Theodore Roethke

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W. H. Auden (essay date 1941)

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SOURCE: "Verse and the Times," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 23, No. 24, April 5, 1941, pp. 30-1.

[Auden is recognized as one of the preeminent poets of the twentieth century. His poetry centers on moral issues and evidences strong political, social, and psychological orientations. In the following review, Auden hails Open House but expresses the opinion that Roethke needs to continue growing as a poet.]

Both in life and art the human task is to create a necessary order out of an arbitrary chaos. A necessary order implies that the process of its creation is not itself arbitrary; one is not free to create any order one chooses. The order realized must, in fact, have been already latent in the chaos, so that successful creation is a process of discovery. As long as this remains latent and unconscious, conscious life must appear arbitrary; one grows up in the degree to which this unconscious order becomes conscious and its potentialities developed, to the degree that one's life ceases to be arbitrary, to the degree that one becomes both conscious of and true to one's fate. An artist is someone who is able to express his human development in a public medium.

A work of art, like a life, can fail in two different ways: either, in terror of admitting that there is any chaos, it takes refuge in some arbitrary conscious order it has acquired ready-made from others or thought up itself on the spur of the moment, some order which, because it ignores the chaos that exists can do nothing with it but suppress it; or, lacking the courage and the faith to believe that it is possible and a duty to bring the chaos to order, it contents itself with a purely passive idolization of the flux. In poetry, the first attitude leads to a lifeless academic rhetoric; the second to the formless, the vague, the nonsensical and boring stream-of-consciousness.

A good poet can be recognized by his tense awareness of both chaos and order, the arbitrary and the necessary, the fact and the pattern: as Angelus Silesius says:—

Fuerwahr, wer diese Welt
Recht nimmt in Augenschein,
Muss bald Democritus,
Bald Heraclitus sein.

By such a test, Mr. Roethke is instantly recognizable as a good poet. He is well aware of "Confusion's core set deep within," "The ugly of the universe," "the menance of ancestral eyes," and their terrifying laughter rumbling in one's belly. He is willing to acknowledge the facts of suffering, "the rubbish of confusion," whether it is his own or that of others, the poor and those unfortunate ones for whom

Acceleration is their need:
A mania keeps them on the move
Until the toughest nerves are frayed.
They are the prisoners of speed
Who flee in what their hands have made

because he knows that "A scratch forgotten is a scratch infected," but he is not content to lie down and blubber, but accepts them as a challenge:

Many people have the experience of feeling physically soiled and humiliated by life; some quickly put it out of their mind, others gloat narcissistically on its unimportant details; but both to remember and to transform the humiliation into something beautiful, as Mr. Roethke does, is rare. Every one of the lyrics in this book, whether serious or light, shares the same kind of ordered sensibility: Open House is completely successful.

The only question which remains, and it concerns the poet rather than the reader, is: "Where is Mr. Roethke to go from here? Having mastered, with the help of Herrick, Marvell,...

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and Blake, a certain style of expression, how is he to develop it, to escape being confined to short, and usually iambic, lyrics?"

It is possible, I think, that Mr. Roethke is trusting too much to diction, to the poetic instrument itself, to create order out of chaos. For poetry is only an instrument; it can be sharpened, but it cannot by itself widen the area of experience with which it deals. Poe was quite right in saying that an interest in poetry alone, can only produce short lyrics, but wrong, I think, in concluding from this that only short lyrics are poetry. It is possible that Mr. Roethke has read quite enough English poetry for a bit, and should now read not only the poetry of other cultures, but books that are neither poetry nor about poetry. For every artist must be like one of his own characters who

… cried at enemies undone
And longed to feel the impact of defeat.

Otherwise he may be in danger of certain experiences becoming compulsive, and of either, like Emily Dickinson and A. E. Housman, playing more and more variations on an old theme, or, like Rimbaud, of coming to the end of his experiences and ceasing to write.

But this, as I have said, is Mr. Roethke's problem, not ours. In Open House he has already done more than enough to make us lastingly happy and grateful.


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Theodore Roethke 1908–1963

(Full name Theodore Huebner Roethke) American poet, critic, essayist, and author of children's books.

Roethke is among the most celebrated American poets of the twentieth century. His poetry employs dynamic, descriptive imagery to convey the process of self-realization and discovery. The concrete language of Roethke's poetry serves to present his personal themes as archetypal experiences, resulting in a highly original, symbolic body of work charged with semantic associations that must be intuitively comprehended by the reader. According to Rosemary Sullivan, Roethke's poetry conveys "his sensitivity to the subliminal, irrational world of nature; his relationship to his dead father, who occupies the center of his work…; his attempts to explore other modes of consciousness which carried him to the edge of psychic disaster…; his interest in mysticism…; his debts, so well repaid, to the poetic ancestors from whom he learned his craft; and the calm joyousness which rests at the core of his work."

Biographical Information

Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, to first generation German-American parents who operated a large floral greenhouse and produce business. He worked in his parents' greenhouse and attended Arthur Hill High School. Roethke began writing verse during his undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, though he did not submit poems for publication until he began pursuing a master's degree in literature, first at Michigan and then at Harvard. The Great Depression cut short Roethke's studies, as he was forced to withdraw from school to find a job. For four years—until 1935—he taught at Lafayette, a small college in Pennsylvania, where he was a popular teacher and hard drinker. During his time at Lafayette, Roethke began friendships with the poets Rolfe Humphries, Louise Bogan, and Stanley Kunitz and published nineteen poems in such magazines as Poetry, the New Republic, and the Saturday Review. He subsequently began teaching at Michigan State College in Lansing but suffered a mental breakdown in the fall of 1935 and went home to Saginaw to recuperate. Upon recovering, Roethke took a position as an instructor at Pennsylvania State, where he devoted much of his time and energy to his poetry. By 1939 he had enough poems to assemble Open House, which was eventually published in the spring of 1941. Roethke left Pennsylvania State in 1943 to join the faculty of Bennington College in Vermont. There he met the poets Leonie Adams and Kenneth Burke; the latter was an important influence on Roethke's next collection, The Lost Son, and Other Poems. Roethke experienced severe depression

toward the end of 1945 and once again returned to Saginaw to convalesce. Fortunately, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, for which he had applied earlier that year, and was able to remain in Saginaw without having to worry about returning to work. He continued writing poetry while recovering and finished the poems to be included in The Lost Son by February 1947. In September of that year he went to Seattle to assume a teaching position at the University of Washington. Encouraged by enthusiastic reviews of The Lost Son, Roethke worked hard at teaching and began composing the poems that would constitute Praise to the End! In the fall of 1949 he again suffered intense mental agitation and was taken to a sanitarium. He sought and received a second Guggenheim Fellowship and was able to finish the poems for Praise to the End! in 1950. Roethke received many more awards in his career, including Poetry magazine's Levinson Prize, a Fulbright grant, two Ford Foundation grants, the Pulitzer Prize for The Waking: Poems, 1933-1953, the Bollingen Prize and the National Book Award for Words for the Wind, and the National Book Award for The Far Field. Despite his success, he also experienced at least two more mental breakdowns that required hospitalization. Roethke retained his post at the University of Washington until his death from a heart attack in 1963.

Major Works

Roethke's first volume, Open House, was warmly received by W. H. Auden and Louise Bogan, among others, who commended the poet's masterful command of conventional verse forms, meters, and rhymes. However, Auden, for one, noted that Roethke needed to develop his own style and distance himself from tradition. In his second collection, The Lost Son, and Other Poems, Roethke employed the evolutionary past—worms, slugs, snails, slime, and spiders—to represent unarticulated childhood fears and impulses submerged in his subconscious. By relaxing his dependence upon conventional structure and experimenting with free verse, Roethke evolved a form capable of examining his own psychological and emotional growth. Vegetative and nature imagery drawn from Roethke's experiences in his parents' greenhouse are central to the poem sequence "The Greenhouse Poems" as well as "The Lost Son," in which Roethke tries to come to terms with his ambivalent feelings for his father, who died when Roethke was only fourteen. Praise to the End! combines several long poems from The Lost Son with new poems that continue the themes and approach that the poet had explored in his second volume. Bogan described Roethke's subject here as "the journey from the child's primordial subconscious world, through the regions of adult terror, guilt, and despair, toward final release into the freedom of conscious being." Reprinting earlier poems with a selection of new verse, The Waking incorporates as yet unexplored metaphysical and spiritual themes, including the superiority of intuition and faith over rational thought. Similarly, in the new poetry of Words for the Wind, Roethke contrasts ideal and real love and considers the nature of humankind's spiritual and physical makeup. The Far Field—especially the poems in "North American Sequence"—presents the natural world as a mystical sanctuary in which the individual can join together with God and all of humanity.

Critical Reception

In Open House Roethke proved himself an accomplished technician and as a knowledgable student of earlier poets, but many critics have noted that the poetry in this volume is largely derivative. With the publication of The Lost Son he established himself as a highly creative and promising poet with a highly original yet controlled style well suited to his personal themes. In subsequent collections, Roethke returned to the traditional verse forms of Open House but adapted them to his artistic aims. Nevertheless, commentators have found evidence of heavy borrowing from William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot even in Roethke's later verse. Although his output is relatively small in comparison to other major poets of the twentieth century, Roethke is appreciated for creating such popular poems as "My Papa's Waltz," "The Waking," "Four for Sir John Davies," "Elegy for Jane," and other frequently anthologized works. Critics have often disagreed, however, in their attempts to classify Roethke's poetic style. His deeply personal images and the manner in which he utilizes nature to explore psychological territories have prompted scholars to associate Roethke's verse with either the Confessional or the Romantic school of poetry. Ralph J. Mills, Jr., has argued that Roethke's verse does not fit neatly into any single category; comparing Roethke to other poets of his generation, Mills stated: "Of all these later poets Theodore Roethke appears the most considerable, in terms of imaginative daring, stylistic achievement, richness of diction, variety and fullness of music, and unity of vision…. We should not be surprised then in reading through Roethke's books to discover a wide range of moods and styles: tightly controlled formal lyrics, dramatic monologues and something like an interior monologue, nonsense verse, love lyrics, and meditative poems composed in a very free fashion. His experience reaches from the most extraordinary intuition of the life of nature to lightning flashes of mystical illumination."

Rolfe Humphries (essay date 1941)

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SOURCE: "Inside Story," in The New Republic, Vol. 105, No. 1, July 14, 1941, p. 62.

[An American poet and translator, Humphries publishedseveral volumes of verse and translated works by the Spanish poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca and the classical writers Ovid, Virgil, Juvenal, and Lucretius. In the following review, Humphries declares Open House an honest and impressive debut collection that demonstrates Roethke has much promise as a poet.]

The title of [Open House], and the opening lines of the title poem, at once give the reader to understand that much of the material to follow will be largely self-centered:

My secrets cry aloud.
I have no need for tongue.
My heart keeps open house,
My doors are widely swung.
An epic of the eyes
My love, with no disguise.

Throughout the several sections of the book, varied as they are in manner and theme, the tendency is to revert to this type of preoccupation, in spite of the prayer of the poet, "Deliver me, O Lord, from all / Activity centripetal." Does it sound patronizing to say this is natural in a first book? What saves Roethke from producing sentimental, ordinary or painful results in the process is the blunt and obdurate honesty of statement, even at the cost of flexibility of technique, without embellishment or fancy business. He faces and acknowledges much that he knows or suspects to be wrong inside. His open house is indeed wide open, from attic to basement; you can have a good look not only at the Chippendale chairs, the rings and the relics, but the skeleton in the closet and the family bogeymen.

Some of this work Roethke will not wish to repeat or find profit in repeating. But the book is not padded with practice pieces, poems whose chief value was in the exercise; Roethke has been quite severe in his selection, and every specimen is per se valid. He knows, I should hope, that his personal-metaphysical rock will not yield ore indefinitely, but there are indications of other veins he has scarcely begun to exploit. In the poems of nature and the visible world, with the weight of the theme less heavy, the music is richer, more sensuous and deeper; the observation, turned outward, is sensitive, delicate and perceptive, if not yet passionate and intense. Roethke can grow in this direction; and I am sure that readers who enjoy poems like "Academic":

The stethoscope tells what everyone fears:
You're likely to go on living for years,
With a nursemaid waddle and a shopgirl simper
And the style of your prose growing limper and limper

or "Vernal Sentiment," would like to see a further exercise of his really incisive satirical wit, or a fuller indulgence of his humor. It takes a pretty good poet to be funny without being frivolous.

Toward the end of the book, in "Lull," for instance, or "Highway: Michigan," the consciousness is social as well as personal, and "Idyll" and "Night Journey," the last two poems, speak the word of affirmation, reconciliation and praise. Roethke has not by any means exhausted the possibilities of entertaining with the exposition of his hates; when he learns to overcome a certain diffidence, to speak as bravely and finely of his joys and loves as he has of his terrors and doubts, the house will not be big enough to hold him; he can, as a poet, really go to town.

Principal Works

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Open House 1941

The Lost Son, and Other Poems 1948

Praise to the End! 1951

The Waking: Poems, 1933-1953 1953

The Exorcism 1957

Words for the Wind 1957

I Am! Says the Lamb (children's poems) 1961

Party at the Zoo (children's poems) 1963

*Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical 1963

The Far Field 1964

The Achievement of Theodore Roethke: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems with a Critical Introduction 1966

The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke 1966

Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems 1969

Dirty Dinky and Other Creatures: Poems for Children (children's poems) 1973

Other Major Works

On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke (essays) 1965

Selected Letters of Theodore Roethke (correspondence) 1968

Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, 1943-63 (notebooks) 1972

* This work is an illustrated edition of a poem sequence that was first published in 1957 as part of Words for the Wind.

Louise Bogan (essay date 1948)

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SOURCE: A review of "The Lost Son," in The New Yorker, Vol. XXV, No. 12, May 15, 1948, pp. 102, 105-06.

[major American lyric poet whose darkly romantic verse is characterized by her use of traditional structures, concise language, and vivid description, Bogan is recognized particularly for her honest and austere rendering of emotion. She was also a distinguished critic who served as poetry editor for the New Yorker from 1931 to 1970 and was known for her exacting standards and her penetrating analyses of many of the major poets of the twentieth century. In the following excerpt, Bogan praises The Lost Son as an exploration of emotion and "primordial experience. "]

Theodore Roethke's The Lost Son gains a good deal of coherence by sticking to a few absolutely personal themes. In the long poem that gives the book its title, he plunges into his subconscious as into a pond, and brings up all sorts of clammy and amorphous material. He often frames it in the language of the adage, the proverb, the incantation, and the nonsense rhyme. He is made, that is to say, almost inarticulate by the fears and pressures in which he has submerged himself. Where [Randall] Jarrell frequently only describes, Roethke relives. The Lost Son is written with complete conscious control. The effects have been manipulated, as all art is manipulated, but the method aids in the understanding of the material instead of befogging it. Throughout, true emotion gives the chosen style coloration and shape. The pattern of The Lost Son is ancient and satisfying as well—the pattern of light-found-after-darkness. The poet rises, at the end, to the surface of his obsessive dream to see the world in the light of day. This exploration of primordial experience is surely more effective than the putting down of detached items on the "state of the world." Roethke's complete documentation of his childhood and of his father's florist trade also proves fruitful in emotional reference. And he never pads poems out to conventional size or shape.

Jarrell and Roethke should be read together. Few seasons bring us works in which the virtues and faults of our enlightened younger poetic generation appear in such sharp relief. Roethke is full of virtues that are instinctive, or that can be acquired only with great difficulty. Jarrell also displays innate talent, but he is occasionally full of brilliant tricks that can be learned all too easily. Even in the new style, it is the temperament of the individual that counts. Young talents should not be pushed by the snobberies of the academic and the "intellectual" worlds into dealing with subjects that involve them only partially, or into too much adherence to too many poetic texts, no matter how admirable those texts, by themselves or in combination, may be.

Stanley Kunitz (essay date 1949)

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SOURCE: "News of the Root," in A Kind of Order, a Kind of Folly: Essays and Conversations, Little, Brown and Company, 1975, pp. 83-6.

[An American poet and critic, Kunitz won the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his Selected Poems, 1928-1958. His work is skillfully crafted, incorporating rhythms of natural speech, and evidencing a fine ear for the musical cadence of phrases. Often considered metaphysical, his poetry is intensely personal, exploring the mystery of self and the intricacies of time. In the following review, which originally appeared in Poetry in 1949, Kunitz enthusiastically endorses Roethke's poetic style in The Lost Son, and Other Poems, finding that "The ferocity of Roethke's imagination makes most contemporary poetry seem pale and tepid in contrast. "]

With The Lost Son, Theodore Roethke confirms what some of us have long suspected: that he stands among the original and powerful contemporary poets. In this remarkable collection he undertakes a passionate and relentless exploration of the sources of a life. The two major sections consist of a sequence of thirteen short poems that might be described, roughly, as botanical studies, and a quartet of long poems that are the record of a psychic adventure, the poet's quest of himself. For critical purposes the book needs to be examined as a whole: almost everything in it proliferates from a single root-cluster of images.

A greenhouse is the country of Roethke's childhood, the inevitable place of his return. This world under glass where, as a boy, small among "the lovely diminutives," he grubbed, weeded, pruned, transplanted, is bound in with his family, for whom it was, presumably, an economic as well as a physical center of gravity. In one of his most successful poems, which illustrates the naked precision and force of his vocabulary, he celebrates the ordeal of the greenhouse in the big wind, when he stayed with it all night, stuffing the holes with burlap. To him the structure, as will be seen, is not a thing; it has gender and personality; on this specific occasion it excites his admiration—he speaks of it con amore:

But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She have into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm
She sailed into the calm morning,
Carrying her full cargo of roses.

The horticultural aspects of Roethke's work should be clearly defined. What absorbs his attention is not the intricate tracery of a leaf or the blazonry of the completed flower, but the stretching and reaching of a plant, its green force, its invincible Becoming.

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?

I do not wish to give the impression that Roethke's greenhouse world is rosy, innocent, optimistic. On the contrary, it swarms with malevolent forces. It is a place of scums, mildews, and smuts; of slug-soft stems; of obscenely lolling forms; a place moist and rank ("what a congress of stinks!"), engulfing, horribly fecund. The delicate slips keep coaxing up water; the sprouts break out, slippery as fish. Suddenly we are under ground, under water, in a grave, in a womb, in the deep ponds of the subconscious; plunged like Caliban into our creature-self; enduring the foetal throes. Underness is everywhere:

As Roethke, with an almost nightmarish compulsiveness, makes his descent into the mythic regions of Father Fear and Mother Mildew, a furious energy activates his language; his metaphors whirl alive, sucking epithets into their centers of disturbance from the periphery of the phrase; his rhythms wrench themselves out of the fixed patterns of his earlier style and become protean, incantatory, organic; what will not submit itself to him he takes by storm, if he cannot take it by magic. The child encountered "under the concrete benches, Hacking at black hairy roots,—Those lewd monkey-tails hanging from drainholes," might serve as an image of the poet himself at his creative labor.

The ferocity of Roethke's imagination makes most contemporary poetry seem pale and tepid in contrast. Even his wit is murderous. He does not strain for cleverness, but he can achieve a concentration of phrase that is as brilliant as it is violent: "Dogs of the groin barked and howled"… "You will find no comfort here, In the Kingdom of bang and blab"… "I have married my hands to perpetual agitation, I run, I run to the whistle of money." His imagination is predominantly tactile and auditory (subject at times to the vice of echolalia). He is so aware of the transformations of the self that much of his imagery is palpably metamorphic: "This wind gives me scales, Have mercy, gristle"… "Call off the dogs, my paws are gone." At this depth of sensibility, far below the level of the rational, language itself breaks down, reverting to a kind of inspired nonsense, expressive of the childhood of the race as well as of the individual:

Rich me cherries a fondling's kiss,
The summer bumps of ha:
Hand me a feather, I'll fan you warm,
I'm happy with my paws.

Roethke's first volume, Open House (1941), was praised, deservedly, for its lyric resourcefulness, its technical proficiency, its ordered sensibility. The present collection, by virtue of its indomitable creativeness and audacity, includes much more chaos in its cosmos; it is difficult, heroic, moving, and profoundly disquieting. What Roethke brings us in these pages is news of the root, of the minimal, of the primordial. The sub-human is given tongue; and the tongue proclaims the agony of coming alive, the painful miracle of growth. Here is a poetry born of the maelstrom. It would seem that Roethke has reached the limits of exploration in this direction, that the next step beyond must be either silence or gibberish. Yet the daemon is with him, and there is no telling what surprises await us. I find it significant and highly encouraging that the volume ends triumphantly, luminously, with a thrust upward into "the whole air," into the "pierce of angels":

To follow the drops sliding from a lifted oar,
Held up, while the rower breathes, and the small boat drifts quietly shoreward;
To know that light falls and fills, often without our knowing.
As an opaque vase fills to the brim from a quick pouring,
Fills and trembles at the edge yet does not flow over.
Still holding and feeding the stem of the contained flower.

Further Reading

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Seager, Allan. The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke. 1968. Reprint. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1991, 301 p.

The only book-length biography on Roethke, written by a friend who was a distinguished novelist. Roethke's bibliographers James McLeod and Judith Sylte have stated: "Although critical consensus suggests that Seager's work is far from satisfactory, it remains an important point of reference in the developing critical understanding of Roethke's art" (Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 2, Gale Research).


Blessing, Richard Allen. Theodore Roethke's Dynamic Vision. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974, 240 p.

Asserting that Roethke "experienced life in terms of speed, energy, whirl—as unceasing and often violent motion," Blessing attempts to ascertain "by what techniques Theodore Roethke was able to present dynamism successfully in a work of art."

Burke, Kenneth. "The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke." Sewanee Review 58 (January-March 1950): 68-108.

Seminal essay on Roethke. Burke contends that Roethke uses simplicity, concrete language, and tangible nature imagery in such a way as to lend a symbolic and mystical depth to his subjects.

Heyen, William, ed. Profile of Theodore Roethke. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1971, 116 p.

Including pieces by Kenneth Burke, Delmore Schwarz, and Stanley Kunitz, this collection, observes Heyen, contains "some of the most perceptive estimates of Roethke's achievement." Furthermore, Heyen has selected material that is not readily or conveniently available.

Hoey, Allen. "Some Metrical and Rhythmical Strategies in the Early Poems of Roethke." Concerning Poetry 15, No. 1 (Spring 1982): 49-58.

Studies the use of traditional meter and rhyme in Roethke's early poems in order to better understand the techniques employed in his free verse.

Kunitz, Stanley. A Kind of Order, a Kind of Folly: Essays and Conversations. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975, 320 p.

Includes four essays on Roethke: a reminiscence, a review of The Lost Son, and Other Poems, an explication of the poem "In a Dark Time," and a discussion entitled "Poet of Transformations" about the motif of change in Roethke's poetry.

La Belle, Jenijoy. The Echoing Wood of Theodore Roethke. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976, 174 p.

La Belle attempts to determine "why Roethke saw himself to be writing in the tradition of certain poems and poets, how he established his own cultural tradition, and what effect this tradition had upon his achievement as a poet."

Malkoff, Karl. Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966, 245 p.

Comprehensive survey of Roethke's work. According to Malkoff, it is best not to approach the poetry poem-by-poem, because Roethke "created a world in terms of a consistent and obsessive symbolism, which links poems and often makes them dependent on each other for full understanding."

Mazarro, Jerome. "The Failure of Language: Theodore Roethke." In his Postmodern American Poetry, pp. 59-84. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980.

States the Roethke was confronted throughout his career with the failure of language to adequately bridge the gap between his internal life and the external world.

Mills, Ralph J., Jr. "Theodore Roethke." In his Seven American Poets from MacLeish to Nemerov: An Introduction, edited by Denis Donoghue, pp. 92-131. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1963.

An overview of Roethke's works and literary themes. According to Mills, "His art shows this poet's will to extend himself, to try his skill and imagination at every turn, and his growth was organic and true."

Nelson, Cary. "The Field Where Water Flowers: Theodore Roethke's 'North American Sequence'." In his Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry, pp. 31-61. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.

In the preface to his book, Nelson states that "my analysis of 'North American Sequence' shows it to be a major accomplishment, however flawed. I also argue… that in 'North American Sequence' Roethke's self-prized naiveté becomes a highly self-conscious verbal artifice."

Parini, Jay. Theodore Roethke: An American Romantic. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, 203 p.

Claiming that Roethke was a Romantic, Parini demonstrates that "Roethke saw himself as working within a great tradition, modifying and extending it after his own fashion…. His work abounds in references to Blake, Wordsworth, and Yeats, especially, but my stress is upon the American quality of his Romanticism with Emerson and Whitman as primary ancestors, with Stevens as a strong contemporary influence."

Scott, Nathan A. Jr. "The Example of Roethke." In his The Wild Prayer of Longing: Poetry and the Sacred, pp. 76-118. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971.

Finds that Roethke is perhaps the most "sacramental" contemporary American poet because "almost everywhere, it seems, the poet's voice is lifted up in jubilant alleluias announcing 'the soul's immediate joy' and praising the glory and greatness of the world."

Snodgrass, W. D. "That Anguish of Concreteness': Theodore Roethke's Career." In his In Radical Pursuit: Critical Essays and Lectures, pp. 101-16. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Maintains that Roethke's experimentation with verse forms and conventions paralleled his ongoing struggle to come to terms with his self-identity.

Stein, Arnold, ed. Theodore Roethke: Essays on the Poetry. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965, 199 p.

A collection of important early pieces on Roethke by notable figures such as the poets Stephen Spender, John Wain, William Meredith, and W. D. Snodgrass.

Sullivan, Rosemary. Theodore Roethke: The Garden Master. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975, 220 p.

Approaches Roethke's work chronologically but, through constant reference to "those images, ideas, memories, and obsessions that constitute the core of his creative personality," emphasizes the continuing development of his poetry.

Vernon, John. "Theodore Roethke." In his The Garden and the Map: Schizophrenia in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture, pp. 159-90. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Declaring in the preface to this volume that Western culture is "schizophrenic" because "it chooses to fragment its experience and seal certain areas off from each other," Vernon claims that Roethke's poetry offers a remedy: a vision of "a totally unrepressed world in which all things open upon each other and exist in a kind of intimate erotic community."

Additional coverage of Roethke's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 8, 11, 19, 46; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5; and Major 20th-century Writers.

Richard Eberhart (essay date 1951)

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SOURCE: "Deep, Lyrical Feelings," in The New York Times Book Review, December 16, 1951, p. 4.

[Eberhart is a highly regarded lyric poet whose verse examines fundamental questions about the nature of existence. His poems typically evoke quotidian images that illuminate conflicts between emotion and intellect, innocence and experience, chaos and order, and the spiritual and physical realms. Below, Eberhart uses the occasion of a review of Praise to the End! to extol Roethke's skill as a poet.]

Theodore Roethke joins the ranks of the pure poets. His power is that his offering is clean-cut. His verse is pure. It is totally sensuous, totally personal, and his vision is totally contained. His poetry is not based on schematized intellectualism but on blood-felt reports of sense experience known in memory, transmuted by imagination.

The limitation of his work makes for its purity and acts as a conscious good. The out-thrust and the in-check are held in a strong, positive balance. It is a highly lyrical style.

Roethke gives us the new, age-old excitement of a true poet uttering the feelings, the meanings deepest in him, in his own peculiar way, driven by compulsive force.

The verse is an incantation, a celebration—and it is often playful. Roethke is an interior monologist forever inviting his soul to the Self. He has delved into obscurest childhood and in mature complexity has drawn up marvels of tonal simplicity and penetration, gnomic flashes, witty self-criticisms, curious neologisms, all bestowed with fountainlike exuberance. His verbalism suggests Swinburne but a more resilient Swinburne of the times.

One of the rewarding feelings he gives in his sense of strict economy and control. He has defined a world and mastered that world, a maker of magic combinations. It is an inner accurate world of feeling, not an outer world of things.

[Praise to the End!] reprints four fairly long poems, now well known, from The Lost Son: "The Lost Son," "The Long Alley," "A Field of Light" and "The Shape of the Fire." The early greenhouse pieces are not reprinted and all of the new poems are shaped like the above-mentioned ones, have their type of tone and intention and deal with similar subject-matter. The title poem, "Unfold! Unfold!" and "I Cry, Love! Love!" all have characteristic riches of device and make for uniform excellence throughout the book.

Some lines at random may serve to show the glint and thrust of the verse: "Fishing, I caught myself behind the ears!" "I was far back, farther than anybody else," "Speak to the stones, and the stars answer," "To have the whole air!" "Hello, thingy spirits," "I proclaim once more a condition of joy." The very next line to this brings in the critical, mocking, humorous spirit: "Walk into the wind, willie!"

Louise Bogan (essay date 1952)

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SOURCE: A review of Praise to the End!, in The New Yorker, Vol. XXVII, No. 53, February 16, 1952, pp. 107-08.

[In the following excerpt, Bogan compares Roethke's poetry to that of Richard Eberhart and applauds the symbolism that Roethke employs in Praise to the End! to suggest the journey from childhood into mature consciousness.]

When Goethe stated that the shudder expressed mankind's best side, he was thinking not of the Gothic atmosphere fashionable in his day so much as of the general feeling of awe at the mysteries of the universe, to which the most hardened materialist is not entirely immune. In modern poetry, this larger emotion is rare indeed; the whole emotional set of the period is against it. The Gothic shudder, on the other hand, appears with fair regularity. The Surrealists revived it while exploiting the dark marvels of the subconscious, and traces of Surrealist influence continue to crop up in modern verse, although the movement, on the whole, is exhausted…. [Poets] who have published recent volumes illustrate the methods—precarious at best and open to failure more than to sucess—by which the modern imagination tries to project feelings of mystery and awe.

One method involves a putting on of masks, or personae, through which the poet speaks….

Richard Eberhart, on the other hand, is a poet who can turn the cube of reality (in William James' phrase) so that another facet comes into view. At his best, he does this with the mystic's ease. His Selected Poems finally brings his gifts into focus. Eberhart, possessing the innocent unself-consciousness of one to whom the spirit is a reality, in earlier volumes displayed the faults of his virtues: tendencies toward diffuseness of language and dilution of idea. The poems in this collection are concentrated, both in mood and form, and the total effect is remarkable…. Eberhart continues to be original because his vision is constantly self-refreshing, and he needs no masks to enhance either his meaning or his impact.

If Theodore Roethke's poetry in Praise to the End! seems at first glance more consciously produced than Eberhart's, it is soon evident that the two poets share an unforced power of imaginative penetration into the obscure, the hidden, and the inarticulate, and that they are both capable of that larger awe of which Goethe spoke. Roethke has added several long poems to passages from The Lost Son, published a few years ago, and these additions accent his original theme—the journey from the child's primordial subconscious world, through the regions of adult terror, guilt, and despair, toward a final release into the freedom of conscious being. Roethke's description of this progress attaches itself to recognizable myth and legend hardly at all; his rendition of sub- or pre-conscious world is filled with coiling and uncoiling, nudging and creeping images that often can be expressed only with the aid of nonsense and gibberish. But it is witty nonsense and effective gibberish, since the poet's control over this difficult material is always formal; he knows exactly when to increase and when to decrease pressure, and he comes to a stop just before the point of monotony is reached. Behind Roethke's method exists the example of Joyce, but Roethke has invented a symbolism, in his searching out of these terrors, marginal to our consciousness, that is quite his own.

Hayden Carruth (essay date 1953)

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SOURCE: "The Idiom Is Personal," in The New York Times Book Review, September 13, 1953, p. 14.

[Carruth is a well-respected and prolific American poet whose verse is frequently autobiographical, varied in mood and form, and noted for its unadorned and precise language. His literary criticism, which is collected in such volumes as Working Papers (1982) and Effluences from the Sacred Cave (1983), is recognized for its directness and tolerance. In the following review, Carruth declares Roethke's poetic voice in The Waking original.]

Above all others, Theodore Roethke is a poet to encourage and comfort us in our valley of literary conformism. He leads us back to the surprising upland. He makes us realize how rapidly our literature is flowing toward a dead center of accredited modernity. Worse, he makes us acknowledge, with a disconcerting twinge, that the grand oldsters, the experimentalists of the Twenties and the decade before, have been living on their original investments for thirty years or more, and that today experimental writing has been forfeited to juniority and dunderdom—the forlorn margin.

Roethke himself is, of course, the exception. He has turned, after a long apprenticeship in the techniques of standard English verse, to a personal idiom and a compressed, exclamatory line. He does not always avoid the pitfall of obscurity, but his writing is certainly more interesting and more provocative than any other current poetry. The Waking, which is a collection from his previous books plus a section of new poems, shows his development with remarkable clarity.

The author was forced into his later period by the demands of his subject. Among his earlier poems, the most interesting are those which evoke his childhood, his life as the son of a florist—i.e., a grower, not a seller, of flowers. These are poems of groping roots, straining tendrils, the turmoil of growth in a steamy greenhouse. From this Roethke passed to a consideration of all primitive life, the dark life of weed and minnow at the bottom of a woodland pond, the equally dark life of children.

The most interesting of Roethke's recent poems are those written from the point of view of a child. Usually children's sayings are a source of fun: when a child says something that sounds adult—or when a monkey smokes a cigar—we laugh. But Roethke's child says: "A kitten can / Bite with his feet: / Papa and Mamma / Have more teeth." This is the child's own intelligence which lives on in all of us; he is our spokesman for a fearful and murderous heritage.

Psychoanalysts have been telling us this for years, of course, but the poet has an advantage. Roethke gives us the actual experience of the child's insight. His poetry, far from being clinical, conveys the power and often the beauty that are only possible in the world of the imagination.

Hilton Kramer (essay date 1954)

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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Theodore Roethke," in Western Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, Winter, 1954, pp. 131-46.

[Kramer is a prominent art critic who has served on the staff of such journals as Arts Digest, Arts Magazine, Nation, New Leader, New Criterion, and the New York Times. In the following essay, which focuses primarily on the collection Praise to the End!, Kramer maintains that Roethke's treatment of prerational existence represents "the expression of a new primitivism. "]

Theodore Roethke is probably the most original poet to appear in America since the twenties. This is not always the highest praise for a poet, especially for an American poet of the last two decades. We know how often this "originality" means only Kenneth Patchen's rearrangement of the typography, or some new promiscuity with commas after the manner of José Garcia Villa. And further, it is not the kind of praise we are likely to reserve, say, for the poetry of Robert Lowell, one of the few poets of Roethke's generation who makes such large demands on our attention. But in Roethke's situation, it is large praise to make a claim for his originality. It is a situation which, until only a few decades ago, was quite unknown to American poets. We must refresh our memories to the fact (we are still so unused to it) that with the generation of poets which includes Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Crane, Moore, Cummings, Frost, Ransom, Tate, and Williams, we had for the first time in American poetry a spectacle of talents which allows us to speak without embarrassment of a renaissance. But the poet coming after such a generation must have the most ambivalent feelings about it: surely a kind of joy, even pride, that at last an American poet does not have to begin at the beginning all over again, that at last he can continue in a tradition which, though it does not provide him with what the French tradition supplied Baudelaire and Valéry, at least gives him some foundations (even Dickinson, Whitman, and Melville are recovered for the purpose); and surely, as well, a kind of despair at having so much to cope with in that perennial part of the poet's labor which always consists of, somehow, despite the usability of the past, beginning over again anew.

It seems to me that the two poets who emerge from this situation with the greatest success are Roethke and Lowell. And they are vastly different from each other. Lowell's poetry has been more readily accepted and understood because it seems to be in the genre of so much of the poetry (of the past and of the present) which forms the basis of our literary values. This does not mean that his poetry is derivative in the bad sense or that his style is not his own, but it does mean that his literary education (which is always a fund of values from the preceding generation) exercises a very special discipline on his writing and that his successes are the outcome of his struggle with this education, successes usually achieved by transforming something from the past into something new. And it is this past, this sense of history—New England history, Christian history, the history of his literary taste—which seems to give his poems their authority and power.

Roethke's poetry seems, if anything, to concern itself with pre-history. About his language, we can only guess, we are so uneducated to it: my guess is that it is the loose diction of a view which has not yet learned to recognize human moral history as anything separate from life as a primordial whole. Roethke had somehow to come up with a language which would not only render, but also itself be the medium of, the pre-rational. Lowell's poetry is bound to have a greater range, for that is what history is: the whole range of life as we recognize it objectively. And the sensibility which limits itself to a pre-historical sense of life, to all the urgent struggle which attends those stages by which the psyche seeks to free itself from the bondage (and the security) of its first dwelling place (the slime, the womb) and to commit itself sorrowfully to its destiny in the world of history—this view is bound to seem limited in comparison. Pre-history is a single episode in the human drama; whereas history, however motley or schematic its content, is a spectacle of great variety.

Roethke's first volume of poems, Open House, appeared in 1941. It was a brilliant book, notable for its clarity and humor; and although there were some influences rather heavily in evidence, such as Auden's in the poem called "Lull (November, 1939)" Roethke's style already announces itself. It is a style which is unencumbered by any distracting decorative elements; a style whose spare language delivers its poems to the reader with an admirable directness.

These qualities, of course, are characteristic of Roethke's style in his later volumes, The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948) and Praise to the End! (1951), but in a different way. What separates the poems in Open House and some of the shorter poems in the second volume from the later works is the changed relationship between language and subject. The sensibility of the earlier poems is the poet's; there is very little recourse to a persona, such as the child-figure in "The Lost Son" (and the cycle of poems in which it takes its place). Thus, language in these earlier poems has, as it were, a more conventional relationship to subject: it deals with this or that subject, calling attention to itself as little as possible. The storms, the landscapes, the emotions even, which occur in these poems are "objective," that is, they exist in the observable world, the world which our reason unfolds to us in waking experience. But in the later cycle of poems, first appearing in The Lost Son and Other Poems and brought together as a group in Praise to the End!, all this has changed. Here language and subject collide; they merge; and what we have as a result is the language which Roethke has created for a subject which does not ordinarily have a language.

The title of Praise to the End! is taken from Wordsworth. It appears in Book I of The Prelude in a passage which, if it does not anticipate Roethke's destination exactly, does presage the subject which is explored in these extraordinary poems. It is a passage in which Wordsworth interrupts his account of the education which the spirit receives in the hands of nature to acknowledge the antithesis between harmony (that "dark / Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles / Discordant elements") and the will to dissolution ("The terrors, pains, and early miseries, / Regrets, vexations, lasstudes") which characterizes the journey of the psyche in this world. And it is well to invoke the name of Wordsworth here, if only to recall the dilemma which he confronts so heroically and philosophically—not a dilemma only but an impasse, which recognizes that the world in which we find ourselves, its physical monstrousness and its moral chaos, and our own essential sense of life, above all the sense of life presided over by our feelings, are completely at odds.

