John Koethe | Walking Backwards: Poems 1966-2016 | FSG: $40.00
In a characteristically pellucid essay, ‘The Pyrrhic Measure in American Poetry’, John Koethe’s friend and fellow poet, Douglas Crase, sets out to analyse a particular characteristic of the American poetic voice. Crase links the vistas of the American landscape with a particular type of American poetry, ‘big blocks of words, prosy chunks that in their sequential and cumulative effects can be sized up as kin to paragraphs.’ When William Carlos Williams published In the American Grain in 1925, he was attempting to see what made certain American figures ‘American’. In his Autobiography, Williams commented on this attempt, ‘I want to make it clear that they are us, the American make-up, that we are what we have made up by their deeds and so remain in the American [Grain].’
Crase is, perhaps, making a similar connection between the American landscape and the American voice. Crase goes on to write, ‘Like the American drawl itself, the lines of American poetry could be lengthened, flattened, and expanded in scale to replace the name of just about anything.’ Technically, Crase associates this lengthening and flattening with the classic pyrrhic measure in poetry; that Crase calls ‘the unstressed platform of the poem, the opposite of the spondee’. What I take it that Crase is suggesting is that fully stressed syllables, measured in spondees, are reduced in the American voice; that, perhaps, there is a quietness, an unstressed quality to a certain type of American poetry. For Crase, the ultimate exemplar of that kind of writing is Ashbery, ‘Many of Ashbery’s finest lines seem to echo a distant alexandrine or sometimes tetrameter that has relaxed into an abundance of unaccented, pyrrhic feet.’ The alexandrine, a line measured in twelve syllables, is one of the most favoured of measures in French poetry, because the accenting of syllables in French is much more equal than in English. Thus, the line is measured in the number of syllables, rather than the number of stresses as in the iambic pentameter, say.
I have spent some time on the prosody because of the next move in Crase’s argument, that this kind of American poetry can be ‘measured’ in paragraphs; and here Crase repeats Gertrude Stein’s dictum that ‘Sentences are not emotional, paragraphs are.’ Thus, if vistas are to be contained in paragraphs that delimit particular emotions, then those vistas are, to some extent, a kind of paysage moralisé; the identification of the writer with the landscape. Such senses of the emotional paragraph may, of course, run counter to the poetic paragraph outlined by other American poets, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, Ron Silliman, for example, states that the paragraph is a ‘unit of quantity, not logic or argument.’
Crase also links John Koethe’s version of this prosody with his main employment as a professor of philosophy, and one who has written on Wittgenstein. And, to take another angle here, the form of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus has proved a fruitful textual model for a number of poets, including the British poet, Roy Fisher. Thus, one way into Koethe’s writing is the sense that it is discursive; that it explores issues verbally. In Koethe’s case this means, to some extent, moving away from description to an exploration of, particularly, relationships, emotions, inner states. Koethe, himself, in his book of essays on poetry, Poetry at One Remove, published in 2000, comments, ‘an overly narrow view of [poetry’s] range and possibilities, one that insists on the concrete and particular and proscribes the abstract and discursive … strikes me as pernicious…’
Koethe’s poetry is not always discursive. The poems selected from across his books, collected in this semi ‘collected’ poems, show a range of formal experimentation. The poems from Koethe’s first book Vents, are often short, first-person lyrics, which some times chop up syntax and have a restless, searching feel to them. Koethe’s second volume, Domes, from 1973 shows a more complicated approach; in most of the poems the lines are longer, the ‘thought units’ are longer and more likely to burrow away at ideas and issues. However, there are also poems in this book in what are quite clearly iambic pentameters; take these lines from part of the title poem, ‘Green lichen fastened to a blue rock / Like a map of the spot; cobwebs crowded with stars / of water…’ But it has to be said that this kind of versifying is unusual in Koethe’s writing, and was another possible experiment in form which he subsequently abandoned. And where this book pays real attention to the narrator’s environment, which it does quite a lot, there is more sense of the ‘thought units’ and the verse paragraphs being coterminous, in Crase’s terms. Sometimes, here, the poems smack of Robert Lowell; there are autobiographical poems which take Lowell’s Life Studies as a clear model. In these poems, we see how Koethe’s work is moving towards a much more staged, philosophical if you like, reflection; introspection but introspection pegged on the reach towards greater truths. And if that sounds like a grand statement of the obvious, i.e., Koethe is now engaged in his own exploration of ‘the growth of the poet’s mind’, one wonders how many of Koethe’s contemporaries have really engaged in that Wordsworthian project.
