John Koethe of Milwauwkie, Wisconsin is the recipient of the 2007 Theodore Roethke Prize for his poems, “On Happiness” & “Persistent Feelings,” published in Poetry Northwest‘s Spring-Summer 2007 v2.n1 issue.
When asked about the two poems he says, “I usually work on poetry and philosophy at different times of the year. A while ago I was asked to serve as a commentator on Susan Wolf’s Tanner Lectures at Princeton the following year, on what makes life meaningful. I was in poetry mode at the time, but since I couldn’t help thinking a bit about what I might say, I just decided to incorporate some of those thoughts into a poem, which became ‘On Happiness.’ I don’t really think of it as a philosophical poem, though a number of philosophers (as well as poets) put in appearances.
“‘Persistent Feelings’ began on a long drive a few summers ago when I was listening to several long CDs–in particular the ‘Quine Tapes,’ which are low-fi recordings of the late Robert Quine (the nephew of the American philosopher W.V. Quine) made by the Velvet Underground in the late Sixties, when he was a law student and long before he became Lou Reed’s guitarist.”
The editors also asked Koethe if he would, as this year’s Roethke Prize winner, discuss one of Roethke’s poems from the Poetry Foundation’s web site. He chose “Root Cellar.”
“I’ve always had somewhat mixed feelings about Theodore Roethke’s poems, though I certainly admire them. Sometimes I find their insistent physicality off-putting, but I do like the intensely closed-in feeling of some of his greenhouse poems like ‘Root Cellar.’ In fact, I used part of the last line, ‘. . . breathing a small breath,’ as an epigraph in a poem I wrote recently.”
Read Theodore Roethke’s “Root Cellar.”
It’s a simple question, and I even know what it is
Until you ask me, as Augustine said of time.
It’s either too commonplace or too rare, an esoteric condition
You could spend your life attaining, or a waste of time.
Plato thought of it as a kind of balance in the soul
Between its three parts (though he called it something else),
And Freud thought along the same lines, in his role
As the first happiness therapist, only called it unhappiness
Of the ordinary kind. Wittgenstein said the happy
And unhappy man inhabit two completely different worlds,
While Mill equated it with pleasures of all kinds,
From high to low, from the pleasure mirrored in a young girl’s
Smile to the consolations of the scholar in his cave.
I’d go on, but you can see the problem: a question posed
A long time ago, to which different people gave
Such different answers, answers concerning different things.
“What is X anyway?” I know the sensible course
Would be to drop those kinds of questions, and just stumble along
Whatever road you’d taken, taking the moments as they come.
Yet some of them have been a part of me for so long—
That race, the picnic at the Institute, the night of the science fair.
Were all those moments the fulfillment of some plan
Or deep attachment, however trivial, or of some abiding care?
Is that what it is—the feeling of a life brought to fruition
On its own terms, whatever terms it chose?
It sounds free, and yet it’s rife with opportunities for self-delusion
And bad faith, like the pool of water out of sunlight in the rose garden,
An epiphany that seems, in retrospect, like a studied illusion.
Was Ariel happy that he’d written all those poems?
He said so, yet beneath them you can almost sense the fear
Of having lived a skeleton’s life, in a world of bones.
Perhaps it’s best to stay at home and read,
Instead of risking everything for what in the end
Might be of no more significance than a fascinating hobby,
Like collecting bottle-caps, or building ships in bottles.
There are smaller choices to be made: hanging about the lobby
Of a W Hotel vs. watching the Great Downer Avenue Bike Race
From Dave’s front porch. Why do we feel the need to create ourselves
Through what we choose, instead of simply sinking without a trace
Into the slow stream of time? The evening light is lovely
On the living room wall, with a gentle touch of green
Reflected from the trees outside. I realize it feels like a letdown
To be told that this is all it comes to—a pleasant apartment
On a shady street a few miles north of downtown,
And yet it isn’t all that bad: it offers concrete satisfactions
In lieu of whatever happiness might be; and though I worry that it’s
Something I’ve backed into, at least it’s free from the distractions
Of the future, and seems fine for now. As for a deeper kind
Of happiness, if there is such a thing, I’ll take a rain check.
We could go shopping for those dishes, try out the new
Pancake House around the corner, or grill something on the deck
And watch a movie. I guess that’s what we should do.
Sometimes I’m driving, and the highway
Fades into the sky, into the music I’ve got on
—Mark Knopfler or the Quine Tapes—
And the earth becomes a planet, and a funny spell
Falls over me, a bittersweet, unfocused thrill.
And sometimes here at home I feel it too,
Although less vividly: a calm elation tinctured with
A sense of loss—not because someone left
Or died, or someone wasn’t loved,
Hard as those things are, but simply at having lived
For now, and only for now. The light is golden
And the lawns are green. The street hides its mysteries
From time’s deflating gaze: clear-eyed and free,
Emotionless, yet filled with feelings of a deeper kind,
Ones that flow without saying. The afternoon
Is full of memories and silent passions,
Though there’s nothing in particular to see:
No children in the leaves, no faces hidden in the trees
Or signs to show the presence or the absence of the gods.
Feelings should be personal, though they needn’t be:
Besides the mild disappointments and the ordinary pleasures
Each day brings, the hurt time heals, there’s the wonder
That this life exists at all, that something as familiar as the sky
Could persist in my absence, that the present is the limit of the life
In which I find myself and feel, deep inside a space
Filled with my own breath, the exhilaration and unspoken
Sadness of a world—my world, the only world—
Held together by memory, that ends at death.
Linda Conley writes via email, “I should always regret the assured empiricists who know life ends at death. Is that certain? I love this man, this poet, this philosopher. But my sympathies, really, are in order here. So vague, so beautiful, his words, line after line, and yet, the dismal, finally, after all this beauty, his foreshadowing of the ineffable, how does this poet just lose it ALL like that? He’s so close. What happens to these fine minds? Are they so besotted with the contemporary? Can they not see through the debasing simplicity of modernism? That life here for us remains so profound? To miss THAT? Whatever happened to our sense of the eternal? How gifted, how profound, how eternal somehow is the human species unlike the lower among us! So close a DNA structure and yet! Song, beauty! Romance! Divine Dinners! When did it disappear, finally and forever? That glowing recommendation of the human soul? The love of things only Human? That reverence for what it is that makes us human? That for me is the saddest part of what it is I see around me here, with the intellectuals that inhabit the academia, the pages of literacy — this finality, the loss of Love, Eternal Love, alas.”
John Koethe‘s most recent book, Sally’s Hair, was published by HarperCollins in 2006 He is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“On Happiness ” & “Persistent Feelings” appear exclusively in the Spring-Summer v2.n1 Issue of Poetry Northwest. Subscribe today