Distinguished Professor: John Koethe

The poetic philosopher’s “introspective and abstract” verse has yielded broad and tangible recognition.

By Anne Siegel
Photo John Koethe

A widely respected philosopher, John Koethe is also known for his poetry. Although the two areas seem to go hand-in-hand, Koethe notes his unique exploration: “I can think of only one other philosophy professor in the country who publishes poetry,” he says.

Despite his unusual status, Koethe’s work has attracted recognition nationwide. One of his fellow professors notes, “John is one of the finest and most important poets of his generation.” Koethe describes his own work as “meditative, introspective, and abstract.” Many of his poems’ themes focus on “how people are shaped by their experiences over time.”

Koethe’s work has been compared to that of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Known for his distinctly “American” voice, Koethe’s draws much of his work from his own personal experiences. “His books embody a unique summit in contemporary American poetry,” one reviewer comments.

Since he began teaching and writing at UWM in 1973, Koethe has written hundreds of poems and been published in more than two dozen magazines. He also has published a number of books, perhaps the best known of which is Falling Water (1997), one of several of his books published by HarperCollins. He notes that it is rare for a major publishing house to take on a book of poetry; only well-known poets who’ve attracted a following tend to be considered.

Koethe’s work also has attracted numerous awards, including the prestigious Kinglsey Tufts Poetry Award, which includes a $50,000 prize, for Falling Water. The book contains a 500-line poem, which took Koethe nearly a year to compose. The book’s title refers to a home built by Wisconsin-born architect Frank Lloyd Wright (Koethe felt his work at the time followed architectural themes).

Koethe also has been nominated for the New Yorker Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Boston Book Review Book Award. He recently received a lifetime achievement award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers. He is a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin, Germany, and will spend a semester at the research center in 2005.

Koethe, who has been writing poetry since his college days, continues to write almost daily during school breaks. He says, “I don’t have the flair for writing fiction, which is unfortunate, since fiction is far more lucrative than poetry.”