The Proximate Shore

By John Koethe b. 1945 John Koethe
It starts in sadness and bewilderment,   
The self-reflexive iconography   
Of late adolescence, and a moment

When the world dissolves into a fable   
Of an alternative geography   
Beyond the threshold of the visible.

And the heart is a kind of mute witness,   
Abandoning everything for the sake   
Of an unimaginable goodness

Making its way across the crowded stage
Of what might have been, leaving in its wake   
The anxiety of an empty page.

Thought abhors a vacuum. Out of it came   
A partially recognizable shape
Stumbling across a wilderness, whose name,

Obscure at first, was sooner or later   
Sure to be revealed, and a landscape   
Of imaginary rocks and water

And the dull pastels of the dimly lit   
Interior of a gymnasium.   
Is art the mirror of its opposite,

Or is the world itself a mimesis?   
This afternoon at the symposium   
Someone tried to resurrect the thesis

That a poem is a deflected sigh.   
And I remembered a day on a beach   
Thirty-five years ago, in mid-July,

The summer before I left for college,   
With the future hanging just out of reach   
And constantly receding, like the edge

Of the water floating across the sand.   
Poems are the fruit of the evasions   
Of a life spent trying to understand

The vacuum at the center of the heart,   
And for all the intricate persuasions   
They enlist in the service of their art,

Are finally small, disappointing things.   
Yet from them there materializes   
A way of life, a way of life that brings

The fleeting pleasures of a vocation   
Made up of these constant exercises   
In what still passes for celebration,

That began in a mood of hopelessness   
On an evening in a dormitory
Years and years ago, and seemed to promise

A respite from disquietude and care,   
But that left only the lovely story
Of a bright presence hanging in the air.

John Koethe, “The Proximate Shore” from North Point North: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2002 by John Koethe. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Source: North Point North: New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2002)

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Poet John Koethe b. 1945

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Subjects Arts & Sciences, Living, Coming of Age, Philosophy, Poetry & Poets

 John  Koethe


The author of several collections of poetry, including North Point North: New and Selected (2002), Ninety-fifth Street (2009), and ROTC Kills (2012), John Koethe also publishes and teaches philosophy, focusing on the philosophy of language. Koethe began writing poetry as an undergraduate at Princeton University and received his PhD from Harvard.

Critic Andrew Yaphe calls Koethe “one of our foremost Romantic poets, an inheritor . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Living, Coming of Age, Philosophy, Poetry & Poets

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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