Books

The Poet Who Made Milwaukee Famous

John Koethe may be at the peak of his success. His latest poem, published in The New Yorker, includes a scene in a Riverwest bar.

By - Apr 7th, 2015 05:45 pm
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John Koethe

John Koethe

Milwaukee’s Art Bar, a mainstay in Riverwest which exhibits works by all kinds of local artists, made it into The New Yorker’s April 6 issue. The mention came in a poem called “Covers Band In A Small Bar,” by Milwaukee writer John Koethe. The poem intermixes memories of Manhattan and listening to a Trenton covers band, and segues to hearing some of “my favorite songs again” by another cover band at the Art Bar.

It’s famously difficult to get your poems published in New Yorker, but for Koethe, this is not the first time, nor the first time he’s mentioned his home town in a poem. (He’s done that fairly often.) He is undoubtedly Milwaukee’s most successful poet and has won many awards. As his bio published by the Poetry Foundation notes, “Koethe received the Kingsley Tufts Award for his book, Falling Water (1997), the Frank O’Hara Award for Domes (1973), and the Bernard F. Connors Award. His poetry has been included in several anthologies, including Best American Poetry. He has been granted fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.”

Critic Andrew Yaphe has called Koethe “one of our foremost Romantic poets, an inheritor of the tradition of Stevens and Ashbery.” (Koethe knew John Ashbery, who was perhaps an influence though Koethe’s poems are far less abstruse.)

Falling Water by John Koethe.

Falling Water by John Koethe.

“What Koethe offers,” critic Robert Hahn has written, “is not ideas but a weave of reflection, emotion, and music; what he creates is art—a bleak, harrowing art in all it chooses to confront, but one whose rituals and repetitions contain the hope of renewal.”

His most recent book of poems, ROTC Kills, won praise (a “uniquely inspiring writer”) and a couple reservations in a review by Slate.com writer Jonathan Farmer. The story’s subhead declares that  “poet John Koethe has the soul of a philosopher,” which he can perhaps reserve for his tombstone.

Koethe was for many years a philosophy professor at UW-Milwaukee, rather than the more usual position of English professor for a published poet, and the difference is reflected in his poetry: He is a writer “whose meditations never mystify, even as they take in Plato, Wittgenstein, Berkeley, Aristotle, and a host of contemporary philosophers most of us have never heard of (not to mention other poets, a couple of novels and, appropriately enough, plenty of movies),” Farmer observes.

Indeed, Koethe excels at giving clarity to complexity and moving back and forth in time with a serene dreaminess that somehow never confuses or loses momentum.

He also does occasional dining reviews for Urban Milwaukee, including “Where to Get a Great Burger and Martini.” (He’s a great fan of both.)

Koethe may now be at the peak of his success as a poet. He has a new book of poetry, The Swimmer, coming out next year, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The title poem will be published in the Paris Review, Koethe has learned. That may call for a celebration, perhaps a drink at Art Bar.

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