Moreover, we should also recall the essential place which Wordsworth gives the child in his effort to recover a meaningful life of the emotions, and not the child only but, childhood itself in all its intimate identification with the life of nature. This identification has, for Wordsworth, both its maternal and its natural side, one not separated from the other. It is an image of childhood which in Roethke's poems is always in the memory, so to speak, as the hint of a lost Eden, and for which there is a great deal of filial longing. These are the lines, from another book of The Prelude, which gave the image in all its ideality:

No outcast he, bewildered and depressed:
Along his infant veins are interfused
The gravitation and the filial bond
Of nature that connect him with the world.

But the child who appears in Roethke's poems, sometimes as an immediate sensibility and sometimes as a recollection, is a lost child, a child without connections any longer, a child-hero wandering in the darkness of the soul to redeem what it has lost. There is an observation in Jung's essay on "The Psychology of the Child-Archetype" which has great relevance here. Jung is discussing the plight of the child-hero, and says,

The hero's main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness: the long-hoped-for and expected triumph of consciousness over the unconscious. Day and light are synonyms for consciousness, night and dark for the unconscious. The coming of consciousness was probably the most tremendous experience of primeval times, for with it a world came into being whose existence no one had suspected before… Hence the 'child' distinguishes itself by deeds which point to the conquest of the dark.

This, stated in psychological terms, is also a moral effort, and the world "whose existence no one had suspected" is, of course, the moral world.

The Wordsworthian effort is not without its falsifications, however. And we are, I believe, naturally inclined to view skeptically a performance on a tight-rope which is fastened at one end to the reconstructed intuitions of a child and at the other to the perceptions of a philosophical poet writing in his middle age about the recovery of child-like intuitions. Wordsworth manages to survive the falsifications, but his success does not diminish our skepticism.

Roethke also addresses himself to the Wordsworthian subject: the spirit's education in the world of nature, and the recovery of human feelings. I remarked earlier that Roethke's poetry dwells on the pre-rational and the pre-historical sense of life, which is to say that he pursues the Wordsworthian subject into sources more primeval than Wordsworth intended. And in carrying out this pursuit, of course, he parts company with Wordsworth, he leaves behind the serenity and philosophic discretion of Wordsworth's language; he chooses to take a lonely way and he can take very little with him.

Although several of the poems in Praise to the End! appeared in an earlier volume, the series here does seem to form a coherent development, which, stated most generally, is something like this: the first-person protagonist, frequently speaking out in anguished exclamations, nonsense songs, frenzied invocations, and even moments of contemplation, begins in a situation of death and desolation, undergoes the agony of coming alive again and of perceiving the world anew, and then ends with what is, however minimal and primitive, a vision of the triumph of life. Or to state it at an even more generalized level: these poems constitute the action of a soul undergoing its night-journey.

This general schema, while necessary, hardly gives any impression of the special kind of drama which takes place in each poem, of course. Probably no one since Saint Francis has lived so intimately with the sub-human forms of life, has had such an intense spiritual identification with them—and this, without personification and easy fableizing. From the first, this intimacy and identification are achieved through the vehicle of the child-figure; and recurrently this figure, its innocent sensibility and its direct responses, is developed into, replaced by, and played off against, the memory of childhood and the agonized moment when the protagonist undergoes a kind of exalted "second childhood" of the emotions.

In the first poem of the group, "Where Knock Is Open Wide," the protagonist is the child-figure. Roethke has elsewhere provided this note on the poem: "The earliest piece of all (in terms of the age of the protagonist) is written entirely from the viewpoint of a very small child: all interior drama; no comment; no interpretation." Here, even more strictly than in other poems, though it is one of the chief characteristics of his whole work, all intellectual matter is suppressed. The drama is the death of the father, and the "events" of the poems are perceptions and memories in which parental love and the security of home are jeopardized or in some moment of crisis. An uncle dies:

I know who's got him
They'll jump on his belly,
He won't be an angel,
I don't care either.

There is the memory of the child fishing with his father:

We went by the river.
Water birds went ching. Went ching.
Stepped in wet. Over stones.
One, his nose had a frog,
But he slipped out.
I was sad for a fish.
Don't hit him on the boat, I said.
Look at him puff. He's trying to talk.

Papa threw him back.

Bullheads have whiskers.
And they bite.

And there is the image of the father tending his greenhouse ("my symbol for the whole of life," Roethke has said):

He watered the roses.
His thumb had a rainbow.
The stems said, Thank you.
Dark came early.

This last line is a typical example of how Roethke can use the short line, the brief statement, to mean a great deal. Dark came early: the dark is death, and to this child, darkness has occurred early in life. Moreover, there is a momentary glimpse of the future and the wandering which the knowledge of death prefigures:

Nowhere is out. I saw the cold.
Went to visit the wind. Where the birds die.
How high is have?

And here we have another Roethkean habit: verb forms, prepositions, the most unlikely parts of speech, suddenly transformed in a Cummings-esque manner into conditions and situations. How high is have?: how high (in the sky? out of reach?) is have (to have a father? God?). Here the drama has really become words: it is as if Mallarmé's admonition to Degas—"Mais, Degas, ce n'est pas avec des idées qu 'on fait des vers, c'est avec des mots "—had finally been heeded by the proper poet. It is indeed a poetry of words, words passionately wedded to their objects but totally divorced from telling any "anecdote" in the conventional way.

The poem concludes with a section in which is announced a whole cluster of motifs which recur throughout the entire series. And central to these is the figure of the father (now dead), presiding over his greenhouse (his home, too), as the earthly analogue of God the Father (now lost) presiding over all of life:

Kisses came back,
I said to Papa;
He was all whitey bones
And skin like paper.

God's somewhere else,
I said to Mamma.
The evening came
A long long time.

I'm somebody else now.
Don't tell my hands.
Have I come to always? Not yet.
One father is enough.

Maybe God has a house.
But not here.

The second poem, "I Need, I Need," opens with the child's problematic relation to his mother (as always, the relations are rendered physically):

A deep dish. Lumps in it,
I can't taste my mother.

And there are images of a child's odd mourning, with the beginnings of those invocations which eventually (in later poems, when the protagonist is no longer a child) become the most intense moments of anguish:

Went down cellar,
Talked to a faucet;
The drippy water
Had nothing to say.

Whisper me over,
Why don't you, begonia,
There's no alas
Where I live.

And to the child there are also intimations of his dead father (and of God?): "Today I saw a beard in a cloud."

With the third poem, "Bring the Day," begins the dark journey of growth, and this I think we must understand to be a double image: both the child's growth imaginatively recollected by the protagonist and the spiritual growth, symbolically rendered, of the protagonist himself. The final movement of the poem exclaims this beginning (are there so many exclamations in all modern poetry?), and what follows this beginning will all be episodes in the journey:

O small bird wakening,
Light as a hand among blossoms,
Hardly any old angels are around any more.
The air's quiet under the small leaves.
The dust, the long dust, stays.
The spiders sail into summer.
It's time to begin!
To begin!

In "Give Way, Ye Gates"—the title itself initiates a group of images, gates, caves, doors, etc., suggesting departures and returns, exits and entrances, not without erotic meanings—the protagonist enters into the underworld of subhuman and pre-rational forms of life, and carries on his dark romance with what we might call (after a recent poem by Anthony Hecht): la condition botanique. There is a constant shuttling back and forth between the vegetative life, the hero's identification with it ("I bleed like a tree"), and the sexual awakening which marks the passage out of childhood, an awakening intimated or observable everywhere in nature, everywhere celebrated with spontaneity, except in the human animal:

You tree beginning to know,
You whisper of kidneys,
We'll swinge the instant!—
With jots and jogs and cinders on the floor:
The sea will be there, the great squashy shadows,

Biting themselves perhaps;
The shrillest frogs;
And the ghost of some great howl
Dead in a wall.
In the high-noon of thighs,
In the spring-time of stones,
We'll stretch with the great stems.
We'll be at the business of what might be
Looking toward what we are.

But at the moment of awakening, of perceiving "what we are," there is the sudden regression back into the dark world, into the slime, the sub-human. La condition botanique and la condition humaine—these are the terms in the dialectic (if I may be permitted so intellectual a description of what is at every point a physical, albeit symbolical, drama) which contains the action. And from this point onwards there is no real "progress" in the action, only the variations and elaborations which assert themselves in terms of this antithesis, until the end.

The longest, most elaborate poem in the group, "The Lost Son," occurs midway in the series, and seems to contain within its condensed form the whole spectrum of the series' action and of the larger action of the human psyche which it dramatises. The poem's narrative line (if it can be called such) is indicated by the four subtitles: The Flight, The Pit, The Gibber, The Return. The final movement of the poem is untitled, and contains the quiet meditation of a soul waiting to re-enter the world. The flight into the dark regions of sub-human life, into the sources of life, recalls Roethke's reading in fairy tale and folklore (I do not mean literary allusions à la Eliot but dramatic and symbolic equivalents):

At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron,
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding in wells.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home.
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

And there are compulsive invocations for some kind of other, further life:

Voice, come out of the silence.
Say something.
Appear in the form of a spider
Or a moth beating the curtain.

Tell me:
Which is the way I take;
Out of what door do I go,
Where and to whom?

There is then a moment in the Pit, a moment of immobility; and then the long Gibber, a frenzied movement of erotic agonies, filial uncertainties, economic doubts, and a whole drama of disconcerted anguish. There begins a hint of the life into which the Lost Son might be reborn:

At the wood's mouth,
By the cave's door,
I listened to something
I had heard before.

This expectancy is then restated in terms of sexual arousal, then disappointed:

Dogs of the groin
Barked and howled,
The sun was against me,
The moon would not have me.

The disappointment and loss are then transferred into filial anxiety and homelessness:

Hath the rain a father? All the caves are ice. Only the snow's here.
I'm cold. I'm cold all over. Rub me in father and mother.

There follows a frenetic questioning, implorations for some explanation of the growth which the hero feels taking place everywhere around him:

Is this the storm's heart? The ground is unstilling itself.
My veins are running nowhere. Do the bones cast out their fire?
Is the seed leaving the old bed? These buds are live as birds.

And even the economic motif is sounded, perhaps in a sudden intuition of the material world toward which this journey is moving:

Good-bye, good-bye, old stones, the time-order is going,
I have married my hands to perpetual agitation,
I run, I run to the whistle of money.

The Gibber finally ends in "a dark swirl."

The Return is pictured in closely autobiographical images generalized into a scene of homecoming. The return of the Lost Son to his father's greenhouse is both the return to his home and to life. Moreover, there is a dramatic heightening in this image of homecoming: the tension, never stated explicitly, between this image as a final stage in the action (and therefore as objective dramatization of a certain situation of the soul) and the image as a memory of the hero's (and the poet's) childhood. It is an image of Return which is depicted, with the kind of spiritual solidarity for la condition botanique exhibited throughout the poems, in terms of the greenhouse flowers giving themselves up to the light (which is their source of life) after their nocturnal drowse:

A fine haze moved off the leaves;
Frost melted on far panes;

The rose, the chrysanthemum turned toward the light.
Even the hushed forms, the bent yellowy weeds
Moved in a slow up-sway.

The expectancy evidenced everywhere in the poem, and especially given an alarming urgency in the Gibber, reaches its final transformation, in the last section, into a philosophic detachment. For once, there is not only the physical drama of the senses, the touching, knocking, stretching, and pushing of the physical life, but also the larger view, the view of the whole spiritual landscape:

It was beginning winter,
An in-between time,
The landscape still partly brown:
The bones of weeds kept swinging in the wind,
Above the blue snow.

And there is in this vision of the landscape an intuition of light, of the light which divides the day from the night, which heralds birth, which symbolizes the dawning of knowledge:

Light traveled over the field;
The weeds stopped swinging.
The wind moved, not alone,
Through the clear air, in the silence.

And then these final lines which signal the moment of recovered life:

A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
Be still.

In trying to relate the symbolic action which underlies the literal action of this poem (and others), I have quoted extensively to guard against the impression that this poetry does not have a firm basis in literal images and actions. I can think of no poet, in fact, who is more literal than Roethke; it is his literality which strikes the reader from the first; and after the symbolic levels rise to the surface, and expand and transform our understanding of the literal, it is still the literal which impresses us above all, and which survives to haunt our minds, in which are now embedded forms of odd living things we hardly expected to contemplate.

The remaining poems in the series seem less self-contained, and although I would not want to suggest that they lack uniqueness, I think they might legitimately be taken as larger foci of actions already observed. (Some of the titles indicate this: "The Long Alley," A Field of Light," "Praise to the End!," "Unfold! Unfold!," etc.)

However, there is an image in one of these later poems (it occurs in "The Shape of the Fire" and is echoed many times elsewhere) over which we might pause, for it contains something essential to Roethke's whole order of symbolic perception:

To be by the rose
Rising slowly out of its bed,
Still as a child in its first loneliness.

The image is of the growth of the flower in all its stages: the flower's emergence out of the earth—"Rising slowly out of its bed"—(the underworld, the sources of life, the dark) and its development into the blossom, its becoming a flower, always in this growth nourishing itself on and straining itself toward the light, at last finding its place in the whole scheme of life. This is Roethke's metaphorical paradigm for the struggle to be reborn into the world. The pattern is the flower's cyclical rebirth into the light. It is a paradigm of resurrection.

But it is a paradigm which we shall do well to observe with some misgivings once we have regarded its implications. The destination of the natural cycle which it recalls is not the complex moment of adult sensibility; it must be observed that despite the omnipresence of light imagery in Roethke's poems there is no suggestion whatever that this light embodies or encourages the light of the rational faculties, and there are some forceful lines in the final poem in the series which strengthen quite the opposite view:

Reason? That dreary shed, that hutch for grubby schoolboys!
The hedgewren's song says something else.

We have in this trope of the child and the rose, rather, a saddened and reduced version of the Wordsworthian image: the stillness of "a child in its first loneliness." That is, the destination is the moment of immobility which looks back at the life of childhood and ahead to further growth. But this immobility, indeed displaced in other poems by sheer exhaustion, is the very margin of the paradigm which Roethke evokes; it is as far as he goes in the recovery of human feelings, and the burden of his intuitions is wholly within the limits of this view.

Rilke in one of his letters remarks: "… inside my life something is stirring, my soul is about to learn something, it is beginning with new rudiments…. Perhaps I shall now learn to become a little human…," and in these words he locates, with that extraordinary facility he had for apprehending the dark moments of the soul, a stage in a journey to which the whole of Praise to the End! is devoted. It is a stage which has a formidable attractiveness about it, indeed—the theological term at least underscores what is at stake—a temptation. It is a stage at which Rilke himself did not stop, and at which Wordsworth had no interest in stopping. But it is a stage which a significant number of novelists of Roethke's generation have occupied themselves with, and it is the stage at which Roethke does stop in these poems. Moreover, it is a stage which celebrates la condition botanique as an ideal, if only by default, salvaging from Romanticism a certain kind of melancholy and nostalgia for the pre-rational.

But before examining the implications of this view, I should like to advance a further observation to guard against some likely misunderstandings of Roethke's achievement.

Nearly all of the intellection in Roethke's poetry has been suppressed, but we must resist the error of believing that there is no intellection here or that the poems are pure intuitions. To suppress intellection in a poem is in no way the same as omitting it altogether. Not so long ago readers made the error of supposing that because Baroque poetry suppressed the passions, the Baroque sensibility failed in its perception of human nature. This was a prejudice which for the Romantics was programmatic and tactical, but it is a prejudice we no longer countenance. What is more likely to impress us now is the extent to which the Baroque mind held the passionate life of man in awe—an awe which found its inverse expression in forms which were constructed with architectural fastidiousness to hold the passions in check. In Roethke's style, something like the opposite motive needs to be recognized. It is the rational which is regarded with a kind of awe (not dissociated from distrust and cynicism) and which is suppressed by means of a style in which the rational impulse is necessarily diminished and easily denigrated.

Nor should we make the error of believing that the suppression of intellection in Roethke's poetry, and its radical commitment to unadorned images of the physical world,—"That anguish of concreteness!"—is another tricky incarnation of Imagism. So far as I know, Imagism never had any profound intellection to suppress. It performed a service for poetry: it reminded poets that the image is not simply the decorative aspect of poetry but the very five senses by which poetry perceives the world. It was a profound service; it has had great results with poets who were themselves not Imagists, and Roethke is among them. But as a literary movement, Imagism was curiously mindless. And because it discarded all but the most elementary materials of the intellect, Imagist verse was incapable of all the virtues which are most significant in Roethke, all that we shall henceforth regard as most Roethkean. Above all, it was incapable of that fragment of the tragic view of life which Roethke has recreated.

Yet, in the face of this we must concede that the Imagist movement had somehow prepared us for Roethke, and that with whatever (albeit feeble) authority it has, it provides his poetry with another kind of validity and interest. Moreover, one of the principles which Imagism forced us to recover (it was more a gratuitous result than a real intention) was the notion that a trope is actually a judgment, that perception in a poem embodies an evaluation of the object or the experience perceived. This is a principle which must weigh heavily in a poetry like Roethke's in which there is so little recourse to non-tropological language, and it is a principle which must ultimately determine our judgment of it.

All of the characteristics of Roethke's style—its suppression of the intellect, its attention to what we can only call the life-force seeking to emerge into the objective world, its curious dialectical struggle between la condition botanique and la condition humaine, above all its effort to carry the Wordsworthian subject to a new extremity—all of this places upon us the burden of recognizing this poetry as the expression of a new primitivism. One does not enter willingly into a discussion of primitivism, for it is an area in which it is not difficult to speak nonsense. Writers as different as D. H. Lawrence and Gertrude Stein have been arraigned on this charge; and art criticism still fumbles (André Malraux is a notable exception) in making necessary distinctions between a great painter like Henri Rousseau and the folksy pictures of Grandma Moses, and between them and authentic primitive art, the art of primitive peoples. And futher, our notions of primitivism are peculiarly vulnerable to the modifications of history. Irving Babbitt charged Wordsworth with primitivism and wrote a long essay on the subject; but today we are more likely to find Wordsworth, as Lionel Trilling has suggested, hardly primitive enough.

I think this vulnerability is not simply a reflection of a change in the history of taste, though this it certainly is. More importantly, it is a reflection of the cultural crisis which calls primitivism into service in the first place: as we daily succumb to pressures which transform the primitivism of the past into the respectable culture of the present, we are pressed further to the margins of existence for any new notion of primitivism to play off, so to speak, against what we now accept as a matter of course.

It is in this light, I believe, that we shall have to understand Roethke's involvement with la condition botanique, for this would seem to be primitivism's final frontier. And it is not exactly foreign to the subject to inject the issue here, for Roethke himself in his notes on the opening movement of "The Lost Son" sounds the theme: "… the protagonist so geared-up, so over-alive that he is hunting, like a primitive, for some animistic suggestion, some clue to existence from the sub-human…. In a sense he goes in and out of rationality, he hangs in the balance between the human and animal." Of course, Roethke is discussing here only one passage in his most complex poem, but I think it hardly violates the context of the remark, or of the poem, to give these words a special importance, particularly as it is an observation which forces itself, sooner of later, on every attentive reader of Roethke's poetry; and also, since the primitive impulse is never actually transformed or resolved in the poem, but only modified, as I noted earlier, into an expectancy.

In assessing primitivism, we must make the distinction between those writers for whom the physical world does not cease to exist (though their values are not contained wholly within it) and who manage great success in depicting it in all its variousness and factuality, and writers for whom it is the only world which exists. Robinson Jeffers gives us the impression of being one of the latter, and I think it accounts for the lack of interest we show in him. Roethke is not one of the latter, but in committing his verse so drastically to the physical world he does somehow give the impression that it is the only world which survives, and in any case, it is chiefly that world which survives in our reading of him.

But we can extricate ourselves from some of the difficulties which Roethke's primitivism presents, I believe, if we arrive at this topic from, so to speak, the opposite direction. It is a direction which takes us full circle, which takes the view that despite the devotion with which Roethke concentrates on particulars and the sensuous intuition of objects, despite the suppression of intellection and the celebration of the visual and the tactile, (despite these, and because of them) Roethke's poetry is oddly abstract. Primitivism and abstraction—once they seemed to us polar opposites; and we have indeed come full circle when they meet in a single sensibility. (Still, we might remind ourselves that we can see, literally see, a similar convergence in the history of modern painting.) But what do we mean when we speak of abstraction in Roethke's poetry? I think Kenneth Burke has given the best answer to that question when he said, noting the antithesis we have observed, that, "Though Roethke has dealt always with very concrete things, there is a sense in which these very concretions are abstractions. Notably, the theme of sex in his poems has been highly generalized, however intensely felt…" ["The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke," Sewanee Review, January-March, 1950]. It is this habit of dealing with an object in its generalized form which constitutes abstraction in Roethke's poetry; even the narrator, the "I" of the poems, seems at moments so universalized that it is difficult to imagine him (I almost said, imagine it) as a particular and human I. And this disposition toward abstraction is part of Roethke's indifference to history as a medium of human actions. We noted earlier that in contrast to the poetry of Robert Lowell, Roethke's does not take history as its medium, and what it means is that the personality and objects in his poetry, regardless of their imagistic precision, have none of the roughness, limitations, and irregularities, none of the material identity, which we associate with personalities and objects whose universality is compromised by their location in the historical world. Both abstraction and primitivism suppress history, and thereby suppress the human image in which our values subsist.

I do not believe it necessarily violates our sense of the physical sources of life, or even our belief (if we share it with Santayana) in the physical sources of values, to want to dissent from this suppression of the human image. But we are saved from the need to dissent by Roethke's latest poems, which, though they are clearly the creations of the same sensibility, transform the primitive impulse into a vitalism more human and intense than anything Roethke had written before. I doubt if there are any poems more beautiful than Roethke's "The Partner" (Partisan Review, Sept.-Oct. 1952) and "The Wraith" (Hudson Review, Winter, 1953) being written by an American just now. Moreover, Roethke abandons some of his tendency toward abstraction in a poem like "Song for the Squeeze Box" (Hudson Review, Winter, 1953)—incidentally, a very funny poem. Thus, in his latest poems Roethke affirms the human image by means which are largely denied in Praise to the End!—a lyricism of adult emotions, and a humor which is nothing if not social. Formally, it has meant Roethke's return to more orthodox stanzaic forms, which he used so expertly in Open House and which now receive the additional verve of his experiments in Praise to the End!

It is not too much to say that Roethke stands at the forefront of his generation, and among the most interesting poets of modern times.

Stephen Spender (essay date 1959)

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SOURCE: A review of Words for the Wind, in The New Republic, Vol. 141, Nos. 6-7, August 10, 1959, pp. 21-2.

[Spender was an English man of letters who rose to prominence during the 1930s as a Marxist lyric poet and as an associate of W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice. His poetic reputation has declined in the postwar years, while his stature as a prolific and perceptive literary critic has grown. In the following review, Spender lauds the best verse in Words for the Wind but notes the need for Roethke to expand his range as a poet.]

Poetry is an instrument which can be put to a great many uses, but as a medium it is sense-bound; however far the poetry goes beyond the senses, it is expressed in terms of them. This tells us something about the poet: that quite apart from his having a sensuous feeling for words, he has to live through his senses.

Sense-bound can easily mean self-bound. Not that the self which a poet expresses in his poetry need be exclusive. It can be a very representative self, as was the case with Wordsworth. It can dissolve into the social community, the national geography, and even the universe, as it did with Whitman. But all the same, the self-bound, sense-bound poets do have a particular kind of moral limitation. They inhabit purgatory. Wordsworth, Whitman, Hart Crane—to take the most obvious examples—have very much the kind of voice which Dante might have met down there: a voice for ever longing to become something else. Voices characterized by passionate yearning to reach out to some beyond—not the poet himself: the characteristic of this Otherness being its very strong resemblance to the poet himself, who finds the universe as a mirror in which he meets his own features:

As Keats acutely observed the presence is the "egotistical sublime" of Wordsworth.

It is possible then for the purgatorial poet to create a world; but the world remains his world, himself, the drama his attempt to escape from it. This is very clear in the case of Theodore Roethke, who seems [in Words for the Wind] to be describing features which might be his own body, nostalgically viewed in retrospect, a garden seen through the eye of a child, a woman, perhaps a mother, or perhaps a bride.

Mother of blue and the many changes of hay,
This tail hates a flat path.
I've let my nose out;
I could melt down a stone,—
How is it with the long birds?
May I look too, loved eye?
It's a wink beyond the world.
In the slow rain, who's afraid?
We're king and queen of the right ground.
I'll risk the winter for you.

You tree beginning to know,
You whisper of kidneys,
We'll swing the instant!—
With jots and jogs and cinders on the floor:
The sea will be there, the great squashy shadows,
Biting themselves perhaps;
The shrillest frogs;
And the ghost of some great howl
Dead in a wall.

Often as with "the great squashy shadows" and the "shrillest frogs," the observation is painterly and external enough. And yet it is the nightmarish or reptilian thing chosen which gives the poetry such an ambiguous aspect, the fusion of not-self with self. In a poem called "Sensibility! O La!," Mr. Roethke begins "I'm the serpent of somebody else," which illustrates well the strong tendency of his world, in which emotions operate like forces leading to fusions and splittings—all too complete—of cellular life in the bottom of ponds.

At his best, Roethke's poetry is tragic in feeling and beautiful in operation. Tragic because the suffering and the way in which it is situated is so convincing. Mr. Roethke has really made a Noh drama of himself: a monologue in which, wearing a mask painted with a fixed smile of pain, he visits a pond in a wood which is haunted by a nymph-like ghost, and performs a very slow and solemn pirouetting dance, whilst pronouncing some very strange serious-mock words:

You all-of-sudden gods,
There's a ghost loose in the long grass!
My sweetheart's still in her cave.
I've waked the wrong wind:
I'm alone with my ribs;
The lake washes its stones.
You've seen me, prince of stinks,
Naked and entire.
Exalted? Yes,—
By the lifting of the tail of a neighbour's cat,
Or that old harpy secreting toads in her portmanteau.

The nostalgia is not just simple nostalgia for childhood of the Dylan Thomas kind. It is rather a passionate regret that the desires of maturity cannot be fused with the beauty and innocence of youth, so as to avoid that accompaniment of mature desire—physical self-disgust.

Roethke's poetry moves in two directions—the centrifugal and the centripetal, and perhaps it is only completely successful when it is both of these at once. One can understand his desperate need to fly away from his own self-center, but when he effectively does so, as in some of the later poems, the images remain the same but the thought becomes Salvationist and abstract:

Who took the darkness from the air?
I'm wet with another life.
Yea, I have gone and stayed.

What came to me vaguely is now clear,
As if released by a spirit,
Or agency outside me.
And final.

It would be criticism to say that the later poems show a falling off from the middle ones. They are too explicit, too conscious, there is too much grammar of sense loosening up the thick and dense grammar of image working upon image. Such things have to be admitted between readers, but I doubt whether this is criticism of a kind that would help Mr. Roethke. His poetry has to develop, not repeat itself, and one can only develop in the direction of greater consciousness, absorbing and using more influences. One does not know how he will solve the very exceptional problems of a very exceptional talent. But one looks forward to his poems of the stage-after-next, and can be grateful for an achievement which is one of the most remarkable of the present century.

Delmore Schwartz (essay date 1959)

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SOURCE: "The Cunning and the Craft of the Unconscious and the Preconscious," in Selected Essays of DelmoreSchwartz, edited by Donald A. Dike and David H. Zucker, The University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 197-99.

[A prominent figure in American literature, Schwartz created poems and stories that are deeply informed by his experiences as the son of Jewish immigrants. His verse often focuses on middle-class New York immigrant families whose children are alienated both from their parents and from American culture and society. Schwartz explored such themes as the importance of self-discovery, the necessity of maintaining hope in the presence of despair, free will versus determinism, and the machinations of the subconscious. In the following review, which was originally published in 1959, he compares the verse in Words for the Wind to the poetry of William Butler Yeats.]

It is sufficiently clear by now that Theodore Roethke is a very important poet. It is also more than likely that his reputation among readers of poetry is based, for the most part, upon the extraordinary lyrics in his second and third volumes. These poems appear, at first glance, to be uncontrollable and subliminal outcries, the voices of roots, stones, leaves, logs, small birds; and they also resemble the songs in Shakespearean plays, Ophelia's songs perhaps most of all. This surface impression is genuine and ought not to be disregarded. But it is only the surface, however moving, and as such, it can be misleading or superficial. The reader who supposes that Roethke is really a primitive lyric poet loses or misses a great deal. Perhaps the best way to define the substance of Roethke's poetry is to quote Valéry's remarkable statement that the nervous system is the greatest of all poems.

The enchanted depths beneath the chanting surface become more recognizable when the reader goes through this new collection with care from beginning to end. Throughout his work, Roethke uses a variety of devices with the utmost cunning and craft to bring the unconscious to the surface of articulate expression. But he avoids the danger and the temptation—which is greater for him than for most poets—of letting this attentiveness to the depths of experience become glib and mechanical, a mere formula for lyricism, which, being willed as a formula, would lose its genuineness and spontaneity. Roethke's incantatory lyrics are not, as they may first seem, all alike; on the contrary, each of them has a uniqueness and individuality.

In a like way, when, in his latest poems, Roethke seems to be imitating not only the manner but the subject-matter of Yeats—and even the phrasing—this too may very well be misleading if it is taken as merely imitation: for, first of all, it is paradoxical and true that the most natural and frequent path to true originality, for most good poets, is through imitating the style of a very great poet; secondly, Roethke has begun to imitate Yeats in mid-career, when he is at the height of his powers; and finally, since Yeats is a very different kind of poet than Roethke, the imitation is itself a feat of the imagination: Yeats discovered the concreteness and colloquialism which made him a very great poet only after many phases of vagueness, meandering through the long Celtic twilight; while Roethke's mastery of concreteness of image and thing has served him in good stead from the very start. It is likely enough that the chief reason Roethke has followed Yeats's later style has been to guard against the deadly habit of self-imitation which has paralyzed some of the best poets in English—from Wordsworth to Edwin Arlington Robin son—soon after they enjoyed—at long last—the natural and longed-for recognition of the readers of poetry, after decades of misunderstanding, abuse, and very often the scorn of established critics.

If we compare one of Roethke's new, Yeatsian poems with the kind of poem which it appears to echo and imitate, we can hardly fail to discover not only the differences between the two writers, but something about all of Roethke's poems and about Yeats also.

Here is Roethke in his most Yeatsian phase: this is a stanza from a poem called "The Pure Fury":

The pure admire the pure and live alone;
I love a woman with an empty face.
Parmenides put nothingness in place;
She tries to think and it flies loose again.
How slow the changes of a golden mean:
Great Boehme rooted all in yes and no;
At times my darling squeaks in pure Plato.

And here is a stanza from Among School Children, one of the best of all poems of the language, which I quote for close reading, though it is or should be familiar to all readers of poetry:

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.

The attitude and emotion in the latter poem is precisely the opposite of Roethke's; for Yeats, in this poem, as in so many of his later poems is full of a contemptus mundi, a scorn of nature, a detestation of history, which has left him an old man, however gifted: he took like the scare-crow face of the Leda-like beauty with whom he had been in love, has been by "the honey of generation betrayed." And this is why he ends his poem by saying: "How shall we know the dancer from the dance?", a Heraclitean statement that all is process and nothing is reality, except, as in other poems, the frozen artificial reality of Byzantium. And his poem is affirmative only in the sense of confronting despair and death: it is very close to Valéry's La Cimitiére Marin, where existence itself and the mind of the poet seem the sole flaw in the pure diamond of being, so that Valéry's affirmation too is hardly more than "Il faut tenter de vivre" and he too is appalled by the reality of process and unable to believe in another reality.

Roethke is capable of far greater affirmation—which is not to say that he is, as yet, as good as Yeats and Valéry, but that he is original and important enough to be compared to both poets, and to be regarded as having his own uniqueness. Thus he concludes this, one of his most Yeatsian poems, with the stanza:

Dream of a woman, and a dream of death;
The light air takes my being's breath away;
I look on white and it turns into gray—
When will that creature give me back my breath?
I live near the abyss, I hope to stay
Until my eyes look at a brighter sun
As the thick shade of the long night comes on.

And it is worth adding that the difficulty of affirmation and hope, and the reality of the abyss have become more and more clear, more and more appalling, for poets alive today, as for all of us, than they were for Yeats when he wrote Among School Children, and for Valéry when he wrote La Cimitière Marin.

Ralph J. Mills, Jr. (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke: The Lyric of the Self," in Poets in Progress, Northwestern University Press, 1967, pp. 3-23.

[An American poet and critic, Mills has published several volumes of verse and studies of such poets as Richard Eberhart, Edith Sitwell, and Kathleen Raine, in addition to Roethke. As well, he is the author of the studies Contemporary American Poetry (1965), Creation's Very Self: On the Personal Element in Recent American Poetry (1969), and Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry (1975). The following essay, published in 1962, is a revised version of an article that first appeared in Tri-Quarterly in 1958. Here Mills outlines the exploration of selfhood and existence in Roethke's verse.]

One of the dangers of any age that has produced important writers and literary revolutions such as our own is that the artists of generations immediately subsequent to the seminal one may not receive the attention they deserve. The focus of readers turns upon the task of assimilating the pioneers, the originators of new styles; and there follows a neglect of younger poets working in the light of the radical changes initiated by their predecessors. Several rough but distinguishable phases can be remarked in twentieth century poetry: one includes the post-symbolist revolutionaries who firmly established a modern tone and style—Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Rilke, Valéry, Stevens; another divides three ways, the first two developing the inheritance of their forerunners (Auden, Spender, Day Lewis in England, Tate, John Peale Bishop, Stanley Kunitz in America), the other in romantic reaction to this legacy (Dylan Thomas, George Barker, Kathleen Raine, David Gascoyne); a third consists of American poets who first became known during the second World War, among whom are Randall Jarrell, Karl Shapiro, Robert Lowell, and Theodore Roethke. Of these poets, Roethke has, it seems to me, demonstrated the most restless and exploratory impulse, a desire continually to plumb new areas of experience and to alter his style in accord with his discoveries. As a result of this impulse and his fine lyric gifts, the body of his writing has a strong cumulative effect upon the reader, for each successive stage of his work—and I mean thematically speaking, too—grows naturally out of the former. Reading his latest poems, one feels the weight of earlier ones as an actual presence. By means of this closely woven pattern, there is built up a scheme of meanings and values, what we might call a universe of discourse, in which the poems themselves fit and are comprehended.

Roethke's first book, Open House (1941), impresses the reader at the very start with this poet's natural ability to sing, his sharp, compact lines, his fundamental rhythmic sense. One is sure, having seen some of these short lyrics and descriptive pieces, that Roethke could never have stopped here; flexibility and incipient progress lurk everywhere under the surface of the words. In the title poem, one of the best in the volume, he announces the theme that will continue to occupy him and the artistic personality that is inseparable from it:

My secrets cry aloud.
I have no need for tongue.
My heart keeps open house,
My doors are widely swung.
An epic of the eyes
My love, with no disguise.

My truths are all foreknown,
This anguish self-revealed.
I'm naked to the bone,
With nakedness my shield.
Myself is what I wear:
I keep the spirit spare.

The anger will endure,
The deed will speak the truth
In language strict and pure.
I stop my lying mouth:
Rage warps my clearest cry
To witless agony.

The art proposed in these stanzas is peculiarly autobiographical, "naked to the bone," and, we might say, assumes the appearance of a journal—kept with great pain—which traces the path of a sensitive mind from bondage into the freedom of the open air. It seems as if much of the poetry evolves from a kind of curative effort on the poet's part—the exorcism of a demon, T. S. Eliot would call it—determining the direction his work will take. The pattern which emerges visibly from the writing as a whole is seen to fall into stages ranging from the psychological to the visionary and near-mystical. Such a classification must necessarily slight some excellent light verse and children's poems that appear peripheral to the author's main concerns. Roethke sets out upon a journey in his poems, a research into the origins of the psyche sometimes resembling the classical ordeals of legendary heroes since it involves a descent into the underworld of the mind, a confrontation of all the perils this voyage creates to the integrity of self. Having passed through these subterranean distances where the past history of the individual stands still and weighs secretly upon him, Roethke leads the way back into the world; the regenerated spirit discovers the physical universe anew. The development of Roethke's poetry is a record of the spirit's mutations, its division from nature and expansion into love and illumination, its final, anagogical disposition.

The series of brief poems opening The Lost Son (1948) serves as an introduction to later and longer pieces in the same book. Roethke has always stressed the eye as the most important organ (see his "Prayer"); and it is the eye of microscopic power trained on the minute, thriving vegetable life and mineral realm of the earth that determines the range and character of sensibility here. These poems remind us in part of Rimbaud's Les Illuminations or Whitman's Leaves of Grass not so much in subject matter and not at all in technique but because they are an affront to our habitual forms of perception. We are forced to look at things differently or reject the poetry altogether. The labor urged on us demands that we strip away those winding cloths of category and convention with which we deaden our sense of life, and that we regain our simplicity of vision: the belief in human possibility. Lying flat on the soil, our eyes level with the ground, we begin again in the poems with the elements of the natural world. Our origins are linked by correspondences with those elements. If this procedure of close attention to budding plants and tiny creatures clashes with our pretensions to adult dignity, Roethke shows us in "Cuttings (later)" that such observation has a striking relevance to our own estate:

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to new life?

If we disclaim recognition of this struggle, we either fail to tell ourselves the truth or have not risen to life. Roethke constantly forces on us the images of grace and defection.

As he has often pointed out in commenting on his own writings, Roethke's youth was spent around his father's greenhouses in Michigan; and he absorbed their atmosphere and the minutiae of plant and vegetable life with an intensity, an affinity that has transformed them into both literal facts and dominant metaphors of his poetry. Early influenced by his reading of Wordsworth, John Clare, and Whitman, and later by Leonie Adams, quickly enough he found poetic counterparts to spur his personal fascination with the details and processes of nature. There is a human lesson to be learned that starts with a humility towards the lower orders of life and the knowledge of connections we have with them. True growth requires us to return along the way we came and touch once more the roots from which we sprang:

When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.

Such imagery identifies man with a process in the natural world and relates him to the stubborn fecundity of the entire creation. This assertion of existence is evident in a poem like "Root Cellar" where

Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.

The shorter poems of this period are all devoted to what Roethke calls "the minimal." Their recurrent themes and metaphors furnish a basis for more ambitious efforts and point to new departures. In a fine poem called "transplanting," we watch young plants set down in fresh soil and, as if through the eye of a camera equipped with a timing device, see them unfurl and bloom:

Watching hands transplanting,
Turning and tamping,
Lifting the young plants with two fingers,
Sifting in a palm-full of fresh loam,—
One swift movement,—
Then plumping in the bunched roots,
A single twist of the thumbs, a tamping and turning,
All in one,
Quick on the wooden bench,
A shaking down while the stem stays straight,
Once, twice, and a faint third thump,—
Into the flat-box it goes,
Ready for the long days under the sloped glass:

The sun warming the fine loam,
The young horns winding and unwinding,
Creaking their thin spines,
The underleaves, the smallest buds
Breaking into nakedness,
The blossoms extending
Out into the sweet air,
The whole flower extending outward,
Stretching and reaching.

