Themes

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Last Updated on August 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620

The Duality of Vulnerability

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Poetry, the speaker explains, requires much of its poets. Most importantly, it requires a sense of vulnerability that he metaphorically compares to an “open house” with doors left “widely swung.” In short, it requires that poets willingly expose the truths of their deepest selves for the viewing pleasure of the public.

According to the speaker, this need for complete transparency leaves him feeling “naked to the bone.” The phrasing speaks for itself. The image of nudity conjures a sense of discomfort, and “to the bone” relies on a phrase often used in conjunction with negative feelings that cut to the core of one’s being, as in “chilled to the bone” or “soaked to the bone.” Despite this less-than-desirable phrasing, the speaker is careful to note that this nakedness also acts as his “shield.” It offers some form of protection, and he finds some cathartic satisfaction in this exposure. At once, vulnerability inspires feelings of fear and unhappiness in the speaker while also evoking a sense of contentment and satisfaction.

Indeed, if the speaker were to reject the openness that poetry requires of him and chose not to keep his “spirit spare” by communicating his feelings in writing, he would not be able to write. He must keep himself “open” to receive and transmit the truth, even though this spiritual vulnerability may cause him pain. 

Poetry’s Demands

By the end of “Open House,” readers have gained a sense of the emotionally draining process that poetry writing requires. The first stanza introduces the act of writing through a personified metaphor that figures the speaker into an embodied house; by the final stanza, this elegant metaphor has dissolved, and the quality of the rhymes has audibly declined. The speaker’s change in tone seems to indicate a lack of control, and the “widely swung” doors kept open to reveal his inner truths seem to be damaging, leaving him in a state of “witless agony.”

To readers, this may seem extreme. For the speaker, however, the “rage” and pain of poetry are to be expected. Exposing his deepest truths and exhibiting his vulnerabilities to an audience is a requirement for poets. Less than a person, he has become a conduit for poetry, channeling his “anger” and “deed[s]” as they come from within him and outside of him simultaneously. This open vulnerability makes him sensitive to the world, but it also allows him to “stop the lying mouth” and speak with truth and honesty; the martyrdom of the poet is a necessary sacrifice in the pursuit of the craft. 

The Masochist Poet

Knowing the demands that poetry makes of its writers, the speaker continues, bearing the turbulent duality of the equally cathartic and agonizing art form with little complaints. He writes of the anguish that baring himself to the voyeurism of an audience causes; he tempers this knowledge with the beauty of “language strict and pure” that is capable of communicating the truth of his sorrow, joy, and anger.

The poet is composed of contradiction. His spirit is kept “spare,” as all of his “secrets” “cry aloud” and beg to be heard and understood. He feels as if his craft has cracked him open and stripped him “to the bone,” but he also finds that this flaying effect can be a “shield.” In short, the poet understands the duality of poetry’s painful, gratifying demands and pursues it anyway. The “agony” of writing is undercut by the glory of “the truth.” Indeed, even though he must face the “anger” that comes from within and outside of himself, he revels in the act, for it allows him to “stop the lying mouth” of others unwilling to bear such pain. 

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

As critic Peter Balakian notes in his book Theodore Roethke’s Far Fields (1989), the phrase “To keep open house with one’s heart” is philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s. Balakian explains that maintaining an open house “is fundamental to Roethke’s essential way of knowing reality and measuring truth. The title proclaims the need to search the self for the truth.”

“Open House” is a poem about the poetic process of self-discovery, a theme common in the Romantic tradition. As the first poem in Roethke’s first volume, it stands as a declaration of Roethke’s allegiance to Romanticism, which stretches back to William Blake. One might even note that the poem’s spare language, simple diction, and strict rhythms are indebted to Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794). Furthermore, in its originating metaphor, “Open House” is very similar to Robert Browning’s poem “House,” which begins:

Shall I sonnet-sing you about myself?  Do I live in a house you would like to see?Is it scant of gear, has it store of pelf?  “Unlock my heart with a sonnet-key?”

Like Blake and other Romantics (especially William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, and William Butler Yeats), Roethke believed that poetry is a mystic art quite contrary to, and more trustworthy than, reason. As “Open House” shows, however, the pursuit of self-knowledge through poetry can be dangerous and painful.

The poem might be easier to grasp if it were not so violent and oracular. The final stanza is clearly the most troublesome, particularly as the diction is more abstract, imitating the “strict and pure” language of high emotion. As the poem momentarily shifts to the future tense, the anger that “will endure” beyond the poem is as essential to Roethke’s creative imagination as are notions of eternal reverie for other poets. Roethke only approaches rage at the end of the poem, as if pure creativity is like fire—life-enhancing or all-consuming, depending upon one’s distance.

The poet must “stop the lying mouth” when the heat of creative rage “warps” his poetry to “witless agony.” The word “witless” is especially well-chosen. Whereas its common meaning includes “stupid” or “foolish,” to be without “wit” is also to be unable to perceive the metaphoric connections between words and the things, ideas, and feelings they stand for—a state, for any poet, that must indeed be close to “agony.” In other words, the poem asserts the need to explore the open house of the self until that point where the exploration becomes self-defeating.

“Open House,” as a journey to the center, is archetypal. Its theme is not Roethke’s alone, nor is it a theme from which Roethke ever moves away entirely. For example, the first line of the title poem in Roethke’s last volume of poems, The Far Field (1964), reads: “I dream of journeys repeatedly.” Another poem in that book is entitled “Journey to the Interior.”

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