John Koethe and the Poetic Sentence

John Koethe
photo: Tom Bamberger

The poems in John Koethe’s The Swimmer are like personal essays, a mixture of autobiographical anecdote and layered references to literature, art, science, and philosophy. And one of the first things you’ll notice about the cadence of those poems is its similarity to prose—but it’s not a “ordinary sentences peppered with random line breaks” kind of banal, descriptive poetry; these are complex, intricate sentences that, as Koethe explains in this essay, aim to mirror the processes of recollection and reflection that shape our memories, and the ways we come to see what we have experienced through what we have learned. There is no memory without interpretation, and as we re-interpret our pasts, we are also re-defining our present.

I started writing poetry in 1964 as a sophomore in college, after a course on modern literature in which I first read the poets of high modernism. I wasn’t sure exactly what they were doing, but I was bowled over by it and knew I wanted to try to do it too. Learning to write poetry is at first a process of imitation—especially back then, before the proliferation of programs in “creative writing” (how I hate that term!)—and while my first models were Eliot (whom I still revere) and Pound (whom I don’t care for anymore, apart from his Chinese (non)translations), that circle soon expanded to include Wordsworth and Keats, John Ashbery and James Schuyler, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, and later on Philip Larkin; as well as fiction writers like Proust, Fitzgerald, Thomas Pynchon and even Raymond Chandler.

What these writers have in common is that they’re all great writers of sentences, and sentences are at the heart of what I’m after in poetry, perhaps to a greater extent than they are for many other poets. What I try to do is capture the feeling and movements of thought, and not only are sentences the vehicles of thought, their clauses and connectives allow them to convey the rhythmic and emotional cadences that are an integral part of the experience of thought.

With any luck you eventually digest your early influences, for better or worse, and it’s been many years since I’ve been aware of a feeling of being guided in my writing by the work of other writers. Yet those first influences remain important to me as an ideal, or an idea, of how to think of poetry. I think of modernism as a continuation of, rather than a break with, romanticism, in that both are concerned to situate the inner self in relation to its objective social and physical setting in the world. In its high romantic incarnation, this concern takes the revelatory form of what Kant called the experience of the sublime; in its disillusioned modern incarnation it verges on the tragic.


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20 March 2016 | poets on poets |

Susan Perabo & Wolff’s Audacious “Bullet”

Susan Perabo
photo: Sha’an Chilson

The short story Susan Perabo has chosen to write about is one of my own favorite short stories, and the thing that draws her to that story is similar to what draws me to “This Is Not That Story,” one of the stories in her new collection, Why They Run the Way They Do. Perabo plays with our recognition of the act of reading a short story, of the expectations that we bring to such an experience, of how it will be told and what it will tell us, and yet when she dodges and weaves past those expectations, the self-consciousness is barely visible, and never distracting. The metafictional elements are front and center, yet it’s the fictional components that have stayed with me long after I’ve finished reading. In her other stories, her technique calls even less attention to itself, but remains at that consistent level of excellence. If you care about short stories, Susan Perabo should be on your radar—if she hasn’t been before, then you’re in for a great surprise.

Great short stories happen to you. In this way, stories are more like poems than like novels. A short story is a singular, uninterrupted experience, an event, occurring all at once. If you are someone who is passionate about literature, you probably have at least one story that’s so profound an event in your life that you recall where you were when you first read it, in the same way you recall where you were when you received some important, life changing piece of news. In the case of the story, maybe your whole life didn’t change, but your reading life, or your writing life did.

One story that happened to me is Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” I was at my job as a literature tutor for the intercollegiate athletes at the University of Arkansas. I was in the women’s study hall, located in the old Barnhill Arena. I was “on call,” which meant I sat around reading magazines until a student needed to talk with me about Oedipus or Gatsby or Marvell’s coy mistress. Most nights I was in the men’s study hall and worked pretty much nonstop, but once a week I was in the women’s study hall and had a lot of time to read. (Not a judgment—just an observation.)

The reading I had that night was the September 25th, 1995 issue of The New Yorker. It included the story “Bullet in the Brain,” which I noted happily was only three pages long. This was good because it meant I likely could read it without interruption.


7 March 2016 | selling shorts |

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