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Words can bang around in your head
Forever, if you let them and you give them room.
I used to love poetry, and mostly I still do,
Though sometimes “I, too, dislike it.” There must be
Something real beyond the fiddle and perfunctory
Consolations and the quarrels—as of course
There is, though what it is is difficult to say.
The salt is on the briar rose, the fog is in the fir trees.
I didn’t know what it was, and I don’t know now,
But it was what I started out to do, and now, a lifetime later,
All I’ve really done. The Opening of the Field,
Roots and Branches, Rivers and Mountains: I sat in my room
Alone, their fragments shored against the ruin or revelation
That was sure to come, breathing in their secret atmosphere,
Repeating them until they almost seemed my own.
We like to think our lives are what they study to become,
And yet so much of life is waiting, waiting on a whim.
So much of what we are is sheer coincidence,
Like a sentence whose significance is retrospective,
Made up out of elementary particles that are in some sense
Simply sounds, like syllables that finally settle into place.
You probably think that this is a poem about poetry
(And obviously it is), yet its real subject is time,
For that’s what poetry is—a way to live through time
And sometimes, just for a while, to bring it back.
* * *
A paneled dining room in Holder Hall. Stage right, enter twit:
“Mr. Ashbery, I’m your biggest campus fan.” We hit it off
And talked about “The Skaters” and my preference for “Clepsydra”
Vs. “Fragment.” Later on that night John asked me to a party in New York,
And Saturday, after dinner and a panel on the artist’s role as something
(And a party), driving Lewis’s Austin-Healey through the rain
I sealed our friendship with an accident. The party was on Broadway,
An apartment (white of course, with paintings) just downstairs
From Frank O’Hara’s, who finally wandered down. I talked to him
A little about Love Poems (Tentative Title), which pleased him,
And quoted a line from “Poem” about the rain, which seemed to please him too.
The party ended, John and I went off to Max’s, ordered steaks
And talked about our mothers. All that talking!—poems and paintings,
Parents, all those parties, and the age of manifestos still to come!
I started coming to New York for lunch. We’d meet at Art News,
Walk to Fifty-sixth Street to Larre’s, a restaurant filled with French expatriates,
Have martinis and the prix fixe for $2.50 (!), drink rose de Provence
And talk (of course) about Genet and James and words like “Coca-Cola.”
It was an afternoon in May when John brought up a play
That he and Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara—Holy Trinity!
(Batman was in vogue)—had started years ago and never finished.
There was a dictator named Edgar and some penicillin,
But that’s all I remember. They hadn’t actually been together
In years, but planned to finish it that night at John’s new apartment
On Ninety-fifth Street, and he said to come by for a drink
Before they ate and got to work. It was a New York dream
Come true: a brownstone floor-through, white and full of paintings
(Naturally), “with a good library and record collection.”
John had procured a huge steak, and as I helped him set the table
The doorbell rang and Frank O’Hara, fresh from the museum
And svelte in a hound’s tooth sports coat entered, followed shortly
By “excitement-prone Kenneth Koch” in somber gray,
And I was one with my immortals. In the small mythologies
We make up out of memories and the flow of time
A few moments remain frozen, though the feel of them is lost,
The feel of talk. It ranged from puns to gossip, always coming back
To poems and poets. Frank was fiercely loyal to young poets
(Joe Ceravolo’s name came up I think), and when I mentioned Lewis
In a way that must have sounded catty, he leapt to his defense,
Leaving me to backtrack in embarrassment and have another drink,
Which is what everyone had. I think you see where it was going:
Conversation drifting into dinner, then I stayed for dinner
And everyone forgot about the play, which was never finished
(Though I think I’ve seen a fragment of it somewhere). I see a table
In a cone of light, but there’s no sound except for Kenneth’s
Deadpan “Love to see a boy eat” as I speared a piece of steak;
And then the only voice I’m sure I hear is mine,
As those moments that had once seemed singular and clear
Dissolve into a “general mess of imprecision of feeling”
And images, augmented by line breaks. There were phone calls,
Other people arrived, the narrative of the night dissolved
And finally everyone went home. School and spring wound down.
