The Day,

John Koethe

as in “back in,” which was never really there.
I dislike the myth of the exceptional past,
Since everyone has one, but let’s face it: the sixties
Really were exceptional, though no one cared at the time,
And they could seem silly (remember bell-bottoms?).
Art, politics and music were aligned for a while,
Not so much in agreement as in clarity, and though
Even poetry seemed part of it, that wasn’t true,
Since poetry is never really part of anything,
Though it wants to be. I discovered New York Poets
In 1965, when Lewis brought Peter Schjeldahl
And Kenward Elmslie to campus to read, and afterwards
We went to a bar off Witherspoon Street, where some guys
From my eating club yelled, “Close the door Hairpiece”
At Peter as we stumbled in from the cold.

It’s all jumbled now: the poems we read,
The poems we wrote, the poems we talked about
For hours and then forgot. I remember Peter saying,
“Clepsydra” is the poem of our time, on the way
To a party at Jane Freilicher’s after a reading of John’s
In New York, and he was right. “You’ll be so great
When you move to New York,” Linda told me
When I said something catty, though I never did move—
I just circled around it as though it were the sun, and still do.
I haven’t seen Peter in almost twenty years,

And now he’s dying in The New Yorker.
“Everybody dies,” as Stephen Sondheim says
In Company, and yet it still seems so unreal.
We’re going to see Company in New York in April,
But it won’t be the same. Peter brought New York back
To me as it probably never was, the way it was to me.
Reading him that life returned, though nothing in particular
Returned, since life isn’t particulars but possibilities
And ideas of particulars, more real in the abstract
And in memory than they were when they were just alive.
He said that there’s no yellow patch in View of Delft,
Yet there are three, though there was only one when Bergotte died.
It made me feel nineteen again, and also on the verge
Of death, as though inhabiting an imaginary state of mind
When poetry and the possibility of poetry, New York
And the idea of New York were both the same, instead of
Disparate and real. But that was back in the day.

John Koethe is the author of several collections of poetry, including Beyond Belief and Walking Backwards: Poems, 1966–2016. He has received the Lenore Marshall, Kingsley Tufts, and Frank O’Hara awards, and teaches at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
Originally published:
June 1, 2022


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