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In the last book of The Republic Plato turns to poetry, implicitly contrasts it with philosophy, and argues that it shouldn’t even exist in the ideal city he’s meticulously constructed. His reasoning is liable to strike us now as quaint: poets traffic in appearances, not essences, and write of things they don’t know anything about, like military strategy and battles; they portray heroic figures in the grip of powerful, deranged emotions, to which their readers must inevitably succumb; and there’s a metaphysical complaint: all art, including poetry, is essentially mimetic, and representations are inherently inferior to what they represent. You need to make some changes if you want to know what’s going on. Poetry for Plato wasn’t what you’d probably think of if you’re reading this, a marginalized enactment of experience and subjectivity in which the medium itself is half the point. Nor was philosophy the systematic study of the possibility of meaning we’ve become accustomed to, but sought instead to penetrate the veil of appearances, arriving at a vision of the good that shows us how we ought to try to live. It’s been suggested that to understand him, think of movies and TV instead of poetry, for they’re what occupy the space that poetry occupied in Athens. I agree, but then the question ultimately becomes: Should how we try to live be based on fantasies and feelings, or known facts and reason? And the suspicion that the latter aren’t much fun shows just how troubling the question really is.
Yet even in their late, attenuated forms philosophy and poetry pose a problem, Plato’s problem. Write what you know: an admonition that concedes the point that poets usually don’t. And what exactly does one know, in the intended sense? I guess what’s meant is something like a lived identity within a social world, and yet behind those limited identities lies something larger, something commonplace and ordinary, but at the same time utterly unique. Like the hedgehog, each of us knows just one big thing, a thing philosophy can’t capture and that poetry can at best remind us of or intimate, but can’t describe. As it extends itself in time the individual life remains a captive of its point of view, confined to what it knows, cut off from all those others that resemble it in all respects but one. It’s what I know and everything I know, it’s something that I know so thoroughly I can’t imagine or describe it, though it fills my eyes. But there’s no need for imagery or words: you know it too, for it lies floating in your eyes. Would Plato even recognize a poetry of consciousness? And what of consciousness itself? It’s sometimes said to have a history, a recent one, and to have been unknown to Homer’s Greeks. But that’s a fallacy, inferring how you feel from what you write; moreover, Bernard Williams showed that what they wrote shows that they felt like us. And yet the poems of the articulated consciousness lay in the blank, unwritten future, poised to spring from Hamlet’s mind, not Oedipus’s; and their challenge to Book X was still to be imagined, still to come.
“There’s the part where you say it, and the part where you take it back” (J.L. Austin). I say these things because I want to, and sometimes even think they’re true; but now I want to take them back. Knowledge is factive, meaning one can’t know what isn’t true, and truth is simply correspondence with the facts. What are the facts of consciousness? They’re all analogies and metaphors, a feeling of existence but without reality’s defining contours, like a sense of something hesitating on the brink of being said, or hiding in the shadows of an inner room. They’re all appearances, but appearances of what? Something that wanders up your limbs and nerves and blossoms in your brain? They’re all just figments of perspective, of a point of view from which the time is always now, the place is always here, and the thought of something hiding underneath the surface a seductive spell. The harder I try to pin them down the more elusive they become, as gradually the shadows disappear, the words turn into syllables, the face becomes anonymous and leaves me staring at a silver sheet of glass. What starts out as self-scrutiny becomes a study in self-pity, and instead of something tangible and true one winds up chasing the chimeras of Book X: the fruitless quarrel between philosophy and poetry, reason and unreason, and that tedious myth about the soul, of what becomes of it at death, then of its journey and rebirth. I’m tired, I’m far from home, I’m waiting in a chamber in a castle on a mountaintop in Umbria (poets get to do this), seven hundred miles from Athens as the crow flies, where perhaps “the sun still shines upon the hills and has not yet set.” I write the way I do because I want it to exist, but then the spell breaks and it dries up like a dream, leaving me with just this smooth, unvariegated surface, which remains.
“His words made us ashamed, and we checked our tears. He walked around, and when he said his legs were heavy he lay on his back as he had been told to do, and the man who had given him the poison touched his body, and after a while tested his feet and legs, pressed hard upon his foot and asked him if he felt this, and Socrates said no. Then he pressed his calves, and made his way up his body and showed us that it was cold and stiff. He felt it himself and said that when the cold reached his heart he would be gone. As his belly was getting cold Socrates uncovered his head—he had covered it—and said—these were his last words—‘Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget.’—‘It shall be done,’ said Crito, ‘tell us if there is anything else.’ But there was no answer. Shortly afterwards Socrates made a movement; the man uncovered him and his eyes were fixed. Seeing this Crito closed his mouth and his eyes.”
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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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