David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Make John Koethe’s Day

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Publisher’s Weekly gives the red star treatment to John Koethe’s ninth book of poems, ambiguously titled ROTC Kills. PW’s reviewer says Koethe is “an amiable hybrid of late Wallace Stevens, late John Ashbery, and William Bronk.” It’s a sweet comparison — this thing about “amiable” — and I guess PW means it to convey something about how Koethe writes about people, that he is philosophically predisposed, and that he is sympathetic to the struggle to exist against time.

But Koethe is more amiable than Wallace Stevens? C’mon. How hard could that be? There’s not a living body warmer than a snowman in Wallace Stevens’s poems, early, middle, or late. And Ashbery? The people in his poems are stick figures piled onto marble figurines. As for Bronk, his poems turn him into a misanthrope. In most every way, Koethe’s poems are unlike the others. His philosophical bent is Wordsworthian, the body of his work like an extended series of a new American Prelude. But: I’m grateful to PW for praising Koethe who might be unmatched in the manner in which he thinks in his poems. Or, more than thinks, he meditates. He dramatizes the emotional vitality of an idea Which nowadays is strangely and sadly rare with so much of contemporary American poetry fetishizing the glittery.

Meanwhile on Slate, Jonathan Farmer gets all judgmental over Koethe’s musculature: “I worry that Koethe has been too successful in eluding the demands of life.” Do you? I worry that reviewers worry too much about the lived lives of their subjects. Then there’s this: Farmer (who is blogging over at Best American Poetry this week, check it out) praises Koethe for the power he has when he “unleashes his imagination. He is a beautiful writer, one whose subtle inventiveness can give new life to persistent images (“the steep, unglaciated hills …”), nail a complex feeling in just a few words (“the ghostly consolations of the past”), or make the basic tools of the poetic trade into sources of pleasure and persuasion.”

That’s right, Koethe’s poems contain an elastic warmth.

But, later, Farmer laments: “These poems are unusually short on references to living people—people who bring obligations—and some vitality disappears with them.” Well, which is it? Too few people or too much insight? I think Koethe is a superb poet and deeply grateful that he’s merited two strong reviews right quick with this new book. And if William Carlos’ dictum of “no ideas but in things” were to be run through the John Koethe poetics mill, it’d come out “No, ideas.” We could use more of that, no?

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Poetry Wire sends condolences to the family of the poet laureate of the Long Island suburbs, Louis Simpson (1923-2012), who died this week at the age of 89. Simpson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1963 book, At the End of the Open Road, was a poet of emotional reluctance and moral compassion. His poems were the most non-transcendental of his peers, who included Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Galway Kinnell, and W. S. Merwin. He shared more of the political sensibility of Adrienne Rich, in some ways, though without her fervor or broad influence. Few poets of the post-World War II era spoke so compassionately for those living lives of quiet desperation as Louis Simpson.


David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →