The poems in the first section address the beginners, who, like Roethke himself, are charmed by the experience of worldly things, yet aroused, often intimidated by them. Roethke empathizes with the child’s fears and confusions while feeling the child’s awe that accompanies the confrontations. The child’s view also offers a metaphor of the grownup’s compulsion to explore the mysteries of the world, especially of nature. The child never leaves the adult, and the more astute, more adventurous adult returns from time to time to the viewpoint of the child for fresh discoveries.
The varied subjects of the second half of I Am! Says the Lamb—flowers, fungus, the poet’s father, the greenhouse and its crew of three ladies, and the swampy soil—challenge the poet to explore nature’s myriad manifestations and celebrate them. Many of the images in the later poems are of digging down to the roots of nature, into the soil, scraping off fungus, unearthing the tendrils that flower into orchids; the imagery reflects the poet’s urge to dig into the heart of nature itself, dig through objects into their unseen and unseeable spirit. The poet’s aim is to discover the source of beauty, the source of life. Mingling is an important part of that process, mingling with the soil as if the poet, in being close to the earth, could somehow take on some of its creative power. As a whole, the poems stand as evidence of the creative urge, perhaps of its...
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In the tradition of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, Theodore Roethke offers, in the nonsense of the rhymes, names, and subjects in the first set of poems, a world in which children can laugh and frolic. It is a world in which the imagination is given free reign to create helter-skelter levity by distorting the ordinary way in which children are taught by adults to view the world. Freed from the restraints of sober sense, bears talk and serpents sing. The rhythms are as bouncy as the nonsense that plays on the predicaments of children—their fears, feelings, and outlooks and their fascination with magic.
The poems for older children and adults have the air of magic about them, too, and the imagination plays among the dark places that adult children would find if they would go exploring in nature. An occasional moral marks the early poems and is mocked; in the later ones, more ominous strains are heard in the lines, and images reveal a side of nature that frightens the child and warns the adult. The forces of nature are exposed in images of the wind’s violent thrashing and the “ghostly mouths” of the “Orchids.” The weed puller, it is suggested, digs his own grave, “Hacking at black hairy roots” and finding “fern-shapes,/ Coiled green and thick.” Roethke’s adult world is not far from the demonic forces and grotesque forms of the fairy tale. Here, it is disguised as poems for adults.