Roethke has realized how the same striving upwards is an essential movement of the spirit in man. This perception led him, in a series of longer poems, to explore the relationships between the unfolding inner life of the person and the objects and forces of physical nature. What is merely a proposed analogy between human and natural processes in earlier poems approaches identity in the ones that follow.

These longer poems, which extend and deepen Roethke's previous interests, appear as a full sequence in The Waking (1953), a volume which won for its author the Pulitzer Prize. In a feat of imaginative re-creation and poetic skill, he dramatizes by means of a technique close to the novelist's interior monologue the consciousness of a child as it slowly ascends from the mysterious regions of its origin toward a complete apprehension of the world and communion with it. As the body grows, the spirit grows with it; and the inter-action of the two, with the added consideration of the lives and things outside which impose upon the self, create the drama of the poems. An intimate connection with the animal, vegetable, and mineral levels of the universe is disclosed; and along with it, a tension in the human person between a persistent desire for his whole existence and a contrary pull downwards to death or the inanimate. In order to realize within the poems the immediacy of this evolution of self and spirit, Roethke turned away from the stricter forms of his preceding work to the looser form of what I have already indicated as a dramatic internal monologue—dramatic because it registers the impression of sensations from without on a shifting physiological and spiritual life within until there is a kind of dialectical arrangement between them. Thus these poems contain abrupt changes:

Tell me, great lords of sting,
Is it time to think?
When I say things fond,
I hear singing.
("O Lull me, Lull me")

the conflict of opposites:

A worm has a mouth.
Who keeps me last?
Fish me out.

God give me an ear. I hear flowers.
A ghost can't whistle.
I know! I know!
Hello happy hands.
("Where Knock Is Open Wide")

and unexpected juxtapositions everywhere:

Such music in a skin!
A bird sings in the bush of your bones.
Tufty, the water's loose.
Bring me a finger. This dirt's lonesome for grass.
("Give Way, Ye Gates")

In spite of superficial difficulties, which disappear once the reader surrenders himself to the purpose and rhythm of the poet's undertaking, we notice the same simple and precise diction, the familiar musical gifts that mark Roethke's art. If the poems seem to lack the order we found in Open House, this lack must be attributed to the fluid reality they render. And so the adjustments demanded of us are more extreme than before. Entering the child's mind, we have to adopt a literalness in our apprehension and discard the adult's acquired skepticism. The world, from the new point of view Roethke provides, is transformed into a densely populated, because animistic, place where normal distinctions of object and subject, consciousness and unconsciousness, will and instinct are abolished, and synesthesia is an accepted mode of perception. Perhaps the license for such a radical departure in poetry can best be explained by a recent remark of the poet. "We must permit poetry to extend consciousness," Roethke says, "as far, as deeply, as particularly as it can, to recapture, in Stanley Kunitz's phrase, what it has lost to some extent to prose. We must realize, I think, that the writer in freer forms must have an even greater fidelity to his subject matter than the poet who has the support of form." Roethke, as a reading of his collected verse will prove, has labored in both these provinces; most of his newer poems display his fascination with experiment in "freer forms," as do the poems of the childhood sequence.

The poems, then, are composed on a rationale wholly their own, a logic nearer that of the dream or the ellipsis of thought and sensation than the calculating intelligence. Individually, they constitute stages of a journey into the hidden corners of the mind, the memories beneath everyday conscious thought; and so, too, they participate in a different temporal dimension by disturbing the apparently dormant experiences of the past. Roethke's poetic enterprise here involves him in something like the interpretation of the many layers of writing on a palimpsest; each one draws him farther back in time and into more obscure circumstances. But the journey is made with direction and, we feel, even with necessity. It is an attempt to gain a perspective on the general movement of personal existence from its remote beginnings by finding the "lost son" and recovering the moments of that long-abandoned life.

It would be simple on the basis of this description to discount these poems as clinical matters or the raw stuff of psychoanalysis, whereas they are nothing of the sort. However private the resources on which Roethke has called, the problems of understanding details of separate poems seldom appear to come from faults of privacy. Maybe the problems which arise are due to our own carelessness or impatience in reading. At any rate, a statement Roethke wrote for inclusion in Twentieth Century Authors should help to clarify the poet's intention:

I have tried to transmute and purify my 'life,' the sense of being defiled by it, in both small and formal and somewhat blunt short poems, and, latterly, in longer poems which try in their rhythms to catch the very movement of the mind itself, to trace the spiritual history of a protagonist (not 'I,' personally), of all haunted and harried men; to make in this series… a true and not arbitrary order which will permit many ranges to feeling, including humor.

The universal character of Roethke's protagonist compels our participation in these inner travels. We are turned into partial actors of the drama his poems relate.

The uncovering of childhood exposes old sores; and anxiety over the questions of death, God, isolation, sexuality, and parental relations bulk large in these poems. An inclination to get up and out of the morass of such disturbances is the most pronounced characteristic of the protagonist, but he can attain this release only by facing directly all the hazards and powers—usually psychic ones—that endanger the gradually developing spirit. "The Lost Son" is possibly the most representative poem of the sequence for our purposes, because it contains within its carefully made order the major themes of the entire group, and so forms a paradigm of the inward journey. The plan of the poem falls into several sections which trace the narrator's progress: departure; the quest—with its accompanying or-deals; the return to a new harmony; the protagonist's expectation of another phase.

Any suspicion that "The Lost Son" follows the same cyclical motion as certain other works of modern literature and ends no farther on than it began ought to be dismissed, for the poem records the trial and the decided advance of the spirit. Beginning, ominously enough, with suggestions of death, gloom and ugliness, the poem drops us into the midst of the child's pursuit of freedom and singular identity, a pursuit frustrated by the continued shocks which experience administers the frail equilibrium of his psychic life:

At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron,
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding in wells.

The proximity of destruction and the riddle of his own nature lure the protagonist into action, and he engages himself fully in the search for liberation:

Which is the way I take;
Out of what door do I go,
Where and to whom?

But confusion dogs his tracks, for the animistic universe where each thing has an independent and ambiguous nature is nothing if not deceptive; like the magical forests of fairy tales, it presents more false leads than true paths. The creatures and plants and other elements populating this world, even the friendliest ones, haunt him, and yet he must inquire of them the way out. He seeks among the smallest creatures some reliable guides, though not always with the happiest results:

All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Saying, Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home.

Under the prevailing conditions, movement offers the only relief available to the agonized spirit, which is also heir to the complaints of the flesh. The protagonist's search brings him at last to "the pit," in the section of the poem named after it, and there he reaches the lowest and most dangerous point in the journey. In fact, the pit, which needs partially to be viewed as a female symbol, signifies the place of origins but has now become a sign of defeat, even of death. As the protagonist approaches there to ask the fundamental question about life—"Who stunned the dirt into noise?"—he is answered with images of the womb and of birth, "the slime of a wet nest." A harsh music of warning jangles his nerves, accompanied in section three, "The Gibber," by further alienation from his surroundings, sexual dilemmas, and shrill discord:

Dogs of the groin
Barked and howled,
The sun was against me,
The moon would not have me.

The weeds whined,
The snakes cried,
The cows and briars
Said to me: Die.

At the edge of annihilation, the protagonist passes through the "storm's heart" and glides beyond it into a state of calm, another level of existence. The spirit, having survived the threats to its growth, leaps forth in a gesture of exultation at the sheer pleasure of being:

These sweeps of light undo me.
Look, look, the ditch is running white!
I've more veins than a tree!
Kiss me, ashes, I'm falling through a dark swirl.

Body and spirit revel in their newly won harmony. The freed spirit, no longer fighting for its independence, dissolves all conflicts with the material world about it and, instead, elevates the things of the world by bringing them into communion with itself. The greenhouse, with its rich store of life, serves as the scene of this revelation and symbolizes both the unity and the potentiality of existence. The regenerative process is caught in the images of flowers:

The rose, the chrysanthemum turned toward the light.
Even the hushed forms, the bent yellowy weeds
Moved in a slow up-sway.

In the final section of the poem, the protagonist meditates on his experience. This is "an in-between time" when he can do nothing but await further activity of the spirit. The imagery of the passage recalls Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets, and this is unquestionably purposeful, as it is in "The Meditations of an Old Woman," which closes Words for the Wind. But Eliot's poems treat spiritual development as the result of prayer, contemplation, and self-denial. In Roethke's scheme, such development is the fruition of a natural struggle and is religious only in a much broader sense. The narrator hesitates to classify his experience; he will admit of no more than an indefinable visitation. I think it is clear that in stating his own attitude Roethke is replying to Eliot's:

Was it light?
Was it light within?
Was it light within light?
Stillness becoming alive,
Yet still?

The allusion to Eliot's "still point of the turning world" seems obvious, but a certain amount of parody in these lines prevents them from being taken as a literal echo of the elder poet. Whatever generates the spiritual odyssey in Roethke's poem comes apparently from within, not from an external divine source:

A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
Be still.

That spirit does return, again and again, in this poet's writings. Though Roethke continues to be preoccupied with the progress of the spirit, the conclusion of his sequence of monologues, with their radical technique, enables him to move off in a different direction. He does, of course, deal with the isolated self again in later poems, but in general the themes of childhood are replaced by mature considerations of love, death, and the larger meanings of human existence in the world.

With The Waking (1953), Roethke brought together a selection of his earlier verse and a number of new poems, some of them indicating a sharp departure from self-contemplation. These were, of course, the love poems; and more of them have appeared since, so that a section of Words for the Wind is devoted to an entire group. If we think of these poems solely in terms of the spirit, however, we shall misread them, for many are erotic and sensual. All the same, they do signify another stage of that theme: the change from consideration of self to fascination with the other. The woman of these poems is various. Sometimes she assumes the form of a wraith or entrancing spectre; sometimes she is purely physical. Her place in the poems can only be called that of the female or the opposite or the other, since her role involves metamorphosis. Observation of her beauties frequently means for the poet a rapport with creation:

The breath of a long root,
The shy perimeter
Of the unfolding rose,
The green, the altered leaf,
The oyster's weeping foot,
And the incipient star—
Are part of what she is.
She wakes the ends of life.
("Words for the Wind")

In some way, this beloved possesses the elusive secrets of existence and partakes of all that is. The style of these poems differs greatly from the psychological ones, but Roethke has certainly incorporated the informality and the discipline required by his previous experiments in these new pieces.

Fulfillment in love is the subject of a quartet of lyrics, "Four for Sir John Davies," which extends the search for integration and harmony we saw in "The Lost Son" from an internal, psychological process to union with the beloved. Drawing its basic metaphor of dancing from Davies' sixteenth century poem, Orchestra, which explains the hierarchical order of the universe through that figure, and from Yeats, who saw in the dance an image of sexual and spiritual reconciliation, the poem leaves the poet's isolated dancing at the start to discover something of a transcendent completion in which both lover and beloved share. In the opening portion, the poet celebrates the vital energies of creation and of his own dance, but his movements are occasionally humorous and lack agility and purpose:

I tried to fling my shadow at the moon,
The while my blood leaped with a wordless song.
Though dancing needs a master, I had none
To teach my toes to listen to my tongue.

In spite of the joy of his single dance, which offers him the feeling of kinship with things, the poet seeks a deeper human relationship. The attraction for his newly found partner begins between "animal and human heat," but we soon realize that the meeting of the lovers physically has created a spiritual state corresponding to it.

Incomprehensible gaiety and dread
Attended all we did. Behind, before,
Lay all the lonely pastures of the dead;
The spirit and the flesh cried out for more.
We two, together, on a darkening day
Took arms against our own obscurity.

As traditionally befits such lovers, they receive, in the poem's third part, one identity. They remind us of that pair in Donne's "The Canonization" whose pure devotion to one another divorces them from the public world and invests them with a sacred or mystical aura, for here also, Roethke tells us, "the flesh can make the spirit visible." So this dance, though it originates in human love, is anything but ordinary and mundane. The vertical movement of the dancers and the successive alterations they undergo in their ascent lend the poems a religious quality, but only in a personal or loose way. It cannot be denied that the experience of love at its most intense which the poems portray is explicitly defined by the author as an event of the spirit, and, furthermore, an event of such magnitude that the lovers' connection with the cosmos is completely revised. And in "The Vigil," the concluding poem, Dante's paradisiacal vision is introduced to set off Roethke's own version of an encounter with the eternal; but this seems, as it did in "The Lost Son," a condition of inward blessedness, the gift of Eros rather than of God. What the poet calls elsewhere "a condition of joy," this moment renders the universe transparent to perception and mysteriously transfigures the couple:

The world is for the living. Who are they?
We dared the dark to reach the white and warm.
She was the wind when wind was in my way;
Alive at noon, I perished in her form.
Who rise from flesh to spirit know the fall:
The word outleaps the world, and light is all.

Roethke's poetry is dedicated much of the time to a search for moments like this. But such ecstatic assertions of being do not hide an inability to face the realities of human life. The later verse collected in Words for the Wind (1958) and the poems which have appeared in magazines after that book demonstrate the poet's effort to enlarge the range of his work, as well as to consolidate his gains in theme and style.

It is obviously impossible within this introductory essay to give a suitable or clear impression of the richness and variety of all of the more recent poetry of Roethke. He has been accused in the past few years of falling into, first, imitations of Yeats, then of Eliot; yet both these charges appear simple-minded and are founded on poor reading or a failure to understand the poet's aims. For a period Roethke uses Yeats as a point of departure for his own attitudes, and "The Dying Man" sequence is sub-titled as a memorial to Yeats. Even in that poem, though, we can hardly think the following passage—except for the third and possibly the second lines—sounds very reminiscent of the Irish master:

There are, of course, some poems which bear the marks of Yeats' influence; "Four for Sir John Davies" is one of them. For a further discussion of this matter, the reader should consult Roethke's own remarks in his essay "How to Write Like Somebody Else," in the Yale Review.

The question of Eliot is a rather different one and centers around the group of five poems called "Meditations of an Old Woman," with which Roethke concludes Words for the Wind. Composed very freely with a prose-style line, the poems are sometimes said to be derivative from Four Quartets. Maybe so, though the influence of Whitman has seemed to me greater here, both in style and attitude, and this opinion the poet has recently confirmed in a letter to me. Yet the confusion is understandable when we recognize that the poems are in part—and in part only—an answer to Four Quartets. The old woman, though she is not a fictitious speaker and was a relative of the poet in life (as Roethke told me in a recent conversation), serves as an opposite to the mature Eliot in his poems. And the reflective conclusions at which she arrives have little in common with those of Eliot; in fact, some passages, like the following from "What Can I Tell My Bones?" can only be read as a direct answer to him—with slight overtones of parody:

Old age and the approach of death are themes of both Roethke's and Eliot's poems, but their final attitudes diverge widely. In contrast to the asceticism of Four Quartets, Roethke's old lady finally embraces in her memory and imagination the entire spectrum of life, its pleasures and delights, its sufferings and disappointments included. It is, at last, a series of poems which do more than merely affirm the unevenness of human existence; indeed, they celebrate the beauty of its variety and the horizons its possibilities open to view.

Though the narrator of the poem cannot be exactly identified with the poet, she is, in large measure, a voice for Roethke's beliefs. As I understand his use of her for dramatic purposes, she owes her poetical existence to what he makes her say; and, in her own life, she apparently coincided in outlook with the author. The poems shift with her mind's changing currents, touching on incidents and thoughts of a long life, and introducing many of Roethke's constant images and metaphors: the sun, the wind, the tiny creatures of earth, flowers and seeds and grass, water, and so on. But the range of the poem is not narrow; here is a brilliant and savage passage on the modern forms of destruction:

I think of the self-involved:
The ritualists of the mirror, the lonely drinkers,
The minions of benzedrine and paraldehyde,
And those who submerge themselves deliberately in trivia,
Women who become their possessions,
Shapes stiffening into metal,
Match-makers, arrangers of picnics—
What do their lives mean,
And the lives of their children?—
The young, brow-beaten early into a baleful silence,
Frozen by a father's lip, a mother's failure to answer.
Have they seen, ever, the sharp bones of the poor?
Or known, once, the soul's authentic hunger,
Those cat-like immaculate creatures
For whom the world works?

Perhaps the closing lines, full of the affirmative beauty of the world and the magical transformation or re-birth which the spirit works in man, indicate the lyrical power Roethke can command even in an informal order:

The sun! The sun! And all we can become!
And the time ripe for running to the moon!

In the long fields, I leave my father's eye;
And shake the secrets from my deepest bones;
My spirit rises with the rising wind;
I'm thick with leaves and tender as a dove,
I take the liberties a short life permits—
I seek my own meekness;
I recover my tenderness by long looking.
By midnight I lover everything alive.
Who took the darkness from the air?
I'm wet with another life.
Yea, I have gone and stayed.

The great beauty of this passage is quite characteristic of Roethke's recent verse; however, his newer poems are of many sorts. Some describe what Roethke calls the motions of the soul; others, such as the splendid "Meditation at Oyster River" (which appeared in The New Yorker) carry on the line of development opened up by "Meditations of an Old Woman." Without any doubt, Roethke is one of the most considerable American poets of the past half-century: his increase in range, power, and variety promise the kind of writing we must call major.

Theodore Roethke (essay date 1963)

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SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke Speaks: The Teaching Poet," in New Letters, Vol. 49, No. 1, Fall, 1982, pp. 7-25.

[The following is a transcript of a spoken address. Roethke discusses such topics as teaching, his literary influences, the role of readers, and the poetic process. In the absence of further information regarding the date of composition, the year of Roethke's death has been substituted for the essay date.]


I think teaching is one of the last resorts of the noble mind and is a whole, a profession, and in our times one of the ones that's least corrupted. It is a second order of creation, particularly visceral, romantic teaching of the sort that I go in for. Since I don't know anything, I have to use, make up for, energy, noise, and general pandemonium. It can get cumulative, and one can get this collective excitement going, and that's very dangerous, I found in bitter experience, well, in the first place for the teacher and secondly for the kids themselves. For instance at Bennington, I used to really teach like mad. I mean, it was the first time I'd ever been in a big-time operation. But these kids… I mean, I'd just walk around—"Ask me anything," you know, "about Hopkins." And I mugged up so much, and I worked so hard, and I puked before every class on Thursday. They'd come to me and say, "Look, don't knock yourself out; we're not worth it and besides, as soon as you get us to do something that's way beyond ourselves, you go away and then we can't do anything, or what we do is much less." Well, I'm not sure if I effect that kind of dent, make that kind of dent on kids anymore. At least I try to do it more quietly. But nonetheless, I feel it remains a second order of creation opposed to poetry. I think the very good teaching is like the dance. It's so related to a particular time and a place, and in a sense it can't be recaptured. I think, I mean, you know, Gestalt. On the other hand, I found that sometimes setting students' exercises has a chastening effect, in the sense that sometimes I just turn around and say, "If they say it's too hard, I say, 'Okay, I'll do it myself.'"

For instance a poem called "The Cycle," which goes "Dark water underground, / Beneath the rock and clay, / Beneath the roots of trees, / Rose in a common day, / Rose from a mossy mound / In mist that sun could seize. / That fine rain coiled like a cloud / Turned by revolving air, / Far from that colder source / Where elements cohere, / Dense in the central stone. / The air grew loose and loud. / Then with diminished force, / The full rain fell straight down, / Tunneled with lapsing sound / Under the rock-shut ground, / Under primeval stone." I left out one line there. But we were working on the three-beat, and I wrote the piece, which I think is a good one of its kind. (The line Roethke omits is the penultimate one: "Under a river's source.")

It is true, of course, that you do find yourself clarifying your concepts and your attitudes. I find that good students are very good and very honest critics. There are certain areas of experience, or certain kinds of poems, of course, that they're not quite up to when they are, say 18, 19, 20, can't really get inside a complex metaphysical piece, or anything that approaches, what do you call it, preternatural experience, or shall we say, mystical experience. Why be frightened of that word?

There are a great deal of emotional pressures, particularly in modern teaching at its best, and I think the whole character of teaching in college has been changed in the last twenty years, primarily by writers. Now this point has never been made. They may not all be good teachers, but some of them are, and some of them are great ones, and I include old Winters, as nutty as he is, as a great teacher of this kind. That is, whatever he does, he makes a hell of a dent in them. Well, certainly Ransom was, is still, and Kunitz, I know, is, and I suppose that carries over into the arts. Now here the art department, frankly, I don't think is much, but it sort of seems chaotic and there are no, you know, no really big figures there.


If you want to talk ancestors, it's mistake to set Yeats up as a central guy; for one reason, I resisted Yeats for a long time. I remember even saying to Bogan, "I don't get him." See, I came to Ann Arbor at 17, wanting to do what? To learn to write a chiseled prose. I had been trained by myself largely, and in part in a good high school, on the familiar essay. I read Stevenson et cetera… you know… Tomlinson, that sort of writing. I wanted these graceful essays. At home we didn't have a tremendous library. There was a leather-bound Emerson; there were a couple of good Thoreaus; there was a book called Prose Every Child Should Know, a book called Heart Throbs, but it was prose, you know. Between the greenhouses they had toilets put in and all that, but in piles, in these piles of pipe, there was this old backhouse and I'd go in there for meditation. On the wall was this epigram; it just said, "Enter softly and softly close the door, for beneath this floor lies many a noble dinner." Well now, it's a great sentence; it has the upward flow and the downward.

Thoreau, too, Emerson, Thoreau… but I was on to Emerson already, but I liked that aphoristic junk. And then some of the major essayists, I mean, of course, Thoreau. But the thing is when I got to Ann Arbor, I got a B plus in freshman rhetoric. As a freshman I read all of Stevenson, and wrote a paper without looking at any critical book, spent my whole vacation doing it and got A plus, marked my singular exactitude… would have A's. I'm a kid; I'm just 17; I didn't want to go to Michigan. I did because I'd be near Mom. But I thought, "Well, if I can't get A in a freshman rhetoric course, I can't be a writer; the hell with it, so I'll go through law school like Mama wants." So from then on I just took what I wanted. But I did have a guy, who went nuts, solemnly gave me a course in Wordsworth and also in American literature. But the Wordsworth—since I never like to repeat their damn fool ideas, and I used to learn great passages by heart, and I used to know hundreds of lines of Words-worth, and I tried… I mean, he is there, yet I feel that actually Wordsworth didn't make much of a dent in…. It was supposed to be an opening up of unconsciousness, but I feel it's a very timid one. "I have felt a presence that disturbs me with a joy of elevated thought" and so on is always just the sense, or he's rowing and he has vague feelings. Oh, whatever… in my case, it seems to me, there should also be a focus on the minutiae of life, the little things of life.

Blake is a real guy for the beat. I've had I don't [know] how many editions of Blake. I can't explain those damn poems, exactly what they mean. But it's that beat, eh. And I was much more grounded in Blake, say, than I ever was with Yeats and also with some of the people that affected Yeats. You know, Yeats himself… I'm not trying to say that I wasn't influenced by Yeats; everyone was. But the particular poem where I give him this tribute, I'd been reading Sir John Davies deeply and also Raleigh. (The poem referred to here is "The Dance.") Particularly, I wanted the 16th century guys. I wanted to get back to the plain, hard style. I said all this, by the way, in a piece, "How to Write Like Somebody Else," in which I pay tribute to certain early ancestors, people who have affected me technically. Mademoiselle Eleanor Wylie, who I think is in many ways a bad poet. And I wrote a pastiche of her. Then I did one of Léonie Adams; she was an influence. But oddly enough the contemporaries that affected me most when I started were Kunitz, whom I thought of as a superbrain—you know, summa cum laude—and Bogan, whom I caught just at the end of college. But what I mean, I went roaring around for four years with the richies, with the richies, with the dolls, and school for me was a kind of joke. I figured, well, you have to demonstrate you can do it, so I made Phi Beta Kappa by a cunt hair, to everybody's surprise. But it was only after getting out of college, I mean getting into the graduate school, that I began writing poems, and they were very bad at first. But then all of a sudden there was a real jump, say within six months, I mean. I published in the New Republic, The Commonweal, Sewanee Review. When I did that, and when Hillyer told me, "Why any editor who wouldn't print these is a fool," geez, well, at last I'm something. (Roethke introduced himself to Robert Hillyer at Harvard.)

I liked my prose all right, but I don't know—there's a combination of a deep unhappiness, a bust up of this real love affair. I mean, it went on four years and had, shall we say, all the ramifications… we might as well have been married, I mean, what the hell. But we each had more money than we… just pooled our money. Christ, some guys would go to Europe, and some of the chicks would go to the Evanston Cradle of Heaven, have an illegitimate kid, come back. Ann Arbor was unlike anything on land or sea, I mean. It's never been put down. We thought Scott Fitzgerald was a little shitass. I mean, that he was a little puke, and he was overwhelmed by money. Well, for Chrissake, some of the silly shits jumped around with him. Go across the street and this one guy in the Phi Delt house, he had seven million in his own name, which, of course, by Harvard standards isn't much, but he just had money in the closet like laundry.

In terms of immediate influence, I read a lot of Lawrence's prose, almost all of it, and I wrote a paper on him once. But, I mean, The White Peacock and Sons and Lovers dented me the most. When he got into those nutty phases—The Plumed Serpent, I thought, was far too strange—I didn't try to understand it. I think Lawrence's poetry is more important than the prose. And I think Eliot's all wrong about, you know, his sneering at him. Well, Lawrence talks about the immediate moment. That's what the poem, in a sense, should capture. I think Lawrence is, of course, often self-indulgent, but in the great runs we can feel into primordial kinds of life. I mean, that sense of identity.

I sometimes use that technique of dream, for instance "gliding shape / Beckoning through halls, / Fell dreamily down…" and so on. It's a combination of dream and even, you know, sexual—"my own tongue kissed / My lips awake" ("The Lost Son"). I mean, it's obviously onanistic, sweet myself.


What happens in each reader, it is frequently said, is never the same, but nonetheless, it seems to me the reading of a good poem is in itself a re-creation of the poem, just like in looking at a picture, and that the experience itself is vicarious, and that's one of the reasons we have art, isn't it; that is that man can experience other men's experiences, to realize that this is there, this can happen.

I'm always writing, as it were, for as wide an audience as possible. That may sound fatuous, but perhaps I began wrong in deliberately courting the so-called popular audience in very plain, little poems about rather simple experiences. As I say, I began with verse, hoping that poetry would happen, and then went into things much more complex, but in a sense, I'm coming back to verse now, or I'm using the techniques and the longer line that I used originally. I think the capacity for poetry is much greater and much wider than most people realize, and I think that if the poetry can be made accessible to the so-called general reader, if it can be heard—and I've written almost everything I've done to be heard—once that occurs, there's usually understanding. I mean, I think a barrier has been erected against poetry. It isn't that poetry isn't being produced. I feel this is the greatest age, particularly for the shorter forms, in the language. We have no great drama but a body of lyrics of immense variety and a body of longer poems, but perhaps not so much full length drama; I mean, longer, meaning a hundred or two hundred lines. But everything sort of militates against… I mean, the radio, the television, the visual education. [To] bring up a whole generation trained, as it were, on TV is to abandon, as it were, part of the body, the ear. I mean, poetry is—or the use of language is—one of the differences between us and the apes, and if we're not careful of keeping that difference wide, we are going to have a retrogression, and certainly it is occurring in slovenly speech. Poetry is speech at its most memorable, at its best. And certainly it's human to desire the best, and that best is so accessible.

The best in the great complex poetry makes, in a sense, a profound and terrible demand; it says, "Change your life." That phrase is Rilke's, but other people have said it. And I think that's why the general public backs away from poets like Bogan or Kunitz and will read instead Millay or Brooke. They don't want their lives changed; they don't want to enter some other consciousness. They are, in a sense, consciously or unconsciously afraid of something. The best modern poetry is characterized by a terrible honesty of imagination. It is one of the things that we inherit from Blake. If one thinks of this in practical terms, we're supposed to be culture-mad America. Here is an area where we can really say we are the best in the world; that is lyrical poetry. It's available for 95 cents to usually four or five or six dollars. For 50 dollars a home can have a library of really choice, great poets that the young should have access to. Whereas people are willing to spend 1500, 2500 or 3500 for a lousy action painting, the idea of buying a book seems to be abhorrent to them. Again, thinking in utilitarian terms, it's one of the ways in which we can defeat our great provinciality. We can't all get to the great opera; we can't all hear the great symphonies, but we can buy a book, or we can buy a good recording of poetry, and there are some.

The poet presumably is in the foreground of consciousness. He is aware of things, in a sense, before they happen, or before they generally happen. Now that isn't just falderal; it's simply so. I mean, a public poet like Auden, when he says, "We must love one another or die." He said it in a very few words… the central thing in our civilization. We are surrounded by all kinds of shoddy speech, by the clichés of advertising, by the kind of stylized prose of Time, Life, with the bromides of editorials. I mean, if someone can begin to hear good poetry, I don't mean serious or profound, but even "Mother Goose" or the poems in anthologies like Come Hither. They're part of the heritage of our race. If we cut ourselves off from them, we drift inevitably into a kind of obscene gobbledygook, of officialese, of jargon, and many of our courses in the university tend the same way, even some of the subjects themselves seem simply a waltzing with a special terminology. Whereas poetry is using the holy words, the words around which there's a great accretion of human association: "hill," "plow," "field," "mother." Furthermore, it's one of the ways we can, as it were, keep in touch with the subhuman, the other forms of life. I think the best modern poetry and some of the best modern painting still has a profound moral drive, not in the sense of a message, but it is written for the glory of man and the glory of God. It's the best we can do in our time, and we should be aware of it; even an indifferent or mediocre poem is more a human achievement than most prose.


I think the general genesis is one begins with a mood of some sort. And frequently I find that when I get grumpier and grumpier, and more and more irritable, that I… well, Beatrice, for instance, can say, "You had better write something pretty quick." The mood may not always be related to the piece, or it may be. But then the actual writing, the genesis of it, I think, for me, usually takes the shape of a line, or one or two or three lines, and these lines may accrete, I mean, sort of gather similar lines and images, you know. Then the actual composition of the poem for me… well, it isn't a fairly short… it is very rarely a thing that's just dashed off. But the only poem I ever wrote that I felt—well, there's been more than one—but as it were, a kind of seizure, is that one I wrote after Thomas' death ("Elegy," included in Words for the Wind). That was for me almost a straight dictated poem, except that it had an extra stanza in it that I knocked out, and also that first poem "The Dance." But even there, I think, I usually have in the back of my mind the genesis of lines that, you know, that are skating around in your forebrain or in your fore-part of your consciousness or conscious mind. But it's the bringing together the whole thing into a coherent whole that's hard for me. I mean, that's the ultimate and the final work. Usually I can, in fact almost invariably I can tell when the thing is at least, shall we say, done, or in its final form; there may still be some fiddling or polishing with lines. But sometimes in an effort to describe an abstract thing, for instance these poems, "The spirit moves, / Yet stays: / Stirs as the blossom stirs" and so on… ("A Light Breather"). Well, that poem first was much longer, and then about twice, or more than twice its present length in the book. Then I cut it way down 'til it was almost nothing; then I sort of brought it back to its final shape.

Oddly enough, in "The Adamant" I had a kind of piece of luck. I fell into its form, which is three three-beat lines, and then a two-beat line each time. Originally they were all three-beat lines, and by cutting adjectives in the first and second stanza and changing the wording in the last stanza I came up with this curious cutoff effect which in a way sort of suggests the action of a rock crusher, and it gave it… well, it moved it from a poem that was just a poem into something where the rhythm was really integral with the feeling.

But writing for me is not an easy thing to do. I mean, it's always difficult. And I always am terrified, sort of, with the feeling that, well, the feeling after something that you know is really good, say, that well… "Is this the last time?" Well, I noticed that Auden said the same thing in his The Making of Poetry. As someone that gifted technically, whom I always think of as being able to write a poem at any time, on any subject, and within a very short time—that poem will always at the very least be readable—he would be the last person to worry or have that sense. To the public, anybody who has ever written a poem, a good poem, is regarded as a poet. But to the poet himself, it's that last, those last things that [matter].

I rarely can sit down and work from a very cold start. A poem that was written quite swiftly was "In a Dark Time." That's a villanelle, of course, slightly modified, and a damn tough form. And I remember writing that. I was reading a student notebook—well, by the way, there, in that sense, when I make them keep journals and whatnot, you sometimes… you know, they become your eyes and your ears and you do learn something from them. I believe very definitely the Kierkegaardian notion that education begins when the teacher starts learning from the student. That may sound like a paradox, but I'm sure you have had that same feeling, when it becomes, you know, a real reciprocity.

"In a Dark Time" was written while I was up really high (I mean high in the semantic or psychothalmic, constitutional-type sense). It took me about three days. It was in summer and I was sitting out there in the grass on a chaise lounge. Well, some of the lines were in notebooks before; the line, for me, sometimes will hang around for years. But I finally wrote it, as I say, in about three days, and I had the sense that this is one of the great poems of our time. I mean, I just knew it, and I shot it to Marianne Moore, who's tough if anyone is tough. Gee, she wrote back this card, saying, "an apocalypse and in mere language," et cetera, et cetera, see, and then Cal Lowell, 'cuz I thought, "Cal, ha, ha, think you know something about religious experience; get a load of this." Course this is Theodore's weakness still. I can't purge myself of playing, acting like I'm George Radermann or a quarterback, you know; I have to be cocky. But hell, that's 'cuz I had to grow up that way. After the old man died, there was me and Mama against the field. Everyone was trying to do us in, and I lived, well, I spent a lot of money. I lived in complete economic fear for years, hence that business "Money money money / Water water water" ("The Lost Son"). I mean, it's a cry from the very soul's depths. I mean, I have to live and I have to keep the creative, too. (Kenneth) Burke has some very good remarks there. Furthermore, we lived in the same house and his office was next to my class, and he used to sit there, when I was trampin' around teaching, [and say,] "Gee, you're going good today. I put a whole lot of things down." I said, "You son-of-a-bitch." But he wrote a thing called "The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke," and he marches right through the first six poems, six of the long poems. There were some things in there; he says in our time that it's natural that the poet should make that equation, equation meaning water, all of fertility, all of life. Sounds nutty, but likewise, he draws a parallel, or contrast, with Eliot—Eliot using all the abstractions, whereas I use almost none. Now I'm moving more toward abstract language, but then again, that's another problem. This area which I'm puffing and blowing about… I say that because in most of those last short poems I feel I was the instrument, you see, as bleak as hell. Oh yea, that's rather good, "as bleak as hell." In a sense it is hell, and a dark night can be repeated, and there's no A-train to paradise. We don't grow up, older and and older, more and more benign, more and more full of wisdom and so on. I'm still death haunted, I'm afraid, in spite of saying death is an absurdity, it's an irrelevance.

The difference [between Yeats and me] is that I can dance, and Yeats can't. I mean, as somebody put it, 'cause—and I can say this without batting an eye—I know, in the final term, something and perhaps a good deal more than I realize about mystic experience. Yeats didn't. Sometimes people say that when I get rolling in the rhythm, in reading certain kinds, I start a thing that seems to approximate the dance. Of course there was a low point in the history of the modern dance when I was at Bennington where I was actually approached to be in under Martha Graham's… Well, of course, those pieces for Sir John Davies began out of a… probably the literary impulse came out of reading John Davies' "Orchestra," which is a long poem in praise of dancing and celebrating, and based on the whole Elizabethan notion of the cosmic dance. The whole thing is, you know, an improvisation. It was written in 15 days. But it has a wonderful rhythm. Kunitz introduced it to me originally. Arthur Smith quotes in one of his books about there are times that come in every living creature when the impulse to dance and to sing, or to sing and to dance—Oh gosh, I'm getting incoherent. This comes to all living things, I think, and I think it goes back, way back into the Dionysian experience.

There was the one time I played the Rimbaud business of really driving myself, seeing… you could really derange the senses, and it can be done, and let me tell you, I did it. I mean, I got in such good condition. I wasn't drinking at all. I was 27. This was in East Lansing, Michigan. I was running on those cinder pads four, five miles a day. Jesus, and teaching too. But you know I got in this real strange state. I got in the woods and started a circular kind of dance, and I've never put this down very… I refer to it in "I tried to fling my shadow at the moon" ("The Dance"). I kept going around and just shedding clothes. Sounds Freudian as hell, but in the end I had just sort of a circle—as if, I think, I understood intuitively what the frenzy is. That is, you go way beyond yourself, and this is not sheer exhaustion, but this strange sort of a… not illumination… but a sense of being again a part of the whole universe. I mean anything but quiet. I mean, in a sense everything is symbolical. In one of the Old Woman poems ("Her Becoming") I just sort of put it in there, because I know if you put this down in prose, for God's sake, "Oh, this is merely clinical," I mean, "Obviously, he is crazy" and so forth. But it was one of the deepest and most profound experiences I ever had. And accompanying it was a real sexual excitement also… and this tremendous feeling of actual power. But finally, when coming back, I was just so exhausted that I could hardly walk, in as good condition as I was.

What happened to me eventually, well, one thing… you have this curious sense that you're actually being transformed literally into an animal. You start getting fantasies, I mean, of power, lion-like power. But the next night was much tougher, in a sense—I really thought my features were changing. Of course this was madness, you see, but the relationship between the ecstasy and madness is so… well, one of the things that the head-shrinkers know, or the good ones, that if these descents are too rapid, that can be chaotic, and I mean you knock. In other words, something could happen to you that you could get lost back there, because what you're doing is going right back into the history of the god-damn race. I mean, you're down to the animal, dog, and so forth, down to snake. It sounds nuts, but, well… fight your way out of that. What happened to me there, I simply blacked out, eventually. I knew I was teaching in real manic frenzy. Well, I woke up in the morning, somewhat like this, with very little sleep and decided I wanted to get to his office. (Probably a reference to Lloyd C. Emmons, Dean of Liberal Arts at Michigan State University.) I took a little walk on the edge of the city. There I got so cold I lay down and took off a shoe, and there I had… this is again real loony, and goes beyond… there was a curious crabhole, and I lay there and started whistling to this thing, as if you were really trying to call it out of the earth. Well, I knew what I was doing, that this was not a snakehole and so on and so on, but… and I put this down in one of those pieces, in one of those running ones ("The Song"). Then I got scared; it started getting cold; it was November and I started to run with only one shoe on. Jesus Christ, here you are, and I was barefoot… well, symbolically yet. I got into a gas station. There was a guy I again, I just associated with my father. I was out on my feet, see, just punchy from…. You know, I hadn't slept for five nights and I said, "Can… get me, drive me," and he said, "Sure." He drove me to the campus and I came in, you know, just like someone who had been beaten for five rounds. I sat down in that god-damn office and I thought, "Jesus Christ, you're going to have to ad-lib now." But the trouble in these high states of consciousness is that everything gets heightened, so that sound particularly… somebody walking overhead, it just sounds like a concatenation. Well, I finally said, "Just bring me a coach and I'll try to explain on what happened to me physically." I was just going to say, "I'm not nuts. I'm just out on my feet because I've been working." I finally thought I'd died. There was a profound and beautiful experience, as if you… and you can hear the thing going, but you just die right then.

The real point is that this business of the dance accompanies exaltation of the highest, the human thing, and it also goes into the Dionysian frenzy, which in modern life hardly anyone even speaks of anymore. But the real profundity of that experience, I mean, in the sense of the mood itself, seemed to be, you know, the whole Islamic world. All the cultures were with you. This is exactly what they felt when they were rolling in the circular, you know, frenzy thing. And your perceptions, as I say, both in sight and particularly in sound and smell, and frequently also another is that you get the transfer of senses. Sometimes that comes even with memory. You know, Hopkins says in one of his… when he said that "I tasted brass in my mouth," well, that's the very essence, it seems to me, of metaphysical thinking. That is when the body itself… when Vaughan says, "When felt through all my fleshy dress, ripe shoots of everlastingness," well, that's the feeling. You feel one way that you are eternal, or immortal, and it doesn't seem to be a cheap thing either. And furthermore, death becomes, as it were, an absurdity, of no consequence. And also, the notion, conceptions, of time are completely subjective, and I've often thought sometimes that when the suicidal leaps from the window, when he hits that pavement and is just a blob, who knows, maybe he explodes into a million universes and he is happy. Who knows? That's behind, you know, the nuttier aspects of certain Hindu religions, when they'd start dancing and singing and finally in this ecstasy run right into the god-damn sea when they know all those sharks are there. Nothing could stop 'em. I mean, we can say that this is collective madness. It is, but it's part of the human psyche; it's there.

Well, maybe part of our problems, people nowadays, is that we have lost contact with both the ecstasy and the frenzy. "But the unconscious is a very funny thing," said he pontifically. I know, I know I'm supposed to have… as Kunitz says, "He sinks into the very bed of the self, and disorder itself has, takes on, its images or given images." Well, I think almost anyone could do that once they were willing to, shall we say, to pay the price. I mean, I think maybe this business about being able to tap the unconscious is a polite kind of way of saying you speak completely nutty, I mean, or potty, as it were.

Let me get back to this point—the unconscious, you can take a dive in and you come up with all kinds of garbage around your neck, or you can bring up something beautiful. I mean, in a sense it's like nature. I suppose it is nature, an interior nature. I mean, part of it's dead, irrational… dead. And when it's unlike nature, well, it can't be bullied. Maybe you can bully nature under some conditions. Does it sound like too cryptic a remark?

Eischler in New York has written on death, and Hoffer is one of the very great ones, and these things which sound sort of eerie and scary, to them are absolutely comprehensible. Well, what I mean is, we have modern man living as if he had no unconscious, as if he had none, and being ashamed of the impulse. That is, building up guilts about say, even masturbation and whatnot. Well, for God's sake, the most advanced thinking, as far as I can determine, is that any sexual expression, if done with love or even understanding is legitimate. I mean, therefore, of course, I suppose I'm no expert on the homosexual kick, but I mean, what the hell. Well, I don't mean to get mumbling about that, but the point is that once you neglect the unconscious and act as if isn't going to backfire personally it can backfire collectively, and that's certainly what happened with the Nazis, with the Germans, with a whole great, gifted people, in many ways more gifted, say, than the English.

Oh well, when I finally got into these poems, the first one, which was "The Lost Son," came after a period of very intensive teaching, and also teaching particularly lyrics and long poems like "Anthony and Cleopatra." Then I began to realize what could be done by playing against the line, as it were, and also I saw certain forms of the diminishing kind in the Elizabethan songs. I wasn't conscious of that at the time. I wanted to write the kind of poem which would follow the action of the mind itself. And furthermore, a kind of poem which could represent the struggle—that is, between the two parts of one's personality, the self and the other self, daemon, call it what you will. So I began writing a style that had a considerable speed but still used monosyllables. But the shape of the stanzas was essentially as if I was composing for music. In other words, the poem would have a theme started and then that theme replied to, or answered to. There might be question, then answer, et cetera. The general design of these poems was cyclic. That is, frequently they began in the mire, in the depths, in a depressed state, if you will, and then they moved out. And often the eventual end came to a kind of resolution, or sometimes as euphoria, in other words, a poem of joy. The important thing to remember is that the euphoria, or euphorias, are not all the same, but they are conditioned by the very sights that are in the eye, and the mind's eye at the time. And I think it's rather odd that conditions of joy have much more variety than conditions of depression or despair, the blank grayness and sameness of the lower depths, as it were, although again, there are certainly degrees and depths of terror.

Well, as I say, (I) follow the movement of the mind itself, mind that is cyclic or, if you will, manic, to use an overworked or misunderstood term. But to take that movement and then to turn it into art, one takes only the general design of that movement, and there are times of interlude, times of rest, times of waiting. Then, of course, these poems that followed were kind of soul's history, beginning with a small child. As Burke has pointed out, adolescence is peculiarly an interlude time, a time of being blurred or fuzzy or uncertain about what is happening, what's going on. I said someplace that "so much of adolescence is an ill-defined dying" ("I'm Here"). Of course, we are always dying into ourselves, and then renewing ourselves. That's perhaps as good a definition as any of what I do, or what I try to do. But this is simply one kind of poem. That is, I believe that a poet should show as many parts of his nature as he can in all decency reveal, and that includes the epigram, the aphorism, the joke, the song, the song-like poem, up to the very highly formalized lyric. It's there, perhaps, I come closest to old W.B. Yeats, but I think I do a different thing technically. I end-stop the lines much more than he ever did. In other words, I'm using a style that was more current—and the language was perhaps a little less sophisticated—in the 16th century, we'll say, in an effort to write a plain, bare, an even terrible statement. Whether one does it, of course, it always depends on the reader.

I think the deepest and most evocative images that come out of poetry are those, the things you saw and smelled and felt with the senses the earliest. But curiously enough I have rather a bad memory in the literal sense.

I sometimes try to render the object faithfully, to see it as intensely as I can, and turn that back into language, language that doesn't compete necessarily with the painter. In final terms, the purely imagistic poetry is decidedly limited if it remains nothing more than image, however good. But it is my belief that a thing perceived finally—and when one looks so long at the object or has looked at it habitually, or looked at it out of love as Rilke would look at an animal in the zoo for hours on end, until you become that object and it becomes you—is an extension of consciousness.

I can't profess to know. Well, maybe the kind of knowing that occurs in poetry is related at least to satori, as it were. I believe that one can suddenly become aware of another consciousness, a consciousness other than immediate; and sometimes that may happen to be a very trivial thing. And Proust has recorded this better than anyone when he stumbles going up to church, and he's suddenly aware that there's another world other than his, a consciousness that is higher. From what I gather from Japanese, our version of what is usually thought of as Zen is pretty superficial, to say the least. Suzuki himself is rather careless, and most of the Beats take Suzuki as their bible. It does represent a really rugged discipline, of course, so ritualized, so formalized. But let me see. It is possible that I might come close to it, if I can find… well, yea, in "The Right Thing Happens to the Happy Man." This is "His being single, that being all," or "he sits still, the solid figure when / "The self-destructive shake the common wall; / Takes to himself what mystery he can." This's possibly close to Zen notion… that's that sitting still which goes beyond mere quietism. I mean, quietism as such is noble enough, but it's a relatively low plane. Also, at the end of "The Abyss," this, I don't know, this isn't Zen essentially, but is Buddhistic. I mean, there's deliberate allusion to the Buddha here: "I am most immoderately married: / "Lord God has taken my heaviness away; / I have merged, like the bird, with the bright air, / And my thought flies to the place by the bo-tree. / Being, not doing, is my first joy."

Hayden Carruth (essay date 1964)

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SOURCE: "Requiem for God's Gardner," in The Nation, Vol. 199, No. 8, September 28, 1964, pp. 168-69.

[In the following review, Carruth judges that in The Far Field Roethke achieved qualified success.]

During the past year the fashion has been to praise Theodore Roethke to the skies. But what possible good can it do the poor guy now that he's dead and in the ground? He was a marvelous poet and apparently, in some of his moods, a charming, likable person. But he was not a Yeats or a Keats—he was too unsure of himself, technically and emotionally, to write the handful of absolute poems that one needs to enter the first rank—and we do an injustice to his memory and to our own worthiness as memorialists if we say otherwise. It will be better all around if we try instead to see exactly what he was.

This book [The Far Field] of his last work helps a good deal. Some of the poems, perhaps fifteen of the whole forty-eight, seem to be unfinished work. At least they contain errors of composition that Roethke almost certainly would have corrected, though since we aren't told how or by whom the book was assembled, conjecture is useless. It is best to disregard these poems. Ten or twelve of the rest are very good Roethke indeed, the equal, or nearly, of anything in his previous work. On every page one finds, as expected, something quite brilliant, even if only a line or a word. The poems are divided about equally among Roethke's three chief modes: the song; the longer poem in loose meters devoted to themes from nature, including human nature; and the denser poem in end-stopped pentameters, usually rhymed and usually philosophical in substance.

All the poems are about death. This was true of his earlier poems too, of course, the whole body of his work being a repeated failing defense against the fear of dying. But in these last poems the failures come more quickly, more insistently, and the fear deepens into a terrible malady.

Perhaps this is why the failures are so beautiful. In his last years he concentrated every ounce of his lyrical strength on the task of escaping, submerging the self in the universe, silencing the individual voice in the voice of nature. "I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form," he wrote, and again: Being, not doing, is my first joy." "I would be a stream… a leaf." "On one side [our side] of silence there is no smile; / But when I breathe with the birds, / The spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of blessing. / And the dead begin from their dark to sing in my sleep." The intention is unmistakable and quite conventional, call it what you will: a Platonism of suburbia, the birdwatcher's transcendentalism; it is easy, too easy, to mock. The fact is that in his best poems about nature Roethke almost brought it off, partly through his verbal and imaginative power, partly through his individual synthesis of disparate pantheistic strains. He took his sources where he found them, Taoism, Amerindian poetry, Mother Goose; mostly he invented them.

A third factor was Roethke's skill as an amateur naturalist. He really was a birdwatcher, an excellent one, and his professional knowledge of flowers began in his father's greenhouses. (Who else would know that tulips "creak"?—yet they do.) In such a poem as "All Morning" he brings together in one catalogue the minute felicities of songbirds, even their cutenesses, the things we deprecate on greeting cards, and does it so unaffectedly that suddenly we realize he has touched the elemental force of the universe. When he writes of nature's larger aspects, such as the movements of waters and mountains, he evokes a sense of the cosmic resistlessness more compelling than that in any other recent poetry I can think of.

Yet these poems fail. They fail in their very brilliance and beauty. They do not do what Roethke wistfully hopes they do. When he says, "I lose and find myself in the long water," or "What does what it should do needs nothing more," these are statements only; highly poetic statements, often successful as such, but they were intended to transcend poetry. They do not. And since their intention is not only their meaning but their function—their place in the poem's completion—they destroy themselves. The individual voice is not silenced, the single consciousness still asserts its claims and fears, its tremulous and eternal devastation. Roethke's voice and consciousness; and ours. In weariness, vexation, and a kind of merriment, he sighs: "Running from God's the longest race of all." Then did he, at the end, return to God, as some reviewers have suggested? Of course he could not. Instead we see him, a huge melancholy man, laughing in shyness, stopping, peering around, continuing again, stumbling, quivering, dancing, crying, singing, up to the cemetery gate. This is his poem. It is the poem par excellence of his generation. And if he did not quite succeed in containing it within any of the individual forms that he titled his poems, it reveals itself clearly enough in the whole. It moves us deeply because Roethke was one of us, and it will continue to do so for a long time because Roethke had the ability to write lines that can be remembered; for example, several that I have quoted in this review, though I did not choose them with this in mind. Memorability isn't the only proof of fine poetry, nor the most important, but it is still rare enough to be distinguished, I think, and pleasing enough to be cherished.

Denis Donoghue (essay date 1965)

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SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke," in Connoisseurs of Chaos: Ideas of Order in Modern American Poetry, The Macmillan Company, 1965, pp. 219-45.

[Donoghue is an Irish-born educator and literary critic. In his study The Arts without Mystery (1984), he attacks the tendency of contemporary societies to reduce art to a commodity. In the following essay, Donoghue perceives Roethke's poetry as an attempt to discern order and purpose in a world that may seem meaningless.]

There is a poem called "Snake" in which Theodore Roethke describes a young snake turning and drawing away and then says:

I felt my slow blood warm.
I longed to be that thing,
The pure, sensuous form.

And I may be, some time.

To aspire to a condition of purity higher than any available in the human world is a common urge. Poets often give this condition as a pure, sensuous form, nothing if not itself and nothing beyond itself. But it is strange, at first sight, that Roethke gives his parable in the image of a snake, because snakes tend to figure in his poems as emblems of the sinister. In "Where Knock is Open Wide" one of the prayerful moments reads: "I'll be a bite. You be a wink. / Sing the snake to sleep." In "I Need, I Need" the term "snake-eyes" is enough to send its owner packing. And there is this, in "The Shape of the Fire":

Up over a viaduct I came, to the snakes and sticks of another winter,
A two-legged dog hunting a new horizon of howls.

But this is at first sight, or at first thought, because Roethke, more than most poets, sought a sustaining order in the images of his chaos, and only those images would serve. If you offer a dove as answer to a snake, your answer is incomplete, an order not violent enough. Hence when the right time came, in "I'm Here," Roethke would find that a snake lifting its head is a fine sight, and a snail's music is a fine sound, and both are joys, credences of summer. As Roethke says in "The Longing," "The rose exceeds, the rose exceeds us all."

But he did not sentimentalize his chaos. He lived with it, and would gladly have rid himself of it if he could have done so without an even greater loss, the loss of verifiable life. When he thought of his own rage, for instance, he often saw it as mere destructiveness. In one of his early poems he said: "Rage warps my clearest cry / To witless agony." And he often resorted to invective, satire, pseudonymous tirades, to cleanse himself of rage and hatred. In one of those tirades he said, "Behold, I'm a heart set free, for I have taken my hatred and eaten it." But "Death Piece" shows that to be released from rage is to be—quite simply—dead. And the price is too high. This is one of the reasons why Roethke found the last years of W. B. Yeats so rewarding, because Yeats made so much of his rage, in the Last Poems, The Death of Cuchulain, and Purgatory. In one of his own apocalyptic poems, "The Lost Son," Roethke says, "I want the old rage, the lash of primordial milk," as if to recall Yeats' cry, "Grant me an old man's frenzy." And in "Old Lady's Winter Words" he says: "If I were a young man, / I could roll in the dust of a fine rage…"; and in "The Sententious Man": "Some rages save us. Did I rage too long? / The spirit knows the flesh it must consume." Hence Roethke's quest for the saving rage. Call it—for it is this—a rage for order. He was sometimes tempted to seal himself against the rush of experience, and he reminds himself in "The Adamant" that the big things, such as truth, are sealed against thought; the true substance, the core, holds itself inviolate. And yet man is exposed, exposes himself. And, in a sense, rightly so. As Yeats says in the great "Dialogue of Self and Soul":

I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch.

In "The Pure Fury" Roethke says, "I live near the abyss." What he means is the substance of his poetry. The abyss is partly the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch, partly a ditch of his own contriving, partly the fate of being human in a hard time, partly the poet's weather. As discreetly as possible we can take it for granted, rehearsing it only to the extent of linking it with the abyss in other people. Better to think of it as the heart of each man's darkness. In "Her Becoming" Roethke speaks of it in one aspect:

I know the cold fleshless kiss of contraries,
The neverless constriction of surfaces—
Machines, machines, loveless, temporal;
Mutilated souls in cold morgues of obligation

And this becomes, in the "Fourth Meditation," "the dreary dance of opposites." (But so far it is common enough.)

It is still common enough when Roethke presents it through the ambiguities of body and soul. In "Epidermal Macabre" Roethke, like Yeats in The Tower, wishes the body away in favor of a spirit remorselessly sensual:

And willingly would I dispense
With false accounterments of sense,
To sleep immodestly, a most
Incarnadine and carnal ghost.

Or again, when the dance of opposites is less dreary, Roethke accepts with good grace the unwinding of body from soul:

When opposites come suddenly in place,
I teach my eyes to hear, my ears to see
How body from spirit slowly does unwind
Until we are pure spirit at the end.

Sometimes the body is "gristle." In "Praise to the End" Roethke says, "Skin's the least of me," and in the "First Meditation" it is the rind that "hates the life within." (Yeats' "dying animal" is clearly visible.) But there were other moments, as there were in Yeats. In "The Wraith" the body casts a spell, the flesh makes the spirit "visible," and in the "Fourth Meditation" "the husk lives on, ardent as a seed."

Mostly in Roethke the body seems good in itself, a primal energy. And when it is this if features the most distinctive connotations of the modern element: it is a good, but ill at ease with other goods. Above all, it does not guarantee an equable life in the natural world. More often than not in these poems man lives with a hostile nature, and lives as well as he can. In "I Need, I Need" intimations of waste, privation, and insecurity lead to this:

The ground cried my name:
Good-bye for being wrong.
Love helps the sun.
But not enough.

"I can't marry the dirt" is an even stronger version, in "Bring the Day," echoing Wallace Stevens' benign "marriage of flesh and air" while attaching to it now, as courageously as possible, the bare note, "A swan needs a pond"; or, more elaborately in another poem, "A wretch needs his wretchedness." The aboriginal middle poems have similar cries on every page: "These wings are from the wrong nest"; "My sleep deceives me"; "Soothe me, great groans of underneath"; "Rock me to sleep, the weather's wrong"; "Few objects praise the Lord."

These are some of Roethke's intimations of chaos. They reach us as cries, laments, protests, intimations of loss. Most of Roethke's later poems are attempts to cope with these intimations by becoming—in Stevens' sense—their connoisseur. In "The Dance" Roethke speaks of a promise he has made to "sing and whistle romping with the bears"; and whether we take these as animals or constellations, the promise is the same and hard to keep. To bring it off at all, Roethke often plays in a child's garden, especially in poems like "O Lull Me, Lull Me," where he can have everything he wants by having it only in fancy. "Light fattens the rock," he sings, to prove that good children get treats. "When I say things fond, I hear singing," he reports, and we take his word for it; as we do again when we acknowledge, in a later poem, that "the right thing happens to the happy man." Perhaps it does. But when Roethke says, "I breathe into a dream, / And the ground cries…," and again, "I could say hello to things; / I could talk to a snail," we think that he protests too much, and we know that his need is great. Roethke is never quite convincing in this note, or in the hey-nonny note of his neo-Elizabethan pastiche. Even when he dramatizes the situation in the "Meditations of an Old Woman" the answers come too easily. In two stanzas he has "the earth itself a tune," and this sounds like a poet's wishful dreaming. Roethke may have wanted the kind of tone that Stevens reached in his last poems, an autumnal calm that retains the rigor and the feeling but banishes the fretful note, the whine, the cry of pain. But Stevens earned this. And Yeats earned it too, in poems like "Beautiful Lofty Things." Roethke claimed it without really earning it. Here is a stanza from "Her Becoming":

Ask all the mice who caper in the straw—
I am benign in my own company.
A shape without a shade, or almost none,
I hum in pure vibration, like a saw.
The grandeur of a crazy one alone—
By swoops of bird, by leaps of fish, I live.
My shadow steadies in a shifting stream;
I live in air; the long lights is my home;
I dare caress the stones, the field my friend;
A light wind rises: I become the wind.

And here is Stevens, in a passage from "The Course of a Particular":

The leaves cry. It is not a cry of divine attention,
Nor the smoke-drift of puffed-out heroes, nor human cry.
It is the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves,
In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more
Than they are in the final finding of the air, in the thing
Itself, until, at last, the cry concerns no one at all.

How can we compare these two passages except to say that Stevens speaks with the knowledge that there have been other days, other feelings, and the hope that there will be more of each, as various as before? Roethke speaks as if the old woman were now released from time and history and the obligations of each, released even from the memories that she has already invoked. There is too much fantasia in Roethke's lines, and this accounts for a certain slackness that fell upon him whenever he tried too hard to be serene. Stevens' poem is, in the full meaning of the word, mature; Roethke's is a little childish, second-childish. Stevens would affirm, when affirmation seemed just, but not before. Roethke longed to affirm, and when the affirmation would not come he sometimes—now and again—dressed himself in affirmative robes.

But only now and again. At his best he is one of the most scrupulous of poets. In "Four for Sir John Davies," for instance, the harmony between nature and man that Davies figured—the orchestra, the dance, the music of the spheres—is brought to bear upon the poem, critically and never naively or sentimentally. The divinely orchestrated universe of Davies' poem is more than a point of reference but far less than an escape route. For one thing, as Roethke says, "I need a place to sing, and dancingroom," and for another, there is no dancing master, and for a third, there isn't even at this stage a dancing partner. So he must do the best he can in his poverty. And if his blood leaps "with a wordless song," at least it leaps:

But what I learned there, dancing all alone,
Was not the joyless motion of a stone.

But even when the partner comes and they dance their joy, Roethke does not claim that this makes everything sweet or that nature and man will thereafter smile at each other. In the farthest reach of joy he says:

We danced to shining; mocked before the black
And shapeless night that made no answer back.

The sensual cry is what it is, and there are moments when it is or seems to be final, but man still lives in the element of antagonisms. In "Four Quartets" the "daunsynge" scene from Sir Thomas Elyot testifies to modes of being, handsome but archaic; it answers no present problem. Nor does Sir John Davies, who plays a similar role in Roethke's sequence. And even before that, in "The Return," man in the element of antagonisms feels and behaves like an animal in his self-infected lair, "With a stump of scraggy fang / Bared for a hunter's boot." And sometimes he turns upon himself in rage.

When Roethke thinks of man in this way, he often presents him in images of useless flurry. Like Saul Bellow's Dangling Man, he is clumsy, ungainly, an elephant in a pond. Roethke often thinks of him as a bat—by day, quiet, cousin to the mouse; at night, crazy, absurd, looping "in crazy figures." And when the human situation is extreme, Roethke thinks of man as a bat flying deep into a narrowing tunnel. Far from being a big, wide space, the world seems a darkening corridor. In "Bring the Day!" Roethke says, "Everything's closer. Is this a cage?" And if a shape cries from a cloud as it does in "The Exorcism," and calls to man's flesh, man is always somewhere else, "down long corridors." (Corridors, cages, tunnels, lairs—if these poems needed illustration, the painter is easily named: Francis Bacon, keeper of caged souls.)

In "Four for Sir John Davies" the lovers, Roethke says, "undid chaos to a curious sound," "curious" meaning careful as well as strange and exploratory. In this world to undo chaos is always a curious struggle, sometimes thought of as a release from constriction, a stretching in all directions, an escape from the cage. In "What Can I Tell My Bones?" Roethke says, "I recover my tenderness by long looking," and if tenderness is the proof of escape, long looking is one of the means. In King Lear it is to see feelingly. In some of Roethke's poems it is given as, quite simply, attention. In "Her Becoming" Roethke speaks of a "jauntier principle of order," but this is to dream. What he wants, in a world of cages and corridors, is to escape to an order, an order of which change and growth and decay are natural mutations and therefore acceptable. In many of the later poems it will be an order of religious feeling, for which the punning motto is, "God, give me a near."

The first step, the first note toward a possible order, is to relish what can be relished. Listening to "the sigh of what is," one attends, knowing, or at least believing, that "all finite things reveal infinitude." If things "flame into being," so much the better. "Dare I blaze like a tree?" Roethke asks at one point, like the flaming tree of Yeats' "Vacillation." And again Roethke says, "What I love is near at hand, / Always, in earth and air." This is fine, as far as it goes, but it is strange that Roethke is more responsive to intimations of being when they offer themselves in plants than in people; and here, of course, he differs radically from Yeats. In the first version of "Cuttings" he is exhilarated when "the small cells bulge," when cuttings sprout into a new life, when bulbs hunt for light, when the vines in the forcing house pulse with the knocking pipes, when orchids draw in the warm air, when beetles, newts, and lice creep and wriggle. In "Slug" he rejoices in his kinship with bats, weasels, and worms. In "A Walk in Late Summer" being "delights in being, and in time." In the same poem Roethke delights in the "midnight eyes" of small things, and in several poems he relishes what Christopher Smart in Jubilate Agno calls "the language of flowers." Everywhere in Roethke there is consolation in the rudimentary when it is what it is, without fantasia. It is a good day when the spiders sail into summer. But Roethke is slow to give the same credences to man. Plants may be transplanted, and this is good, but what is exhilarating reproduction in insects and flowers is mere duplication in people. Girls in college are "duplicate gray standard faces"; in the same poem there is talk of "endless duplication of lives and objects." Man as a social being is assimilated to the machine; the good life is lived by plants. In the bacterial poems, weeds are featured as circumstance, the rush of things, often alien but often sustaining. "Weeds, weeds, how I love you," Roethke says in "The Shape of the Fire." In the "First Meditation," "On love's worst ugly day, / The weeds hiss at the edge of the field…." In "What Can I Tell My Bones?" "Weeds turn toward the wind weed-skeletons," presumably because "the dead love the unborn." But in "Praise to the End!" when the water's low and romping days are over, "the weeds exceed me."

There are two ways of taking this, and Roethke gives us both. Normally we invoke the rudimentary to criticize the complex: the lower organism rebukes the higher for falling short of itself, as body rebukes the arrogance of vaunting mind or spirit. This works on the assumption that what is simple is more "natural" than what is complex, and that lower organisms have the merit of such simplicity. Or, alternatively, one can imply that the most exalted objects of our human desire are already possessed, in silence and grace, by the lower organisms. Roethke often does this. In "The Advice," for instance, he says:

A learned heathen told me this:
Dwell in pure mind and Mind alone;
What you brought back from the Abyss,
The Slug was taught beneath his Stone.

This is so presumably because the slug had a teacher, perhaps the dancing master who has retired from the human romp. Roethke doesn't commit the sentimentality of implying, however, that all is sweetness and light in the bacterial world, and generally he avoids pushing his vegetal analogies too far. In his strongest poems the bacterial is featured as a return to fundamentals, a syntax of short phrases to represent the radical breaking-up that may lead to a new synthesis. In grammatical terms, we have broken the spine of our syntax by loading it with our own fetishes. So we must begin again as if we were learning a new language, speaking in short rudimentary phrases. Or, alternatively, we learn in simple words and phrases, hoping that eventually we may reach the light of valid sentences. In this spirit Roethke says, in a late poem, "God bless the roots!—Body and soul are one!" The roots, the sensory facts, are beneath or beyond doubt; in "The Longing" Roethke says, "I would believe my pain: and the eye quiet on the growing rose." Learning a new language in this way, we must divest ourselves at this first stage of all claims to coherence, synthesis, or unity. This is the secular equivalent of the "way of purgation" in "Four Quartets," and it serves a corresponding purpose, because here too humility is endless. If our humility is sufficient, if we attend to the roots, to beginnings, we may even be rewarded with a vision in which beginning and end are one, as in the poem "In Evening Air":

We can see how this goes in the first stanzas of "Where Knock is Open Wide":

A kitten can
Bite with his feet;
Papa and Mama
Have more teeth.

We can take this as pure notation, the primitive vision linking things that to the complex adult eye seem incommensurate. But the adult eye is "wrong," and it must go to school again if it is ever to say, "I recover my tenderness by long looking." Roethke's lines are "intuitions of sensibility," the ground of our beseeching, acts of the mind at the very first stage, long before idea, generalization, or concept. And this is the only way to innocence—or so the poem suggests. Then he says in the second stanza:

Sit and play
Under the rocker
Until the cows
All have puppies.

Here the aimlessness of the kitten stands for the innocence of game and apprehension. The play is nonchalant, and it conquers time by the ease of its reception. Time is measured by the laws of growth and fruition, not by the clock. In this sense it is proper to say, as Roethke does in the next stanza:

His ears haven't time.
Sing me a sleep-song, please.
A real hurt is soft.

In Christopher Smart's "A Song to David" (the source of the title of the present poem) stanza 77 includes the lines:

And in the seat to faith assigned
Where ask is have, where seek is find,
Where knock is open wide.

The cat's ears haven't time because they don't ask for it. If time is for men the destructive element, that is their funeral, and mostly their suicide. "Sing me a sleep-song, please" is a prayer to be released from time. "A real hurt is soft" is an attempt to render human pain as pure description, to eliminate self-pity. And the appropriate gloss is the second stanza of "The Lost Son"—"Fished in an old wound, / The soft pond of repose"—to remind us that the primitive vision is at once harsh and antiseptic. (Roethke himself sometimes forgot this.) Hence these intuitions of rudimentary sensibility are exercises, akin to spiritual exercises, all the better if they are caustic, purgative, penitential. The exercises are never finished, because this is the way things are, but once they are well begun the soul can proceed; the energy released is the rage for a sustaining order.

The search for order begins easily enough in Roethke. Sometimes, as we have seen, it begins in celebration, relishing what there is to relish. Or again it may begin by sounding a warning note. The early poem "To My Sister" is a rush of admonition designed for survival and prudence. "Defer the vice of flesh," he tells her, but on the other hand, "Keep faith with present joys." Later, Roethke would seek and find value in intimations of change and growth, and then in love, normally sexual love. Many of the love poems are beautiful in an Elizabethan way, which is one of the best ways, and whether their delicacy is entirely Roethke's own or partly his way of acknowledging the delicacy of Sir Thomas Wyatt is neither here nor there. Some of the love poems are among Roethke's finest achievements. I would choose "The Renewal," "I Knew a Woman," "The Sensualists," "The Swan," "She," and "The Voice"—or this one, "Memory":

In the slow world of dream,
We breathe in unison.
The outside dies within,
And she knows all I am.

She turns, as if to go,
Half-bird, half-animal.
The wind dies on the hill.
Love's all. Love's all I know.

A doe drinks by a stream,
A doe and its fawn.
When I follow after them,
The grass changes to stone.

Love was clearly a principle of order in Roethke's poems, but it never established itself as a relation beyond the bedroom. It never became dialogue or caritas. Outside the bedroom Roethke became his own theme, the center of a universe deemed to exist largely because it had such a center. This does not mean that the entire universe was mere grist to his mill; he is not one of the predatory poets. But on the other hand, he does not revel in the sheer humanity of the world. Indeed, his universe is distinctly under-populated. Even Aunt Tilly entered it only when she died, thereby inciting an elegy. This is not to question Roethke's "sincerity"; poems are written for many reasons, one of which is the presence of poetic forms inviting attention. But to indicate the nature of Roethke's achievement it is necessary to mark the areas of his deepest response and to point to those areas that he acknowledged more sluggishly, if at all. I have already implied that he responded to the human modes of being only when a specific human relation touched him and he grasped it. He did not have that utter assent to other people, other lives, that marks the best poetry of William Carlos Williams or Richard Eberhart, the feeling that human life is just as miraculous as the growth of an orchid or the "excess" of a rose. Indeed, one might speculate along these lines: that Roethke's response to his father and mother and, in the love poems, to his wife was so vivid that it engrossed all other responses in the human world. It set up a monopoly. And therefore flowers and plants were closer to him than people.

Even when he acknowledged a natural order of things, Roethke invariably spoke of it as if it did not necessarily include the human order or as if its inclusion of that order were beside the point. The natural order of things included moss growing on rock, the transplanting of flowers, the cycle of mist, cloud, and rain, the tension of nest and grave, and it might even include what he calls, rather generally, "the wild disordered language of the natural heart." But the question of the distinctively human modes of life was always problematic. In Roethke's poems human life is endorsed when it manages to survive a storm, as in "Big Wind," where the greenhouse—Roethke's symbol for "the whole of life"—rides the storm and sails into the calm morning. There is also the old florist, standing all night watering the roses, and the single surviving tulip with its head swaggering over the dead blooms—and then Otto.

To survive, to live through the weeds—in Roethke's world you do this by taking appropriate security measures. Property is a good bet. In "Where Knock is Open Wide" there is a passage that reads:

That was before. I fell! I fell!
The worm has moved away.
My tears are tired.

Nowhere is out. I saw the cold.
Went to visit the wind. Where the birds die.
How high is have?

The part we need is the last line, "How high is have?" This virtually identifies security with property. In several poems Roethke will pray for a close relation to God, and this will rate as security, but in the meantime even property in a material sense will help. And because he lived in our own society and sought order from the images of his chaos, security and property normally meant money. In "The Lost Son," for instance, there is this:

And even if he wrote two or three poems to make fun of this, the fact remains: property and the fear of dispossession, money and the lack of it, were vivid terms in his human image. Property was money in one's purse, more reliable than most things—more reliable than reason, for instance.

In his search for a viable and live order Roethke used his mind for all it was worth, but he would not vote for reason. He did not believe that you could pit the rational powers against the weeds of circumstance and hope to win. When he spoke of reason it was invariably Stevens' "Reason's click-clack," a mechanical affair. In one poem Roethke says, "Reason? That dreary shed, that hutch for grubby schoolboys!" Indeed, reason normally appears in his poems, at least officially, as a constriction. Commenting on his poem "In a Dark Time," Roethke said that it was an attempt "to break through the barriers of rational experience." The self, the daily world, reason, meant bondage; to come close to God you had to break through. These things were never the medium of one's encounter with God, always obstacles in its way. For such encounters you had to transcend reason; if you managed it, you touched that greater thing that is the "reason in madness" of King Lear. The good man takes the risk of darkness. If reason's click-clack is useless, there remains in man a primitive striving toward the light. Nature, seldom a friend to man, at least offers him a few saving analogies, one being that of darkness and light. Much of this is given in the last stanzas of "Unfold! Unfold!":

To go where light is: the object is self-possession, sometimes featured as a relation to the world:

I lose and find myself in the long water;
I am gathered together once more;
I embrace the world.

To be one's own man, to come upon "the true ease of myself," to possess oneself so fluently as to say, "Being, not doing, is my first joy"—these are definitive joys when "the light cries out, and I am there to hear." If it requires "the blast of dynamite" to effect such movements, well and good. At any cost Roethke must reach the finality in which, as he says in "Meditation at Oyster River," "the flesh takes on the pure poise of the spirit." (This is his version of Yeats' "Unity of Being.") Hence he admires the tendrils that do not need eyes to seek, the furred caterpillar that crawls down a string, anything that causes movement, gives release, breaks up constriction. In the natural world there is growth, the flow of water, the straining of buds toward the light. And in the poet's craft these move in harmony with the vivid cadence, fluency, Yeats' "tact of words," the leaping rhythm.

For the rest, Roethke's symbolism is common enough. The life-enhancing images are rain, rivers, flowers, seed, grain, birds, fish, veins. The danger signals are wind, storm, darkness, drought, shadow. And the great event is growth, in full light. "The Shape of the Fire" ends:

To have the whole air!
The light, the full sun
Coming down on the flowerheads,
The tendrils turning slowly,
A slow snail-lifting, liquescent;
To be by the rose
Rising slowly out of its bed,
Still as a child in its first loneliness;
To see cyclamen veins become clearer in early sunlight,
And mist lifting out of the brown cattails;
To stare into the after-light, the glitter left on the lake's surface,
When the sun has fallen behind a wooded island;
To follow the drops sliding from a lifted oar,
Held up, while the rower breathes, and the small boat drifts quietly shoreward;
To know that light falls and fills, often without our knowing,
As an opaque vase fills to the brim from a quick pouring,
Fills and trembles at the edge yet does not flow over,
Still holding and feeding the stem of the contained flower.

The flower, contained, securely held in a vase filled with water and light—with this image we are close to the core of Roethke's poetry, where all the analogies run together. The only missing element is what he often called "song," the ultimate in communication, and for that we need another poem, another occasion. One of his last poems, a love poem, ends:

We met to leave again
The time we broke from time;
A cold air brought its rain,
The singing of a stem.
She sang a final song;
Light listened when she sang.

If light listens, if light attends upon a human event, then the event is final. Kenneth Burke has pointed out that Roethke tends to link things, whenever there is a choice, by means of a word in the general vocabulary of communication. We need only add this, that when the relation is as close as a relation can be, the participants "sing," and there is singing everywhere, singing and listening. "The light cries out, and I am there to hear."

Pushed to their conclusion, or followed to their source, these analogies would run straight to the idea of God, or rather to the image of God. And taking such stock in the symbolism of creation and light, Roethke could hardly have avoided this dimension. Nor did he. One of his last and greatest poems is called "The Marrow":

The wind from off the sea says nothing new.
The mist above me sings with its small flies.
From a burnt pine the sharp speech of a crow
Tells me my drinking breeds a will to die.
What's the worst portion in this mortal life?
A pensive mistress, and a yelping wife.

One white face shimmers brighter than the sun
When contemplation dazzles all I see;
One look too close can make my soul away.
Brooding on God, I may become a man.
Pain wanders through my bones like a lost fire;
What burns me now? Desire, desire, desire.
Godhead above my God, are you there still?
To sleep is all my life. In sleep's half-death,
My body alters, altering the soul
That once could melt the dark with its small breath.
Lord, hear me out, and hear me out this day:
From me to Thee's a long and terrible way.

I was flung back from suffering and love
When light divided on a storm-tossed tree;
Yea, I have slain my will, and still I live;
I would be near; I shut my eyes to see;
I bleed my bones, their marrow to bestow
Upon that God who knows what I would know.

The first stanza is all alienation—from nature and man and the self. The second is preparation for prayer, a relation with God as the light of light, source of the sun. The third is the prayer itself to the ground of all beseeching. In the fourth and last stanza the loss of self-hood is associated with the breakup of light on a storm-tossed tree, the emaciation of the human will; and then the last gesture—the voiding of the self, restitution, atonement (a characteristic sequence in late Roethke).

From the poems I have quoted, it might seem that Roethke was concerned with only one thing—himself. And this is true. But in his case it does not mean what it usually does. It does not mean that he is thrilled by his own emotions or that he spends much time in front of his mirror. The saving grace in Roethke, as in Whitman, is the assumption that he is a representative instance, no more if no less. When Roethke searches for value and meaning he assumes that this is interesting insofar as it is representative and not at all interesting when it ceases to be so. This is the source of Roethke's delicacy, as of Whitman's. When he says, in "I Need, I Need," "The Trouble is with No and Yes," or when he says, in "The Pure Fury," "Great Boehme rooted all in Yes and No," he advances this choice as a universal predicament rather than a proof of his own tender conscience. Again, in "The Waking" and other poems of similar intent, when he says, "I learn by going where I have to go," he is not claiming this as a uniquely sensitive perception; the line points to areas of feeling important because universal. And when he says, "Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?" the question is given with notable modesty, although indeed Roethke could have staked a higher claim for it, since it is the basis of several of his own religious poems. The motto for this delicacy in Roethke is a line from "The Sententious Man": "Each one's himself, yet each one's everyone." And there is the "Fourth Meditation" to prove that Roethke was never really in danger of solipsism.

