Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Harper poet John Koethe about his most recent collection of new poems, Sally's Hair. The book has already garnered significant praise from poets and critics alike; James Longenbach says that "it is his best book--at once his most intimate and his most worldly." I have to agree--I not only found worlds the size of one man and as large as life in Sally's Hair, but also a remarkable range of voice, style, feeling and thought that was, in all, masterful. John Koethe is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Univerity of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and the first Poet Laureate of Milwaukee. His previous collection, North Point North: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Prize. His collection Falling Water won the Kingsley Tufts Award. In 2005, he was a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin. Several of his poems have been chosen for the Oxford Book of American Poetry and Best American Poetry--this is his seventh appearance in that anthology.
AH: So how did Sally’s Hair come to be?
JK: I started writing more poems after I finished the North Point North manuscript. I usually write in the spring and summers, anywhere between ten and twenty pages each year. I wrote some poems, including the title poem, around 2001. It was different from anything I wrote before, but I wasn’t thinking in terms of what a book would look like, I thought I would just wait and see if I had enough poems. I wrote a poem when I came back from Rome in 2002 called “Piranesi’s Keyhole” and I was going to call the collection after that. I had in mind the meditative lyrics, of the sort I often write, but then I started writing these recollective poems including “Sally’s Hair,” and that summer I wrote one about Cambridge called “16 A,” and found myself writing the Hamlet poem. I thought those recollective poems might make a nice grouping and in the end I decided to arrange the book in sections, which I haven’t done since a book called The Late Wisconsin Spring back in 1984. The poems of Sally’s Hair just kind of naturally divided into sections that way; I had some less introspective and more public and political poems as well, so, in all, the poems kind of fell into three groups plus the long poem (“The Unlasting”), which became a separate section.
AH: So many poems focused on the movement through age and time, do you think that this point in your life is the only time you could have written these poems, that they are specific to where you are in your career and your life, or did they come like any other poem came?
JK: A little bit of the latter, although the title poem of Falling Water is a kind of very long and somewhat recollective poem. It’s recollections of a long relationship and marriage that was over, and I think I could have only written that at that time. I have written more concrete recollective poems occasionally, but this was the first time I found myself writing a number of them and doing it somewhat deliberately after I’d gotten the idea. I don’t know if it’s the specific time in my life, but the period the poems in Sally’s Hair cover ranges from high school through graduate school, from 1962-1973. It’s a period remote enough and self-contained enough—before I’m off the real world and working—that it has a free-standing character to it.
AH: I like the way you describe it in “16 A,” that “Everything happened then, in two or three years.” You recreate that sensation by making these poems feel very active and present, despite their setting in the past, in memory. And it seems that the action of recollection, listing people and places, is what animates some very inanimate things, like books, for example, in “Proust” or “Hamlet.” The act of recollection also seems to keep the focus on you, rather than the reference or the possible implication of an author’s name or a specific place. When you were picking these particular elements to bring together, were those just the ones that memory brought to you or did you intend for them to have additional relevance to the reader?
JK: Yes, they were just the ones I remembered and the poems don’t really depend on knowing anything about the references. The poem “Proust” isn’t really about knowing Proust, it’s about the experience of reading Proust. So if one doesn’t know who Charlus and Jupien are, it doesn’t matter—they’re characters in a novel, which is sort of enough. Some of the references are recognizable and some of them are quite private. Even though these poems are more narrative and more concrete, I still think, and I always think of poetry as basically a form of talking to one’s self. Here I just found myself talking to myself about a period in my life. I would just put into the poem what I was recalling at the time. They’re all kinds of Proustian recollection poems. They’re not about anything important, the incidents are usually rather trivial—a woman’s hair and dress or a horse race in “16A” or remembering going to see Richard Burton in “Hamlet.” But they’re all triggered in a way Proust’s recollections are, by some kind of current experience which brings up long buried memories of not terribly important events. But it gives a great feeling of the passage of time. In a way the long poem, “The Unlasting,” is a rather abstract meditation on Proustian memory and time and then the book kind of moves to an enactment of that idea.
