It used to be a commonplace in discussion of the poetry of Theodore Roethke to emphasize the variety, the differences between his work as he passed through various “phases.” It is true that there is variety and there are differences at every stage of his work as he matured as a poet. Now that he is gone, however, and now that it is possible to look at his work as a whole, it is surprising how much of his future work, his interests and the directions he would later explore, veins that he would later mine, is indicated in OPEN HOUSE, mostly written during the decade preceding World War II. (It is to be remembered that though Roethke was often grouped with Richard Wilbur and Robert Lowell as one of the three leading poets of his generation, he was, in fact, ten years older than both of these poets and a good deal behind them in receiving an equivalent critical recognition). It was and is easy to be deceived by the poems of OPEN HOUSE. They are short, quiet, rather plainly and strictly formal, evidently subdued and modest. Their artistry is understated, and they blithely ignore some of the critical fiats prevalent at the time. They have a kind of hewn and carved simplicity, with minimal attention paid to the intellectual ambiguity, the forms of irony and wit, which were becoming fashionable. They make frequent and familiar use of abstractions, which had become the equivalent of dirty words to poets and critics who took their standards of judgment at second hand from Eliot and Pound. One has to imagine the effect of, for example, the second stanza of the title poem upon the conditioned reader of that period. Except for the poet’s obvious use of rhetorical paradox, which was very acceptable at that time, his lines break all the rules. Few, if any critics caught in the web of time have ever been able to exercise the necessary self-transcendence to acknowledge the validity of another and different approach. It is not surprising that OPEN HOUSE, which turns out to have been the first public statement of a poet of acknowledged greatness, was largely ignored. Contemporary literary history would seem to indicate that this is the fate of all the truly important writers of the modern period. It was hard then to see the virtues of this work and altogether too easy to label it as the quiet and unassuming verse of an English teacher who was obviously a little too removed from the action, a little out of touch with the exciting center of the literary scene. Then, also, there was World War II whose gory clamor drowed all but the loudest voices.
THE LOST SON came after the war and after the successes achieved by Robert Lowell in LORD WEARY’S CASTLE and Richard Wilbur in THE BEAUTIFUL CHANGES. Some changes in method were immediately evident. The shorter lyric poems shied away from abstraction, coming close at times to the purity of imagism in the exact rendering of the concrete image without regard to generalized comment by the poet and, inevitably the texture seemed tougher and more conventionally antipoetic. The final stanza of “Cuttings I” is illustrative and shows as well what the poet can do by intense and precise concentration on a single, small action.
A substantial number of the shorter poems in THE LOST SON are more explicitly personal than before, deriving directly from his experience of growing up around a greenhouse. Some of the titles tell the story: “Root Cellar,” “Forcing House,” “Weed Puller,” Orchids,” “Moss-Gathering,” “Old Florist,” “Transplanting,” “Child on Top of a Greenhouse,” “Flower Dump,” “Carnations.” For the most part these poems are freer in form than the earlier poems, and when the poet does return to the strictness he had observed, as, for example, in the now widely anthologized “My Papa’s Waltz,” strict form is used more for humor and irony, which was, at that time, a more acceptable strategy.
With so many poets now engaged in the academic life, either patronized by or servants to the colleges, depending on one’s point of view, it was almost inevitable that a genre of the academic poem would develop. As the genre has developed, it is much like the familiar Middle English poem in which the monk or scholar announces the coming of spring and bewails his fate and vocation which requires him to sit at a desk inside with a chained manuscript while outside the world is exploding with new life. Most of our poets have tried a version of this “updated” genre, bemoaning the university’s apparent isolation from “real life,” and adding the modern element of criticism against a large and impersonal institution. Roethke’s “Dolor” is one of the most successful and memorable of this kind, precisely because of its richness and multiplicity of things, its condensation of these things into a single evocative impression. Saul Bellow has said in talks to students that his novel THE VICTIM, told exactly in the “correct” method of narration, can be considered his “Ph.D. thesis,” a kind of payment to Caesar to be allowed the privilege of rendering his art as he chooses. Yet THE VICTIM is a fine and in many ways original novel. Similarly it is possible to view the fine shorter poems of THE LOST SON as demonstrable proof that Theodore Roethke could do what was expected and demanded and yet in a highly original manner.
But if Roethke paid the piper and handsomely with the shorter poems, it was the long title poem which made people sit up and take notice. “The Lost Son” was something quite new in our poetry. A long poem, in an original and independent form, it was a kind of dramatic monologue, but an interior monologue, an objectification of the nearly ineffable drama and history of the psyche and in this case of a deeply tormented and troubled psyche. Its method can best be illustrated by analogy. To an extent Roethke availed himself of the techniques of surrealism, and to an extent, like other modern painters, he used the resources of primitive arts and forms of expression to create an effect reminiscent of totem objects and cave paintings, on the work of children. But, more important, he found a logic of images, often fleeting and ghostly images to be sure but always palpable and concrete, to represent the shades and states of being far more complex than other poets had been able to suggest when they started from the outside and evoked the inner drama by hints and clues and shards. The given setting was the mysterious landscape of consciousness with the unconscious just at the edge of the horizon, and all this spelled out in words and images. The effect was ragged, nervous, raw, a grotesque vision. The poet dared all and risked everything, moving in unknown territory, a realm with more questions than answers. Out of context, he risked the danger that in his search for meaning and articulation he would come up only with sheer gibberish. This new method showed difficulty and knotty complexity in a new form and with a new intent, by...
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