With these qualifications, then, it is permissible to say that he was his own theme and to consider what this means in the poems—with this point in mind, however, that Whitman's equations were not available to Roethke. Roethke was not content to think of the self as the sum of its contents, even if he had Yeats to tell him that a mind is as rich as the images it contains. He would try to accumulate property, but only because he thought of property as a protective dike; behind the dike, one could live. But he never thought of this as having anything to do with the "nature" of the self. The self was problematic, but not a problem in addition. In one of his last and most beautiful poems, "In a Dark Time," he said:

A man goes far to find out what he is—
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

That is still the question. In the early poems Roethke held to the common romantic idea of "the opposing self," the self defined by its grappling with the weeds of circumstance; hence, as Hopkins said, "Long Live the Weeds." Much later, Roethke was to consider this more strictly, notably in a poem like "The Exorcism," where he asks in a beguiling parenthesis, "(Father of flowers, who / Dares face the thing he is?)" And this question is joined to several bacterial images of man partaking uneasily of several worlds, beasts, serpents, the heron and the wren. In "Weed Puller" man is down in a fetor of weeds, "Crawling on all fours, / Alive, in a slippery grave."

Many of the middle poems feature a declared loss of self, often given as division, absence. In "Where Knock is Open Wide" Roethke says:

I'm somebody else now.
Don't tell my hands.
Have I come to always? Not yet.
One father is enough.

Maybe God has a house.
But not here.

There is a similar feeling in "Sensibility! O La!" and in "The Shimmer of Evil" perhaps the most explicit of all versions is, quite simply, "And I was only I"—which leads almost predictably but nonetheless beautifully to "There was no light; there was no light at all." The later poems tend to reflect upon the nature of the self by listing its demands; behind the love poems there is the assertion that "we live beyond / Our outer skin" even when the body sways to music. And much of this feeling culminates in the lovely "Fourth Meditation," which begins with many intuitions of sensibility and goes on to this:

This is a later version of the predicament, loss of self, which cries through the middle poems. In "The Lost Son" he says:

Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home.
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

And a few lines later we read: "Voice, come out of the silence. / Say something." But there is no song in that "kingdom of bang and blab." In Roethke's poems song is proof that infinity clings to the finite. In "Old Lady's Winter Words" he says, "My dust longs for the invisible." What he wants is given in phrase, image, and rhythm: "the gradual embrace / of lichen around stones"; "Deep roots"; and, quite directly:

Where is the knowledge that
Could bring me to my God?

The only knowledge is reason in madness.

Theodore Roethke was a slow starter in poetry. He survived and grew and developed without attaching himself to schools or groups. He was never a boy wonder; he was never fashionable as the Beat poets were fashionable; most of the currents of easy feeling left him untouched, unmoved. He never set up shop as a left-wing poet or a right-wing poet or a Catholic poet or a New England poet or a Southern poet or a California poet. He never claimed privilege in any region of feeling. This was probably as good for his poetry as it was bad for his fame. He made his way by slow movements, nudgings of growth, like his own plants and flowers. But he grew, and his poems got better all the time—so much so, that his last poems were his greatest achievements, marvelously rich and humane. Along the way he was helped by friends, often poets like Louise Bogan and Marianne Moore, but this is another story, not mine to tell. He was, however, helped also by other writers, earlier poets, and some of this story may be told, and the telling should disclose something of the poetry. Clearly, he was a careful, scrupulous poet. There are lines and phrases here and there that show that he was prone to infection, picking up things from lesser poets, like Dylan Thomas, and keeping them beyond the call of prudence. But the poets who really engaged him were those who offered him a challenge, a mode of feeling, perhaps, that he himself might not possess, or possessed without knowing that he did. The Elizabethan song-poets, and especially John Donne, challenged him in this way, and his own love poems reflect not only their own feeling but the strenuous competition of the Elizabethan masters. And then there were poets like Davies and Smart who disclosed certain modes of feeling and belief that were not so deeply a personal challenge but a measure of the time in which we live. And there were the great modern masters whom he could hardly have avoided hearing. He learned a lot from T. S. Eliot—mainly, I think, how to be expressive while holding most of his ammunition in reserve. And this often comes through the verse as a cadence, as in this passage from "I'm Here":

At the stream's edge, trailing a vague finger;
Flesh-awkward, half-alive,
Fearful of high places, in love with horses;
In love with stuffs, silks,
Rubbing my nose in the wool of blankets;
Bemused; pleased to be;
Mindful of cries,
The meaningful whisper,
The wren, the catbird.

Consider the rhetoric of the short phrase, at once giving and taking; Eliot is a great master in these discriminations. Think of this passage in "East Coker":

In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment.

Other cadences Roethke got from other poets—from Hopkins, notably, especially from "The Wreck of the Deutschland," which Roethke uses in the poem about the greenhouse in a storm, "Big Wind":

But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She hove into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm…

From Joyce Roethke learned one kind of language for the primitive, the rudimentary, the aboriginal, especially the Joyce of the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, bearing hard on the first chapter; and Finnegans Wake showed him one way of dealing with the unconscious. And there is Wallace Stevens. Roethke disapproved of Stevens' procedures in argumentative theory, but in fact he learned some fundamental lessons from Stevens. When he says, "I prefer the still joy," he is Stevens' pupil, conning a lesson he could well have done without. And I think he found in Stevens a justification of, if not an incitement to, his own propensity for the "pure moment." In one of his later poems he says, "O to be delivered from the rational into the realm of pure song." And if pure song is pure expression or pure communication, it is also close to Stevens' "hum of thoughts evaded in the mind." Stevens seems to me to be behind those poems in which Roethke longs for essence, for an essential "purity," or finds it in a still moment. He records it in a passage like this, for instance, from the "First Meditation":

And Stevens is behind those poems in which Roethke presents the "single man" who contains everything:

His spirit moves like monumental wind
That gentles on a sunny blue plateau.
He is the end of things, the final man.

When Whitman comes into the later poems, such as "Journey to the Interior," he shows Roethke how to deal with natural forms without hurting them, so that "the spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of blessing"; or how to give one thing after another without lining them up in symbolist rivalry, so that he can say "Beautiful my desire, and the place of my desire"; or how to preserve one's own integrity even when beset by "the terrible hunger for objects." But Whitman was a late consultant to Roethke. Much earlier, and toward the end of his poetic life, he attended upon Yeats' poems and contracted debts handsomely acknowledged in the "In Memoriam" and again in "The Dance." To Roethke—or so it seems from the poems—Yeats stood for the imperious note, concentration, magnificent rhetoric clashing against the bare notation, the dramatic play of self and soul.

What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.

That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

It peters out somewhat. Yeats would not have praised the last line. But the rest is very much in Yeats's shadow, particularly the Yeats of "Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931." The dramatic occasion; the landscape, moralized with a large showing; the poet, finding correspondences and emblems in herons, wrens, swans; nature with her tragic buskin on—these are the Yeatsian gestures. And, to take them a little further, Roethke knows that if he proposes to learn a high rhetoric he must do it in earnest. So he begins with the magisterially rhetorical question, then the short declaration, not yet intimate, "The day's on fire!" and only then the despair. And even now it is given as knowledge rather than romantic exposure, so that even the shadow, the other self, is presented as an object of contemplation before the poet acknowledges the feeling as his own in "a sweating wall."

One of the odd things in this list of relationships, however, is that it is quite possible to think of Roethke as one of the best modern poets without troubling about the fact that he was, after all, an American poet. When reading Stevens or Frost or Williams or Robert Lowell we are constantly aware that we are reading American poets; but this is not an insistent element in Roethke. Indeed, it is quite clear that he bears no special relation to either of the dominant traditions in American poetry—New England and the South. Temperamentally he is not too far away from such writers as Hawthorne, Melville, or James. Like them, in his quite different way, he was concerned with the wounded conscience, the private hazard. But while it is obviously proper in some sense to relate the poems of Robert Lowell to this tradition, it has little bearing on Roethke's work. And the tradition of the South can be ruled out. This suggests that the discussion of American literature in terms of these two traditions may by now have lost much of its force. To think of the New England tradition as scholastic, autocratic, and logical, and the Southern tradition as humanistic, Ciceronian, grammatical, and rhetorical is fine as far as it goes, but its relevance clearly fades in regard to poets like Roethke. This may well be the point to emphasize, that Roethke and many of the poets of his generation took their food wherever they could find it. Yeats could well be more useful to them than, say, Hawthorne, because they saw their problems as being human, universal, in the first instance, and American problems only by application and inference. Roethke committed himself to his own life. He thought of it as a human event of some representative interest. And he set himself to work toward lucidity and order without turning himself into a case study entitled "The Still Complex Fate of Being an American." This is one aspect of Roethke's delicacy. Contemporary American poets, for the most part, are not going his way; they insist upon their complex fate and would not live without it. But Roethke's way of being an American is an eminently respectable way, and part of his achievement is that he makes it available to others.

"The Far Field" is a distinguished example of this delicacy. It has four unequal sections. The first is a dream of journeys, journeys without maps, featuring imprisonment, attenuation of being, the self "flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel" until there is nothing but darkness. It is life in a minor key, diminished thirds of being. The second stanza translates these into major terms, images of force, aggression, suffering, death, dead rats eaten by rain and ground beetles. But the poet, meditating upon these images, thinks of other images, of life, movement, freedom, everything he means by "song." And these natural configurations lead to thoughts of life as cycle, evolution and return, proliferations of being, the whole process of life, which the poet calls "inifinity"; what Wallace Stevens in "The Bouquet" calls "the infinite of the actual perceived, / A freedom revealed, a realization touched, / The real made more acute by an unreal." In the third section the poet feels a corresponding change in himself, a moving forward, a quickening, and as he commits himself to earth and air he says, "I have come to a still, but not a deep center." Naturally it feels like a loss, another diminution of being, even if the sense of life-ordained process is strong. And this feeling leads straight into the fourth and last section:

The lost self changes,
Turning toward the sea,
A sea-shape turning around,—
An old man with his feet before the fire,
In robes of green, in garments of adieu.

A man faced with his own immensity
Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire.
The murmur of the absolute, the why
Of being born fails on his naked ears.
His spirit moves like monumental wind
That gentles on a sunny blue plateau.
He is the end of things, the final man.

All finite things reveal infinitude:
The mountain with its singular bright shade
Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow,
The after-light upon ice-burdened pines;
Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope,
A scent beloved of bees;
Silence of water above a sunken tree:
The pure serene of memory in one man,—
A ripple widening from a single stone
Winding around the waters of the world.

Roethke says: "The end of things, the final man"; Stevens asserts in "The Auroras of Autumn":

There is nothing until in a single man contained,
Nothing until this named thing nameless is
And is destroyed. He opens the door of his house
On flames. The scholar of one candle sees
An Arctic effulgence flaring on the frame
Of everything he is. And he feels afraid.

The difference is that Stevens identifies the man with his imagination, and his imagination with his vision—and insists upon doing so. And the imagination feeds upon as much reality as it can "see" and values only that; what it can't see won't hurt or help it. The scholar has only this one candle. Roethke's man is not a scholar at all, or if he is, he is an amateur, perhaps a mere teacher. His imagination is partly his memory, which offers hospitality to sights, sounds, and smells, and partly his conscience, and partly his feeling for modes of being that he cannot command, directions that he cannot chart. Hence his poems are the cries of their occasions, but rarely cries of triumph. This is what makes his later poems the noble things they are, stretchings of the spirit without fantasia or panache. "Which is the way?" they ask, and if they include God in their reply they do so with due deference, knowing that one can be "too glib about eternal things," too much "an intimate of air and all its songs."

Another way of putting it is that the poems, especially the middle poems, are cries of their occasions, sudden, isolated cries. The later poems turn cries into prayers, praying for a world order, a possible world harmony of which the cries are part, like voices in polyphony. The self in exposure is monotone; a sustaining society is polyphony; God is the Great Composer. The poet's ideal is the part song, music for several instruments, what the Elizabethans called "broken music." In "In Evening Air" Roethke says, "I'll make a broken music, or I'll die." In such poems as "The Marrow" and "In a Dark Time" he made a broken music at once personal and—in Stevens' sense—noble. And then, alas, he died.

Clive James (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: "On Theodore Roethke's Collected Poems," in First Reactions: Critical Essays 1968-79, Alfred A. Knopf, 1980, pp. 59-62.

[James is an Australian-born English critic, poet, and novelist who has written extensively about British culture and national politics but is perhaps best known for his commentaries on television and broadcast programming. Joseph Epstein, of The New York Times Book Review, has judged James "one of the brightest figures in contemporary English intellectual journalism" and the humourous and satirical qualities of his writing—including his poetry—have attracted many readers. In the following review, which was originally published in 1968, he states that a minority of Roethke's poems are highly original and accomplished, though most are derivative.]

When Theodore Roethke died five years ago, his obituaries, very sympathetically written, tended to reveal by implication that the men who wrote them had doubts about the purity and weight of his achievement in poetry. Now that his collected poems have come out, the reviews, on this side of the water at least, strike the attentive reader as the same obituaries rewritten. Roethke was one of those men for whom poetic significance is claimed not only on the level of creativity but also on the level of being: if it is objected that the poems do not seem very individual, the objection can be headed off by saying that the man was a poet apart from his poems, embodying all the problems of writing poetry "in our time." It is a shaky way to argue, and praise degenerates quickly to a kind of complicity when what is being praised is really only a man's ability to hold up against the pressures of his career. Criticism is not about careers.

From the small amount of information which has been let out publicly, and the large amount which circulates privately, it seems probable that Roethke had a difficult life, the difficulties being mainly of a psychic kind that intellectuals find it easy to identify with and perhaps understand too quickly. Roethke earned his bread by teaching in colleges and was rarely without a job in one. It is true that combining the creative and the academic lives sets up pressures, but really these pressures have been exaggerated, to the point where one would think that teaching a course in freshman English were as perilous to the creative faculties as sucking up to titled nobodies, running errands for Roman governors, cutting purses, grinding lenses or getting shot at. If Roethke was in mental trouble, this should be either brought out into the open and diagnosed as well as it can be or else abandoned as a point: it is impermissible to murmur vaguely about the problems of being a poet in our time. Being a poet has always been a problem. If the point is kept up, the uninformed, unprejudiced reader will begin to wonder if perhaps Roethke lacked steel. The widening scope and increasing hospitality of academic life in this century, particularly in the United States, has lured many people into creativity who really have small business with it, since they need too much recognition and too many meals. Plainly Roethke was several cuts above this, but the words now being written in his praise are doing much to reduce him to it.

[Collected Poems] is an important document in showing that originality is not a requirement in good poetry—merely a description of it. All the longer poems in the volume and most of the short ones are ruined by Roethke's inability to disguise his influences. In the few short poems where he succeeded in shutting them out, he achieved a firm, though blurred, originality of utterance: the real Roethke collection, when it appears, will be a ruthlessly chosen and quite slim volume some two hundred pages shorter than the one we now have, but it will stand a good chance of lasting, since its voice will be unique. In this respect, history is very kind: the poet may write only a few good poems in a thousand negligible ones, but those few poems, if they are picked out and properly stored, will be remembered as characteristic. The essential scholarly task with Roethke is to make this selection and defend it. It will need to be done by a first-rate man capable of seeing that the real Roethke wrote very seldom.

Of his first book, Open House (1941), a few poems which are not too much reminiscent of Frost will perhaps last. Poems like "Lull" (marked "November, 1939") have little chance.

Intricate phobias grow
From each malignant wish
To spoil collective life.

It is not assimilating tradition to so take over the rhythms of poetry recently written by another man—in this case Auden. It is not even constructive plagiarism, just helpless mimicry. To a greater or lesser degree, from one model to the next, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Yeats and Eliot, Roethke displayed throughout his creative life a desparate unsureness of his own gift. In his second book, The Lost Son, published in 1948, the influence of Eliot, an influence which dogged him to the end, shows its first signs with savage clarity.

Where's the eye?
The eye's in the sty.
The ear's not here
Beneath the hair.

There are no eyes here, in this valley of dying stars. In his five-part poem "The Shape of the Fire" he shows that he has been reading Four Quartets, giving the game away by his trick—again characteristic—of reproducing his subject poet's most marked syntactical effects.

To see cyclamen veins become clearer in early sunlight,
And mist lifting out of the brown cat-tails;
To stare into the after-light, the glitter left on the lake's surface,
When the sun has fallen behind a wooded island;
To follow the drops sliding from a lifted our,
Held up, while the rower breathes, and the small boat drifts quietly shoreward;

The content of this passage shows the pin-point specificity of the references to nature which are everywhere in Roethke's poetry. But in nearly all cases it amounts to nature for the sake of nature: the general context meant to give all this detail spiritual force usually has an air of being thought up, and is too often just borrowed. In the volume Praise to the End!, which came out in 1951, a certain curly-haired Welsh voice rings loud and clear. It is easy to smile at this, but it should be remembered that a poet who can lapse into such mimicry is in the very worst kind of trouble.

Once I fished from the banks, leaf-light and happy:
On the rocks south of quiet, in the close regions of kissing,
I romped, lithe as a child, down the summery streets of my veins.

In the next volume, The Waking (1953), his drive towards introspective significance—and a drive towards is not necessarily the same thing as possessing—tempts him into borrowing those effects of Eliot's which would be close to self-parody if it were not for the solidly intricate structuring of their context.

I have listened close
For the thin sound in the windy chimney,
The fall of the last ash
From the dying ember.

There it stands, like a stolen car hastily resprayed and dangerously retaining its original number-plates. His fascination with Yeats begins in this volume—

Though everything's astonishment at last,

—and it, too, continues to the end. But whereas with Yeats his borrowings were mainly confined to syntactical sequences, with Eliot he took the disastrous step of appropriating major symbolism, symbolism which Eliot had himself appropriated from other centuries, other languages and other cultures. The results are distressingly weak, assertively unconvincing, and would serve by themselves to demonstrate that a talent which has not learnt how to forget is bound to fragment.

I remember a stone breaking the edifying current,
Neither white nor red, in the dead middle way,
Where impulse no longer dictates, nor the darkening shadow,
A vulnerable place,
Surrounded by sand, broken shells, the wreckage of water.

Roethke's good poems are mostly love poems, and of those, most are to be found in the two volumes of 1958 and 1964, Words for the Wind and The Far Field. Some of his children's poems from I Am! Says the Lamb are also included, and there is a section of previously uncollected poems at the very end of the book including a healthy thunderbolt of loathing aimed at critics. Roethke achieved recognition late but when it came the critics treated him pretty well. Now that his troubled life is over, it is essential that critics who care for what is good in his work should condemn the rest before the whole lot disappears under an avalanche of kindly meant, but effectively cruel, interpretative scholarship.

Seamus Heaney (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: "Canticle to the Earth: Theodore Roethke," in Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980, pp. 190-94.

[Heaney is widely considered Ireland's most accomplished contemporary poet and has often been called the greatestIrish poet since William Butler Yeats. In the following essay, which was first published in 1968, Heaney praises Roethke for adhering to his own instincts as a poet and characterizes his poetry at various stages in his career.]

A couple of years ago, an American poet told me that he and his generation had rejected irony and artfulness, and were trying to write poems that would not yield much to the investigations of the practical criticism seminar. And another poet present agreed, yes, he was now looking at English poetry to decide which areas seemed most in need of renovation, and then he was going to provide experiments that would enliven these sluggish, provincial backwaters. As poets, both seemed to be infected with wrong habits of mind. They had imbibed attitudes into their writing life which properly belong to the lecturer and the anthologist: a concern with generations, with shifting fashions of style, a belief that their role was complementary and responsible to a demonstrable literary situation. For although at least one spirit of the age will probably be discernible in a poet's work, he should not turn his brain into a butterfly net in pursuit of it.

An awareness of his own poetic process, and a trust in the possibility of his poetry, that is what a poet should attempt to preserve; and whatever else Theodore Roethke may have lacked, he did possess and nourish this faith in his own creative instincts. His current flies continuously:

Water's my will and my way,
And the spirit runs, intermittently,
In and out of the small waves,
Runs with the intrepid shorebirds—
How graceful the small before danger!

But the most remarkable thing about this watery spirit of his is that for all its motion, it never altogether finds its final bed and course. Through one half of the work, it is contained in the strict locks of rhyme and stanzaic form; through the other, it rises and recedes in open forms like floods in broad meadows.

His first book has the quiet life of an old canal. 'Vernal Sentiment' would not be an unjust title for the volume. All the conflicting elements in Roethke's make-up are toned down and contained in well-behaved couplets and quatrains. The sense of fun is coy, the sense of natural forces explicit and the sense of form a bit monotonous. It is partly a case of the young man putting a hand across his daimon's mouth, for although the first poem calls:

My secrets cry aloud.
I have no need for tongue.
My heart keeps open house,
My doors are widely swung

we have to read the whole book to believe it. Indeed the life's work is neatly bracketed by the first and last lines of [Collected Poems] We move from 'My secrets cry aloud' to 'With that he hitched his pants and humped away,' and between the rhetoric and the rumbustiousness the true achievement is located.

That achievement arrives from the boundaries of Roethke's experience: childhood and death are elements in which his best work lives. And love. He grew up in Michigan among his father's extensive greenhouses: 'They were to me, I realize now, both heaven and hell, a kind of tropics created in the savage climate of Michigan, where austere German-Americans turned their love of order and their terrifying efficiency into something truly beautiful. It was a universe, several worlds, which, even as a child, one worried about and struggled to keep alive.'

Growth, minute and multifarious life, became Roethke's theme. His second collection, The Lost Son, contained the famous greenhouse poems, a repossession of the childhood Eden. Now the free, nervous notation of natural process issues in a sense of unity with cosmic energies and in quiet intimations of order and delight. They are acts of faith made in some state of grace:

I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it,—
The small waters seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.

Such celebration, however, was prelude to disturbance and desperation. Out of Eden man takes his way, and beyond the garden life is riotous; chaos replaces correspondence, consciousness thwarts communion, the light of the world fades in the shadow of death. Until the final serenity and acceptance of all things in a dance of flux, which comes in the posthumous The Far Field, Roethke's work is driven in two opposite directions by his fall into manhood.

In the final poems of The Lost Son volume and in all the work of Praise to the End there is an apocalyptic straining towards unity. These are large, sectioned poems, ghosted by the rhythms of nursery rhyme. You feel that the archetypal properties are being manipulated a bit arbitrarily, that the staccato syntax is for effect rather than effective and that in general the sense of fractured relations between the man and his physical and metaphysical elements is deliberately shrouded. These poems are more like constructs for the inarticulate than raids upon it. Yet despite the occasional echo of Dylan Thomas, they retain the authentic Roethke note, the note of energy and quest:

Everything's closer. Is this a cage?
The chill's gone from the moon.
Only the woods are alive.
I can't marry the dirt.

In direct contrast to these wandering tides of the spirit, there follows a series of tightly controlled and elaborately argued meditations and love poems. After the fidgety metres and the surrealism, he begins to contain his impulses to affirmation in a rapid, iambic line which owes much to Raleigh and Sir John Davies, even though in a moment of exuberance he declares:

I take this cadence from a man named Yeats,
I take it, and I give it back again.

The poems tend to have a strict shape and lively rhythm ('the shapes a bright container can contain!') and deal with the possibility of momentary order, harmony and illumination. Love and lyric are modes of staying the confusion and fencing off emptiness. Within the glass walls of the poem, something of the old paradisal harmony can be feigned:

Dream of a woman, and a dream of death:
The light air takes my being's breath away;
I look on white, and it turns into gray—
When will that creature give me back my breath?
I live near the abyss. I hope to stay
Until my eyes look at a brighter sun
As the thick shade of the long night comes on.

There is a curious split in Roethke's work between the long Whitmanesque cataloguing poem, which works towards resolution by accumulating significant and related phenomena, and this other brisk, traditional artefact that dances to its own familiar music. Perhaps the explanation lies in Roethke's constant natural urge to praise, to maintain or recapture ecstasy.

The more relaxed and loaded form includes his best poems, all of which exhale something of a Franciscan love of every living thing, and invoke the notion of a divine unity working through them. They are canticles to the earth, if you like, written in a line that has exchanged its 'barbaric yawp' for a more civil note of benediction. On the other hand, when he is not in full possession of his emotion, when tranquillity is missing, then he employs the artificer's resources of metre, stanza and rhyme to conduct himself and the poem towards a provisional statement. The stanzaic poems always sound as if they are attempting something. The best Roethke, the praise poetry, always gives the impression that the lines came ripe and easy as windfalls.

Ripeness is all in the latest work, which appeared in this country two years after his death. In one of the poems he mentions 'that sweet man, John Clare', and one is reminded how both poets lived near the abyss but resolved extreme experience into something infinitely gentle. In the light of their last days, 'all's a scattering, a shining'. Their suffering breeds something larger than masochism. Roethke reflects when his field-mouse departs for the hazard of the fields:

I think of the nestling fallen into the deep grass,
The turtle gasping in the dusty rubble of the highway,
The paralytic stunned in the tub, and the water rising,—
All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.

He is outside movements and generations, and his work is a true growth. He seems destined to grudging notice because he echoed the voices of other poets, or because people have grown afraid of the gentle note that was his own, but the Collected Poems are there, a true poet's testament:

Pain wanders through my bones like a lost fire;
What burns me now? Desire, desire, desire.

Dan Jaffe (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke: 'In a Slow Up-Sway'," in The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French, Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1970, pp. 199-207.

[In the following excerpt, Jaffe highlights Roethke's strengths as a poet.]

It has become a cliché of the modern poetry class to point out how divided critical and anthological opinion had become by the end of the 50s. The so-called academic anthologies excluded the Beat poets; the Beat collections excluded the academics. Roethke might well have been included in either kind of collection, it seems to me. Perhaps that's one reason why he was not sufficiently appreciated. Both camps probably found him suspect. During the 50s Roethke had three books: Praise to the End (1951), The Waking, Poems 1933-1953 (1953), and Words for the Wind (1958), the last, a collection of new and earlier work. Poems like "The Shape of the Fire," "Praise to the End," "I Cry, Love! Love!" "O, Thou Opening, O" follow from "The Lost Son," Roethke's 1948 breakthrough. This group of poems is probably the most startling. Each of these poems contains many of the same ingredients in different proportions. The poet's tactics are similar in each. They are highly imagistic, contain only minimum explanation of feeling or idea. Thematically, they generally move from terror toward hope, from fearful questioning toward tentative affirmation. Although single lines may fall into easily scanned metrical patterns, the line lengths are highly irregular and no metrical norms are established. These are poems of creatures, plants, stones, bits of flesh, childhood touches and gestures; only rarely do the objects or the apparatus of our technological civilization get into the poems. Time and again the poems turn back to close approximations of nursery rhythms and rhymes. Repeatedly there are references to the elemental, to Mother and Father, to earth and water, to growth. They shift from the literal to the figurative unexpectedly, often without warning.

But such generalizations, even if they are accurately descriptive fail to provide a sense of the poems. One feels like saying, "The hell with prosody!" The experience is the consequence of the poet's virtuosity; the poems are linguistic performances. Who can deny it? But these are poems beyond admiration, beyond even the "new" criticism, fine tool that it may be. They reach directly for experience. Somehow the smaller the area between art and the world, the less room there is for the critic to move around in and justify himself. Roethke doesn't leave much room. Are his images symbols or psychic actualities? Do they represent ideas or are they the direct embodiment of feelings? The professor of poetry ordinarily selects the first of these alternatives. Even the poet talking about his own work discusses what he means to symbolize. But the discussion of symbols immediately introduces an intellectualization alien to the spirit of these poems. They take one down below the mind or out beyond it.

More important than any technical or thematic observations are the drench of feelings, the corporeal itch, the agony, in the colloquial and classic sense of that word. This is a poetry of stretch rather than repression. It accomplishes what the Beats maintain they mean to accomplish. It is flying or diving rather than an instruction pamphlet or a superbly fashioned machine. Here one is more aware of the pitch of feelings than the skill of achievement. What one wonders about is how he managed himself while making it, rather than how he made it, how he faced such dares of feeling and still functioned artistically. Each of these poems seems to be a return to a tightrope stretched in a heavy wind across an enormous abyss. The old notion of aesthetic distance breaks down. We become the poet, the dramatic voice, the renewed self, amazed by suffering and survival.

These poems do not provide us touchstones of correctness; they do not call attention to the erudition or prowess of the poet. By being most himself he becomes one with basic forces the American at mid-century may easily forget. His poems somehow seem a corrective for the time in which they were written. They reply to the strangulation of the spirit threatened by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the computer collective. These are not poems of quiet, good taste. They refuse to be prim. They don't even hide in the acceptable realms of intellectual achievement, though they are without a doubt justification for philosophizing and theological discussion. Roethke has craft; he has intellectual scope. But that comes later; the first thrust is the thrust of unleashed feeling, of the insides opened out, the wiggle, push, threat of living forms rather than the safety of a shaped fortress. The poems cry, "Risk," in a time devoted to security. And so in an indirect way they have social significance, although they point outward toward what Roethke calls "the kingdom of bang and blam" at only rare moments. I don't even want to quote, not even to prove my points. A few lines out of context will probably seem more epigrammatic than intended, more brilliant tidbits than part of a rush of psychic development, more proof than bite.

Mother me out of here. What more will the bones allow:
Will the sea give the wind suck? A toad falls into a stone.
These flowers are all fangs. Comfort me, fury.
Wake me, witch, we'll do the dance of rotten sticks.
(from "The Shape of the Fire")

A cursory look at "The Shape of the Fire," however, may provide a sense of some of the tensions Roethke brings us to. In the opening section, from which the above lines are taken, the dramatic voice cries out. His is a cry of confusion, compensation, terror; he seeks nourishment amid the elemental forces that tremble around him and make him tremble. In section two, the dramatic voice reassesses the sources of fear: the self is a "varicose horror," "A twolegged dog hunting a new horizon of howls." The images are primitive, animalistic; underneath the human clothes are swamp instincts. He is trapped by his own flesh, but is that all? Section three answers symbolically with affirmations of glisten and rose-sway. It is a kind of epiphany: a promise of progress in "the journey from flesh." Section four is faintly reminiscent of shining passages of Dylan Thomas, whom Roethke admired. Light, birds, flowers—they sing life. Section five is a joyful recapitulation of the rising of the rose, the snail, the man, toward the sources of sustenance. Even such a simplistic summary ought to make clear that these poems are essentially psychic narratives drawing a great deal of force from the archetypal metaphor of the journey. But beware of phrases like "archetypal metaphor." They have the text book ring.

What matters most here is the movement from dream to dream. And these are real dreams, couched in fact. They leave sweat and sperm on the sheets. In our culture what could be more forbidding and embarrassing? Imagine our politicos owning up to their dreams, Mr. Nixon or Mr. Agnew disclosing to the nation something of their inner lives. This is akin to Allen Ginsberg stripping at Columbia. What could be more scandalous than such revelations? Ted Roethke threatens the self-assurance of the culture; he makes the men of cool, practiced efficiency look at themselves and their circumstances: Wrenched and fleshy feelings in an unpinned universe.

But Roethke was not a single minded poet who wrote a single kind of poem. Words for the Wind illustrates the fallacy of thinking of Roethke as simply a greenhouse poet of slugs and soil. There are those who would dump all modern poetry into one basket. It's not possible to do that with even a single poet of caliber. And certainly not with one of exceptional stature.

Set against the narrative-dramatic poems of the inner life that identify Roethke as a poet of energy and exuberance are poems of clasical grace, poems like "I Knew a Woman," whose form is summed up in the line, "The shapes a bright container can contain!" Roethke can soothe with a gentle villanelle like "The Waking." Here the substance of the wilder poems is gentled within the confines of the strict iambic line, "The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair." In poems like the "Four for Sir John Davies" Roethke illustrates how well he can step to familiar cadences:

Things loll and loiter. Who condones the lost?
This joy outleaps the dog. Who cares? Who cares?
I gave her kisses back, and woke a ghost.
O what lewd music crept into our ears!
The body of the soul know how to play
In that dark world where gods have lost their way.

It's enough to melt the heart of any old academic to note the heavy rhyme, assonance, and alliteration. One can almost bring this safely into the classroom in order to discuss traditional poetic techniques.

Here the great energy has harnessed itself to shape, transformed itself into the most expressive kind of poise, the poise of performance and the poise of potential. These poems give us control, the matter caught; they also give us, to use Roethke's metaphor, a bird singing at the center of a tree, stir and ripple choreographed by a master.

So, "All the Earth, All the Air" might be a text book for those concerned with the glide of vowels and the shift of consonants. Poem after poem is a virtuoso performance without being a cheap tour-de-force. The skill is the kind that doesn't obtrude. Roethke juggles only to mean, but that does not diminish our admiration for his dexterity.

The poet tries to make form a liberator; uniqueness a habit. The Beats tried to break out of the straight jacket they felt the dictates of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound had imposed; the academic poets sought to preserve the virtues of craft. Ted Roethke managed the balance between energy and control; that is the measure of greatness.

He is a poet of wider resources and tactics than has been appreciated. He reaches from torment to joy, from absolute fear to mystical affirmation. He can provide the touch of the brute world and a sense of the indefinable. He can be witty and passionate at once. One moment he is on his nubs in the loam, the next soaring in meditation. He can be elliptical and conversational, and he seems to have constantly polished and reassessed his equipment so that while he developed new ways of going he never lost the techniques of the earlier poems. There is a lyrical, a dramatic, a discursive, and an epigrammatic Roethke. Many of his poems come clear on at least one level immediately. Others may baffle readers for long periods. His work can be viewed as a modern Divine Comedy: he moves from the Inferno to Paradise. One can read the poems as theological and philosophical examinations, forays into the nature of the human condition, the function of suffering, the sources of evil, even the generation gap. One can consider them psychological dramatizations.

Most importantly Roethke transforms language into actualization; the poems bombard us, stroke us, shake us. No American poet has approached the subject of physical love with such love, the body with such foreboding. Children, lady editors, lovers—he has poems for them all.

Critics, anthologists, and professors who ignore Roethke do so at the risk of offending posterity. The 50s gave us a major poet whose reputation is already moving "in a slow up-sway," the appropriate motion of Roethke's poems. The new generation of readers has already found Roethke provides what it needs: a sense of self; a willingness to report on the personal, emotional life, in order to share rather than to confess; a willingness to be different, even strange. And, at the same time, a kind of connective tissue that links us all.

Richard Wilbur (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: "Poetry's Debt to Poetry," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Summer, 1973, pp. 273-94.

[Wilbur is an American poet and critic. Respected for the craftsmanship and elegance of his verse, he employs formal poetic structures and smoothly flowing language as a response to disorder and chaos in modern life. In the following excerpt, Wilbur comments on Roethke's emulation of other poets.]

It is fatal for a writer to have one hero only; submitting to a single model, admiring but one syntax and lexicon, means that you will say what you don't mean, and that you will never find the right words for what you do mean. A commanding imagination, as many have said before me, steals not from one writer but selectively from all writers, taking whatever will help in the articulation of its own sense of things.

In this connection, the most precarious of the fine poets of our century was Theodore Roethke. The poems of his first book, Open House, are noticeably affected by certain woman poets whose work he loved—Louise Bogan, Elinor Wylie, Léonie Adams. Roethke was well aware of the fact, and in his essay "How to Write Like Somebody Else," he accounted for the fact in a remarkable way, saying that his early work had been touched by a compulsion to praise; out of his admiration for Léonie Adams, he said, he had felt driven "to create something that would honor her in her own terms." In the shorter poems of Roethke's next period, especially the wonderful greenhouse pieces, I find no moments of celebratory imitation, and the voice seems entirely the poet's own; the long poems of that time, such as "The Shape of the Fire," have, as Roethke put it, certain "ancestors"—among them Mother Goose, the songs and rants in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, Thomas Traherne, and (I should think) James Joyce and the psychology of Jung. But whatever means he may have borrowed for these poems of psychic struggle, of regression and rebirth, everything had been mastered and turned to his own fresh purposes. If the poems sometimes fail through a too unmediated subjectivity, they are nevertheless powerfully original. And therefore it is a shock to find Roethke, in the next phase of his work, succumbing frequently and totally to the style of William Butler Yeats, so much so that in one poem he must declare with a certain bravado,

I take this cadence from a man named Yeats;
I take it, and I give it back again….

The candor is disarming, but still one feels like answering, Why? When Roethke writes in the voice of Yeats, the results are often felicitous, as in the stunning poem from which I have just quoted, and yet one is disquieted, as by those free translations in which Robert Lowell makes Rilke sound like Lowell, and provides him with additional stanzas. One thinks, "This is good, but what is it?" In cases of this kind it is impossible not to be nagged by the question of authenticity, the question of who, after all, is talking.

Delmore Schwartz, writing in 1959, asked himself why an exceptional poet, at the height of his powers, should take to imitating Yeats, and concluded that Roethke's chief reason was probably "to guard against the deadly habit of self-imitation." I think that may have been part of the story. I also think—indeed, I know—that his marriage in the early 1950's gave Roethke a new entrée to life calling for a new poetic vein, a vein which he could not at once invent. There are poets for whom the discovery of style is easy, because their purchase on the world is rational and social, and therefore readily expressed in some version of urbane discourse. But Roethke was not a rational, social poet; the great spur of his poetry was a romantic longing to escape the bounds of self, to escape the rational mind and its estranging formulations, and to become at one with the whole of life through communion and vision. A poetry of the subverbal and the supra-verbal, which pursues the wordless through the wordless, doesn't find its true voice, or modify that voice, without some floundering and casting-about.

One thing which moves a poet to translate from other tongues, as I know from my own experience, is the urge to broaden his utterance through imposture, to say things which he is not yet able to say in his own person. That sounds disgraceful, but it needn't be. You can't translate, after all, without having an affinity for the original. If you bring over the ghazals of Saadi into English, as one of my students is doing, then you have done three things: you have improved the English reader's access to the genius of Persia, you have provided English poetry with some new Persian tricks, and you have rendered more articulate that part of you which resembles Saadi. It was something like this last result, I think, which came of Roethke's impersonation of Yeats. What was it that Yeats could offer Roethke? Technically, he offered a muscular and often end-stopped pentameter line which Roethke was equipped to exploit—for Roethke was, above all, a poet of the striking line. Yeats offered also a ruggedly vatic style in which such words as "soul" could sound convincing and modern, in which one could get away with talking of visions, of "Heaven blazing into the head," and of that beatitude called "unity of being," wherein self and world miraculously agree. Furthermore, and much to Roethke's purpose, Yeats offered a physical mysticism of the dancing body and of the marriage-bed. Many of Roethke's Yeatsian poems succeed; some fail, as Yeats himself could fail, through the blustering rhetorical question, the wilful transport, the mantic resolution which does not ring true. In any case, Roethke's impersonation of Yeats seems to me to have kept him talking; to have limbered, emboldened and extended him, so that he became capable of those last poems which are better than ever and so much more his own.

Am I right about all that? Heaven knows. Let us agree that such a case is infinitely interesting and problematical….

Jenijoy La Belle (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: "Martyr to a Motion Not His Own: Theodore Roethke's Love Poems" in Ball State University Forum, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 71-5.

[In the following essay, La Belle asserts that Roethke's love poems place him in the tradition of John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and Dante Alighieri, among others.]

For Theodore Roethke writing poetry was like making love: it was an activity requiring a partner. All of his poems are literary love children, the issue of a union between Roethke's own vision and the work of other poets whom he admired. This way of creating was not mere imitation. It was an attempt to connect with another sensibility, to merge, finally to "see and suffer [himself] in another being, at last."

