Koethe, John 1945–

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Koethe, John 1945–

(John Louis Koethe)


Surname is pronounced Kay-tee; born December 25, 1945, in San Diego, CA; son of John Louis (a naval career officer) and Sara Koethe; married Susan Muench (a research immunologist), September 1, 1968. Education: Princeton University, A.B., 1967; Harvard University, Ph.D., 1973.


Home—Milwaukee, WI. Office—Department of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI 53211. E-mail—[email protected]


Writer, educator. University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, assistant professor of philosophy, beginning 1973, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy.


Poet's Foundation Award, 1969; Frank O'Hare Award, 1973, for Domes; Kingsley Tufts Award, 1997, for Falling Water; named Milwaukee's first poet laureate, 2000; Major Achievement Award, Council for Wisconsin Writers, 2003; Wisconsin Writers Wall of Fame, 2004; fellow, American Academy, Berlin, 2005.


Blue Vents (poems), Audit/Poetry, 1969.

Domes (poems), Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1973.

The Late Wisconsin Spring, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1984.

The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Thought, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1996.

Falling Water (poems), HarperPerennial (New York, NY), 1997.

The Constructor (poems), HarperFlamingo (New York, NY), 1999.

Poetry at One Remove (essays), University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2000.

North Point North: New and Selected Poems, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.

Scepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 2005.

Sally's Hair: Poems, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor of poems and articles to Poetry, Paris Review, Quarterly Review of Literature, Parnassus, and Art News.


Termed "one of America's most contemplative poets," by Booklist reviewer Janet St. John, John Koethe has published several award-winning volumes of poetry. Many critics place him in the tradition of Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, or, as Robert Huddleston noted in the Chicago Review, "poets who used landscape as a figure or setpiece through which to ad- dress an array of concerns from the personal to the social." Koethe is a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin whose poetry works include Domes, The Late Wisconsin Spring, Falling Water, The Constructor, North Point North: New and Selected Poems, and Sally's Hair: Poems. He has also authored a collection of essays about poetry, Poetry at One Remove, as well as the academically oriented The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Thought and Scepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning.

Falling Water, which saw print in 1997, garnered Koethe the Kingsley Tufts Award and marked a widening of the poet's critical acclaim. The title poem of the collection takes its name from one of the famed buildings of architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Illinois. As Huddleston explained, "Wright's Prairie-style has affinities with Koethe's verse in its austere conventions, emphasis on horizontal … movement, … and in its tendency to go in multiple directions and explore the nuances of a shape." Huddleston went on to praise most of the other poems in Falling Water as well, noting that "when Koethe is on, and he often is in this new volume, he can show us as few other contemporary poets can into an oneiric world of magnificent austerity." Similarly, Janet St. John in Booklist observed that Koethe's poems "have much to offer the patient, careful reader." Huddleston concluded that the best of Falling Water "renovates the familiar in the collective social and personal landscape, exposing its particular histories, making it new, returning it to strangeness, which is the proper place for poetry."

Koethe followed Falling Water with The Constructor in 1999. A Publishers Weekly critic reviewing the volume noted that the poet's "sense of how imagination affects memory lends poignancy to his meditations." The title poem of The Constructor also appears in Koethe's 2002 collection, North Point North, which includes poetry from Koethe's previous collections as well as several examples of new verse. Donna Seaman praised the volume in Booklist as "commodious and entrancing."

Koethe brought out his seventh volume of poetry, Sally's Hair, in 2006. Here Koethe explores themes from aging to loss in a collection that a reviewer for the Cruelest Month Web site called "remarkable [for its] range of voice, style, feeling and thought." The same contributor further noted that the book was, "in all, masterful." St. John, writing in Booklist, felt that the same work was a "fine new poetry collection," and one that was filled with "poems that shine with simple but melodic language and imagery." Less impressed was Poetry contributor Sandra M. Gilbert, who complained of "all-too-often flaccidly phrased intimations of mortality" in the ruminative verses collected in Sally's Hair. BookLoons Web site reviewer Alex Telander, however, had a much higher assessment of Sally's Hair, terming it a "slim but poignant collection [that] takes us on a journey through Koethe's past and present, his thoughts and philosophies." Telander went on to comment, "[Koethe] is not only a master of the writing craft, but also the contemplative craft, presenting wonderful poems that also make us think and question our own reality." And Harvard Review critic Richard Rand had similar high praise for the volume, describing it as "an astonishing book in its wisdom, its variety, and its grace."

Writing as a philosopher, Koethe has published well-received studies. His The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Thought is an attempt, as Review of Metaphysics contributor Stephen R. Grimm put it, to establish "the relationship between Wittgenstein's early and late writings." Grimm further pointed out that Koethe "argues that the writings are united by the broad claim that a language's semantic aspects (what a word means, what a sentence says, what its truth conditions are) are shown or manifested by its use; not, that is to say, by means of any straightforward, factual account." In his 2005 work, Scepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning, Koethe examines the limits of skeptical argument. Reviewing that work in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review Online, Anil Gupta and Jose Martinez-Fernandez called it an "elegant book [that] develops a novel response to a kind of skeptical argument that has received considerable attention over the past thirty years or so."



Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, edited by Ian Hamilton, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1994.


Booklist, September 1, 1997, Janet St. John, review of Falling Water, p. 53; July, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of North Point North: New and Selected Poems, pp. 1815-1816; April 15, 2006, Janet St. John, review of Sally's Hair: Poems, p. 21.

Chicago Review, fall, 1997, Robert Huddleston, review of Falling Water, pp. 158-160.

Entertainment Weekly, April 14, 2006, Ken Tucker, "Verse Case Scenarios," p. 92.

Harvard Review, December 1, 2006, Richard Rand, review of Sally's Hair, p. 208.

Poetry, February 1, 2007, Sandra M. Gilbert, "Eight Takes," p. 404.

Publishers Weekly, March 29, 1999, review of The Constructor, p. 98; June 17, 2002, review of North Point North, p. 58.

Review of Metaphysics, June 1, 1998, Stephen R. Grimm, review of The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Thought, p. 939.

Southwest Review, winter, 2007, "Habits of Thought, Inhabitings of Possibility: An Interview with John Koethe," p. 52.


BookLoons, http://www.bookloons.com/ (May 19, 2008), Alex Telander, review of Sally's Hair.

Council for Wisconsin Writers Web site, http://www.wisconsinwriters.org/ (May 19, 2008), "Year 2003."

Cruelest Month, http://cruelestmonth.typepad.com/ (May 19, 2008), "A Conversation with John Koethe in Two Parts.

Milwaukee Public Library Web site, http://www.mpl.org/ (May 19, 2008), "Wisconsin Writers Wall of Fame."

Notre Dame Philosophical Review Online, http://ndpr.nd.edu/ (September 14, 2006), Anil Gupta and Jose Martinez-Fernandez, review of Scepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning.

OnMilwaukee, http://www.onmilwaukee.com/ (July 17, 2002), interview with John Koethe.