Poetry Review: “Beyond Belief” by John Koethe – Disembodied Spirit

By Henri Chandonet

The poet John Koethe moralizes in a “universal” abstract space – some might call it versifying in the void.

Beyond belief by John Koethe. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 71 pages, $26.

Should artistic creation be a burden? Kafka once described his artistic process as “ripping (himself) to pieces”. For some, art must be the product of suffering and painful self-excavation. It may be extreme, but at the very least some introspection should be part of the mix. In the case of John Koethe’s last collection of poetry, beyond belief, interiority—at least of the personal variety—is almost banished. Koethe is a poet of generalized observations, providing (at best) high-attitude philosophical ideas about life, aging, and time. The problem is that these assertions lack passion and existential juiciness. His assertions are often not based on concrete experience or original perceptions of himself and others. His verses are filled with grand unsubstantiated claims that, like a giant balloon, float above day to day.

That’s not to say Koethe isn’t thought-provoking, especially when his statements are inspired by visceral experiences. At its most effective level, it wrestles with basic questions: Who am I and why do I experience the world this way? His poem “Sheltering at Home”, commenting on COVID isolation trials and this is an example of the rewards of this type of meditation:

I hate it – but then home

Has always been a starting place

Or return to, not a state of being in itself.

These lines sparkle because they capture reality, touch on familiar truths. They’re general (whose house?) but we’ve all lived life in quarantine, so there’s no need for specificity. But when Koethe does not root the arguments of his poems in shared human experiences, writing about enigmas that we cannot easily contextualize in our own lives, their value diminishes.

Koethe’s philosophical claims are sometimes provocative, but that does not make them poetic. Consider the collection’s titular poem, “Beyond Belief”:

I keep saying the same things

Again and again, until they turn into a prayer or a warning,

A warning that sounds like a prayer, like someone else’s prayer:

Teach me to care and not to care, teach me when to turn around,

When to speak and when to be silent. Teach me to sit still.

The poem comments on the human desire to be safe, to teach (or each of oneself) how much to care. To me, the lines read like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s iconic speech Flea bag“I know exactly what I want. I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat, what to like, what to hate, what to rage, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets, what to joke, what not to joke. “What makes the feeling so devastating in Flea bag is that we grew to know something about his life. There is a dramatic quality to this admission of uncertainty. Koethe’s poetry lacks this theatricality – we don’t know who Koethe is, other than what he projects as a philosophical vision. But they feel cut off from life. What triggered this need for a mentor? The “prayer” is striking, but it must be rooted in a concrete psychological context.

At worst, Koethe’s analytical reflections turn out to be wordy or condescending. As in his poem “The Dogs of Mexico”:

Maybe that’s why,

Although the Mexicas were far more advanced than anyone else

In North America they couldn’t last, because the gods suffocate everything,

And while they had astronomy, Europe had guns and steel.

It is not enough to live isolated and in harmony with

Nature and yourself, as an individual or as a whole civilization –

There are always the Others. Yet I am not writing this to moralize

Or explain. I write this to celebrate the dogs of Mexico,

Who were everywhere, in all shapes and sizes, mostly small.

These lines strike me as condescending, an attempt at intellectual bravado appearing as a gesture of excessive indulgence. To draw an analogy between the ability to live freely and openly and the Mexica massacre seems overly romantic at best and ignorant at worst. And the line “I am not writing this to moralize or explain” falls flat because the verse is about moralizing and over-explaining.

Beyond belief reflects an older tradition of philosophizing and it may have run its course. Today’s best philosophers see themselves, at least in part, as storytellers. Judith Butler and Kwame Anthony Appiah base their speculations on personal stories and experiences of the people they refer to. Koethe moralizes in an abstract “universal” space – some might call this versifying in the void.


Henri Chandonet is currently a student at Tufts University majoring in English and Economics with a minor in Political Science. He is an arts editor for The Tufts Daily, the main publication on campus. Henry’s work can also be seen in Film Cred, Dread Central and Flip Screen. You can contact him at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @HenryChandonnet.

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