Roethke's early spiritual romances did not produce "real" poems, only premature little verses scarcely able to stand on their own iambic feet. He began by falling in love with some of the better poetesses—Emily Dickinson, Elinor Wylie, Léonie Adams, and Louise Bogan. But the resulting poems seldom moved beyond mimicry to assimilation. During this period, for instance, he wrote a poem entitled "The Buds Now Stretch" and then proceeded to tell Léonie Adams it was one of the finest poems she had ever written. Miss Adams was not amused. Nor have most readers found the poem to be one of Roethke's better efforts. But Roethke later wrote that he hated "to abandon" that poem:

I feel it's something Miss Adams and I have created …. I loved her so much, her poetry, that I just had to become, for a brief moment, a part of her world. For it is her world, and I had filled myself with it, And I had to create something that would honor her in her own terms.

Roethke continued throughout his career to pay homage to poets in their own terms, and eventually he created poems which were successful combinations of his individual talent and his sense of a tradition. Love became for Roethke one of his structural metaphors for this relationship between himself and his poetic partners, and in turn the writing of poetry became a metaphor for the act of love.

In his major sequence of love poems, which appeared in Words for the Wind (1958), Roethke's response to the woman he loves is simultaneously a response to the poets he loves. The presence to his naked lover transforms Roethke into that very poet whose sensibility suggests the proper response to the woman: "I am my father's son, I am John Donne / Whenever I see her with nothing on" ("The Swan," Collected Poems). Donne exhorts in one of his poems, "Study me then, you who shall lovers bee at the next world." Few of his followers have studied him as intently as Roethke who learned from Donne a pattern for his love. Roethke's lines, however, leave the causal relationships between lover and poet ambiguous. Does the naked lover call forth emotions in Roethke's mind which he then associates with Donne, or does Donne's poetry conjure up the image of the woman? These images in "The Swan" embody that always complex relationship between the poet's personal experiences and his literary influences.

In the first poem of his sequence Roethke adopts both the title and the theory of one of Donne's love elegies. Louis L. Martz in The Meditative Poem suggests that Donne's "Elegy X," usually called "The Dreame," may "owe something to St. Augustine's theory that the soul always knows the 'image' of its beloved before meeting the beloved object." Roethke's "The Dream" begins, "I met her as a blossom on a stem / Before she ever breathed." With the movement from the mind, to sight, to an image of fire, the next few lines of Roethke's poem recall William Drummond of Hawthornden's sequence of similar images—also to describe the speaker's foreknowledge of the beloved:

The mind remembers from a deeper sleep:
Eye learned from eye, cold lip from sensual lip.
My dream divided on a point of fire.

Roethke, like Drummond, moves from self (mind) to other (fire), from inner to outer, through the organ of perception. The eye is also the portal through which love first enters man's soul in the traditions of neoplatonic and courtly love. The borrowings in any one of Roethke's love poems are seldom limited to a single poet: the doctrine of "The Dream" is from Donne and Drummond, the diction and the rhythm of some of the lines come from another Renaissance writer of love poetry—Sir Walter Ralegh. Compare, for example, Roethke's "She loved the wind because the wind loved me" with Ralegh's "I loved myself because myself loved you."

The celebration of the love relationship is in many of the poems in Roethke's sequence a kind of religious experience. In several poems such as "The Dream," Roethke's method of describing a sexual relationship as a spiritual experience expressed through traditional literary images is very close to D. H. Lawrence, another twentieth-century writer who treats love as a central religious experience. Compare the following passage from Lawrence's novel The Rainbow with the end of Roethke's "The Dream":

Inside the room was a great steadiness, a core of living eternity. Only far outside, at the rim went on the noise and the destruction. Here at the centre the great wheel was motionless, centered upon itself. Here was a poised, unflawed stillness that was beyond time, because it remained the same, inexhaustible, unchanging unexhausted…. The flames swept him, he held her in sinews of fire…. He stood away near the door in blackness of shadow watching, transfixed. And with slow heavy movements she swayed backwards and forwards….

She held her body steady in the wind;
Our shadows met, and slowly swung around;
She turned the field into a glittering sea;
I played in flame and water like a boy
And I swayed out beyond the white seafoam;
Like a wet log, I sang within a flame.
In that last while, eternity's confine,
I came to love, I came into my own.

Through words and expressions such as point, encircled, the center, circles, and least motion, Roethke images the love experience in terms similar to Lawrence's. The two poets, by describing love through the spatial metaphors of the circle and the point in the center of the circle, image secular love through Dante's metaphors for holy love in the Paradiso. Similarly, the states of "eternity" and "steadiness," in which the lover and his beloved reside, and the references to "fire" take on religious connotations. Roethke, following Lawrence and the seventeenth century metaphysical poets, carries the love relationship between man and woman to a higher level of spiritual insight by means of images and metaphors traditionally reserved for religious subjects. In "The Dream" Roethke writes of love primarily by joining in a poetically intimate relationship with other talents.

Lawrence's love poems, as well as his novels, furnish Roethke with points of departure for his own love lyrics. "I Wish I Knew a Woman" expresses Lawrence's desire for an ideal sexual relationship: Roethke's "I Knew a Woman" presents such a relationship in its consummation. Roethke not only draws upon the poets in his tradition for images and themes but also continually struggles to outdo these other poets. His well-known love poem begins,

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake….

Since "English poets who grew up on Greek" are best able to sing this woman's praises, it is to these poets that Roethke turns for metaphors and images. One poet who fits the description and whom we are inevitably reminded of when we read Roethke's extended metaphor on "mowing" is Andrew Marvell. Though the "mowing" image is predominant in several of Marvell's poems ("The Mower against Gardens," "Damon the Mower," and "The Mower to the Glo-Worms") it is in the refrain to "The Mower's Song" that the description of scything is most clearly a metaphor for the sexual relationship with a woman: "When Julianna came, and She / What I do to the Grass, does to my Thoughts and Me." Roethke, like Marvell, brings new life to the convention-ridden pastoral love lyric through the injection into his poem of the intellectualized sensuality of metaphysical wit.

Roethke refers to another English poet who grew up on Greek when he writes, "She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand." The source for this unusual way of naming the three divisions of an ode (commonly called strophe, antistrophe, and epode) is probably Ben Jonson's "To the Immortal Memorie, and Friendship of that Noble Paire, Sir Lucius Cary, and Sir H. Morison," in which the terms "the Turne," and "the Counter-Turne," and "the Stand" are used as titles for the various sections of the poem. The verbal echo in and of itself is slight, but it is only through a knowledge of this echo that we realize an important theme in Roethke's poem. By employing these literary terms in his line, Roethke describes the rhythm of love as a movement in poetry. He not only transforms life into art, but also perceives and thus images it as art. This metaphor, imaging sex as poetry, has its converse in a mocking title scribbled in one of Roethke's notebooks: "Thirteen Ways of Fornicating the Amphibrach." And in an even more general formulation of the union of poetry and sex, sex and poetry, Roethke wrote down a few pages later in this same notebook a line from Becquer: "Poetry is feeling and feeling is woman."

One of the most remarkable examples of Roethke's imagination coming to bear upon a text and transforming it into poetry is his use of St. Augustine's analysis of time in terms of bodily motion in the chapter on time and eternity in his Confession: "When a body is moved, I measure in time how long it is moved." Roethke's "I Knew a Woman" ends "But who would count eternity in days? / These old bones live to learn her wanton ways: / (I measure time by how a body sways)." Roethke takes "body" not just to mean a physical object, but to refer to the woman's body. In I. A. Richards' terms, he transforms the referential language of the philosopher and theologian into the emotive language of his poem. This converting of a sentence from Augustine at his most scientific into an image for a love poem shows the energy of Roethke's mind: he absorbed everything he read and with a few turns and counter-turns transmuted it into poetry. One can not help being reminded of Pablo Picasso's "Bull's Head" which is made out of nothing more than the seat and handlebars of an old bicycle. The great attraction of the piece is the viewer's realization of the shaping vision of the artist, rather than the actual materials before him. "What is far from simple," writes H. W. Janson in Key Monuments of the History of Art, "is the leap from the imagination by which Picasso recognized a bull's head in these unlikely objects…. clearly, then we must be careful not to confuse the making of a work of art with manual skill or craftsmanship." Similarly, what we marvel at in Roethke's lines (so close to Augustine's) is not so much his technical skills as the genius and wit of his creative powers.

Although the immediate source for Roethke's image may be Augustine, the master of the method which Roethke uses to handle this image is Donne. Roethke, like Donne, takes sensual experiences and deals with them through scientific and theological imagery. Roethke is thoroughly eclectic in searching out and in inventing specific images to describe the love experience, but his methodology is consistently in the tradition of Donne—that line of wit in love poetry that extends from the master of seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry through Lawrence and up to Roethke. This is indeed "Love's Progress"—as Roethke was well aware when he borrowed this title from Donne for one of his own poems—and simultaneously it is the progress of poetry.

The underlying pattern in metaphysical love poetry is the continual interplay between the mind and the body, between the thoughts of an inherently philosophical speaker and his emotions which form the heart of the love experience. The metaphysical poem moves out of this dramatic conflict and into its own drama of images, most characteristically in the extended conceit where the elements of mind and body are fused. Roethke saw this same basic drama enacted in Yeats' poetry. Although usually we do not think of Yeats as essentially in the Donne tradition of love poetry, Roethke responds to him in a way which does point out the sympathies between the love poems of Yeats and the tradition of Donne. Compare the first stanza of Roethke's "The Pure Fury" with two passages from Yeats:

Stupor of knowledge lacking inwardness—
What book, O learned man, will set me right?
Once I read nothing through a fearful night,
For every meaning had grown meaningless.
Morning, I saw the world with second sight,
As if all things had died, and rose again.
I touched the stones, and they had my own skin.

That every morning rose again
For what mere book can grant a knowledge
And must no beautiful woman be
Learned like a man?
That all must come to sight and touch….

Both of Yeats' poems are about the powers of the body (and thus the powers of women) being radically different from and perhaps even superior to the powers of masculine intellect. Loving a woman can be therefore quite a dangerous venture as these two beings—the woman-body and the man-mind—come together. This same drama is basic to Roethke's poem both in the speaker's attitude towards the woman and in the very images used to describe this attitude. Even though Roethke's poem is titled "The Pure Fury," it is still about Yeats' "complexities of fury" or "furies of complexity"—those intricate interrelationships between the physical and the spiritual. Though in calling it a "pure" fury, Roethke perhaps is trying to bring the metaphysical image to that ultimate plenum where mind and body become one. What Yeats does in his poems and what Roethke does also is not only to use the method of metaphysical love poetry but also to make this method a metaphor for love and finally the very subject of the poem.

By bringing Yeats into association with Donne, Drummond, Jonson, Marvell, and Lawrence, Roethke functions as both critic and poet: he offers us a new perspective on a major tradition in English love poetry. Many voices echo and breathe in unison through Roethke's love poems, and the harmonies that result reveal the underlying similarities between these diverse poets brought together by Roethke in a continuation of metaphysical wit to "sing [like lovers] in chorus, cheek to cheek."

Don Bogen (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: "From Open House to the Greenhouse: Theodore Roethke's Poetic Breakthrough," in ELH, Vol. 47, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 399-418.

[In the following essay, Bogen studies the evolution of Roethke's poetry as illustrated in the representative poems "Genesis," "On the Road to Woodlawn," and "Cuttings."]

My first book was much too wary, much too gingerly in its approach to experience; rather dry in tone and constricted in rhythm. I am trying to loosen up, to rite poems of greater intensity and symbolical depth. [Theodore Roethke, Selected Letters of Theodore Roethke, edited by Ralph J. Mills, Jr., 1968. Subsequent correspondences cited in this essay are reprinted in this volume.]

By the mid-1940s, Theodore Roethke had become aware of the limitations of his first volume and had immersed himself in new work of a significantly different order. The seven-year period between the publication of Open House in 1941 and The Lost Son and Other Poems in 1948 is considered pivotal by many critics. [In Theodore Roethke, 1963] Ralph J. Mills, Jr. refers to the "imaginative leap" Roethke made during this time, and [in "The Objective Ego," in Theodore Roethke: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Arnold Stein, 1965] Stephen Spender describes the poet's work after this "leap" as that which is "most uniquely Roethke." [In "Cult of the Breakthrough," New Republic, September 21, 1968] Kenneth Burke sees the period in which Roethke was working on his second volume as one centered on the poet's "most important breakthrough," citing Roethke's greenhouse poems in Part I of The Lost Son as the embodiment of the change. As Burke and others note, this break-through was not only stylistic but also psychological. Characterized by the development of what Mills calls an "intensely subjective vision," Roethke's less "wary" "approach to experience" after the breakthrough reflected a new relation between his writing and his sense of self. In this essay I want to discuss the nature of this change in Roethke's work by examining developments in the way he went about writing. The Theodore Roethke Papers at the University of Washington, an extensive collection of unpublished drafts, notebooks, letters, and other material, are the basis of the essay. My focus is primarily on the composition of three poems: "Genesis," a representative example of Roethke's work from the mid-1930s; "On the Road to Woodlawn," an intriguing transitional poem from the late '30s; and "Cuttings," the opening piece in the greenhouse sequence, dating from the mid-'40s. Examining Roethke's work on these poems in his unpublished notebooks and drafts, we can see significant developments, in both the way he wrote and the way he felt about what he wrote, which are the underpinnings of the poet's extraordinary breakthrough.

Here is the final text of "Genesis" as it appeared in Open House:

This elemental force
Was wrested from the sun;
A river's leaping source
Is locked in narrow bone.

This wisdom floods the mind,
Invades quiescent blood;
A seed that swells the rind
To burst the fruit of good.

A pearl within the brain,
Secretion of the sense;
Around a central grain
New meaning grows immense.

This poem was first published in The Nation in 1936 and is typical of much of Roethke's early work. The end-stopped, metrical lines—there are no rhythmic substitutions—and the tight rhyme scheme give the feeling of fierce energy controlled by form. The central image of the poem, the "pearl within the brain," parallels that of two other Open House poems in iambic trimeter quatrains, 'The Adamant" and "Reply to Censure." Based on a dichotomy between self and world which is announced in the title poem of Open House, "Genesis," like the other two poems, develops the concept of an inviolable core of personal identity. "Open House" calls for "language strict and pure" which will "keep the spirit spare." Relying heavily on direct statements, unelaborated images, and abstractions, the language of "Genesis" meets this definition. As "Open House" indicates, the tightly controlled style derived from such "pure" language and strict adherence to the demands of rhyme and meter is a way of keeping the spirit "spare," constraining the self within the bounds of the conscious will. The style of "Genesis" and other early poems thus reflects not only Roethke's aesthetic preferences but also his sense of the self as an entity to be controlled and ordered through the process of writing.

The composition of poetry, however, is not entirely a function of the conscious will. The origins of "Genesis" in the poet's notebooks reveal at least a partial suspension of will as Roethke works toward his first sense of the poem. Roethke's use of rhyme and meter in this preliminary work is an example. In the completed text of "Genesis," these formal aspects stress the poet's conscious, rational control over his material. However, in the primary stage of composition, Roethke's use of rhyme and a repeating rhythm shows his reliance on the sounds of words, not their meanings, as a way of generating poetic material. The notebook in which the first work on "Genesis" was done contains a number of disconnected lines and couplets—such as "A haze before the sun," "Arise from red-eyed ache," and "Its attributes are worn"—before Roethke puts together a recognizable stanza. These fragments are not unified by a particular concept, an idea the poet has consciously chosen to develop, but rather by their common iambic trimeter rhythm. At this early stage of composition, then, Roethke is using meter as a device to generate lines without a clear sense of what he wants to say; conscious acts of arrangement, clarification, and judgment are held in abeyance.

Rhyme is employed in a similar manner:

What splits its way through rock
Like subterranean fire

The creeping flame, desire,
Will seek its way through rock

A ravenous tongue of flame
Remote in deepest shock.

"Fire" leads the poet to "desire," and "rock" leads to "shock." But what differentiates Roethke's work with these three couplets from his work with the other fragments is that links of sound are used along with conscious considerations of image and meaning as Roethke develops the hackneyed metaphor of love as flame. It is significant that, despite the clichés inherent in them, Roethke selects these three couplets from a mass of less conscious but more imaginative material. Rejecting intriguing phrases like "The muscles of the wind" and "Colours scrape the eye," the poet settles on the lines most clearly molded by the conscious mind as the primary material for the conclusion of this early version of "Genesis":

This elemental force
Was wrested from the sun;

A river's leaping source
Is locked in narrow bone.

This love is lusty mirth
That shakes eternal sky,
The agony of birth,
The fiercest will to die.
The fever-heat of mind
Within prehensile brute;
A seed that swells the rind
Of strange, impalpable fruit.

This faith surviving shock,
This smoldering desire,
Will split its way through rock
Like subterranean fire.
[This text is reproduced in Roethke's essay "Verse in Rehearsal" in On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke, edited by Ralph J. Mills, Jr., 1965.]

The stanzaic form of "Genesis" arises early in the process of composition. The fragmentary lines and couplets in Roethke's notebook are followed immediately by attempts to construct an abab quatrain. This early movement from fragments to the development of a stanza reflects Roethke's interest in working with consciously crafted material as soon in the writing process as possible. The stanza we see emerging, however, is not the one we might expect from the poet's attention to the "rock"-"shock" couplets but rather one for which there is no preliminary material in the notebook passage, the second quatrain in the draft cited above. In his three attempts to complete this stanza Roethke struggles to develop a single formal unit before he considers the implications in what he has previously written. His interest is clearly not so much in content, in developing a complete thought from the preliminary material, as it is in form. Looking back at this early notebook passage as a whole, we see that the fragmentary material before the quatrain—though it has no relation to the stanza's ideas or images—is nonetheless essential to the creation of the stanza because it provides a framework of rhythm and rhyme in which the poet can undertake more extensive work. Before this formal structure is established, the most developed units in the notebook passage are only a few lines long; after it, we find a group of some twenty lines on the same topic. The earliest work in the notebook, then, can be considered a kind of poetic "gearing up," in which the repetition of the basic trimeter rhythm and the alternate rhyming in the couplets are more important than the meanings of individual lines and images.

Once form has been established, however, the writing process changes. For one thing, deletions become much more frequent. Among the forty lines and fragments of preliminary material in the notebook passage, the poet has crossed out only two completely—both of these in his work on the quatrain—and made small deletions of single words or phrases in about a dozen more. At a later stage of composition, when Roethke has the first three stanzas of the draft version done and is working on the fourth only two complete lines out of ten are left untouched, and one-third of the lines are deleted completely. The poet's more critical attitude toward what he has written reflects his movement from the generation of poetic material—which involves, as we have seen, the partial suspension of the conscious will—to the transformation of the generated material into the artifice of the poem, a process which, at this stage of Roethke's career, is based on conscious, logical choice. In keeping with this change, Roethke no longer uses meter and rhyme as a way of developing new images and connections but rather employs them to gain control over his material by eliminating the parts that do not fit. For example, from the preliminary couplet "A ravenous tongue of flame / Remote in deepest shock" Roethke keeps the last line for consideration but not the first; other fragments ending in "flame" or "flames" are also deleted because they do not fit the "fire"-"desire," "rock"-"shock" rhyme scheme. Rhythmic irregularities too are removed, as in the deletion of "hot" from "This ant-like flame, hot desire." Roethke even includes a list of rhymes for "shock" on the right hand side of the page, setting up a tight structure which new alternate lines must fit.

In forming and polishing individual quatrains at this stage of composition, Roethke does not concern himself much with the order of stanzas in the work. As we have seen, he begins with the second stanza; some pages later in the same notebook is a draft of the first. The first complete draft of the poem, of course, contains two stanzas which do not appear in the published text and lacks the vital concluding stanza which makes "Genesis" what it is:

A pearl within the brain,
Secretion of the sense;
Around a central grain
New meaning grows immense.

In the first two stages of composition we have seen how Roethke generates poetic material and then forms and polishes stanzaic "pearls" from it. The poet's large-scale revisions of the first complete draft mark a third stage, in which the "New meaning" of the work is developed.

In his essay "Verse in Rehearsal" Roethke quotes the comments of his friend Rolfe Humphries on the early, four-stanza version of "Genesis." Humphries' remarks, though extensive, say little about the overall meaning of the work, concentrating instead on problems like the draft's "conventional rhymes," its "monogamous adjective-noun combinations," and the redundance of the phrase "strange, impalpable fruit" in the third stanza. Roethke must have considered these comments important, since he reprinted them in the essay; but the relation between Humphries' remarks and Roethke's revisions is not as direct as the essay might imply. The poet deals with most of the problems his friend notes, but instead of doing the technical "tinkering" that Humphries advises—finding a title to account for the standard rhymes; changing "strange, impalpable" to a four-syllable word—Roethke replaces everything in the poem except the opening stanza and one line in the third quatrain. One reason for this radical revision is that the poet had already done the kind of poetic polishing his friend suggests when he was working on the individual stanzas. Roethke's early sense that the draft was at least technically proficient is reflected in the fact that he submitted it to three periodicals before sending it to Humphries.

Roethke may have felt growing reservations about the craftsmanship of the piece as the rejection slips came in, but I think the main problems that bothered him at this final stage of the compositional process had to do with the overall meaning, tone, and stance of the poem. He expresses this dissatisfaction in his comments on the draft sent to Humphries: "Sophomoric straining? Just old tricks? Or fair traditional piece?" The last of these three remarks is, of course, wishful thinking. The second comment views the "traditional" aspects of the piece from a darker perspective. In this sense the remark could be taken primarily as a sign of doubts about the conventionality of the poem's technique, as Humphries appears to read it; but it also connects with Roethke's first comment. "Sophomoric straining?" shows the poet's worries about how he appears in the poem, about whether he seems immature or phony in it. I think Roethke is referring to a kind of pose of disembodied wisdom here, one which he has assumed before in uncollected poems like "Prepare Thyself—"Prepare thyself for change, / The ever-strange, / Thy soul's immortal range."—and "The Knowing Heart"—"O this mortality will break / The false dissembling brain apart." This kind of poetic stance—in which the poet assumes a pompous, all-knowing attitude in order to claim broad metaphysical knowledge he has not earned in the poem or in his experience—must have seemed like an "old trick" to Roethke; it is an easy way for a young poet to take on large topics. It pervades the three stanzas the poet omitted from the final draft, with their references to "prehensile brute" and "eternal sky" and their confident statements about the results of "love" and "faith surviving shock."

It might be argued that the final version of "Genesis" is also pompous in tone, with its description of "wisdom flooding the mind" and the concluding image of the "pearl within the brain." But the published text is not "sophomoric straining"; we accept its claims partially because they are toned down and made more specific than those in the earlier draft but also, and more importantly, because we can see their relation to the poet who makes them. The final text clearly traces the movement of the "elemental force" of external energy inward to the individual mind and body and its development there into the substance of the growing "pearl." The title "Genesis," which appears only after Roethke has begun work on the three-stanza version, clarifies this movement by focussing our attention on the poem as a description of a creative process, with the implication that the poem itself is the result of such a process. The earlier four-stanza draft—though it has elements of the basic external-internal, energy-matter dichotomies—includes neither this progression toward the individual self nor the implied reference to the poet in the process of writing. Its tone seems impersonal and pompous, its claims unjustified by experience. In revising the poem after this draft has been completed, Roethke finds a new meaning in the work, as well as a new poetic stance, one which presents the self with more accuracy and honesty. As the title poem of Open House indicates, Roethke sees the self at this stage of his career as an entity essentially created in the act of writing. Thus it is not surprising that the version of "Genesis" which presents the self most accurately and with the least pomposity is also the best aesthetically, with a clear structure, language which has been made "strict and pure" by the deletion of confusing or unnecessary adjectives, total metrical regularity, and a rhyme scheme that is both tight and original.

"The great danger is softness" Roethke wrote in a letter in 1935. What we find in "Genesis" and other early poems is a pose which counteracts this danger by projecting a spare and inviolable core of identity: a pearl; an adamant; even, as in "Open House," a shield. This is the poetry of what Dennis E. Brown terms "the entrenched self ["Theodore Roethke's 'Self-World' and the Modernist Position," Journal of Modern Literature, July, 1974], and behind the trenches we see few specifics of Roethke's individual identity. By the late 1930s, however, Roethke was becoming aware of the limitations of this kind of writing. In a review of Ben Bellit's The Five-Fold Mesh in 1939, Roethke raised some critical points which could apply to his own early work:

Often instead of being truly passionate, he is merely literary; he shapes ingenious verbal patterns, but they are not always poetry. Too much of his work seems to spring from an act of will rather than from an inner compulsion. Except for half a dozen poems—and that is enough—he creates no more than remarkable artifice. [Roethke, On the Poet and His Craft]

As Richard Blessing notes [in Theodore Roethke's Dynamic Vision, 1974], Roethke began to feel dissatisfied with the "well made poem" in the late '30s. In seeking to develop his own work beyond mere "remarkable artifice," Roethke produced two intriguing poems in this period which found their way into Open House. Both "The Premonition," with its reliance on unstressed line endings and half-rhyme, and "On the Road to Woodlawn," with its rough hexameter rhythm, are formally looser than the other work in the volume; both poems too arise from an "inner compulsion" which becomes central in Roethke's work: the poet's drive to understand and communicate with his dead father. There are also significant differences in compositional method from that of the early work, as an analysis of the writing of "On the Road to Woodlawn" reveals.

The composition of "On the Road to Woodlawn" represents a transitional phase between Roethke's work on poems like "Genesis" in the mid-'30s and his work on the greenhouse poems in the early '40s. Here is the final text as it appeared in Open House:

On the Road to Woodlawn
I miss the polished brass, the powerful black horses,
The drivers creaking the seats of the baroque hearses,
The high-piled floral offerings with sentimental verses,
The carriages reeking with varnish and stale perfume.

I miss the pallbearers momentously taking their places,
The undertaker's obsequious grimaces,
The craned necks, the mourners' anonymous faces,
—And the eyes, still vivid, looking up from a sunken room.

As we might gather from the length and rhythmic variation of the lines, Roethke does not use a repeating rhythm as a way of generating material for this poem. Rather the poem has its origins in questions which lead to a gathering of imagery:

Where is the polished brass
Where are the
Or the streamlined fenders the black flags
The line, snipped by the traffic light,

These questions reflect the process of memory which is at the heart of Roethke's work on this and many subsequent poems. While this conscious attempt to tap his own past experience through memory is a technique not seen in the preliminary work on "Genesis," we do find the same use of rhyme as a generating tool in both poems:

I miss the powerful black horses:
The drivers in the creaking seats of the baroque hearses;
The high piled Floral Offerings with sentimental verses,

After this rhymed section, the poet returns in his notebook to unrhymed fragments as he works to clarify details in his memory of the funeral procession. Here, in contrast to "Genesis," the scene of the poem, existing as it does in the past, is determined considerably before the meter. On the next page of the notebook, in fact, Roethke's examination of the scene has led him from the funeral procession to his dead father, whom he now addresses in trimeter: "Far and away above you / The hissing Planets whirl." After these lines is a question in prose which concludes the work on this poem in the notebook. When Roethke asks himself, "Do the clues to our generation lie in the diseased?" [quoted by Allan Seager in The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke, 1968]—a question I take to refer to his father's slow death from cancer—he is thinking about neither the poem's form nor its descriptive detail. The question, unlike anything in the notebook work on "Genesis," reflects Roethke's concern with the meaning of the experience before the poem is written.

The issue of the personal significance of the experience for Roethke is held largely in abeyance as the poet works on completing and polishing a draft of the poem. It is in this second stage of composition that the work on this poem most closely resembles that on "Genesis." The aaab cccb rhyme scheme is established, and the poet tries out different versions of lines to fit it. There is also some rhythmic tinkering, though considerably less than with "Genesis" because of the later poem's looser metrical form. The basic work on the first stanza of "On the Road to Woodlawn" is completed at this stage, but the second stanza at this point is considerably different from the published text:

Now, as if performing a task that disgraces,
The black-flagged cars, filled with anonymous faces,
Hurry to where, among urns, a vacant place is,
—As if that cemetery had insufficient room.

If Roethke had decided to retain this draft stanza as the conclusion of "On the Road to Woodlawn," he would have produced a poem not unlike "Highway: Michigan," "Idyll," or the other poems on social topics in Open House, a piece beginning with observation and description from the poet's own viewpoint and including at the end a vision of the social problem—highway mania, suburban anxiety, our inability to deal with death—expressed in a largely impersonal way. But the question of the personal meaning of the scene begins to concern Roethke again after he has completed this draft; beneath the two typed stanzas on the draft sheet is new work in pencil on what will become the second stanza of the published text.

The most noticeable changes between the draft and published texts of the second stanza are the clear presence of the poet himself in the final version, signalled by the "I miss" which now repeats the directly personal opening of the piece; and the replacement of an objective, thematically centered last line with one based on a haunting personal image. This concluding hallucinatory vision of the father staring up from the casket does not resolve the movement of the poem the way the pearl image does in "Genesis"; it does not unify the pattern of images in the work or clarify the overall meaning of the poem. Neither does it develop the personal stance seen in the earlier work. In "On the Road to Woodlawn" the self is presented as vulnerable, and the experience is seen as essentially irresolvable. In revising this poem in the last stage of the writing process, Roethke does not work toward creating a vision of self as he had earlier, but rather toward describing personal experience specifically and honestly.

Based as it is on memory, the composition of "On the Road to Woodlawn" involves more conscious work with the subject matter, particularly in the early stages, than does the writing of "Genesis." Paradoxically, however, "Genesis" in its final version appears a more consciously crafted poem than "On the Road to Woodlawn." The personal stance developed in the earlier poem emphasizes the conscious awareness of "meaning" in experience, in contrast to the depiction in the later work of an emotional event the self does not completely comprehend. Roethke's sense of the difference between these two modes of dealing with experience in poetry, as well as his increasing frustration with the "Genesis" mode, is summarized in this notebook entry: "I can suck something dry from experience, but I can't see it imaginatively."

The poet's progress toward a kind of writing which would allow him to "see experience imaginatively" was not easy. Here, for example, is some early notebook work on the greenhouse poem "Old Florist":

I cannot claim those acres,
The benches knocked to stone,
The hot beds smashed to kindling
The rose house tumbled down.

Those tall hard-fingered florists
Swearers and drinkers, they

The garish shanties creep across
The fields once full of flowers

These lines are essentially a false start; after them come the fragments like "spitting tobacco juice" which are the actual raw material for the poem. The problems in the lines are related, I think, to Roethke's use of meter and, in the first quatrain, rhyme. In meeting these formal demands, Roethke assumes an odd melodramatic tone, in which the self is cast in a traditional elegiac role and the subject is glamorized. Diction suffers too, as in the inverted "Swearers and drinkers, they"; in another attempt to work on this material in meter Roethke even uses the contraction "shan't." Formal techniques, then, instead of generating authentic poetic material from memory, essentially replace careful examination of past experience with language and images based on a conventional pose. In an early poem like "Genesis" this process works because the poet's goal is not to examine his own self and past but to create an identity, a personal stance, through the act of asserting artistic control over largely impersonal material. But in the early 1940s, in order to use memory effectively and develop an accurate sense of self, Roethke had to eliminate the formal techniques which led him to conventional stances.

In Roethke's notebooks we can see important changes in the poet's working methods. While Roethke's biographer Allan Seager exaggerates the differences between the notebooks of the '30s and those of the early '40s, his basic point, that the poet began to "loosen up" in the late '30s, is valid. Even the earliest notebooks appear fragmentary and confusing, with drafts of different poems and parts of poems interspersed among teaching notes, addresses, fragments of letters, and other material. Like the later notebooks, they show evidence of Roethke's re-reading. But as the poet completes Open House and begins work on his second volume, the notebooks become even more confusing. For one thing, Roethke's work in them is much more extensive than earlier, involving not only a large increase in draft material for poems but many more prose fragments, questions, partial narratives, and other related material. The re-readings become more frequent, with corrections and additions of new material. In his new, more extensive use of the notebooks, Roethke spends a great deal of time describing aspects of the greenhouse, often without an idea of one particular poem in mind. One notebook from the early '40s contains several pages of such work, including details that find their way into "Root Cellar"—"All the breathing of growing"—"Weed Puller"—"Weeds beneath benches, / The drain-holes festooned with mossy roots dripping"—and "Transplanting"—"To be pinched and spun quick by the florists' green thumbs." The evocation of images from memory is more important than artifice here. I do not mean to imply that Roethke is unconcerned with the composition of specific poems at this point; we can see this passage eventually leading into work on "Forcing House." But the artifice here, the separation of greenhouse experience into distinct units that will become poems, arises gradually from the description instead of guiding and focussing the writing from the beginning. There is neither the rush to complete a formal unit, as in the early work, nor the clear sense of a particular subject, as in "On the Road to Woodlawn." "The poem invents the form; it insists on the form," Roethke writes in one notebook. The poet's sense of artifice has become more organic; writing now involves discovery, not just conscious choice. Roethke's belief in this period that "A poem becomes independent of you" shows a new attitude toward the self in the writing process, a movement away from will and stance toward a more subtle and fluid sense of himself and his material. The new type of preliminary work in the poet's notebooks reflects Roethke's growing awareness that it is vital to keep the gates of memory open, the self open to past experience.

Related to this new openness in the writing process is the value Roethke now places on what can perhaps best be defined as "looking." This concept first appears in the mid-'30s in a letter from Roethke's friend Louise Bogan. Charging Roethke with a kind of fear of feeling in his early verse, she sent him a copy of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and advised, "… you will have to look at things until you don't know whether you are they or they are you" (Bogan's emphasis). Roethke echoed this idea many years later in the film In a Dark Time, noting Rilke's careful observation of animals and referring to long, intense "looking" as "an extension of consciousness." This "extension of consciousness," it is important to remember, arises not only from introspection, "looking" at the self, but also from close observation of entities outside the self. In the lengthy descriptive passages from the greenhouse notebooks we can see the poet "looking" as he writes. An example is Roethke's work on the memory of pulling weeds, which extends for more than a dozen pages. The scene is examined again and again; details are repeated; and, though practically all of the images and phrases in "Weed Puller" appear in the passage, there is little attempt to order the material as it is being written. Roethke is not just gathering lines here as he might have done earlier—the work is too repetitious and extensive for that. Rather, he is intensely "looking" at a memory in an attempt to "extend his consciousness" to include elements of the greenhouse experience of his younger self, to go beyond simple description toward "seeing it imaginatively." What the poet eventually learns from this "looking" is revealed in the general comment about weed pulling he makes in a later notebook: "Ambivalent / Spirituality & sensuousness."

Though the greenhouse notebooks show that Roethke has moved away from conscious, limiting structures in his concepts of self and artifice, there is nonetheless a great deal of conscious work involved in the writing of the greenhouse poems. Roethke's comment on weed pulling is an example: After "looking" at the experience until his present sense of self begins to merge with aspects of the greenhouse and his past identity, the poet steps back from what he has written, examines it, and states what he has learned. The knowledge gained through this examination is then used in developing the artifice of the poem. This more conscious work comes after a given poem has begun to emerge from the mass of greenhouse notes; it can thus be seen as part of a second stage in the compositional process. While it is necessary to discuss the preliminary greenhouse work with reference to several poems, as their origins are intermingled, the nest stage in the writing process is best seen in the poet's work on a single poem. Here is the final text of "Cuttings" as it appeared in The Lost Son and Other Poems:

Sticks-in-a-drowse droop over sugary loam,
Their intricate stem-fur dries;
But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
The small cells bulge;

One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Pokes through a musty sheath
Its pale tendrilous horn.

Like the second stage in the composition of an early poem, Roethke's work in completing a draft of "Cuttings" involves the development and selection of material to fit his idea of the artifice of the poem. In the early poems, of course, Roethke uses meter and rhyme as tools in the process, deleting material that does not fit the pattern and listing rhyme words as a kind of boundary within which new lines might be written. The absence of these tools in the composition of the greenhouse poems makes Roethke's task more difficult. The poet discusses this problem in "Some Remarks on Rhythm":

We must realize, I think, that the writer in freer forms must have an even greater fidelity to his subject matter than the poet who has the support of form. He must keep his eye on the object, and his rhythm must move as a mind moves, must be imaginatively right, or he is lost. [On the Poet and His Craft]

Comparing the composition of "Genesis" with that of "Cuttings," we see in the later poem fewer lines completed and then revised for rhythmic regularity, more fragmentary beginnings which are not revised but just dropped. In one notebook passage, for example, there are more than twenty consecutive attempts at the third line of the poem. It is clear from some of these fragments that Roethke knows the basic movement he wants to develop at this transitional point in the poem—the gradual transformation, within a continuous natural process, of dormant stems into slips actively drawing up water—but he cannot develop the details until he is satisfied with the beginning phrase of the transition. Unlike Roethke's work on the individual stanzas of "Genesis," the completion of a part of "Cuttings" is bound up with the poet's idea of the whole, his awareness that the clause beginning with "But" is central to the poem's entire movement. Working toward a line which is not formally metered but "imaginatively right," he repeats the opening "But" again and again, trying out different alternatives for the subject of the clause—"the sliced wedge of a stem," "the planted end," "the face"—in an attempt to start a train of thought and a corresponding rhythm which will carry him through this part of the poem. Roethke's difficulty in getting past the beginning of the line at this point reflects the fact that the process involved here is not a simple one of summarizing or reproducing experience. It is an attempt, rather, to re-create in the act of writing the movement of the poet's mind. In "Genesis" and other early poems a tough personal stance arises directly from Roethke's strict formal style and adamantine imagery, but in the greenhouse poems this process is essentially reversed: The imaginative attempt to re-live the act of perception determines the lines and phrases which make up the artifice; only when the poem's rhythms "move as a mind moves," following the self in the process of perception and cognition, are they "imaginatively right."

The concrete details and perceptions we find in the finished poem represent only a fraction of the total amount generated by Roethke's intense observation of greenhouse experience. The final stage of composition, after the poet has completed a draft, involves careful selection of lines and images, along with revision and rearrangement of material. The composition of "Cuttings" provides a clear example of this kind of work, as the first draft of the poem is vastly different from the final text. Here is the draft, with its early title:

Propagation House
Slivers of stem, minutely furred,
Tucked into sand still marked with thumb-prints,
Cuttings of coleas, geranium, blood-red fuchsia
Stand stiff in their beds.
The topsoil crusts over like bakery sugar.

The delicate slips keep coaxing up water,
Bulging their flexible cells almost to bursting.
Even before fuzzy root-hairs reach for their gritty sustenance,
One pale horn of growth, a nubby root-cap,
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Humps like a sprout,
Then stretches out straight.

