John Koethe’s Red Shoes


“I’ve always thought of poetry as a kind of inner soliloquy, reflecting the capacity for self-consciousness that makes us human.” This comment from John Koethe, recalling John Stuart Mill’s definition of poetry as “overheard” speech, belongs in the main line of Romantic aesthetics, as do Koethe’s poems, their models being Wordsworth, Wallace Stevens, and John Ashbery. Koethe’s remark highlights the paradox in this tradition: that our most personal, inner forms of experience are also the most general—the stuff “that makes us human.”

Koethe, a poet and a philosopher specializing in the philosophy of language, writes “inner soliloquies” that balance the particulars of personal memory and the generalities of abstract thinking, the lyric rise and fall of feeling and the steadily unfolding exposition of conceptual argument. Koethe’s poems tack back and forth between autobiographical anecdote and philosophical reflection, insisting that the particulars of a life amount to more than themselves, and yet that concepts like time and identity have meaning only in the context of our lives—and then only while the thought lasts. Koethe prefers not to come to conclusions. He is beguiled by fancies and fictions, “Analogies and Metaphors,” as he puts on one new “hat” after another to respond to the shifting demands of the moment. If this means giving up on ever finding the truth, so be it; unlike life, “the truth is inert.”

Poet and critic James Longenbach has compared the humor in a Koethe poem to the vermouth in a very dry martini—that much more sweet and vivid because there’s just a dash of it. It’s the same way with the music in a Koethe poem. Those closing lines from “Analogies and Metaphors” rise from the deceptively dry tones of plain-style prose to a rhymed iambic hexameter couplet. Metaphors and analogies sometimes stand out, like that notional hat, interrupting the train of Koethe’s thought with a flourish. But the central, intensity-building technique in his poems is metonymy—two terms brought into relation not by comparison but by simple continuity.

Metonymy is the secret of the two powerful longer poems here. In “The Great Gatsby,” Koethe brings together Fitzgerald’s novel, the story of Henry Hudson’s search for the Northwest Passage, and the poet’s coming to New York as a young man, when he was compelled by “the beckoning undefined,” “the something else that waits to take the place of what you have.” “The Red Shoes” overlays Koethe’s memories of his childhood, and of his mother in particular, which are held together by The Red Shoes, a 1948 film, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, that he saw with his mother.

When he sees the movie decades later, it brings back his mother’s ambition and mania, as well as his conflicted love for her. “I didn’t start out to write a poem about my mother, / But unchecked memories carry you away, like the shoes / In The Red Shoes.” Koethe wants to “put the memories away” and “take off the red shoes.” But he can’t, any more than he can stop thinking the next thought and break off his soliloquy.

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Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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