The pictures he uploaded were not chronological. Instead of instant images, they rang out from his archive of experience as delicate grams of sound. His verse seemed liked, too. Other listeners within the marble walls sometimes murmured approval from their seats. Hitchcock’s “Psycho” tore him out of his seat when he was just a kid and the film took New York City by storm. In a poem honoring Henry Hudson’s discovery of the New York harbor, the last lines of “The Great Gatsby” melted into his final product. He once had a manx cat named Jeepers and “Cats” the musical, did you know, gusted out of T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” This is the poet John Koethe, as told by John Koethe.
This Tuesday afternoon, the verse writer serenaded his audience with self-titled “memory poems” in front of a flickering spotlight at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. I listened as library curator Nancy Kuhl provided a graceful introduction, but then Koethe proceeded to track a profile of his own life, in his own style. Kuhl said with Koethe, the “tension between intimacy and public memory falls away,” and indeed, he conjured a link between his words in the air and the other chapters of life in progress. “The years were pages,” he said.
In one selection, he likened poetry to snow. Koethe, who has written nine books of poetry, spent his undergraduate days at Princeton and graduate years at Harvard. Behind the podium, he certainly stood as a master — of simile, cold weather and the flakes of language he lets fall, covering and illuminating a range of nebulous subjects. In his first poem, “Sally’s Hair,” he describes the titular as object as “like living in a lightbulb.”
In another poem titled “16A” after a graduate school apartment, the narrator qualifies: “but that’s history, real history, not this private kind.”
Thinking of his words, my mind drifted to a framed illustration that I have at home, one that depicts two figures in a snowstorm: a young boy following in the footsteps of a bundled man. The caption in the foreground reads: “In his master’s steppes he trodde.” It is a John Hassall, and I have not imagined it in a little while. Hearing poetry as snow conjured thoughts of my own private history.
Toward the end of his reading, Koethe shared a poem precipitated by Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Village” and a reverence for Proust. Sounds linked the time lost between words — a clang, a bell. It had been after the poem “Alfred Hitchcock” that I noticed Koethe’s reflection in the glass behind him, in the case with the two massive books and flickering spotlight, and then again diagonally to the left of that phantom, traveling into the monument wall. In both panes, his back faced his listeners, his students, as if my perspective were from the opposite side of the space. Minutes later, I caught the phrase: “Meaning lies beneath it or beyond it.” Meteorologists could never have predicted such a timely, tender snowfall.
If Jimmy Stuart was “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Mr. John Koethe could be the poet who knows enough. He is the poet who rolls meaning and history into one, aiming across time at the unknown drifting through Jeepers’ stare, and further back, toward Fitzgerald’s green light.
On social media, stories are told on a vertical track. Below yesterday’s recipe link are last weekend’s wedding pictures and the most-read New Yorker or Buzzfeed articles. They may be outlined, but sometimes it’s difficult — even dangerous — to chart someone’s private history through public statements. That afternoon, Koethe gave his listeners this chance. In pages of verse, Koethe gave them passwords to the years of his life. Catching flakes of his past somehow made everything a little clearer for a spell.