American poet John Koethe likes to experiment with the concept of time.
Koethe read selections from his poetry in front of a crowd of roughly 30 members of the Yale community at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Tuesday afternoon. An essayist and a former professor of philosophy, Koethe read a series of memory poems: poems that focus on a particular moment from a writer’s life. Most of Koethe’s memory poems explored fleeting memories, such as a brief interaction Koethe had with a woman he met at a train station, as well as the concept of time — which he called his “great obsession.” Koethe said he finds writing about time appealing because of the mystery surrounding it.
“The incidents aren’t important — it’s about time,” Koethe said, explaining that the particular moments that he lingers on in his poems are not as important as the notion of time.
In addition to several memory poems, Koethe also read a poem titled “The Great Gatsby,” which was commissioned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for the 400th anniversary of English explorer Henry Hudson’s arrival in New York’s harbor. For this work, he said he drew inspiration from the Dutch sailors in Fitzgerald’s novel. Other poems that Koethe read included “Chester,” “On Happiness,” “The Arrogance of Physics” and “Alfred Hitchcock.”
Koethe claimed that he first developed an interest in poetry during his time as an undergraduate at Princeton University, adding that he used to be more interested in math and the sciences in high school. Ever since the shift in his interests, he said, he has drawn inspiration from writers such as William Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop and Mark Strand.
Despite his career as a philosophy professor, many of Koethe’s works are not philosophical in nature. Instead, he explained, the field of philosophy is reflected in his “discursive” and “abstract” style, which makes his poems sound like philosophical prose.
“I never tried to write poems that were philosophical,” he said.
Several audience members interviewed said they enjoyed Koethe’s reading. Audience member Sarah Hayden, who works at the Beinecke, said that she was most impressed by the “human warmth” evident in his works, adding that she enjoyed “the sense of nostalgia” in his poem “Sally’s Hair.”
Nancy Kuhl, a curator at the Beinecke, said that she enjoyed hearing the poems “The Great Gatsby” and “Melancholy of the Autumn Garden” because they highlight Koethe’s role as a participant in a broader poetic community.
Koethe’s most recent book of poetry is called “ROTC Kills.”