The semester ended, then the weekend that I wrote about in “Sally’s Hair”
Arrived and went, and then a late-night cruise around Manhattan for a rich friend’s
Parents’ anniversary bash, followed by an Upper East Side preppie bar
That left me looking for a place to crash, and so I rang John’s bell at 2 AM
And failed (thank God) to rouse him, caught a plane to San Diego
The next day, worked at my summer job and worked on poems
And started reading Proust, and got a card one afternoon
From Peter Schjeldahl telling me that Frank O’Hara had been killed.
Ninety-fifth Street soldiered on for several years.
I remember a cocktail party (the symposium of those days),
Followed by dinner just around the corner at Elaine’s,
Pre-Woody Allen. It was there I learned of R.F.K.’s assassination
When I woke up on the daybed in the living room, and where
John told me getting married would ruin me as a poet
(I don’t know why—most of his friends were married), a judgment
He revised when he met Susan and inscribed The Double Dream of Spring
“If this is all we need fear from spinach, then I don’t mind so much”
(Which was probably premature—watering his plants one day
She soaked his landlord, Giorgio Cavallon, dozing in the garden below).
It was where Peter Delacorte late one night recited an entire side
Of a Firesign Theatre album from memory, and set John on that path,
To his friends’ subsequent dismay, and where he blessed me with his extra copy
Of The Poems, and next day had second thoughts (though I kept it anyway).
Sometimes a vague, amorphous stretch of years assumes a shape,
And then becomes an age, and then a golden age alive with possibilities,
When change was in the air and you could wander through its streets
As though through Florence and the Renaissance. I know it sounds ridiculous,
But that’s the way life flows: in stages that take form in retrospect,
When all the momentary things that occupy the mind from day to day
Have vanished into time, and something takes their place that wasn’t there,
A sense of freedom—one which gradually slipped away. The center
Of the conversation moved downtown, the Renaissance gave way to mannerism
As the junior faculty took charge, leaving the emeriti alone and out of it
Of course, lying on the fringes, happily awake; but for the rest
The laws proscribing what you couldn’t do were clear. I got so tired
Of writing all those New York poems (though by then I’d moved to Boston—
To Siena, you might say) that led to nowhere but the next one,
So I started writing poems about whatever moved me: what it’s like
To be alive within a world that holds no place for you, yet seems so beautiful;
The feeling of the future, and its disappointments; the trajectory of a life,
That always brought me back to time and memory (I’d finished Proust by then),
And brings me back to this. John finally moved downtown himself,
Into a two-story apartment at Twenty-fifth and Tenth, with a spiral staircase
Leading to a library, the locus of the incident of Susan, Alydar and John
And the pitcher of water (I’ll draw a veil over it), and Jimmy Schuyler sighing
“It’s so beautiful,” as Bernadette Peters sang “Raining in My Heart” from Dames at Sea.
The poetry still continued—mine and everyone’s. I’d added Jimmy
To my pantheon (as you’ve probably noticed), but the night in nineteen sixty-six
Seemed more and more remote: I never saw Kenneth anymore,
And there were new epicenters, with new casts of characters, like Madoo,
Bob Dash’s garden in Sagaponack, and Bill and Willy’s loft in Soho.
John moved again, to Twenty-second Street, and Susan and I moved to Milwaukee,
Where our son was born. I stopped coming to New York, and writing poems,
For several years, while I tried to dream enough philosophy for tenure.
One afternoon in May I found myself at Ninth and Twenty-second,
And as though on cue two people whom I hadn’t seen in years—David Kalstone,
Darragh Park—just happened by, and then I took a taxi down to Soho
To the loft, and then a gallery to hear Joe Brainard read from I Remember,
Back to John’s and out to dinner—as though I’d never been away,
Though it was all too clear I had. Poems were in the air, but theory too,
And members of the thought police department (who must have also gotten tenure)
Turned up everywhere, with arguments that poetry was called upon to prove.