AH: I think “The Unlasting” is my favorite poem in the book because it has a wonderful expansive completeness. Were I to find it alone in its own book, I would be entirely content with it. How did it come together? There are so many parts to it—were they ever arranged in a different order?
JK: There is actually a specific story about how I came to write this poem and the way I did. One of my favorite poems of all is a poem of Wallace Stevens’s called the “Auroras of Autumn.” I’ve always liked the architecture of that poem and have, as I’ve done in other poems, for a long time, intended to write a poem that used a similar structure. Back in the 90s I wrote a poem that’s in Falling Water called “The Secret Amplitude” in which I intended to do that. But I was writing in these sections that consisted of ten three-line stanzas each and then I remembered that I had forgotten that the sections in Stevens’s poem were eight three-line stanzas. I wasn’t about to throw away what I’d written and so I filed it and said that one-day I would come back and do it again. So that was the reason the poem has the structure it does—these ten twenty-four-line sections written in three-line stanzas. There’s a kind of solidity to the architecture of “Auroras of Autumn” that I’ve always liked. Stevens’s poem doesn’t have rhymes and mine has an extremely complicated rhyme scheme that no one could figure out because it varies a lot—I didn’t want it to become repetitive of monotonous. So it differs in that way but it has the basic architecture of the Stevens poem. And I did write it consecutively. The sections were always in that order, the way they are arranged in the poem now.
AH: Borrowing what you call this “sturdy architecture” from Stevens—“The Unlasting” has that same sturdiness, and that it evolved in this order is quite remarkable. It suggests that you took the form before you had the substance and fit it in.
JK: Well, that’s the way I write, actually. I don’t usually know what’s going to fill up the poem. I usually start with some kind of conception of the architecture, the length, the density, the kinds of rhythms, and then I worry about what am I actually going to say.
AH: Would you say the same is true with organizing more abstract thoughts into the physical space you describe in poem, or around physical things? In “This Morning,” you open with the lines “To see things as they are is hard/ But leaving them alone is harder,” and then you use the example of the snow as an illustration of that. Which comes first—is it the first two lines and that idea or is it the snow itself?
JK: I think in that case, if I’m remembering right, it was the snow itself, the image of this white first morning. And often what comes to me first are the last lines or some middle lines. In fact the title poem of a book of mine called The Constructor, which is about 200 lines long, completely unbroken, very dense, abstract, and modeled a little bit on the architecture of a poem of John Ashbery’s called “Clepsidra,” was written starting with the last line and working back to the beginning, literally in blocks or three or four lines.
AH: Writers always talk about having so much material they have to shelve or material that they love but have to get rid of. When you’re writing backwards, or even when you’re writing from form to content, is there less to shelve at the end? Is it easier to anticipate what you want to write? Is it a more streamlined process?
JK: I revise a great deal, but in these little bits I never have a whole poem, and I almost never write a whole poem in a draft and then work from that. I write in blocks anywhere from two to eight or ten lines a day. I begin in the morning, in the shower, actually, then I work at my desk and then after dinner, I go back and fiddle with them some more until they seem right to me and then go on to the next day. Writing poems this way, especially the one I wrote backwards, “The Constructor,” it’s quite exciting—it’s as though you’re discovering what the poem was supposed to be about by working from the last line. The question is how do you get there?
AH: So many of these poems have such a completeness about them—“The Unlasting” of course, but also many of the poems in the first section. All of them simultaneously balance multiple perspectives on time; in a single poem, the reader is often asked to look forward and backward through time in several ways, through a variety of instances, memories, and events. Is this an intention of yours or a byproduct of something else entirely?
JK: Yes, that’s one thing that I’m very concerned to do. In fact I have a book of essays called Poetry at One Remove and there’s an essay in there called “The Poetry and the Experience of Experience,” which talks about the shifting perspectives in poetry. I like to move, well, I won’t go into this, but in a way it reminds me of something in Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, but I like moving between a very subjective and intimate and personal perspective and a very impersonal sub specie aeternitatis perspective. What I find interesting is the shifting back and forth between those two perspectives and I’ll do that within the same poem.
Stay tuned, dear reader, more tomorrow...