The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Open House” is the title poem of Theodore Roethke’s first volume of poetry. Friend and fellow poet Stanley Kunitz proposed the book title before Roethke actually had written the poem. Then, upon completing the poem, Roethke placed it at the front of the manuscript, suggesting that both the poem and its theme were to serve as an introductory promise for the poet’s first work as well as for his entire career.

“Open House” is a terse, lyric definition of the speaker’s poetics and, simultaneously, of his methods for the discovery of the self, indicating that for Roethke, these are one and the same. The title resonates with meaning. Upon first opening the book, the reader is welcomed into the poet’s world, a place invented by the poet out of his search for self-knowledge and truth. Thus, the reader comes to the open house on a similar search, seeking to learn from the poet by following his lead in a parallel spiritual quest. The conceit is saved from mere cleverness by the poem’s forthright tone and its concluding dark discovery.

In the first stanza, the poet establishes the connection between his self and the self’s labor of love, his poetry. Although his art is natural, it is so difficult that it is painful. His secrets do not speak; they “cry aloud.” They are expressed without the use of a corporeal voice (“I have no need for tongue”), since the poet’s expression is all spiritual. Any reader may enter the poet’s life, as his “heart keeps open house” and his “doors are widely swung.” His love, poetry, is “an epic of the eyes.” That love is simple, without “disguise,” plainly visible on the page.

In the...

(The entire section is 687 words.)