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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Open House” is a brief poem of eighteen lines, composed in three sextains, or six-line stanzas. The English language gets the word “stanza” from the Italian, meaning “room,” so that in this “house” there are three “rooms.” In each stanza, the rhyme scheme unites an alternating rhymed quatrain with a final rhymed couplet (ababcc, dedeff, ghghii).

The rhymed quatrains in each stanza create a sense of tension and release, as if there were a rise in pitch followed by a corresponding drop, which is then further enhanced by the finality of the rhymed couplets. Two slant rhymes appear: the first in lines 1 and 3 of the first stanza (“aloud”/“house”) and the second in lines 2 and 4 of the third stanza (“truth”/“mouth”).

Every line scans into a regular iambic trimeter. As a result, the poem swings with a perfect cadence, which, in the beginning of the poem, seems light and airy, but which becomes frighteningly ironic in light of the “anger,” “rage,” and “agony” of the poem’s conclusion.

One of the interesting developments in “Open House” is how Roethke uses sentence constructions to present his theme. The poem is initiated with two brief sentences, each of which is one line long. Then Roethke moves through the remainder of the first stanza and completely through the second in sentences of two lines, the paired lines singing like voice and echo. Finally, the cadence of the third stanza is slowed as Roethke stretches two sentences through three lines apiece. Consequently, the poem begins much more lightly cadenced than it ends. It is as if the reader’s ear is at first attuned to a quick point-counterpoint rhythm that is later replaced with a more lethargic beat. The overall rhythmic effect is thus in keeping with the poem’s movement from light to dark.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Theodore Roethke. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Bogen, Don. Theodore Roethke and the Writing Process. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991.

Bowers, Neal. Theodore Roethke: The Journey from I to Otherwise. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Kalaidjian, Walter B. Understanding Theodore Roethke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Kusch, Robert. My Toughest Mentor: Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams (1940-1948). Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1999.

Malkoff, Karl. Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Seager, Allan. The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Stiffler, Randall. Theodore Roethke: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1986.

Wolff, George. Theodore Roethke. Boston: Twayne, 1981.