BooksWeekend

America’s Philosopher Poet

John Koethe (photo by Tom Bamberger)

The Swimmer is John Koethe’s tenth book of poetry. For many years, he was Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee until he retired in 2010. In addition to his poetry, he is the author of The Continuity of Wittgenstein’s Thought (1996) and Skepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning (2005). While Koethe doesn’t consider himself a “luminary” in philosophy, like Simon Critchley or Graham Harman, it is clear that he is a widely respected authority on subjects of fundamental interest – language usage and the idea that certain knowledge is impossible to gain. Or, to put it simply, how do we know what we know?

It is also apparent, or it should be by now, that Koethe’s deep study of philosophy has made him into a rarity in American letters, a philosopher poet, someone who can move from the particulars of a mundane memory to the realm of epistemology, which is the study of knowledge and the question of what is truth. In Koethe’s poems, these two poles are always connected through language that is precise and pellucid. Reading his poetry is like looking into a lake on a bright summer day: you can see all the way to the bottom, though what you discover there may not be comforting.

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Within Koethe’s poems this means that he examines why he might have held onto certain memories by following its implications, which often have to do with time and how one lives in it. This is the opening of “Covers Band in a Small Bar”:

They make it feel like yesterday,
Which is the whole idea: another dateless
Saturday in the basement of the Charter Club,
Drinking beer and listening to a Trenton covers band
Playing Four Tops Songs: “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch,”
“It’s the same Old Song.”

The false feeling of timelessness and recaptured youth that pop music can induce in us has seldom been expressed so well. Koethe gets right to its appeal (“They make it feel like yesterday.”). Instead of staying where he is, in the “basement of the Charter Club,” listening to the same old song and mulling over this feeling, Koethe follows his thoughts, in the very next line:

They occupied my mind
In 1966 through dinner with Robbie at Del Pezzo, later
In the Vassar Club and on a cruise around Manhattan
For Peter Mahony’s parents’ wedding anniversary.

At any point in this poem, he could have gotten bogged down (or should I say wallowed) some self-serving, self-pitying, self-aggrandizing memory, but he didn’t. The poem isn’t about him, but about his relationship to time that listening to certain songs induces in him. It is a feeling many of us are familiar with, music’s ability to transport us to another time and place. There is nothing obvious about the clarity, precision and compression Koethe is able to wield in this poem. It seems relaxed and discursive, and that’s the magic of his poems. He brings us right in, as if we are sitting next to him. He is a brilliant conversationalist and we don’t want to miss a word he is saying.

Koethe was born in San Diego, California, where he grew up a “science whiz kid” who loved fiction. He attended Harvard and Princeton, and ended up teaching in Milwaukee. In a Koethe poem – and there is such a thing, just as there are Ashbery, Bishop and Cummings poems – all of these experiences, and many more, are likely to be included. And yet, for all of their autobiographical detail, the poems never stay within that domain. He is a moral allegorist whose connections never feel forced or contrived. Nor does he set out to make a point or pass along a revelation, all reasons to distrust a poet.

There is an underlying modesty to Koethe’s poems that set them stand apart from other poets working in an autobiographical mode. He is too conscious of the fact that whatever befalls him, no matter how meaningful it is to him, doesn’t make him special. These are the poems of a man who is now in his early seventies: he is looking back and forth in the time, and he knows his past is far larger than his future. This fact means everything to him, but it doesn’t mean everything.

The Swimmer” is both the title poem of Koethe’s book as well as the title of a story that John Cheever published in The New Yorker on July 18, 1964, which Koethe believes he read when he was thirty-eight, around the time the story came out. It is Cheever’s best-known, most widely anthologized story, and it was adapted into a movie, The Swimmer (1968), starring Burt Lancaster. Except Koethe realizes that he didn’t read it, that he imagined that he had read it one summer, “within the limits of a world that never changed.”

In Cheever’s story, Neddy Merrill, who is lounging by his friend’s pool, decides to go home by swimming across all the pools between his friend’s house and his own, a considerable distance. Koethe’s poem begins with a crystalline memory:

Photo: sitting by the cabin on Lake Au Train
We rented every summer, reading John Cheever,
Then rowing out in a boat after dinner to fish.

The poem goes in at least two directions at the same time. The first most obvious direction is Koethe’s memories of the past (“I was married then, and lived in my imagination”). While considering the choices he made and didn’t make in that earlier period of his life, and the changes that happened (“In seven years the substance of my future changed: instead of summers on the lake, I found myself alone/and free, and not wanting what I wanted anymore,/And happy.”) Each ten-line stanza of the poem teases out a viewpoint or proposition, which is augmented or tested in the following stanza, as the poet moves back and forth in time, with Cheever’s dark allegorical story slowly taking over.

Whatever the ostensible subject (or surface) of Koethe’s poems, this is what he does so well: he gets to those feelings, those murmurings, those tics that inhabit us all: “The constant consciousness of helplessness;/The constant feeling of inevitability, of the anger/At that feeling; of the separateness of persons.” In order to get to those feelings, he touches upon all sorts of subjects, from “Frank Sinatra’s Trains” (who knew he collected model trains?) to “Chappaquiddick,” about a trip he and his partner Diane take to “Martha’s Vineyard, ground zero for the benign rich…”

As with all of the poems in this necessary book, which is to say something we should all read, Koethe presents a broad view of history and culture that is rooted in particulars. He doesn’t make generalizations and doesn’t point fingers. There is so much of what William Carlos Williams called “the news” in these poems. Reading “Chappaquidick,” where Ted Kennedy drove “The Oldsmobile that skidded off Dike Road and into Poucha Pond,” resulting in the death of his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne and the apparent end of his presidential aspirations, I felt as if I were getting a guided tour of the island’s geography and a detailed view of its long history: “Where Methodists once waited on the ending of the world, which didn’t end.”

The brilliance of this book is that Koethe doesn’t stop with this nugget of information, but extrapolates from it the following line: “The world never ends–what ends are explanations of the way it is.” To recognize that collective condition of confusion and estrangement and not pull back, not retreat into a false sense of security, or hold onto an illusion about the way things used to be and how America was once great, that’s the wisdom the reader will find in The Swimmer, written at a time when this country doesn’t seem to know how to move forward.

The Swimmer (2016) is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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