Analysis

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Last Updated on August 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 722

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In this poem, Theodore Roethke examines the poetic process and its impacts on the poet. Using an extended metaphor of his poetic self as a personified “Open House,” he pours his emotions onto the page and details the demands of revealing such feelings to an audience. 

This subject is not unfamiliar to Roethke; the poet often explores the duality of complex emotions in his work, as seen in the commonly-studied "My Papa's Waltz." The complexity of the subject matter is made apparent in the first line of “Open House,” as the speaker explains:  "My secrets cry aloud." Through juxtaposition, the speaker (who is most likely Roethke himself) discusses the process of writing; it is an act that demands the poet to take something deep and personal, then discuss it in such a manner to convey its significance to an eager audience. In so doing, nothing is left secretive; all is laid bare.

In the second line, the speaker uses "Tongue" as a metonymy—a figure of speech in which an attribute or closely related term is substituted for the intended word or concept—to represent verbal speech. He explains that he does not need literal speech because his heart "keeps open house" through the poetry he writes; all that he might need to say, he says through poetry. This first stanza follows an ABABCC rhyme pattern with almost perfect rhymes, as in tongue/swung and eyes/disguise. All three stanzas follow the same rhyme scheme, and although some rhymes are more effective than others, each line easily falls into comfortable iambic trimeter. The rhyme pattern and cadence allow for the poem to slip into a melodic recitation of unobstructed truths; the speaker fully intends to keep his language "strict and pure" and unornamented by falsities or half-truths.

The easy rhyme and cadence flow into the next stanza, mimicking the lines of the first stanza with a DEDEFF pattern of rhyme. In this stanza, Roethke adjusts the idiom "chilled to the bone" and describes his poetry as leaving him "naked to the bone." This wordplay creates a figurative and literal image of stark nudity which strips away both the inner and outer self. Navigating his emotions through poetry, then, is an act akin to violence. Poetry demands flayed skin and exposed vulnerabilities of its writers; it requires that the speaker hide or spare nothing. He must leave no anguish unarticulated, for each is "foreknown" through self-revelation anyway. As such, poetry becomes almost prophetic; it links the first and last lines of the second stanza to reflect a spiritual journey. The speaker’s transition from discussing all of the emotional truths that are “foreknown” to his soul now made “spare” is  further emphasized by the alliteration in the phrase "spirit spare." 

The final stanza deviates from the perfect rhymes of the first two stanzas. Although the rhyme pattern is the same, GHGHII, the truth/mouth and cry/agony pairings are not as clean. For a poet like Roethke, the notable descent into slant rhymes is intentional, for this transition reflects the loss of the poet’s careful control and poised tone. The speaker abandons the elevated metaphor of the first stanza and loses himself to the emotional truth of his words. In tone and wording, this final stanza indicates the burning emotion that helps the speaker’s poetry endure: anger. In his quest to speak only the truth, he must navigate emotions that are not beautiful and do not lend themselves to an easy cadence. Such feelings result in inadequate rhymes and leave the speaker in the throes of "witless agony." 

Despite the pain which dulls his senses, the speaker ensures that he keeps the language of his poetry “strict and pure.” Clarity and precision of language are the sole means for the speaker to accurately and honestly communicate his experiences and the vulnerability that writing about them brings. The poem explores the process of laying oneself bare on a page in an objective tone; despite the intense visuals of “to the bone” and “witless agony,” he neither romanticizes the process nor seeks to elicit sympathy. Indeed, his discussion is coldly matter of fact: the craft of poetry operates in a way that is at once agonizing and cathartic. That is its function, and he chooses to continue writing, undeterred by the forthcoming pain.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687

“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 middle stanza, Roethke shows an awareness that his self-revelatory communication is a mystical and universal act. Saying that his “truths are all fore-known,” he acknowledges a personal clairvoyance, as though he has meditated on the self many times. Such prior knowledge is made humble by welcoming public inspection of his house. Nor is he the first poet to discover the kinds of “truths” poetry offers.

At the very center of the poem, Roethke declares, “I’m naked to the bone,/ With nakedness my shield.” It is a lovely pair of lines, affirming that the poet’s open vulnerability is his strength and protection. As the fulcrum of the poem’s advancing mystery, the second stanza is less descriptive, and more prophetic, than the first. It begins the poem’s assertion that such personal mystery is not without serious psychic danger. For example, what in the first stanza had been a “cry,” in the second develops into “anguish.”

The third stanza continues the progression of the mystic journey into the self. Nearing what seems to be the deepest recesses of the house, there is a shift away from the personal control that was evidenced in the first two stanzas. In the first stanza the poet refers to himself with the personal pronouns “I” or “my” five times; in the second, six times; but in the third stanza he refers to himself only twice, and these two referents are used as brakes after the poet’s journey has taken him near the white-hot center, where violent creativity reigns. Significantly, in the last stanza Roethke uses definite articles where one might expect pronouns. He writes: “The anger will endure,/ The deed will speak the truth.” He is prevented from writing “My anger,” “My deed,” and “my truth” at this point in the poem specifically because he no longer seems in control of his own feeling (“anger”) or his own action (“deed”). The journey through his own house, the self, has taken him inward to a place of universal mystery, a deep room of dangerous creativity.

Finally, for the good of his poetry the poet must retreat from his own psychic center. He must “stop” the journey. If he does not, the creative “anger” and “Rage” that the poet discovers within himself will ultimately consume him, reducing his “clearest cry,” his poetry, to a state of uncontrolled “witless agony.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 301

“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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 111

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.

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