"Propagation House" has the overall structure of "Cuttings," most of its details, and several of the specific images. But, compared to the final text, it is wordy and slow-moving. Such an overabundance of detail is a natural result of Roethke's reliance on memory and extensive "looking" in the early stages of composition. It is also related to the poet's shift from formal to free verse, as a letter from William Carlos Williams suggests:

The thing sought is the essence and for this we need to be saying (as poets!) what we are saying. But in releasing ourselves, in that feeling of confident release the difficulty is that we say too much, we say more than is distinctively ourselves, we slop over a little.

In paring down his draft to express no more than is "distinctively himself," Roethke uses what he has learned of himself and greenhouse experience in the earlier stages of writing to clarify and condense his material. In the case of "Weed Puller," for example, Roethke uses his discovery that the experience involved "Ambivalent / Spirituality & sensuousness" to select the combination of sensuous images and spiritually oriented abstractions which will make up the finished poem.

Returning to "Cuttings," we find that the poet is most conscious of the artifice at this final stage of composition. Aesthetic concerns—redundance, awkward rhythms, too many adjectives, irrelevant details—merge with Roethke's drive to present himself and his perceptions honestly and directly. Most of the first stanza, for example, is discarded because its specific flower names and references to transplanting detract from the focus of the poem and the experience. As we have seen from Roethke's early work on the transition in the third line of the published text, the gradual change from apparent lifelessness to the beginnings of growth is central to the poet's perception of the scene, and the irrelevant material in the first stanza of "Propagation House" blurs this perception. Other details which distort the experience include the exaggeration of the phrase "almost to bursting" in line 7, the redundance of "flexible" in the same line and the appositive at the end of line 9, and the rather fussy effect produced by the accumulation of adjectives ending in "y" in lines 8 and 9. The rhythms of "Propagation House," with its abundance of unstressed syllables, lengthy lines, and feminine line endings, feel cluttered and overly elaborate. Roethke's goal in revising the draft is to pare them down, making them "natural," as he puts it. In addition to removing these distorting, unnatural elements, Roethke tightens the structure of the poem to clarify the experience presented. The strong separation between the seemingly lifeless stems and the "slips coaxing up water" created by the stanza break in "Propagation House" is reduced in "Cuttings," in keeping with Roethke's sense of the change as part of a continuous natural process. In the final text the stanza break serves to emphasize the time between the drawing up of water and the first growth, reflecting the process more accurately. These revisions all show the "greater fidelity to his subject matter" Roethke develops in the third stage of composition.

The term "subject matter" should not be defined narrowly. In his letters to editors and friends in the mid-'40s, Roethke insisted that the greenhouse poems went "beyond mere description" of natural phenomena and suggested "at least two levels of experience." The level beneath that of greenhouse description includes Roethke's presentation of self in the sequence. "Cuttings," the shortest and least anthropomorphic of the greenhouse poems, presents something of a special case here: The second level is not brought out directly in the poem itself but rather through the interaction between "Cuttings" and the poem which follows it in the sequence and shares its title, "Cuttings (later)." While "Cuttings" has its origins in the poet's observation of a natural process, "Cuttings (later)"—even in its early stages—involves the relation between nature and the self. Here is the text as it appeared in The Lost Son and Other Poems:

Cuttings (later)
This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?

I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it,—
The small waters seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.

As we might expect from the subject and images—"sticks," water, and "sheath"—common to both poems, Roethke worked on "Cuttings" and "Cuttings (later)" simultaneously. Both poems were primarily composed in 1944, although, like most of the greenhouse poems, they include details which appeared earlier in the undifferentiated greenhouse material of the notebooks. As I mentioned, the connection between nature and the self is at the core of "Cuttings (later)" from the beginning, but in bringing the piece to its final state Roethke makes the poem more specifically personal, moving from this rather rhetorical version of the concluding stanza—

Who could shun this hump and scratch,
The close sweat of growth,
Not quail to the same itch,
Not stir, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet?

to a stanza which anchors the link with nature firmly in the experience of "I," the poet himself, and expresses it not as a question but as an affirmative statement. While the connection between self and nature is clarified in the revisions of "Cuttings (later)," it is consciously excluded from "Cuttings." In one instance, Roethke uses details from the draft material of "Cuttings (later)" to revise the other poem from its "Propagation House" stage. The opening line of "Cuttings" appears among this draft material as "The best of me droops, in a drowse." In reworking this line, Roethke removes the personal pronoun from the material, keeping "Cuttings" focussed on nature, not the self. The fact that "Cuttings" concentrates on description without a perceiving "I" is no accident. As Jarold Ramsey notes [in "Roethke in the Greenhouse," Western Humanities Review, Winter, 1972], Roethke "suppresses all possible human implications" in "Cuttings" in order to establish an objective perspective. In doing this, the poet asserts that the connection between self and nature comes from close observation of greenhouse life and is not applied to the material from the beginning in a kind of arbitrary analogy. The "two levels" Roethke develops in the greenhouse poems are connected organically, as "looking"—even if not specifically directed toward the self—is intrinsically linked to an "extension of consciousness." In their position as the opening poems of the greenhouse sequence, "Cuttings" and "Cuttings (later)" clearly announce the relation between natural processes and the development of self which is at the heart of the sequence and the volume as a whole.

In a statement made at Northwestern University in 1963 Roethke characterized the title poem of Open House as "a clumsy, innocent, desperate asseveration" and contrasted it to his subsequent work:

The spirit or soul—should we say the self, once perceived, becomes the soul?—this I was keeping "spare" in my desire for the essential. But the spirit need not be spare: it can grow gracefully and beautifully like a tendril, like a flower [Roethke's italics]. ["On 'Identity'," in On the Poet and His Craft]

In working toward this organic sense of self, Roethke went through basic changes in the way he wrote. In the late '30s and early '40s he began to rely more on memory and extensive "looking" at objects and experiences as a way of generating poetic material. Rhyme, meter, and even the awareness of artifice itself were downplayed as Roethke examined his past, attempting to re-create the process of perception in the act of writing. Dropping the support of formal verse, he worked toward rhythms which would "move as a mind moves" and a corresponding new sense of self: The artificial stance assumed in the early poems is replaced by a consciousness, open to experience, which grows in the process of writing and leads to an accurate expression of personal identity in the finished text. In a notebook kept as he was completing the greenhouse poems, Roethke wrote, "You must learn to walk before you can dance; you can't be a master of suggestion unless you are a master of description." The greenhouse poems are descriptive in the richest sense of the term. "Learning to walk" in these poems was, for Roethke, an essential prelude to the "dance" of more complex self-discovery in the "Lost Son" sequence.

M. L. Lewandowska (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: "The Words of Their Roaring: Roethke's Use of the Psalms of David," in The David Myth in Western Literature, edited by Raymond-Jean Frontain and Jan Wojcik, Purdue University Press, 1980, pp. 156-67.

[In the following essay, Lewandowska claims that the poems in Praise to the End! evince the influence of the Bible's Psalms.]

Theodore Roethke's long Praise to the End! sequence is probably best approached through Roethke's own guide to perception: "We think by feeling. What is there to know?" Indeed, it is one of the few long sequences in modern poetry that can be read aloud, dramatically, and erupt into meaning solely by means of its sounds and images. Yet, for those of us who must know as well as feel, the sequence is extremely complex and thus difficult to explicate. Though Roethke insisted he did not "rely on allusion," he suggested many of the ancestors for these poems and among the sources he first mentions is the Bible. He notes one direct quotation from Job, but the more fertile source material is that of the Psalms, especially those traditionally attributed to David. Although their authorship is debated by modern biblical scholars, these songs have for centuries formed part of the mythical and literary reality of that heroic figure, a man who knew triumph and despair, power and persecution, and who ordered his most intense experiences by shaping them with music. It is toward that persona, that popular image of the lyric side of David, that Roethke reaches in his own unique way. The Psalms contain dramatic emotional correlatives for Roethke's protagonist and their rhetoric and images provide the means by which the two voices can blend in their singing.

An immediate link between the Psalms and the Praise sequence is suggested by parallels in rhetorical patterns. A great many Psalms begin with invocation: "Hear the right, O Lord," "Plead my cause, O Lord," "Our Lord, Our Lord, how…," "Help, Lord," "My God, my God…" The protagonist in Roethke's poems uses similar invocations, "God, give me a near" ("Where Knock is Open Wide"), but the object addressed soon becomes quite different: "Hear me, soft ears and roundy stones" ("I Need, I Need"), "Voice, come out of the silence" ("The Lost Son"). As the sequence progresses, Roethke invokes metaphoric spirits which come from dreams or the unconscious: "You child with a beast's heart," and "Mother of blue and many changes of hay," and "You tree beginning to know" ("Give Way, Ye Gates").

Another example, "Worm, be with me," is a perfect echo of David and the pattern found so often in the Psalms: the address follows, or is followed by, the imperative. "Bow down thine ear, O Lord" (86:1), "Judge me, O Lord" (26:1), "Preserve me, O God" (16:1), "O Lord, rebuke me not" (6:1). There is much of the same in Roethke, and the pattern creates an immediacy, a rare sense of drama. "Delight me otherly, white spirit," he says in "I Cry Love! Love!" and "Lave me, ultimate waters" ("Praise to the End!"), or, in another mood, "Renew the light, lewd whisper" ("The Shape of the Fire").

The pattern is used for both exhortation and supplication. When David wishes revenge on his enemies, the tone is tense and demanding: "Destroy, O Lord, and divide their tongues; for I have seen violence and strife in the city" (55:9); "Arise, O God, plead thine own cause: remember how the foolish man reproacheth thee daily" (74:22). When he laments, the tone of the Psalmist is one of supplication: "Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me; for my soul trusteth in thee" (57:1), and, "O Lord, rebuke me not in thy wrath" (38:1). Roethke also uses exhortation and supplication, more and more often as the Praise sequence progresses and the poems gain intensity. For example, "Believe me, knot of a gristle, I bleed like a tree" ("Give Way, Ye Gates"), or "Mamma! Put on your dark hood: / It's a long way to somewhere else" ("Sensibility! O La!"). In the softer tones: "Sooth me, great groans of underneath, / I'm still waiting for a foot" ("O Lull Me, Lull Me"); "Voice, come out of the silence, / Say something, / Appear in the form of a spider" ("The Lost Son"). Or simply: "Father, forgive my hands" ("Praise to the End!").

To read this sequence aloud is to become acutely aware of how often Roethke uses these patterns, how strong the biblical echoes are. And we might well ask why a modern poet would choose such "archaic" forms in which to deliver his very contemporary song. An answer is immediately clear: the effect is incredibly powerful. Speech is formalized and intensified and all verbal excesses, all temptations to philosophize, are eliminated. The short, tight forms present the emotion with an immediacy that touches us far more quickly than any metaphor could. Indeed, there is a literalness in this language which is rare in modern poetry, and yet the mystery remains. When Roethke or David uses invocation, the object addressed, be it the Lord or a "white way to another grace" metamorphoses, quickens, as we are forced to focus on it so sharply. In marvelous contrast to the dramatic lines such rhetoric produces, the lyric passages in Roethke become all the more musical. Listen, for example, to the contrast in two stanzas from "I Cry Love! Love!":

Mouse, mouse, come out of the ferns,
And small mouths, stay your aimless cheeping:
A lapful of apples sleeps in this grass.
That anguish of concreteness!—
The sun playing on loam,
And the first dust of spring listing over backlots,—
I proclaim once more a condition of joy.
Walk into the wind, willie!

A fish jumps, shaking out flakes of moonlight.
A single wave starts lightly and easily shoreward,
Wrinkling between reeds in shallower water,
Lifting a few twigs and floating leaves,
Then washing up over small stones.

There is another rhetorical connection. Mitchell Dahood, in The Anchor Bible, mentions that "the dominating principle of… Biblical poetry is… that of balance or symmetry, the famous parallelismus membrorum." This balance shows most clearly in pairs of synonyms: rejoiceexault, foe-adversary, devoted ones-faithful ones. But the translators of the Psalms usually provide a balance in rhythm or rhetorical structure also. Thus we hear David sing "I will praise thee, O Lord, among the people; and I will sing praises unto thee among nations" (108:3), and "All night I make my bed to swim; I water my couch with tears" (6:6).

Again, Roethke takes advantage of the Psalms pattern, especially as he moves from entreaty to celebration. The effect is incantatory. "You tree beginning to know, / You whisper of kidneys" ("Give Way, Ye Gates") leads to "In the high noon of thighs / In the springtime of stones" in the same poem. In "Praise to the End!" the youth urges: "Speak to me, frosty beard. / Sing to me, sweet," and, having heard the singing, prays: "Wherefore O birds and small fish, surround me. / Lave me, ultimate waters." The repetition sometimes intensifies, sometimes clarifies, as it does when the poet balances an abstraction in one line with something quite concrete in the next: "I could say hello to things; / I could talk to a snail" ("O Lull Me, Lull Me").

Such rhetorical similarities invite a more direct comparison of the two protagonists, but the relationship is subtle, oblique. The ancient heroic lad who faced Goliath with only a sling in his hand lends his voice to a modern child whose battles are all internal and whose giant is a ghost. This protagonist struggles slowly and painfully toward some understanding of his personal tragedy and his present condition. When Roethke reaches toward the David image, therefore, he seeks not a literal but an emotional reference for his sequence. The Psalms create for us David the singer, the poet-king who tells us of his great sorrows and his great joys, a lost son who seeks understanding and forgiveness from his Father. There is no lasting triumph for this singer; instead, the shifts of mood and tone and spiritual condition come through the powerful lyric poetry and we find ourselves alternately rejoicing or weeping as we read. And so we do for the lost son of this Roethke sequence, of which the poet says, "… at least you can see that the method is cyclic. I believe that to go forward as a spiritual man it is necessary first to go back. Any history of the psyche… is bound to be a succession of experiences, similar yet dissimilar. There is a perpetual slipping back, then a going forward; yet there is some 'progress.'"

There are certain "facts" which become clear as the sequence progresses, however, that relate to those in the Psalms: events, themes, plot, and images. A central event is the death of the father, seen through the eyes of a very young child at the end of the first poem, "Where Knock is Open Wide." "He was all whitey bones / And skin like paper," the child says, sharing with us the traumatic event which colors all his perceptions. His instinctive emotional response to this event, "Kisses come back, / I said to Papa," establishes the intense feelings of loss, separation, and lack of love and communion which determine the child's response to all external sights and sounds. His rational response to the event, "God's somewhere else" and "Maybe God has a house. / But not here," explains his sense of isolation and his continuing quest for a place or a time in which he can be enclosed by love.

The poems which follow in the sequence record that quest, described by John Wain as central to art, "an endeavor to break down the isolation of the human being… to bring us into a fruitful contact with something" ["The Monocle of My Sea-Faced Uncle," Theodore Roethke: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Arnold Stein, 1965]. Wain goes on to say that Roethke is an "evangelical writer," that "the intensity of his lyric gift sprang directly from the hunger that raged at its center—a hunger for salvation." Such hunger is also at the center of the Psalms, and the implied dramatic situation—of a passionate, lonely person with great emotional gifts and needs, awaiting and seeking reconciliation, union—could provide Roethke with just enough structure to shape his account of the restless psyche.

As Karl Malkoff notes [in Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry, 1966], "the main themes of the entire sequence—birth and death, sexual guilt and confusion, separation from the father and God (the 'lost son' motif)—are explicitly considered in the first poem." The themes are reiterated constantly, but always from a different point of reference and usually with some novel linguistic rendering. As the child grows up, he seeks solace from the mother, from associations with his past, from all elements of nature. His understanding comes after numerous descents to the "pit," a place familiar to David. To Roethke, the pit symbolized the far reaches of a regressive journey, a place of mire, of primordial slime. These journeys are often accompanied by scenes of masturbation and consequent guilt, until the protagonist finally comes to realize a union with all things, which is sensual and ultimately sexual, for the regressive journeys have set off a fish-sperm association and, by extension, a fish-father-death-womb-water-life-light sequence. The young man's awareness of the cycle brings him, finally, to a sense of his own identity and to the understanding that "What the grave says, / "The nest denies" ("Unfold! Unfold!") that

We met in a nest. Before I lived.
The dark hair sighed.
We never enter
["I Cry Love! Love!"]

The profound perception is reiterated in the final poem of the sequence, "O, Thou Opening, O":

The dark has its own light.
A son has many fathers.
Stand by a slow stream:
Hear the sigh of what is.

There is much more. The physical growth of the persona is accompanied by a parallel spiritual development; the union is mystical also. So too with the protagonist's aesthetic progress, for the child moves from a "small sing" in the first poem to a point where the grown persona cries in "Unfold! Unfold!":

Sing, sing, you symbols! All simple creatures,
All small shapes, willow-shy,
In the obscure haze, sing!

As Roethke's sequence opens, the tie to David is immediate, albeit indirect. The title of the first poem, "Where Knock is Open Wide," is from Christopher Smart's A Song to David. Smart asserts "Strong is the lion…," and in verse 77:

The unique diction renders Smart's version of Matthew 7:7, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." Roethke's debt to Smart went beyond the use of that line for the title poem, for he also practices some of Smart's grammatical conversions and thus enlivens the rhetoric of the child protagonist. The title has implications which go beyond the original context, of course; it can have sexual connotations or even refer to the literal as well as the spiritual birth of a child. But the important thing, Smart's devotion to David, cannot be denied. His Song has 86 verses and he also did poetic "translations" of a number of the Psalms, many of which were set to music. Surely Roethke knew of this homage.

Interestingly, another poet whom Roethke cites was also especially devoted to David. Traherne was mentioned the first time Roethke spoke of "ancestors" for this sequence, and in a letter to John Crowe Ransom, Roethke mentions that it was Traherne's prose that most influenced him. In the "Third Century" Traherne says,

but as I read the Bible I was here and there Surprised with such Thoughts and found by Degrees that these Things had been written of before, not only in the Scriptures but in many of the fathers and that this was the Way of Communion with God in all Saints, as I saw Clearly in the Person of David. Me thoughts a New Light Darted in into all his Psalms, and finally spread abroad over the Whole Bible. [Traherne: Centuries, Poems, and Thanksgivings, edited by H. M. Margoliouth, 1958]

After speaking of his new vision, Traherne wrote his own poem about David and then explicated some of the Psalms, giving contemporary exegetical associations. In Thanks givings, Traherne echoes David strongly, seeing with David's poetic vision.

When Roethke was working on this sequence, with just a few of the poems done, he wrote to Kenneth Burke, "But God, I need a larger structure; something dramatic: an old story,—something. Most of the myths are a bore, to me. Wish I could talk to you about it." His search quite obviously took him to the Bible, for his long poem, "The Lost Son" (first done for a collection with that title and later placed at the center of the Praise to the End! collection), contains a direct quote from Job 30:28, "Hath the rain a father?" And perhaps the words of Elihu to Job inspired the "plot" of the sequence: "His flesh shall be fresher than a child's: he shall return to the days of his youth" (Job 33:25), and "Lo, all these things worketh God oftentimes with man," "To bring back his soul from the pit, to be enlightened with the light of the living" (Job 33:29, 33:30).

The path from the pit to the places of light is long and difficult for adolescent or king, and Roethke fills his journey with an amazing number of images which are also found in the Psalms. Many of these images are traditional symbols, found often in our Western literature, but the Psalms provide an original emotional context for our poet. When Roethke echoes the pleading and anguish of David, he assimilates David's images and invests them with modern psychological symbolism. Thus the pit, for example, is not a place where evildoers are punished, as David saw it, but a dark, subconscious area in the psyche of the boy. It is a necessary stop on the journey of the spirit, and its exploration, however painful, can lead to union.

As we saw, it is easy to tie the theme of return to childhood to some later verses in Job, but the Psalms also open with images of generation and birth: "I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee" (2:7). In the first poem of Roethke's sequence the child tells us: "Once upon a tree / I came across a time," and most critics agree that the time the child comes to is a prenatal time, a point at which he can ask "What's the time, papa-seed?" and when he can tell us "My father is a fish." The tree image is reiterated throughout the sequence, connected most often with sexual awakening or awareness. In an early poem he tells us, "When I stand, I'm almost a tree. / Leaves, do you like me any?" ("Bring the Day!"), and later we hear "Believe me, knot of gristle, I bleed like a tree," and mention of "You tree beginning to know" ("Give Way, Ye Gates"). In "Sensibility! O La!"—in a time of joy—he notes, "I'm a twig to touch," and in "Unfold! Unfold!" he says "I stretched like a board, almost a tree." The idea of potency, caught by the image of a tree, is introduced early in the Psalms: "And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither" (1:3). Later, with joy, David tells us "But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God" (52:8).

Roethke's choice of the voice of a child for these early poems is surely striking and appropriate, for David tells us, in Psalm 8:2, "Out of the mouth of babes and suck lings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger." The enemy of Roethke's child is the ghost of the father, a ghost he must "still" and one that he finds in the wind or in the long grass. David's spiritual Father flies "on the wings of the wind" (18:10) and we know he spoke to Job from a whirlwind. Though Roethke's child comes to accept the wind later in the sequence, his first utterances are tense and compressed, showing the grammatical conversions Christopher Smart was so fond of. "How high is have?" he asks, "Have I come to always?" Or he sighs "Nowhere is out," or pleads "God, give me a near." This last clause has often been misprinted "God, give me an ear," an error which indicates just the kind of audible ambiguity Roethke intended. But it also echoes a number of David's cries: "Hear me when I call, O God" (4:1); "Give ear to my words, O Lord" (5:1); "Hear my prayer, O Lord, give ear to my supplication" (143:1); and finally, "Give ear to my voice, when I cry unto thee" (141:1).

At another moment the child begs, "Fish me out. / Please." A strange image for a child to use, and difficult to explain, until we see that the Psalmist also used it: "He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters" (18:16), and again: "Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sinketh: let me be delivered from them that hate me, and out of the deep waters" (69:14). David, in that same Psalm, moans "I am weary of my crying," a condition we noted before, in Psalm 6:6, where he tells us "I am weary with my groaning; all the night I make my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears." In a beautiful contraction, intensified by the unusual rhetoric, the child tells us simply "My tears are tired."

In a regressive stage, Roethke's protagonist often mentions "a worm." In the first poem he cries, "A worm has a mouth. / Who keeps me last?" and later: "It's still enough for the knock of a worm" ("Praise to the End!"). In "The Lost Son" is an early incantation, "Worm be with me. / This is my hard time." The image and the rhetoric belong to David also, in a song spoken from the same despairing mood: "But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men," and a few lines later: "Be not far from me; for trouble is near" (22:6 and 11). Similarly, and just as much a puzzle, is the boy's plea, "Bird, soft-sigh me home" ("The Lost Son"). The object of this address seems very general, until we note that David often cried to the Lord to hide him "in the shadow of thy wings," and connected the image with the soul in 11:1: "In the Lord put I my trust: how say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain." For the modern poet, the image carries the weight of physical and spiritual connotations and is offered in terms as lovely. In "Give Way, Ye Gates": "Such music in a skin! / A bird sings in the bush of your bones." And in the poem just previous:

O small bird awakening,
Light as a hand among blossoms,
Hardly any old angels are around any more.
["Bring the Day"]

Often repeated in Roethke's sequence is the image of bones, a reminder to readers of his very first book of published poems. There, in the first poem, "Open House," he presented himself as utterly open, "naked to the bone." This kind of nakedness meant total involvement for the persona, and the image grew in meaning in a later poem, "Cuttings (later)," when the speaker felt in his veins and in his bones the "sucking and sobbing" of the plant beginning to root. In the most intimate moments of the Praise sequence, Roethke uses the bone imagery to express the intense emotions felt by the persona. At first the association is frightening: papa, dead, is "all whitey bones," and later he tells us "I dreamt I was all bones; / The dead slept in my sleeve." As he regresses in this poem, "Praise to the End!" he asks "Can the bones breathe? This grave has an ear." At the end of "The Lost Son," in a time of communion, he sees the light moving slowly "over the dry seed-crowns, / The beautiful surviving bones / Swinging in the wind," but just previous to this, in the heart of a "storm," he says "My veins are running nowhere. Do the bones cast out their fire?" At the very beginning of this poem, in fact, in a time of fear and longing for understanding, he tells us "I shook the softening chalk of my bones."

The Psalmist uses almost the same words in his expression of his fear and impotence: "I am poured out like water, and my bones are out of joint" (22:14). In fact, the bone imagery appears throughout the Psalms, just as it does in the Roethke sequence. In 31:10, David moans: "My strength faileth because of my iniquities, and my bones are consumed"; in 32:3, "When I kept silence, my bones waxed through my roaring all the day long"; and, in a joyful song, "He [the righteous] keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken" (34:20). In the depths again: "Our bones are scattered at the grave's mouth" (141:7).

The most impressive connection of the sequence with the Psalms is probably the abundance of imagery associated with the pit or the mire. For Roethke, the journey backward was also a journey into the dark, the pit. He tells us: "Each poem… is complete in itself; yet each in a sense is a stage in a kind of struggle out of the slime, part of a slow spiritual process; an effort to be born, and later, to become something more." When he wrote the "Lost Son" poem, before the others in this long sequence, he titled one of the sections "The Pit," indicating that "The Flight" of the previous section would take one to this dark interior. Any reading of the Psalms is bound to impress one with the same imagery, for the fear of the pit was omnipresent and we see that the wicked are always condemned to it (30:3, 30:9, 28:1, etc.). For David, the pit is dug by the offender, as we see in 7:15: "He made a pit, and digged it and is fallen into the ditch which he made." We feel his joy in his deliverance in 49:2: "He brought me up also out of the horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock." When Roethke's protagonist comes to understanding, it is in reconciliation with the images of the pit, the "miry clay," as well as all else. He tells us in "Unfold! Unfold!": "I was far back, farther than anybody else," and describes how far that was:

I was privy to oily fungus and the algae of standing waters;
Honored, on my return, by the ancient fellowship of rotten stems.

Those images announce the move toward joy and light, a place both singers knew very well. In later poems Roethke often uses images of dancing to exclaim his joy; at one point he tells us "And everything comes to One, / As we dance on, dance on, dance on" ("Once More, The Round"). But the steps of that dance start here, in the final parts of this sequence, when his protagonist "danced in a simple wood." David also danced as he spoke to the Lord, "Thou has turned for me my mourning into dancing" (30:11). And the joy extends into new songs, too, as we see when David announces his faith in the Lord: "And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me: therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the Lord" (22:7). In 40:3 we see that he has been brought up out of the pit, and immediately he says: "And he hath put a new song in my mouth." Again, in 144:9, the same impulse: "I will sing a new song unto thee, O God." For Roethke's protagonist the awakening brings a new awareness:

I'm more than when I was born;
I could say hello to things;
I could talk to a snail;
I see what sings!
What sings!
["O Lull Me, Lull Me"]

In the final poem of the sequence he tells us "I've crept from a cry," "I sing the green, and things to come, / I'm king of another condition, / So alive I could die!" ("O, Thou Opening, O").

Such joy, such exaltation, is possible for all men, as David sees them in 103:15: "As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth"; and it extends to all creation, too, for we see in Psalm 65 that God touches all things on earth and in the heavens, so that "the pastures are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered over with corn; they shout for joy, they also sing" (65:13). The realization comes also for the persona of Roethke's sequence, sometimes in the wild joy we have seen above, sometimes in the same image of the field which emanates life. The blessings were there, around him all the time, but the knowledge of such glory was hard to accept. In the first poem the child cried "Maybe God has a house. / But not here." At the end of the sequence he sees

A house for wisdom: a field for revelation.
Speak to the stones, and the stars answer.
At first the visible obscures:
Go where the light is.
["Unfold! Unfold!"]

Theodore Roethke's work remains largely untouched by this investigation. The Praise sequence has many fathers, and is enormously rich in other themes and images, yet Roethke knew the wealth the Psalms held and was not afraid to sing with David's voice when he needed it. He acknowledged his debt to all his "ancestors" when he said: "In their harsh thickets / The dead thrash. / They help." I believe he was thinking of David when he wrote

See what the sweet harp says.
Should a song break a sleep?
["O, Thou Opening, O"]

He answered affirmatively, awaking the harpist, so they could sing together.

Neal Bowers (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke: The Manic Vision," in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. XI, Nos. 1-2, 1982, pp. 152-64.

[In the following essay, examines the connection between Roethke's manic-depression and evidence of mystical themes in his works.]

Although Theodore Roethke's manic depressive syndrome, which troubled him most of his adult life, and his interest in mysticism, particularly during his last decade, have been fairly well documented, no one has ever commented on the significant connection between these two things. This is a curious oversight because the relationship, far from being remote, is a causal one, with Roethke's manic experiences leading him inevitably to mystical literature in search of a parallel for his own unusual perceptions. He found in the writing of mystics and scholars of mysticism validation of his manic-depressive experiences and a way to order the manic vision which, without a larger context, must initially have appeared aberrant and chaotic. Because the relationship between manic-depression and mysticism was apparent to Roethke from the earliest stages of his career, an evaluation of that relationship should lead to a greater understanding of his work and, beyond that, to a more complete view of the poet himself, as a man who turned a personal handicap into a rich source for poetry.

Although several critics (William Heyen and Jay Parini, in particular) have touched upon Roethke's mysticism, no one has seemed eager to deal with it in detail, perhaps because no one feels very comfortable with the term "mysticism" and because most critics would agree with Richard Allen Blessing that Roethke was "not much of a mystic if, indeed, he was one at all" [Theodore Roethke's Dynamic Vision, 1974]. Nevertheless, certain mystical qualities are so apparent in the poetry, particularly in the final book, The Far Field, as to be unavoidable. And Roethke's interest in mysticism is undeniable, for his working notebooks (in the University of Washington's collection) abound, from the first to the last, with references to mystical doctrine. Such references frequently take the form of apparent outlines or notes transcribed from other sources, as in the following:

The inward flight
and frozen night

St. John of the Cross

Orthodox mystic spiritual marriage
to God
Unitive mysticism "complete fusion of
soul with the divine"

epithalamic mysticism
Soul cannot partake of God, but only
resemble God.

These notations, recorded in 1939, are sketchy, but subsequent entries are more explicit. For example, in a 1942 notebook Roethke presents thorough summaries of the discussions of mysticism found in Denis De Rougemont's Love in the Western World. His notes reveal a familiarity with such well-known mystics as Meister Eckhart, St. Francis, and St. Theresa and preserve comments from their writings that Roethke apparently found significant: e.g., "True mystics are [the] essence of prudence, rigor & clear-sighted obedience" and "All mystics have complained of a want of new words."

In addition to the abundance of references scattered throughout the notebooks, lengthy notes on mysticism can be found elsewhere in the Roethke manuscripts, sometimes entered on loose leaf paper, sometimes in spiral notebooks, and, in at least one instance, in a tablet of typing paper. These writings appear to be notes for teaching, but on many occasions it becomes apparent that Roethke was writing as much for himself as for his students. For example, on one page beneath the heading "Mysticism" appear the following remarks:

These entries seem designed primarily to jog the memory. If they were used in class, no doubt Roethke had pages of extemporaneous commentary to offer on each statement, and perhaps the last remarks functioned as an exhortation to his students: "Come out of the theological tree. Intelligence must rest without." But in many ways, these notes on mysticism resemble those found in the notebooks, and they were probably more valuable to Roethke than to his students. It seems likely that Roethke introduced his students to the arcane study of mysticism because of his own fascination with the material.

Roethke's reading in mysticism intensified during the last ten years of his life, as did his interest in philosophy in general, but he read steadily and broadly in mystical literature from the late 1930's and early 1940's onward. And his reading was more than merely casual, as the following note found inside the cover of his copy of The Soul Afire: Revelations of the Mystics, edited by H. A. Reinhold, indicates: "Nowadays those who are near God must keep quiet. An extraordinary book: praised by nobody." This inscription indicates that Roethke not only read the book and read it thoroughly but also took it to heart, found something of value within its covers. His interest in mysticism did not come late in life, as has often been supposed, but is traceable from the earliest phases of his career, long before the publication of Open House in 1941. Thus, the following entry, attributed to Saroyan, appears in a 1935 notebook: "For an eternal moment he was all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile, and man." This comment is, in many ways, peculiarly Roethkean because it describes the mystical sense of unity often encountered in Roethke's poetry—in the later poetry, however, from The Lost Son on, not in the poems of Open House. Similarly, the following entry, found in the same notebook, connects more directly with the poems of a later period:

What a sweet ineffable aura lay upon all experience at the time, when the merest act, the lifted finger, the barest lift of the brow, was suffused with tenderness.

These entries are striking for several reasons. First, both describe in rather standard language what has been indentified throughout the centuries as the mystical experience. The language is standard because mystics usually emphasize the paradoxical ("an eternal moment") and ineffable nature ("a sweet ineffable aura") of their perception. Second, both comments seem to have more in common with Roethke's later poetry than with anything he was writing in 1935. In fact, while they tell little about the Open House poems, they may serve as a gloss for most of the poems in "The Lost Son" sequence ("A Field of Light" for example, or "Praise to the End!"). Roethke's experience (as recorded in the notebooks) was running considerably ahead of his poetry. Time would be needed to assimilate what he had felt, that he had "Stood on the threshold of a mystic experience."

It is not merely coincidental that the entries which reveal something of mystical awareness appear in the same notebook in which Roethke recorded certain observations about his first mental breakdown. In fact, it seems obvious that whatever unusual perception Roethke may have had was a direct product of his collapse. It is interesting to note that Roethke himself described his breakdown as a mystical experience. According to Roethke's biographer Allan Seager, Roethke told Peter De Vries that "he had a mystical experience with a tree and he learned there the 'secret of Nijinsky'" [The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke, 1968]. It is, of course, impossible to say exactly what Roethke meant by this, but Seager's speculations are reasonable: that Nijinsky's encounter with the tree (described in his Diary) emphasized "the primacy of emotion over reason," an ordering Roethke himself believed in. Whatever Roethke meant, it is clear that he felt he had encountered some transcendent truth during his manic excursion into the Michigan woods that cold November night. Some nine years later, he would remember it this way:

For no reason I started to feel very good. Suddenly I knew how to enter into the life of everything around me. I knew how it felt to be a tree, blade of grass, even a rabbit. I didn't sleep much. I just walked around with this wonderful feeling. [The Glass House]

This feeling of euphoria and unity is equivalent to the mystical experience, in which "the self perceives an added significance and reality in all natural things: is often convinced that it knows at last 'the secret of the world'" [Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, 1955], If the episode was in some ways terrifying for Roethke and bore terrible consequences for him at Michigan State (where his job hung in the balance), it was also a revelation for him. In a 1946 notebook, he wrote of the experience, "Breakdown, hell, that was a break-up."

To illustrate just how profound the experience was for Roethke, a fairly long account of the episode given by him during the last year of his life is presented below. This commentary, recorded in conjunction with the film In a Dark Time, was not included in the sound-track recording and has never before been published. It is presented here, with a minimum of editorial changes, as evidence of how vividly the experience remained with Roethke even after the passage of some 28 years. His remarks, which run in almost stream-of-consciousness fashion, reveal an intensity and excitement which underscore the significance of the event in his life:

There was the one time I played the Rimbaud business of really driving myself, seeing… you could really derange the senses, and it can be done, and let me tell you, I did it. I mean, I got in such good condition, I wasn't drinking at all. I was twenty-seven. This was in East Lansing, Michigan. I was running on those cinder pads four, five miles a day. Jesus, and teaching, too. But you know I got in this real strange state. I got in the woods and started a circular kind of dance, and I've never put this down very… refer to it in "I tried to fling my shadow at the moon." I kept going around and just shedding clothes. Sounds Freudian as hell, but in the end, I had sort of a circle—as if, I think, I understood intuitively what the frenzy is. That is, you go way beyond yourself, and… this is not sheer exhaustion but this strange sort of a… not illumination… but a sense of being again a part of the whole universe. I mean, anything but quiet. I mean, in a sense everything is symbolical. In one of the Old Woman poems I just sort of put it in there, because I know if you put this down in prose, for God's sake [people will say], "Oh, this is merely clinical"—I mean, "Obviously, he is crazy" and so forth. But it was one of the deepest and most profound experiences I ever had. And accompanying it was a real sexual excitement also… and this tremendous feeling of actual power. But finally, when coming back, I was just so exhausted that I could hardly walk, in as good condition as I was.

What happened to me eventually… well, one thing, you have this curious sense that you're actually being transformed literally into an animal. You start getting fantasies—I mean, of power, lion-like power. But the next night was much tougher, in a sense—I really thought my features were changing. Of course, this was madness, you see, but the relationship between the ecstasy and madness is so… well, one of the things that the head-shrinkers know, or the good ones, that if these descents are too rapid [they] can be chaotic, and I mean, you knock. In other words, something could happen to you: you could get lost back there, because what you're doing is going right back into the history of the goddamn race. I mean, you're down to the animal, dog, and so forth, down to snake. It sounds nuts, but, well… fight your way out of that What happened to me there, I simply blacked out eventually. I knew I was teaching in real manic frenzy. Well, I woke up on the morning, somewhat like this, with very little sleep, and decided I wanted to get to his office. I took a little walk on the edge of the city. There I got so cold I lay down and took off a shoe, 'and there I had… this is again real loony, and goes beyond—there was a curious crabhole, and I lay there and started whistling to this thing, as if you were really trying to call it out of the earth. Well, I knew what I was doing, that this was not a snake-hole, and so on and so on, but… and I put this down in one of those pieces, in one of those running ones. Then I got scared; it started getting cold; it was November, and I started to run with only one shoe on. Jesus Christ, here you are, and I was barefoot… well, symbolically, etc. I got into a gas station. There was a guy—I again—I just associated with my father. I was out on my feet, see, just punchy from… you know, I hadn't slept for five nights, and I said, "Can… get me, drive me," and he said, "Sure." He drove me to the campus, and I came in, you know, just like someone who had been beaten for five rounds. I sat down in that goddamn office and I thought, "Jesus Christ, you're going to have to adlib now." But the trouble in these high states of consciousness is that everything gets heightened, so that sound particularly.. somebody walking overhead… it just sounds like a concatenation. Well, I finally said, "Just bring me a coach and I'll try to explain on what happened to me physically." I was just going to say, "I'm not nuts. I'm just out on my feet because I've been working." I finally thought I'd died. There was a profound and beautiful experience, as if you… and you can hear the thing going, but you just die right then.

The real point is that this business of the dance accompanies exaltation of the highest, the human thing, and it also goes into the Dionysian frenzy, which in modern life hardly anyone speaks of anymore. But the real profundity of that experience, I mean, in the sense of the mood itself, seemed to be, you know, the whole Islamic world. All the cultures were with you. This is exactly what they felt when they were rolling in the circular, you know, frenzy thing. And your perceptions, as I say, both in sight and particularly sound and smell, and frequently also… another is that you get the transfer of senses. Sometimes that comes even with memory. You know, Hopkins says in one of his… when he said, "I tasted brass in my mouth"… well, that's the very essence, it seems to me, of metaphysical thinking. That is when the body itself… when Vaughan says, "When felt through all my fleshy dress, Ripe shoots of everlastingness," well, that's the feeling. You feel one way that you are eternal, or immortal, and it doesn't seem to be a cheap thing either. And furthermore, death becomes, as it were, an absurdity, of no consequence. And also the notion, conception, of time is completely subjective, and I've often thought sometimes that [when] the suicidal leaps from the window, when he hits that pavement and is just a blob, who knows, maybe he explodes into a million universes and he is happy. Who knows? That's behind, you know, the nuttier aspects of certain Hindu religions, when they'd start dancing and singing and finally in this ecstasy run right into the goddamn sea when they know that all those sharks are there. Nothing could stop 'em. I mean, we can say that this is collective madness. It is, but it's part of the human psyche; it's there.

