Tuesday, December 29, 2009

John Koethe

John Koethe received an A.B. from Princeton in 1967 and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard in 1973. Since then, he has taught in the philosophy department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, from which he will retire as Distinguished Professor in January 2010.

His writings include eight books of poetry: Blue Vents, Domes, The Late Wisconsin Spring, Falling Water, The Constructor, North Point North: New and Selected Poems, Sally's Hair, and Ninety-fifth Street; two books on philosophy: The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Thought and Scepticism, Knowledge and Forms of Reasoning; and a book of literary essays: Poetry at One Remove.

Koethe has received the Frank O'Hara Award, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim foundation and the national Endowment for the Arts, and was the first Poet Laureate of Milwaukee. He was the 2008 Elliston Poet in Residence at the University of Cincinnati and will be the Bain-Swiggett Professor of Poetry at Princeton in the spring semester of 2010.

A few days ago I asked him what he was reading. His response deliberately excluded poetry books, as he thought readers might like to hear what interests a poet other than poetry:
The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved by Judith Freeman. This book is the record of a compelling obsession, as Judith Freeman chronicles her visits to all the places Chandler and his beloved wife Cissy lived in Los Angeles and other places in Southern California. Phillip Marlow is the nominal hero of Chandler’s novels, but their real protagonist is the atmospheric urban landscape through which he moves, and this biography in the form of a kind of travelog presents a vivid portrait of one of my favorite writers.

Casting a Spell by George Black. Black’s official subject is the history of the American bamboo fly rod, but the book is also a bittersweet, extended meditation on craftsmanship and consumerism, the construction of the dream of the American wilderness, and the tension between the obsessive pursuit of perfection and economic realities. The rod makers Black portrays create remarkable objects for those who can afford them, yet they themselves live in strained economic circumstances. One needn’t actually be interested in fly fishing to find the book fascinating, though as soon as I finished it I called up Sweetgrass Rods and got on their waiting list.

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life by Carol Sklenika. Sklenika, a Milwaukee friend of mine now transplanted to Northern California, worked on this biography of Raymond Carver for many years. The detail is exhaustive, but not exhausting in the way many biographies tend to be. I actually read very little short fiction, but I’m a sucker for literary biographies, and Carver’s life fascinates me, along with the world of writing programs and workshops he inhabited and which I know very little about.

The Anthologist: A Novel by Nicholson Baker. This book presents a different kind of writer’s life, that of the fictional poet Paul Chowder as he struggles to complete an introduction to an anthology of formal poetry. Baker incorporates a great deal of real life poetry world personalities and gossip, but what I like best about the book is the narrator’s voice, humorous and demented at the same time. Chowder seems intelligent and insightful, but since we learn almost nothing about his own poetry, it is impossible to decide whether he’s a kind of minor genius or a crackpot.
Read poems from Ninety-fifth Street and Sally's Hair.

--Marshal Zeringue