The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Far Field” is the title poem of Theodore Roethke’s posthumously published 1964 collection. Like the other five poems in his “North American sequence,” “The Far Field” is a visionary poem about how meditation itself can help individuals transcend their fears about mortality. “The Far Field” is written in free verse, which is undulating lines of various lengths with no set regular metrical or rhyme patterns; it is divided into four unequal sections.

Part 1 starts with an archetypal dream sequence about journeys toward death. This bleak car journey begins in a nocturnal snowstorm on a deserted, snow-laden road and ends with the car stalled in a snowdrift until its lights and batteries give out; it presents a scene of desolation and human isolation in an implacable and cold universe. The cold fear of death is a kind of “problem” the narrator confronts starkly. In the remaining three sections of the poem, the narrator “solves” his problem by meditating until his fear disappears and he reaches a peaceful state of mind.

He begins his “solution” in part 2. First, he remembers the childhood encounters with death he experienced in the “far field” behind the greenhouse his father, Otto, owned in Saginaw, Michigan. There he first saw “the shrunken face of a dead rat” and the blasted “entrails” of a shot “tom-cat.” As a child, he had mourned dead animals but says, “My grief was not excessive.” Grief was balanced by his memories of swarms of “warblers in early May” whose flights and twittering created images of...

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The Far Field Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like the nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman, Roethke uses free verse and poetic catalogues to express his images and feelings. Poetic catalogues are lists of details and images that both activate the senses and try to capture psychological states; often the images and details are drawn from very different spheres of human experiences. Roethke uses a poetic catalogue, appealing to various senses, in part 1 to draw the reader into his state of cold fear; he notes small details from within a car to give visual images (such as “The road lined with snow-laden second growth” or “no lights behind”), auditory images (such as “dry snow ticking the windshield” or the car “churning” while stalled), and kinetic or motion images (such as “The road changing from glazed tarface” to the bumpy “rubble of stone”).

In addition, he repeatedly uses present-tense participles to create timelessness in this passage; action happens now, continues, and never ends—the verbs “flying,” “driving,” “ticking,” “changing,” and “ending” are examples. Combining a catalogue of sensory images with the present-tense, continuous-action verbs, he draws readers into opening scene of cold fear of death as if they are co-passengers in that automobile stuck out on a “peninsula” far from help.

Roethke’s catalogues can also be simple lists, such as the several names of different birds mentioned in part 2: “warblers,” “Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean.” Lists work by citing different species so that if readers do not know one bird, they might know another. Roethke also clusters images, rather than using single images, to help readers visualize the “dump” behind his father’s greenhouse. In the dump, he lists “tin cans, tires, rusted pipes, broken machinery” to show a humanmade graveyard that introduced him to varieties of death when he was a child.

The point of such lists is to get the reader to see as the poet sees. Since Roethke is a “visionary poet,” his strategy is to get his audience first to see visions with which they may be familiar, found in the material world early in the poem (such as the dump), as a kind of preparation for the more abstract “visionary” world outside the physical senses, which is presented later in the poem. Catalogues first hook the audience in the material world as a means of moving them to a more immaterial world within a meditation.

The Far Field Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Cape May

*Cape May. Peninsula located on the southern tip of New Jersey well known as a beach resort, Cape May has a lighthouse at the entrance to Delaware Bay. Although Roethke refers to bird shapes when he uses this word, many of his particular images echo the peninsular landscape. The poet travels throughout the peninsula to the field’s end, where he discovers evidence of death and detritus. The shallows of the river, the sea, and the mountain all reveal to the poet that death is not the final step, but a period of renewal. Even in a mossy quagmire, the poet believes that the end of life is not the final experience—rather, that life goes on.

A peninsula juts out like a finger into a body of water; thus it experiences water on three sides. As Roethke experienced great despair during his life, the peninsula as a symbol reaches out as the poet catalogs the many forms of life that occupy the peninsula. Symbolized by this peninsula, the waters of the world are as much the poet’s landscape as is the land itself. Memory itself houses the encyclopedic well from which each person draws. The peninsula is ultimately life-embracing; although living things die within its borders, this death is not permanent.

The Far Field Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Heyen, William, ed. Profile of Theodore Roethke. Westerville, Ohio. Charles E. Merrill, 1971. Includes eight major studies of Roethke’s work.

Kalaidjian, Walter B. Understanding Theodore Roethke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987. All the major collections of Roethke’s poems are discussed in this book, which begins with an overview and ends with two chapters devoted to The Far Field. Excellent bibliography.

Malkoff, Karl. Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. Discusses the major themes in Roethke’s poetry and the influences of T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and others, tracing Roethke’s poetic development to its conclusion in The Far Field.

Roethke, Theodore. The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. Garden City, N.J.: Anchor Press, 1975. This standard edition contains all the poems from previous books by Roethke except the verse from a book written for children. Previously unpublished poems dating from 1943 to 1962 are also included.

Sullivan, Rosemary. Theodore Roethke: The Garden Master. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975. Sheds light on the relation of Roethke’s personal life to his poetry, and the discussion of “North American Sequence” illuminates the symbols and images of that work.