Office Hours: A Poet Of Cloth

John Koethe’s poem, “Sartor Resartus,” recalls his education in clothes. Composed several decades after the fact, it longingly remembers hallmarks of the Ivy style, “The perfect khaki pants, the madras shirts, cordovan Florsheim / Shoes,” and namechecks beloved stores, both those that survived changes in fashion and those that did not:

Style was the point—a style of seeming unconcerned with style

To the point of an obsession, though the stores all stayed the same:

Brooks, J. Press, Paul Stuart, stores long gone now to their graves

Like Chipp and Langrock, F.R Tripler, Sulka, stores that lined Fifth Avenue

When it was lined with gold.  

“I hate believing I grew up in a country / Better than the one I live in now,” Koethe laments in another poem from his 2016 collection, The Swimmer. More good-natured than cantankerous, the speaker of Koethe’s poems often shares the basic facts of his life, his education at San Diego’s Herbert Hoover High School (class of 1963), Princeton (class of 1967), and Harvard (where he received a Ph.D. in 1973). Koethe, a notable philosopher as well as a poet, retired as Distinguished Professor from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2010, after teaching there for more than 35 years. His long, meditative lines glance backward, often wistfully, sometimes with a quiet humor. (“The humor in a Koethe poem,” James Longenbach observed, “is like the vermouth in a dry martini.”) 

Understatement and nonchalant elegance: these are hardly the values that the contemporary moment celebrates, whether in literature or in clothes. When a literary scholar mentions “the Brooks Brothers poets,” the clothes are meant to symbolize the earlier age’s supposed conformity, not its sophistication. “Sartor Resartus” considers an obsession that outlasted these cultural shifts, puzzling over a question a friend posed more than a half-century before, “Why do you like dressing well?” Tellingly, the speaker admitted he did not know. (The friend’s quip, “It’s because it makes me feel I’m better than other people,” gives the sense that he asked the question only so he could offer his bon mot.)

A better answer is that “dressing well” allows the wearer to express what Koethe calls “twin fantasies of appearance and identity: / The way you see yourself, the way you’d like to seem / In the eyes of a beholder.”  Clothes project the wearer’s sense of himself and hopes for how others might view him. They are a product more of the imagination than the brute facts of one’s appearance or life. “A Dandy” is “a Poet of Cloth,” Thomas Carlyle observed in Sartor Resartus, whose title Koethe borrowed for his poem. To understand this obsession with sartorial style, Koethe considers it as art:

Sometimes I think of poetry the way I think of clothes:

A feigned indifference disguising a compulsion 

With no purpose but its own.

These lines recall the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s definition of art as “purposefulness without purpose.” Likening clothes to poetry, Koethe prizes the same artfulness in both. In the poem’s moving last lines, he considers how “memory / And fancy” “animate my own / Community of two or three residing in my head.” Writing poetry resembles the wearing of the clothes Koethe loves: they gather friends, aging and distant, at least briefly in the imagination. The tone is elegiac but not morbid. 

The “community” the poet summons might include the dead, “Tiny figures flickering through time,” as another poem in the collection describes them.  “My friends are all here, / All on the same page, if only momentarily,” the poem reflects, “We’re all dressed up.  Now, where shall we go?” — DAVID CAPLAN

 

SARTOR RESARTUS
By John Koethe

What is it with men’s clothes?  It isn’t about

How you look or even who or what you are,

But about twin fantasies of appearance and identity: 

The way you see yourself, the way you’d like to seem

In the eyes of a beholder, in a daydream, in reality.

My high school friend Tom Agsten was addicted too:

The perfect khaki pants, the madras shirts, cordovan Florsheim

Shoes.  “Why do you like dressing well?” he asked,

And when I said I didn’t know, he told me why he did: 

“It’s because it makes me feel I’m better than other people.”

Don’t think Leopold and Loeb.  There was always something

More important (this, for instance), but it was always there.

I studied it in college, where I learned that making clothes seem

Unimportant was the point—the frayed Brooks Brothers collar

Or the white Brooks Brothers button down you wore with a tuxedo

To a deb party, parties where you hung around till dawn. 

Style was the point—a style of seeming unconcerned with style

To the point of an obsession, though the stores all stayed the same:

Brooks, J. Press, Paul Stuart, stores long gone now to their graves

Like Chipp and Langrock, F.R Tripler, Sulka, stores that lined Fifth Avenue

When it was lined with gold.  The sixties might have ruined things,

But then that way of life became a look, a theoretical conceit,

A whole philosophy of clothes that you could read about

On askandyaboutclothes.com.  You could study it anywhere,

Which made it meaningless, as meaningless as fashion.

It all seems quaint—the khakis, madras shirts and Florsheim shoes

(Jack Nicholson in Chinatown:  “Goddamn Florsheim shoe!”)—

And yet I still inhabit that obsession, now divorced from

All connection with reality or sense of purpose:  Caraceni

And Bardelli jackets, brown suede shoes, an Arnys Forestiere, 

All hanging in my closet waiting for their day.  Two weeks ago

I bought another navy blazer—that makes five or six,

Depending on how you count them—that I didn’t need.

The days go by online, or like pages of a catalog turning

In my mind from suits to coats to shirts to ties to shoes.

There’s nothing much to do but watch the interplay of memory

And fancy as they flow across a page, or animate my own

Community of two or three residing in my head.

Sometimes I think of poetry the way I think of clothes:

A feigned indifference disguising a compulsion

With no purpose but its own.  My friends are all here,

All on the same page, if only momentarily, 

Until the spell breaks like the emperor’s new clothes

That can’t conceal the fact there’s no one there,

Though I hate that easy irony.  Anyway,

We’re all dressed up.  Now, where shall we go?

 

“Sartor Resartus” is posted with the kind permission of the author.

David Caplan is Charles M. Weis Professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University.

Image by Kevin Miyazaki via Seminary Co-op.

1 Comment on "Office Hours: A Poet Of Cloth"

  1. Love his sweater….

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