It mattered, but in a different way, as though it floated free from poems
And wasn’t quite the point. I kept on coming back, as I still do.
Half my life was still to come, and yet the rest was mostly personal:
I got divorced, and Willy killed himself, and here I am now, ready to retire.
There was an obituary in the Times last week for Michael Goldberg,
A painter you’ll recall from Frank O’Hara’s poems (“Why I Am Not a Painter,”
“Ode to Michael Goldberg (’s Birth and Other Births)”). I didn’t know him,
But a few months after the soiree on Ninety-fifth Street I was at a party
In his studio on the Bowery, which was still his studio when he died.
The New York art world demimonde was there, including nearly everyone
Who’s turned up in this poem. I remember staring at a guy who
Looked like something from the Black Lagoon, dancing with a gorgeous
Woman half his age. That’s my New York: an island dream
Of personalities and evenings, nights where poetry was second nature
And their lives flowed through it and around it as it gave them life.
O brave new world (now old) that had such people in’t!
* * *
“The tiresome old man is telling us his life story.”
I guess I am, but that’s what poets do—not always
Quite as obviously as this, and usually more by indirection
And omission, but beneath the poetry lies the singular reality
And unreality of an individual life. I see it as a long,
Illuminated tunnel, lined with windows giving on the scenes outside—
On Ninety-fifth Street forty years ago. As life goes on
You start to get increasingly distracted by your own reflection
And the darkness gradually becoming visible at the end.
I try not to look too far ahead, but just to stay here—
Quick now, here, now, always—only something pulls me
Back (as they say) to the day, when poems were more like secrets,
With their own vernacular, and you could tell your friends
By who and what they read. And now John’s practically become
A national treasure, and whenever I look up I think I see him
Floating in the sky like the Cheshire Cat. I don’t know
What to make of it, but it makes me happy—like seeing Kenneth
Just before he died (“I’m going west John, I’m going west”)
In his apartment on a side street near Columbia, or remembering
Once again that warm spring night in nineteen sixty-six.
I like to think of them together once again, at the cocktail party
At the end of the mind, where I could blunder in and ruin it one last time.
Meanwhile, on a hillside in the driftless region to the west,
A few miles from the small town where The Straight Story ends,
I’m building a house on a meadow, if I’m permitted to return,
Behind a screen of trees above a lower meadow, with some apple trees
In which the fog collects on autumn afternoons, and a vista
Of an upland pasture without heaviness. I see myself
Sitting on the deck and sipping a martini, as I used to at Larre’s,
In a future that feels almost like a past I’m positive is there—
But where? I think my life is still all conversation,
Only now it’s with myself. I can see it continuing forever,
Even in my absence, as I close the windows and turn off the lights
And it begins to rain. And then we’re there together
In the house on the meadow, waiting for whatever’s left to come
In what’s become the near future—two versions of myself
And of the people that we knew, each one an other
To the other, yet both indelibly there: the twit of twenty
And the aging child of sixty-two, still separate
And searching in the night, listening through the night
To the noise of the rain and memories of rain
And evenings when we’d wander out into the Renaissance,
When I could see you and talk to you and it could still change;
And still there in the morning when the rain has stopped,
And the apples are all getting tinted in the cool light.
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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 of the tradition of Stevens and Ashbery.” Koethe’s longer poems, occasionally formal or metered, show the influence of Elizabeth Bishop, William Wordsworth, Marcel Proust, Mark Strand, and Kenneth Koch. He regards his poetry “as music and I think of it in terms of movements and sounds and the way it flows rather than content.” As critic Robert Hahn notes, “Koethe’s poetry is ultimately lyrical, and its claim on us comes not from philosophy’s dream of precision but from the common human dream that our lives make some...
Poems By John Koethe
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