of his thinking: “All moments weigh the same, and matter equally; / Yet those that time brings back create the fables / Of a happy or unsatisfying life.”
Not only does he wish to deny himself the value of the early memory by reminding himself of his own contention that nothing in existence holds greater weight than anything else; he also wants to remember that the events of such early love enable the pleasing powers of fable. And of course, since his skepticism must undermine the very concept of fable, he will then proceed to deconstruct that assertion—and so on. Not unlike his old friend John Ashbery, who famously doubted his own doubt, Koethe alternately continues to distract himself from his bottom-line belief in meaninglessness. Or rather, he vacillates. He slips back into the pleasure of a memory, and then he questions his habits of gaining such pleasure. In fact, he will even question whether any moment—no matter how grand or painful—can be considered “key,” since all moments are equal in their “weightlessness.”
Despite its skepticism, “Falling Water” offers more than memories and esoteric reflection set in modern elegiac music. When he proffers that “parts . . . of the whole design . . . / seem more permanent and real,” we too are all familiar with how the world can seem. I count use of the verb “seem” nine times throughout the thirteen-plus pages. The poem proceeds more as an accumulation of observations than as a structured argument ending in a logically achieved conclusion. If we define the verb “seem” as “giving the impression of existing,” we can see how in the last ten lines of the poem even romantic love—perhaps especially romantic love—is, in Koethe’s view, merely an effect, “an imaginary construct,” much the same way Wright’s masterpiece is an edifice that, Koethe notes, serves as a kind of Freudian “psychic apparatus.” Wright cleverly hides his entrances and exits, thereby turning inhabitants toward their own interiority, a mental apparatus that can seem as real as the walls of a house. The poet wonders if love is nothing more than a signifier without an actual thing signified, “a state of mind” rather than an actuality. He continually tells himself that feeling, whether painful or pleasurable, is ephemeral. The feeling itself may certainly be real, but whatever it signifies—a bond, say—is only an effect. But, in his contrapuntal manner, of course, he nonetheless finds himself “inventing” a world where the pleasures of love exist, nonetheless. As he says earlier, “Sometimes at night / the banished unrealities return.”
To read a long midcareer poem as original and exquisitely complex as “Falling Water” is to experience what was once called sublimity. Still, all good poets wish to press further as artists, to extend their development. To be static is to forfeit creative joy. In the five books following Falling Water, Koethe produces many beautiful poems, but are they ever quite as sublime as his masterpiece? He retains his remarkably consistent point of view, often focusing on larger literary and cultural issues. In fact, in Falling Water a poem titled “Morning in America” renders the false buoyancy of the Reagan era. Later poems return to Koethe’s past, beginning in the sixties, in which several women (including his wife, Susan, before the divorce), his poetry friends (mostly male), and their poems (as well as his own) serve as historical markers. Ashbery is the central presence, but Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and others play their roles. From the standpoint of literary history, the goings-and-comings offer interest, since we can infer how friendship influenced art.
But what are the poems getting at? It’s as if these personages populate the poems to confirm a well-lived life. As he notes in “16A” from Sally’s Hair (2006): “What makes a life, if not the places and the things that make it up?” He’s not always sure. In that book’s title poem, he recounts a two-day love affair that took place thirty-seven years previous, and he finds he’s too old to be surprised by such a thing again: “The days are open, / Life conceals no depths, no mysteries,” but what remains is “the blond light / Of a summer afternoon that made me think again of Sally’s hair.” And in the marvelously affecting title poem of Ninety-Fifth Street (2009), he recounts his earliest obsessions with poetry, especially poems by John Ashbery and Robert Duncan, before describing a party at Ashbery’s home on Ninety-Fifth Street in Manhattan:
as I helped him set the table
The doorbell rang and Frank O’Hara, fresh from the museum
And svelte in a houndstooth sports coat entered, followed shortly
By “excitement-prone Kenneth Koch” in somber gray,
And I was one with my immortals.
Yet such sentimentality is once more soon met with a far less enraptured assertion: “those moments that had once seemed singular and clear / Dissolve into a ‘general mess of imprecision of feeling’ / And images, augmented by line breaks.” The idea of the well-lived life comes to linger mildly as a question. As with the work of all lasting poets, some poems are not as strong as others. Koethe surely doesn’t aspire to the rapid conversational riffs of ultra-talk poets, but, even though they may lack the rarified tonal qualities of “Falling Water” and “Henrietta” (not to mention “Early Morning in Milwaukee,” which is inexplicably left out of this collection), I nonetheless find virtually all of the later poems fascinating, if in a lower key.
To my mind, when it comes to art there is no one subject more important than any other. What elevates a work is some combination of elements that make it memorable. Though highly philosophical, Koethe has written lasting poetry that deserves anthology status. His poems are innovative elegies that mourn the loss not of people nor a way of life but, rather, a way of existing. He longs for a settled mode of being he can never recover. Koethe’s best poems—and there are many—own the fine modulating balance of voice in which the rendition of events is matched by a precise, lightly lamenting song from which myriad possibilities of meaning can be inferred. The work in Walking Backwards achieves a brilliant originality by manifesting exactly that balance, carrying willing readers intimately into one human being’s near-simultaneous experience of enthusiasm and disbelief.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. 384 pp. $40.00.