Last Updated on August 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469
Theodore Roethke’s “Open House” reflects on what it is like to write poetry and be a poet. Through an unnamed speaker whose voice seems to be a proxy for his own, Roethke explains how uncomfortable—and even painful—the self-exposure of poetry writing can be. Many of the poet's word choices and phrasing reflect his sense of vulnerability and the agonies associated with his work. His secrets, he says, "cry aloud." We cry aloud when we experience severe pain from some source. Whether it is emotional or physical, we cry when something hurts us. He describes the "anguish" of revealing such deeply personal truths and writes of his emotional nakedness as a "shield"—as though he requires protection against the intense openness he must cultivate to write. Further, he says:
My heart keeps open house,
My doors are widely swung.
The poet must make of himself, he suggests, an open house, keeping himself susceptible to all emotion—particularly "anger" and "rage," which he describes later—and to all spiritual truths. Too, his “widely swung” doors must remain open to all visitors; he can have no secrets, for they are all revealed by his work. In this same vein of vulnerability and pain, the speaker says,
I'm naked to the bone,
With nakedness my shield.
Figuratively, this sense of vulnerability feels bone deep. These words, however, conjure a vivid image of the poet, viscera exposed, as he is flayed "to the bone." This description leaves readers with the image of one who is deeply and horribly wounded, a bleak and horrifying visual juxtaposed by the claim in the following line that this nakedness is akin to a "shield." Perhaps the only protection he has is his complete and total acceptance of this vulnerability; he wears it as a badge of honor, and it may feel like a symbol of his sacrifice to his art. “Open House” lingers in this dissonance, at once writhing in the physical and emotional harm that such openness inevitably induces while reveling in its creative purpose and cathartic effect.
In the final stanza, the speaker seems to describe the way the truths he reveals in his work seem to come from outside himself, to come up through himself in some spiritual, mystical process:
The anger will endure,
The deed will speak the truth
In language strict and pure.
These feelings bubble up through the speaker and use him as a conduit; he must receive and transmit this truthful language. He must take these truths, emotions, and words and "stop the lying mouth" of others who might wish to hide truth instead of revealing them, as he does. It is, it seems, a labor of love, as he says in the first stanza, but that makes it no less "agon[izing]," as he ends the poem.