John Koethe’s most recent book is ROTC Kills. His previous book, Ninety-Fifth Street, received the Lenore Marshall Award. An excerpt from his poem “La Durée” can be found here. The full poem appears in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
Could you tell us a little about “La Durée”? What was your original impetus for writing it?
In 2013 the Morgan Library in New York had an exhibition commemorating the centennial of the publication of Swann’s Way, a book that (along with the rest of the novel) is one of the major influences on my writing. I attended the exhibition, in which Henri Bergson figured slightly (I hadn’t realized he was Proust’s cousin), which reminded me that I’d always intended to try to read Bergson. Also, I’ve regularly written long poems, and had felt like writing another one. But most of the long poems I’ve written in the last twenty-five years have been somewhat anecdotal, and I felt I wanted to write a long, continuous abstract meditation, something I hadn’t really done since “The Constructor,” which I finished in 1988. “La Duree” is the result of the confluence of these impetuses. Bergson wrote in a philosophical style quite unlike the one I’m used to, and I hadn’t realized how difficult and annoying I’d find him, and the poem is as much about trying to understand him as it is about time and Proust. I found myself imagining what I though he should have said about time, and mixed that in with details about Proust’s life and novel, a Fitzgerald story (who’s another one of my major stylistic influences), and my own memories. It’s chattier and more anecdotal than “The Constructor,” and the diction isn’t as elevated, but it does seem to me to maintain the continuous flow of abstract though I was after, and I’m pleased with the way it turned out.
In an era of ever-shortening attention spans, we’re excited to be publishing this long, sprawling poem that is largely about the concept of time. Do you see “La Durée” as a poem of this current cultural moment? Or of a cultural moment prior?
My inspiration, ever since I began writing poetry, has been the sustained, ambitious works of high modernists like Eliot, Stevens, and Moore (and I’d also include middle-period Ashbery). I suppose works of that scale aren’t as motivating to many younger poets now, though it’s hard to be sure about that, since I have to confess that I don’t read as much new poetry as I used to (and should). But I do share Harold Bloom’s conception of poetry as a form of talking to one’s self—which doesn’t mean it has to be solipsistic (after all, you can talk to yourself about anything), but rather that I don’t write with an audience in mind, but in response to an inner impulse.
Could you talk about the marriage of “high” and “low” cultural references in this poem, and how you settled on this particular mixture?
I think of “La Duree” as a meditative, rather than a philosophical poem. A real philosophical poem (of which there are very few) would try to develop a position or conclusion, whereas meditative poems are more about capturing the feelings or movements of thought. Their “logic” is basically associative, and the associations the mind—my mind anyway—makes don’t respect the boundaries between high and low culture or subject matter, just as real conversations, whether public or interior, don’t either. Eliot and Ashbery are the masters of meditations that move comfortably between the elevated and the demotic; Stevens is less comfortable with that. I’m simply governed by an urge to make thought seem natural, as when Proust’s episode of the paving stones of Venice makes me think of an episode in a K-Mart parking lot, or his dying request for iced beer from the Ritz makes me hungry for a hamburger from a local restaurant called Dr. Dawg.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you first started out?
It hasn’t changed very much for over forty years. I used to write drafts of poems quickly and then fool around with them. Then around 1969 I read some interviews with Auden in which he talked about writing only six poems a year. I thought it would be interesting to spend a long time on a single poem, which resulted in a poem called “Domes” that took me a month to write. I’ve pretty much continued writing that way, a few lines a day (I’m heavily dependent on my morning shower for each day’s lines). The longest poem I’ve written is “Falling Water,” which took about a year to write. “La Duree” took about six weeks as I recall.
What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received?
“We need more show and less tell” (rejection letter from the editor of a prominent poetry magazine).
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I have a new book, The Swimmer, coming out from FSG next year, but that’s, as they say, in the can. I mentioned writing meditative rather than philosophical poems, but lately I find I’ve been writing some poems that might properly be called philosophical, in that they try to suggest a position regarding some philosophical issue—there are some issues in philosophy of mind that fascinate me but that I find it difficult to address in ordinary philosophical prose, so I’ve been fooling around with them in poems. But I don’t know if I’ll keep that up.