I know as little about poetry as the last time I wrote about it. But honestly, do I know anything about novels, or memoirs, or anything besides a few nonfiction niches where I’ve read enough to catch an error? When it comes to literature, what’s an error anyway?
So I think about this as I ponder John Koethe’s newest collection, ROTC Kills, in advance of our launch event on Friday, September 7, 7 pm. The book goes on sale today.
Of course unless it a book-length work, most poets poets don’t have a structural theme that runs through their collection. That said, you can see what Koethe is contemplating at this point in his life, and I can imagine it’s very different from the works in his first book, which seems like its (apologies for the shoddy research) 1969’s Blue Vents.
Koethe has retired, and is thinking about one thinks about when one isn’t obsessing over work matters. Poems such as “Dreams at 65” and “The End of the Line” raise the questions that we all think about in life. They just use better words than the rest of us.
There’s no question my gateway experience to appreciating poetry was listening to the spoken word at our events. The meter is there, though it’s not as structured as say, our poetry events that have celebrated sonnets and villanelles. Sometimes Koethe’s style will recall a personal essay (particularly “The Reality of the Past” and “Like Gods”), but the connective fabric will ground the piece in poetry.
Whether he is talking about fishing at a cottage house, or recalling his undergraduate years at Princeton, or the political activism at Harvard (title poem), a hospital visit recently, or one to a movie theater in his childhood, the poems (even “Alfred Hitchcock”, which almost serves as a film festival benediction), almost always seems to come back to our place and purpose in the world.
And of course it doesn’t hurt to know a little philosophy, another area where I am remiss. Sigh. But my advantage is that sometimes I'll get a glimpse into a poem based on an earlier conversation we had at the bookstore. I certainly know that Koethe was very happy to get his chosen title for the collection, which he feared would be controversial.
Before I read the collection, I wondered whether the book was about political activism in the past, or a call to arms for political activism in the present. But I was barking up the wrong tree. Like much of the poems in this collection, this political poster is a touchstone for looking at the past, and how its memory resonates and changes in the present. Having also been reading a couple of books that dabble in neuroscience, I have become quite aware to not quite trust memories, and I think Koethe might have had an overlapping reading list.
A little reminder about the awards for Mr. Koethe’s previous collections:
North Point North was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Falling Water won the Kingsley-Tufts Award.
Ninety-Fifth Street was awarded the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets.
As the board noted, “John Koethe's candidness is unique among contemporary poets. In remarkably direct and transparent language, he writes about familiar things and ordinary moments that the reader will almost certainly have no trouble recognizing. 'For that's what poetry is—a way to live through time / And sometimes, just for a while, to bring it back.'”
Join us on September 7 for a celebratory evening of poetry.