Koethe gifts the reviewer with a short manifesto in the poem ‘Picture of Little Letters’, ‘What I want in poetry is a kind of abstract photography / Of the nerves, but what I like in photography / Is the poetry of literal pictures of the neighbourhood.’ Of course, by contrasting ‘abstract’ with ‘literal’, and ‘nerves’ with ‘neighbourhood’, Koethe attempts to muddy his own waters, to overlay the abstract on the literal. Koethe is also painting himself into his own corner, although his ambition, as I understand it, to be both physically precise but intellectually wide ranging, seems noble enough. Koethe himself understand the kind of contradictions much poetry entertains. In his own book of essays, Poetry at One Remove, he comments,
… in the course of the poem’s elaboration one may entertain and essay notions of whose untenability one is perfectly aware – an untenability one may even acknowledge – without being led to abandon them. Indeed the awareness of the futility of a conception may even lead to an even greater insistence on it, because the animating force of poetic speculation is always desire, rather than an ideal of impersonal accuracy.
As Koethe acknowledges, this idea of ‘desire’ comes from Wallace Stevens, which Koethe paraphrases as, ‘this theme of assertion in the face of futility.’ So, although Koethe has written on Wittgenstein, the central feeling that arises from these poems is much less a sense of ‘language games’ than an exploration of a much more Heideggerean idea of ‘poetic truth’; what Heidegger elsewhere calls ‘thinking listening’.
Thinking listening in Koethe’s poetry takes varying forms. Listening, as opposed to hearing, can be musical as in ‘Songs my mother taught me’, which riffs on the Dvorak song of the same name. Such music an arouse in Koethe, ‘a story / set entirely in the kingdom of appearance’ which might morph into a ‘Face that floats above a background made of / Words that someone spoke, from which the human / Figure gradually emerges, like a shifting pattern / Drifting through a filigree of flimsy clouds / Above the massive, slowly turning globe.’ This sense of stories spinning out, one from another is characteristic of Koethe’s method. The poems, themselves, emerge within and from shifting patterns. Koethe muses on a way of thinking/perceiving out of which an image of the human condition arises. And yet, the image itself may be based on false perceptions, even where the image itself is relocated within concretions which, in turn, may be evanescent like the clouds or massive and finite such as the globe. And Koethe, too, is conscious, even self-conscious of the dilemmas he evokes. Later in this same poem, he comments, ‘I wish there were an answer to that wish. / Why can’t the unseen world – the real world – / Be like an aspect of a place that one remembers?’
These ambivalences in Koethe’s writing exist in both the life described and the techniques used to describe the life. There is quite a lot of the ‘what-might-have-been’ kind in Koethe’s middle period writing; the best of these poems moving outside that kind of introspection, to meditate on other propositions. In ‘Falling Water’, the major poem of this middle period, Koethe meditates on a comment of Freud ‘That space is the projection of a “psychic apparatus” / Which remains almost entirely oblivious to itself;’ And while, initially, this sounds unbearably precious, Koethe takes this and uses it to discuss what is the relationship between the house and the home, particularly in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, in ways which are deft and poignant, ‘embodying a milder, / More domestic notion of perfection, on a human scale.’ Koethe often remarks on the necessity of ‘a human scale’ in poetry, and yet this clearly causes tensions for him. In the title poem from his 2002 volume, North Point North, he comments, ‘A poem can seize and hold a moment fast, yet it can / Limit what there is to feel, and stake a distance from the world.’
In many ways, the rest of Koethe’s writing to date has been an exploration of that sense of both intimacy and distance, which is not to reduce his poetry to a single trajectory. Koethe is never afraid to use the first person ‘I’, and it is clear that the ‘I’ is the ‘empirical’ Koethe. These poems explore that sense of the first person without quite expanding into the confessional, particularly not in the sense of the confession in, say, the poetry of Frank Bidart. Koethe’s poetry is almost memoirist, a kind of poetic, creative non-fiction. The come-and-go of relationships is remarked on in this book, but Koethe refuses to dwell on it. High points later in this book include the title poem from his 2009 book, Ninety-Fifth Street, a self-deprecating reminiscence of time spent with John Ashbery in New York. And Koethe writes wonderful travel poems, too; about Lagos, or visiting the Uffizi in Florence and that same sensibility pervades his later poems about New York. In the final, ‘New Poems’ section, there is a very fine riffing on Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ in the poem ‘Rural Churches’. These are poems in which intimacy and distance in a particular locale are expertly balanced, and where there is a real sense of a personality expanding with and into a certain place.
As Koethe remarks, quoting Yeats approvingly, this is poetry as ‘a silent quarrel with yourself,’ and, although the emphasis is the ‘quiet’, it is certainly the ‘quarrel’ which drives the poems. Koethe has consistently winnowed his poetry over the years, and he has taken out poems which even made it into his North Point North selected. The net effect is that Walking Backwards shows that Wordsworthian ‘growth of the poet’s mind’ with an unaffected clarity.
by Ian Pople