This account goes far beyond Seager's, which describes only what could be seen by an observer or a biographer not caught up in the experience: Roethke's frenzied walk in the cold, in the middle of the night, with only one shoe on. Such behavior looks like purest madness, and that is the way it was viewed by the administrators at Michigan State who chose not to reinstate Roethke after his release from Mercy wood Sanitarium. But from Roethke's perspective, the episode went beyond madness to ecstasy, to the point where he could feel "a sense of being again a part of the whole universe." This sensation is identical to the mystic's heightened sense of unity. No wonder then that the experience overwhelmed him and remained imprinted upon his memory, for one of the chief characteristics of the mystical insight is its indelibility. What Roethke saw and felt during his manic flight into the countryside was transcendent truth, a reality beyond what is normally regarded as real. His perception marked a kind of initiation, an awakening, which inevitably modified everything.

To what extent Roethke willed his mental collapse is difficult to determine. Seager, who is willing to accept Roethke's claim that he induced the episode at Michigan State, cites Roethke's drinking, pill taking, and going without sleep as possible causes. But he also observes that manic-depressives characteristically insist that they bring on their attacks themselves. Perhaps Roethke was trying to achieve a "break-up;" perhaps he was pushing toward something like Rimbaud's "dereglement de tous les sens." An entry in a 1934 notebook reveals quite clearly that Roethke felt the need to make some changes in his life for the good of his poetry:

I think God has sterilized me so I can't have any more poems. Maybe I had some poetic Spanish fly—some nightingale guano? Perhaps I've written all I can write in my present state of physical & moral development. Perhaps I should become a homosexual?

This passage, written approximately sixteen months before the first breakdown, lends credence to Roethke's claim that he induced his first episode "to reach a new level of reality." It is not improbable that Roethke became so disenchanted with his work that he determined to alter his "state of physical and moral development." Certainly, no one could doubt that the abusive way he treated himself during the time immediately preceding his collapse was at the least a contributing factor to his first episode. Unquestionably, he invited the episode, felt that he had induced it himself, and seemed convinced that it was in some way related to the production of his art.

That Roethke saw a positive relationship between his mental disorder and his poetry is revealed in a number of places in the notebooks. For example, in a draft of his contribution to the Ostroff-edited symposium on "In a Dark Time," Roethke makes the following observations:

A "descent" can be willed—or at least the will—the human will—can be a factor. The real danger lies in the preceding euphoria, in the exhilaration getting out of hand. My first "breakdown" was in a very real sense deliberate. I not only asked for, I prayed that it would happen. True, I had used a tough resilient athlete's body as if it were rubber: had gone without any sleep at all for months, etc., etc.

Perhaps he had "prayed" for the breakdown because he was determined to escape from what he perceived to be stagnation in any way he could, even at great risk to his own well-being. As he writes in another notebook during the same year:

All I care about is achievement: but it must be real achievement in its absolutely final terms: how achieved—at least in terms of the cost to the self—I do not care.

And in an earlier notebook he enters a similar remark in dialogue:

"I can't go flying apart just for those who want the benefit of a few verbal kicks. My god, do you know what poems like that cost? They're not written vicariously: they come out of actual suffering; real madness."

"I've got to go beyond. That's all there is to it."

'Beyond what?"

"The human, you fool. Don't you see what I've done: I've come this far and now I can't stop. It's too late, baby, it's too late."

Roethke knew what he was doing, realized that his personal risks could be translated into poetic accomplishments, and he was even prepared to induce the manic-depressive cycle himself. He took the risk because the manic stages were periods of heightened activity and awareness during which he participated in the mystical feeling of "oneness," a feeling he claimed to have experienced "so many times, in so many varying circumstances, that I cannot suspect its validity." The overall result of Roethke's self-exploitation, his daring risk taking, was a poetry that is richly mystical. His manic-depressiveness afforded him a perception which was parallel or identical to mystical apprehension, and he utilized that perception to its fullest in his search for identity. He was not about to let the opportunity pass. As he comments in the middle of one notebook entry about mysticism: "Blake, too, was not of the type to let slip what he had learned."

According to Seager, Roethke was diagnosed variously as a "manic-depressive psychotic, but not typical," a "manic-depressive psychotic, but not typical," and as a "paranoid schizophrenic." The consensus was that Roethke was a manic-depressive, though the type was in dispute, and Roethke himself accepted that diagnosis. Certainly, the following textbook description of manic-depression seems to apply directly to Roethke's behavior during his manic episodes:

The characteristic manifestations are psychomotor overactivity, elation of mood, distractibility and delusions with an omnipotent and omniscient content. The psychomotor overactivity is to be observed in the rapid speech, the pressure of talk, the continuous movement and the distractibility. As far as the mood state is concerned, the patient is not continually elated for there are occasions when there is depression with the lowering of self-esteem and self-criticism. When frustrated in his intentions the patient may become aggressive in word and action. [Thomas Freeman, "Observations on Mania," in Manic Depressive Illness, edited by Edward A. Wolpert, 1977]

There are many echoes here of Roethke's behavior: his insistence that he "started to feel very good" for no reason at all at the outset of his first breakdown, his grandiose business schemes (primarily those involving J. Robert Crouse and the Utopian Hartland Area Project), his delusions about the Mafia, and his aggressive attitude toward various authority figures (for example, Dean Lloyd Emmons at Michigan State, whom he called a "Harvard sonof-a-bitch"), among other behavior characteristics cited by Seager in the biography. And perhaps the most significant element of the description concerns the mood state: the psychosis is characterized by movements from states of mania to states of depression. For Roethke, the depressed states were apparently not so long or so terrible, but then he always remained in a hospital where his depression was somewhat controlled by treatment and medication. Still, he did vacillate between up and down phases, and the vacillation is significant because it is very similar to the swing from heightened states of awareness to deep troughs of despondency ordinarily associated with the mystic temperament. The "typical mystic seems to move toward his goal through a series of strongly marked oscillations between 'states of pleasure' and 'states of pain'" [Evelyn Underhill].

Another element common to both manic-depression and mysticism is the "merging phenomenon." The manic-depressive may sometimes identify so strongly with other people or objects around him that he loses his identity and sense of self. In this condition, "he no longer regards himself as an entity distinct from other entities" [Thomas Freeman]. This aspect of the disorder is seen in Roethke's claim that he "knew how it felt to be a tree, a blade of grass, even a rabbit" [quoted in The Glass House]. And perhaps this, too, is the secret of Nijinsky and the explanation for Roethke's mystical encounter with the tree. Certainly, this phenomenon appears throughout the poetry, as in "A Field of Light"—"I moved with the morning"—or in "Praise to the End!"—"Many astounds before, I lost my identity to a pebble." The mystic, too, senses this merging, for he is acutely aware of the unity of all things. His perception of the oneness of creation causes him to strive to give up his ego in favor of merging with that singleness he perceives. In fact, the determined movement of the mystic is toward a blending with what he views as the One, the Ultimate, or the Absolute.

The relationship between mysticism and various psychotic states has been observed before, and the question of whether the mystical experience is merely another kind of psychotic state or a truly higher level of consciousness remains unresolved. There is much to be said for the theory that mystical states are essentially periods of regression, returning to the infantile condition where "the self and the world have not yet been separated from one another" [Raymond Prince and Charles Savage, "Mystical States and the Concept of Regression," in The Highest State of Consciousness, edited by John White, 1972]. This notion brings mysticism and manic-depression into even closer proximity since the latter is also characterized by a return to infancy:

The manic patient returns to a stage in which his impulses had not succumbed to repression, in which he foresaw nothing of the approaching conflict. It is characteristic that such patients often say that they feel themselves "as though new-born." [Karl Abraham, "Notes on the Psycho-Analytical Investigation and Treatment of Manic-Depressive Insanity and Allied Conditions," in Manic-Depressive Illness, edited by Edward A. Wolpert, 1977]

Significantly, the mystical also speaks of rebirth, of starting over again in a completely new world. Obviously, the regression to infancy bears directly upon Roethke's work, especially "The Lost Son" poems, where the protagonist is followed not only from infancy but from the womb. That Roethke himself was aware of some of the psychological views of mysticism is revealed in the following comment found in a 1942 notebook: "Material psychologists from Voltaire to Freud have said mystics are victims of sexual aberrations."

Roethke's first breakdown, whether he willed it or not, was a welcome disruption, a stimulating disarrangement of his senses. It provided him with a new perspective on the world, which revealed itself to him during the episode as inherently harmonious and unified. The resulting insights were of the type that can change a life, and they changed Roethke's. The numerous notebook entries and Roethke's stimulated interest in mystical reading material immediately following the first breakdown indicate that he saw a clear relationship between his episode and the mystical experience. Further, it is obvious that he exploited that relationship for poetic insights and produced from his manic experiences a poetry that is richly mystical.

Kermit Vanderbilt (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke," in A Literary History of the American West, Texas Christian University Press, 1987, pp. 447-55.

[In the following essay, Vanderbilt considers evidence of regionalism in Roethke's poetry.]

Since Theodore Roethke's sudden, untimely death in summer of 1963, his work has been the subject of a steadily rising flood of critical assessments. The consensus of most of them is that his career can best be explained as an intense search for identity, wholeness, and grace. He shaped his private meditations into increasingly powerful esthetic forms that are at once original and charged with echoes from his various American and English poet-masters. A further aspect of Roethke's imaginative vision, however, remains to be adequately explored, namely his significant response to a regional America—the Midwest of his youth and, climactically, the Pacific Northwest where he lived his final sixteen years.

Roethke arrived in the Northwest in autumn of 1947 to teach poetry at the University of Washington, which remained his academic address until his death. The move from Penn State westward marked the crucial turning point in his career and the beginning of a serious identification with place in America. There were, of course, hints of regional identity in Roethke from the earlier period as he alternately suppressed, deplored, and finally embraced his Midwest origins. Born in 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of a strong-willed, Germanic father who operated the local greenhouse, he lived an introverted, troubled childhood that bred lifelong demons of guilt and insecurity. His biographer Allan Seager portrays, and somewhat oversimplifies, Roethke as a self-absorbed youth who scarcely felt a spirit of place in his Upper Midwest:

There is no memory of Roethke hanging around the old folks listening, like Faulkner, and his old folks were German, anyway. Their stories would have led him back to the Old Country which never interested him. He also ignores all the vivid racy tales of the lumber boom, tales that expressed courage, will, and cunning that might have engaged another man. Unlike Allen Tate or Robert Lowell, he ignores in his poetry the events of his region's history. He must have been aware of the Indians, for he collected a shoebox full of flint arrowheads in his rambles along the riverbanks. But, of course, many boys did that. [The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke, 1968]

Still, the environs of Saginaw and the Upper Midwest were implanted in a young poetic consciousness as a seminal force in the work to come. After graduation from Michigan and a year at Harvard, Roethke taught at Lafayette, returning home in 1935 to teach at Michigan State. In fall semester, he suffered a first mental breakdown. During convalescence, he recorded the following insight about himself in a long medical questionnaire: "Afraid of being localized in space, i.e. a particular place like W. E. Leonard in Madison. Question: What is the name of this? Hate some rooms in that sense, a victim of claustrophobia (sp)? Wasn't Dillinger a victim of this? Aren't many of the criminal leader types of this sort [sic]." (The illuminating reference to Dillinger discloses Roethke's self-image of the poet as an outsider in the Midwest community, and recalls the alienation he felt even earlier: in one of his college essays at the University of Michigan, he had discussed "the poet as criminal," the instance being François Villon.)

His first two books of poetry firmly support a one-sided thesis that the maturing Roethke was never a midwestern regionalist, either by sympathetic identity or literary example. The year before Open House appeared in 1941, ten of the poems were anthologized in a volume titled New Michigan Verse. Hungry for a reputation, Roethke was delighted to be published, but he worried, too, that he might be regarded as a merely regional poet. Yet shortly after, he applied for a Guggenheim grant to write "a series of poems about the America I knew in my middle-western childhood…. poems about people in a particular suburbia." Though he failed to receive the grant, Roethke persisted, and in his successful Guggenheim application three years later, he described two of his three projects as the writing of a distinctively regional verse:

(1) a dramatic-narrative piece in prose and verse about Michigan and Wisconsin, part and present, which would center around the return of Paul Bunyan as a kind of enlightened and worldly folk-hero.

(2) a series of lyrics about the Michigan countryside which have symbolical values. I have already begun these. They are not mere description, but have at least two levels of reference.

To William Carlos Williams, who would understand this regional program, Roethke worried over "the Paul Bunyan idea. The more I think about it, the less I like it. But I've got to get some device to organize some of my ideas & feelings about Michigan, etc.—not too solemn or God bless America or Steve Benétish. Maybe it's worth trying, anyway." When The Lost Son appeared in 1948, readers would not discover Roethke's early "ideas & feelings about Michigan" to be organized around the Bunyan folk-hero; instead, he had created a primordial myth of the child's Edenic greenhouse world. But the urge to regional description and symbolization, as well as to natural immersion and union, had begun. After 1947 in his adopted Northwest, Roethke increasingly drew from Michigan scenes of his childhood. The Midwest lived in the residue of memory, at times bitter yet also positive and cherished, to sustain the older poet and enrich the strong poems that grace his final, prize-winning years.

As it would predictably have to be for the mercurial Roethke, the final period in the Pacific Northwest became an intense love-hate affair with the regional culture and geography. After only a few months there, his life amounted to a sort of physical and spiritual exile. "I tell you, Kenneth," he wrote to Burke, "this far in the provinces you get a little nutty and hysterical: there's the feeling that all life is going on but you're not there." Within the year, he had reverted to the earlier self-characterization of the poet as at best an outlaw celebrity in his tame middle-class community. "As the only serious poet within 1,000 miles of Seattle," he wrote another friend in the East, "I find I have something of the status of a bank robber in Oklahoma or a congressman in the deep south." Throughout his tenure at the University of Washington, he inquired into jobs elsewhere or applied for Fulbrights and other grants that might bring him relief or delivery from the scene at Seattle and the University. This alienation was caused, in part, by what to him was a psychologically depressing climate in the Northwest. The region also affected him physically, exacerbating the arthritis in his knees, the "spurs" in his shoulders, and the bursitis in his tennis elbow (the fiercely competitive poet had been tennis coach both at Lafayette and Penn State).

Yet the Northwest had an immediate, salutary effect on the poet as well. Some eleven years before, a bookless Roethke in Michigan had lamented to Louise Bogan on his twenty-eighth birthday, "No volume out and I can't seem to write anything. You can say what you want, but place does have a lot to do with productivity." By contrast, he exploded with ideas and poems after he arrived in Seattle, as one discovers from the Northwest images and tropes coming alive in the extant notebooks, in their disciplined growth amid the felicitous prunings of the manuscript poems, and in the final harvest of the published work. Through the 1950s, the huge, unlikely poet-teacher had caused an excited flowering of poetry on the Washington campus and in the Seattle community. By the end of the decade he brought home to the Northwest all the major literary prizes in America. He was earning a place among the distinguished regional poets of our literature.

The nature of Roethke's regional expression has only begun to be appreciated. His first book of poems in the Northwest appeared in 1951. Praise to the End! is a "tensed-up" version of Wordsworth's Prelude, according to Roethke, and carries nine new poems which can be read, in one sense, as his completing the "lean-to beginnings" in the previous Lost Son collection. Once more he tracks his voyage of the mind's return to the dream logic, Mother Goose rhythms, and purposeful gibberish of childhood, and then back again to the varieties of rebirth after these mythic descents. Oblique and occasionally even direct influences from his early Northwest years can be recognized here and there in the expression and form of these verses.

A stronger promise of the regional poems to come appears in the new verses of his next book, The Waking: Poems 1933-1953 (1953). "A Light Breather," to select one, reveals a joyous dynamism of the spirit, "small" and "tethered" as before but now "unafraid" and "singing." Symptomatic of a new phase, too, are poems like "Elegy for Jane," totally inspired from Northwest experience, and the more ambitious efforts which show the poet escaping from his former prison of the self to engage the circumambient world and the being of other living creatures. Just before the book appeared, he had married Beatrice O'Connell, his student during the year at Bennington a decade before. Seager believes that Roethke's marriage presently led him to a decisive awareness of the Northwest surroundings. As his capacity for feeling reached out to his young Beatrice, "hesitantly, even reluctantly perhaps, he admitted her into those labyrinths within himself where his father still lived, and he began to love her, not in the same way that he loved his father but with a true love nevertheless. And from this time forward, she participated in his growth, encouraged and supported it. Then he could see the mountains, the siskins, the madronas, and begin to use them." Viewed in this regard, segments of the next book, Words for the Wind (1958), and especially the "Love Poems," when thoroughly studied for their passionate metaphors of wind and seafoam, light and stones and rippling water as "spirit and nature beat in one breastbone," reveal the true beginnings of that distinctive Northwest sensibility which fully emerges in Roethke's subsequent poems, gathered in the posthumous The Far Field (1964).

The title poem of Roethke's final volume comes from the "North American Sequence," the great achievement of this last book and Roethke's finest effort in the vein of literary regionalism. In the years to come, the six interlaced long poems of the "North American Sequence" may rank among the great ambitious poetic works of the language. The genesis of the sequence may be traced, in one fashion, to the summer of 1950. Roethke had bought his first car and had driven it back to Seattle. The trip created the stirrings of a "symbolical journey," his own spiritual version of a Northwest passage. It suggested "for next or possibly later book… a happy journey westward"; but there would be a uniquely Roethkean variation of this traditional passage—"in a word, a symbolical journey in my cheap Buick Special toward Alaska and, at least in a spiritual sense toward the east of Russia and the Mongolian Plains whence came my own people, the Prussians…."

By the end of the decade, Roethke had modified this journey to an exclusively North American and ultimately regional experience. What he developed, in fact, is an intricate triple motif of outer-inner journeys. First is the Northwest passage to the dark oceanic "stretch in the face of death," and the periodic resolution experienced at the Pacific Coast shoreline, a journey out to the physical "edge" and metaphysical "beyond" and then back to reconciliation "where sea and fresh water meet" in the Northwest corner. The second passage or journey is a return to his origins, a movement eastward to the Michigan of his father's greenhouse and childhood years. Third is a "journey to the interior," imaged in an inland American geography perhaps equivalent, temporally, to the middle period of Roethke's initial breakdown in what he once termed that "Siberian pitilessness, the essential ruthlessness of the Middle West."

Of the three journeys, the Northwest passage is by far the richest and most dominant in the six poems of the sequence. Roethke gathers within it the shifting motifs of selfhood within the Northwest's natural plenitude, identifications with birds, fish, trees, and flowers (and occasionally as relief, with the stillness of rocks, clam shells, driftwood, and nature's minimals); the imagery of edges, abysses, and thresholds; the desire for convergence, resolution and union with the natural scene of salt water, fresh water, air, and earth; and on occasions, when blessedly aided by the soft regional light and wind, a felt convergence, with shimmerings of transcendence and beatitude.

Roethke establishes these interwoven journeys and themes and alternating rhythms in the first poem, "The Longing," and then carries the reader forward to a longed-for passage, finally with an American Indian vigor of exploration, toward the threshold of full spiritual awareness. The poem opens in bleak rain as the Northwest scene, natural and manmade, fumes in its putrefaction. We are then launched on one more characteristic Roethkean voyage of the mutilated modern soul in its tormented quest for light and wholeness, but this time through a heightened relationship with a western landscape at once visible, personal, and charged with historical memory. The speaker anticipates a version of the legendary Indian vision-quest, a rite of passage into the North American interior.

… the mouth of the night is still wide;
On the Bullhead, in the Dakotas, where the eagles eat well,
In the country of few lakes, in the tall buffalo grass at the base of the clay buttes…

Does the aging spirit dare to go primitive? No, if subjected to the ruthless plains of the interior. Yes, if sustained amid the inland waters.

Old men should be explorers?
I'll be an Indian.

"Meditation at Oyster River," the second poem, begins at twilight on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Roethke's explorer looks eastward to the "first tide-ripples," briefly immerses his feet in the water, and then partakes of earth and air as well by ascending to a perch on the cliffside. In the Northwest "twilight wind, light as a child's breath," the spirit quivers with altertness. A soundless pause has readied the time for meditation after urgent longing in the previous poem. The speaker takes us now on a backward motion toward the source, to "the first trembling of a Michigan brook in April." He feels the quickenings of a younger spirit which, like the melting Tittebawasee in early spring, could awaken, expand, and burst forward into a new season of becoming. The meditation returns to Oyster River and closes with the harmonious resolution of youth and age as he is "lulled into half-sleep" in a Whitman-like sea-cradle. After his journey back to Michigan and forward once more to the waters of the Northwest, he merges now in quiet joy with the waves and the intrepid birds of the coastline.

Arrivals on the threshold of naturalistic grace are momentary and precarious. In the third poem, "Journey to the Interior," the speaker returns to the yawning mough of the night which awaited him at the close of "The Longing." He now embarks on a second American journey into the past, between Michigan beginnings and Northwest consummations, which takes the form of an actual trip westward through the North American interior. The second section concludes as he advances through the western prairies and beyond the Tetons. The past merges with the present, the random fluidity of the land journey is abated, and "time folds / Into a long moment" for the youth become, in the remembrance, confident father of the troubled man. In the final section, he still feels his "soul at a still-stand," but this time with a difference. Reconciled to change and death, united with the soft elements of his region, he can "breathe with the birds" while he stands "unperplexed" looking out on the Pacific scene. All extremes dissolve on that "other side of light," and

The spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of blessing,
And the dead begin from their dark to sing in my sleep.

"The Long Waters" was apparently written after but appears before "The Far Field." Presumably, Roethke felt the need for a tranquil, sustained meditation piece to separate "Journey to the Interior" from "The Far Field" (which was once titled "Journeys"). "The Long Waters" occurs in a setting closely resembling Oyster River. The poem moves quietly among three Roethkean stages—retrogression (closing at times to infantile regression), thresholds, and convergence. These movements are experienced largely in Northwest images without the backward journey motifs of the previous poems. Roethke creates, instead, an alternating rhythm of gentle ebbing and flowing, action and reaction, that climaxes when the undulant long waters attenuate in the long poetic line and shape for the speaker a transformed moment of union and renewal:

My eyes extend beyond the farthest bloom of the waves;
I lose and find myself in the long water;
I am gathered together once more.
I embrace the world.

With "The Far Field," the journey becomes an extended return to a timeless childhood, presumably in Michigan, and to moments of immanence in that "far field, the windy cliffs of forever, / The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow." When he returns to the adult's present, the speaker can sense "a weightless change, a moving forward." The poem rises into gentle transcendence. The "finite things" which in previous lines of the sequence recalled "a vulnerable place" or a disturbing juxtaposition of death and life, now compose a constellation of Northwest images that the tranquil mind discovers to be the shape of "infinitude."

The final poem, "The Rose," sums up and completes the "North American Sequence." All three of the American journey-motifs are here, together with all of the inner stages of the soul and their supporting images. More fully than any of the preceding single poems, "The Rose" is Roethke's Northwest poetic creation par excellence. He begins at the Northwest seacoast:

There are those to whom place is unimportant,
But this place, where sea and fresh water meet,
Is important—

He then draws the bountiful natural life into this ultimate song of himself. In the next fifteen lines, he describes some dozen Northwest birds and at the same time, predictably, he unites them to air, earth, and water. He no longer requires the agonizing interior journey through and out of the perplexed self. He can "sway outside myself / Into the darkening currents" with the quiet grace of the intrepid hawks he has just described.

Still, in its apparently buoyant ease of passage, his spirit feels obscurely troubled, somehow adrift and incomplete. The realization he is seeking now approaches on the Northwest shoreline before his feet. His guide to final union and grace is the single "rose in the sea-wind," the transcendent rose he had briefly invoked in "The Longing." Its own excuse for being, the wild rose silently instructs by a dynamic staying "in its true place," by "flowering out of the dark," widening in noonday light, and stubbornly resisting encroachment upon its solitary life. The meditation upon the individualized wild rose leads the speaker associatively to one final journey to the greenhouse world of his childhood. In the reminiscence, the aged man reposesses the glories he had known when "those flowerheads seemed to flow toward me, to beckon me, only a child, out of myself." The child had merged with the roses and both had flourished in the bountiful Eden created by his sufficient, protective father.

The childhood memory then triggers the other, or later, journey into the past. Section three first echoes the early morning "sound and silence" of the Northwest scene in the opening lines of the poem. We are then taken on a last journey into the "interior," to gather up and catalog the inland "American sounds in this silence"—a Whitmanian excursion among industrial noises, the bravuras of birds, "the ticking of snow around oil drums in the Dakotas, / The thin whine of telephone wires in the wind of a Michigan winter," and more. His second journey eastward into the past completed, the old explorer has reached the final definition of himself. His question in "The Longing" had been "How to transcend this sensual emptiness?" He has discovered the answer: the sensual emptiness has been transcended in the sensual fullness of the Whitman-Roethke gatherings of American plenitude, as in these fluid interior "American sounds in this silence." And this possession, be it noted, has occurred within a primary context of the regional. Thanks to the final journeys of private and native—and esthetic—self-realization that were stimulated by the rose's expansive self-containment, he has again embraced his present world, his Northwest, and can rejoice equally with the bird, the lilac, and the dolphin in the calm and change which they accept in air, land, and water. In the lovely closing lines, he absorbs in his controlling solitary symbol the diversity of experience and imagery in this climactic poem.

[I rejoiced] in this rose, this rose in the sea-wind,
Rooted in stone, keeping the whole of light,
Gathering to itself sound and silence—
Mine and the sea-wind's.

And so ends an intensive drive toward definition of the many Roethkean selves, of the perplexed American in his country and his region. Even Roethke's "drive toward God" was climaxed in the ultimate landscape of the "Sequence." The northern coast and oceanic far field of his adopted region served him perfectly to frame and extend his religious journeys in and out of time and space and even to resolve them in fleeting moments of joyous, tranquil union.

"The Rose" appeared in a magazine one month before Roethke died of a heart attack while swimming in a private pool on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Returned to the physical regimen of earlier years, the restless, hard-driving poet was seriously charting in his notebook a new approach to western experience, this time through an epic poem on the North American Indian. His structural device would be, once more, a passage across the nation's heartland. The speaker would stop to commemorate the scenes of tragic undoing which various tribes suffered at the hands of the white marauders and military. In this epic drama, which he hoped to create "through suggestive and highly charged symbolical language," the heroic figures, indicated in his notes, were to include the Nez Percé's Chief Joseph, the Oglala's Black Elk and Crazy Horse, as well as white adversaries like Generals Custer and Crook. Six large notebook pages are all that remain among his papers to suggest the mood, landscape, and action of his projected saga. Conceived at the full maturity of his powers, the poem may well have exceeded in imaginative range even the regional poems of The Far Field. At his death, Roethke had only begun to open the way to a new enrichment of western American literature. The extraordinary verses of his final book, however, remain an invaluable legacy for regional writers of the future to build upon as they embark on their own poetic journeys toward discovery and definition of a Northwest ethos.

Thomas Gardner (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "Far from the Crash of the Long Swell: Theodore Roethke's 'North American Sequence'," in Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary Long Poem, University of Illinois Press, 1989, pp. 78-98.

[In the following essay, Gardner classifies Roethke's "North American Sequence" in the long poem genre and compares the method and style of the sequence to Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," which Gardner perceives as a model of the American long poem.]

Theodore Roethke shares with [John] Berryman and [Galway] Kinnell a commitment to [Walt] Whitman's embrace as a means of singing forth what is "in me" but "without name." "It is paradoxical," he writes in an essay on "establishing a personal identity," "that a very sharp sense of the being, the identity of some other being—and in some instances, even an inanimate thing—brings a corresponding heightening and awareness of one's own self…." For Roethke as well, that increased awareness is the result of gaining or developing a language. What Kinnell describes as filling out the "languished alphabet" of another, and Berryman pictures as dressing "up & up" in different costumes, Roethke understands as the act of expanding another's "terms"—as in this early response to the work of Leonie Adams: "I loved her so much, her poetry, that I just had to become, for a brief moment, a part of her world. For it is her world, and I had filled myself with it, and I had to create something that would honor her in her own terms…. That poem is a true release in its way. I was too clumsy and stupid to articulate my own emotions." Unlike Berryman and Kinnell, however, what complicates and limits the embrace for Roethke—what needs to be acknowledged and worked with before any "release" of the spirit into articulation occurs—is the "sharp sense" of difference between "one's own self" and "some other being." Where Kinnell and Berryman assumed that the embrace was disrupted by problems with the perceiver—and that its reformulation thus depended on the poet's clarity in examining his own personal struggles—Roethke sees a more fundamental disruption or gap, one more usefully addressed by asking about technique. As he puts it: "The human problem is to find out what one really is: whether one exists, whether existence is possible. But how?" If self and medium are separate, Roethke's struggle, like Whitman's in sections 30-38 of "Song of Myself," is to work out what sort of indirect approach might yet prompt the "flights of a fluid and swallowing soul."

The problematic nature of making contact with another and thereby singing the self has, of course, been central to Roethke's work throughout his career, although perhaps only his extended "North American Sequence" works out and puts into practice all of the implications of that process. The two "Cuttings" poems from his early greenhouse sequence, however, quite dramatically frame Roethke's approach to the problem. The first poem points to the occurrence of a progressively deeper embrace—and thus "a corresponding heightening and awareness of… [the] self"—by tracing the movements of the poet's eye. We see the just-reviving cuttings from a distance as "Sticks-in-a-drowse," then are brought close enough to notice their "intricate stem-fur," moved inside to notice how the "small cells bulge" as water is gradually absorbed, and finally are brought to rest under the soil—face up against "one nub of growth" that actively "nudges a sand-crumb loose." Two things happen: the poet struggles through to a fuller, more participatory way of seeing, and the cutting comes back to life.

What this parallel implies but never states is that the struggle with medium—the struggle to see it, use it, enter it—has led to growth in the perceiver as well as in the cutting. If that was so, the next poem speculates, turning to the same cuttings "(later)," what sort of poetic implications would follow? Roethke is of two minds in answering. His first try is the traditional one: ignoring his own struggle to see, he turns the slips into tortured, reviving saints, declaring his own distance from them to be a non-issue: "This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks, / Cut stems struggling to put down feet, / What saint strained so much, / Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?" Then he revises himself: if that distance was the issue, then what those changes in seeing accomplished was the spurt of his own new beginning:

I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it,—
The small waters seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.

Rather than stepping back from the problem of distance, this second attempt insists that in acknowledging the gap between himself and the cuttings, then working by observation and imagination to cut that separation down, his initial response had suggested a new way of speaking. That these two opposing responses to what is "sharp" and vibrant in something other are simply juxtaposed here suggests that Roethke hasn't yet explored the full implications of embracing and working with a medium. But, as the following reading of "North American Sequence," his strongest work, argues, the techniques developed near the end of his career to weave himself into something external are quite similar to what is proposed in the last stanza of "Cuttings (later)."

"The Longing," first poem of the sequence, presents a blasted landscape that functions as an obvious correlative for the initial condition of Roethke's consciousness. Like the drowsing cuttings, all is asleep or decaying, slowed to a decidedly uneasy rest with no "balm" or promise anywhere apparent: "A kingdom of stinks and sighs, / Fetor of cockroaches, dead fish, petroleum, /… The slag-heaps fume at the edge of the raw cities: / The gulls wheel over their singular garbage." The longing of the poem's title is touched on by suggestions that an earlier state has exhausted itself, leaving only memories of a once-vibrant world: "The great trees no longer shimmer; / Not even the soot dances." In parallel fashion, Roethke notes that his own spirit—fatigued by sterile lust, drained by unfulfilled dreams of contact—is also unable now to engage the world actively: "Less and less the illuminated lips, / Hands active, eyes cherished; / Happiness left to dogs and children—." Without the possibility of embracing this landscape, his spirit cannot develop and takes on the shape of a slug—a creature Roethke has described in another poem as simply "the cold slime come into being": "And the spirit fails to move forward, / But shrinks into a half-life, less than itself, / Falls back, a slug, a loose worm / Ready for any crevice, / An eyeless starer." As Richard Blessing notes [in Theodore Roethke's Dynamic Vision, 1974], Roethke's pun on "eyeless" is quite important, for without the eyes actively responding to the world, the poet's internal "I" must always be less than itself. Unable to touch another and so approximate its inner world, the spirit is simply asleep, deep within a crevice.

The memory of shimmering landscape and responsive soul in the poem's first section and the prediction of that state regained in the second section ("How comprehensive that felicity!… / A body with the motion of a soul. /… The light cries out, and I am there to hear—" suggest that exhaustion and waking of the spirit are joined cyclically. In fact, the shock of finding oneself inarticulate and being forced to gain speech again seems, in Roethke, to be a necessary condition for an increase in consciousness: "Are not some experiences so powerful and profound (I am not speaking of the merely compulsive) that they repeat themselves, thrust themselves upon us, again and again, with variation and change, each time bringins us closer to our own most particular (and thus most universal) reality? We go, as Yeats said, from exhaustion to exhaustion. To begin from the depths and come out—that is difficult; for few known where the depths are or can recognize them; or, if they do, are afraid." Continually lifting himself from the depths and giving body to what was shapeless gives Roethke the opportunity, through the "variation and change" of each new act of formation, to unfold more and more of his own "most particular… reality." In this opening poem, Roethke finds himself stalled and the impulse to embrace exhausted. As the sequence continues, he will continually drop back to this state, often by raising new questions and fears about the embrace itself, in order to give himself an opportunity to work himself out of the mire once again. Repeatedly made shapeless, repeatedly forced to confront his "wretched" inability to take in the world, he will both define a self and think through the act of definition by flowering, petal after petal: "To this extent I'm a stalk. / —How free; how all alone. / Out of these nothings / —All beginnings come."

The first movement out of emptiness that comes is a detailed expression of longing for the embrace's return:

I would with the fish, the blackening salmon, and the mad lemmings,
The children dancing, the flowers widening.
Who sighs from far away?
I would unlearn the lingo of exasperation, all the distortions of malice and hatred;
I would believe my pain: and the eye quiet on the growing rose;
I would delight in my hands, the branch singing, altering the excessive bird;
I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form;
I would be a stream, winding between great striated rocks in late summer;
A leaf, I would love the leaves, delighting in the redolent disorder of this mortal life,

The "imperishable quiet" that Roethke longs for here seems to be a core of identity—an imperishable core known only as it manifests itself in perishable ("mortal") form. As in section 5 of "Song of Myself," Roethke links an intuition of the soul's boundlessness with its possible approximation in the world external to it. By moving with the fish, dancing with the children, or widening with the flowers; by becoming a stream or a drifting leaf, part of the "disorder of this mortal life," the unformulated heart, Roethke proposes, will be made to take on shape. A "body" will be created which, indirectly, moves like the "soul." The image of the "eye quiet on the growing rose," with another pun on "eye," is a statement of the wish to move with the growing rose in order to become aware of the "I's" own quiet places. As we will see, that longing to again embrace the world is put into play in the next five poems, each of which is identically set "where the sea and fresh water meet." In the last poem of the sequence, Roethke describes this setting as "the place of my desire"—a landscape, almost a laboratory, where his desire, in all of its inescapable complication, might be acted upon, and his sleeping spirit be awakened.

"Meditation at Oyster River" begins with Roethke sitting on a rock at the edge of a bay, the mouth of a river at his back. Although the world around him steadily increases in activity, he seems as weary and tentative as at the beginning of "The Longing." The "first tide-ripples" slowly move toward where he waits, protected by "a barrier of small stones" and a "sunken log." When he is surrounded by water and "one long undulant ripple" has broken through, he responds: "I dabble my toes in the brackish foam sliding forward, / Then retire to a rock higher up on the cliff-side." In short, he refuses the embrace, and in a deliberate manner that calls attention to his refusal. Cary Nelson observes [in Our Last First Poets, 1981] that, "The decision is a partial rejection. He resists the natural world even while reaffirming his need for it." This twin rejection and reaffirmation insists that the problem—what he longs to do, he cannot—must be dealt with before there can be any movement of the spirit. The problem is made clear again a few lines later when the world outside comes back to life ("The dew revives on the beach-grass; / The saltsoaked wood of a fire crackles") while the poet remains unmoving. Eventually, in a pattern that will be repeated throughout the sequence, the problem of the failed embrace triggers an unstated question—why am I refusing contact?—that the second section of the poem begins to investigate:

The self persists like a dying star,
In sleep, afraid. Death's face rises afresh,
Among the shy beasts, the deer at the salt-lick,
The doe with its sloped shoulders loping across the highway,
The young snake, poised in green leaves, waiting for its fly,
The hummingbird, whirring from quince-blossom to morning-glory—
With these I would be.

The problem expressed, anticipated by the "disorder of this mortal life" in "The Longing," is fundamental to the poem: although Roethke would be part of the "loping," "whirring" world surrounding him, he is unable to break away from a persistent awareness of himself. To relax his attention on his own boundaries and become totally absorbed in something other is, he fears, to risk the dissolution of what makes him a self. Thus, "death's face" insistently includes itself in the catalog of animals Roethke would be with. As James McMichael writes [in "Roethke's North America," Northwest Review, Summer, 1971] "What he desires is outside him, outside the self. But this desire is blunted by the unavoidable awareness and fear that to be lured out of the confines of the self is to court death, the absolute loss of self."

What the structure of the sequence suggests is that such a confrontation with "the absolute loss of self must have occurred before "The Longing" began—the no longer "illuminated" lips and sterile "dreams" of that poem marking a near total retreat from an overreaching attempt at full absorption in an other. A way to think about this would be to recall the experimental overimmersion Whitman risked in section 26 and 28 of "Song of Myself." Where Whitman was whirled wide by the "orbic flex" of an orchestra which, when too fully embraced, wrenched such previously hidden "ardors" from him that he was left puzzled and silent, "throttled in fakes of death" by his own self-betrayal ("I talk wildly, I have lost my wits, I and nobody else am the greatest traitor, / I went myself first to the headland, my own hands carried me there," so Roethke, reacting to just such a confrontation with the "death's face" of his own boundlessness, insistently holds on to the "dying star" of his established self even when listing the shy beasts he longs to embrace….

How to move beyond this fear? As Whitman did in section 29 and 38, Roethke silently reformulates the manner in which one embraces in more indirect, and thus more limited, terms. Rather than turning on himself and addressing his fear of immersion,… Roethke uses his awareness that he cannot give himself fully to the sea as a prompt in developing a new means of contact. Playfully, and at a distance, he muses about water. "I shift on my rock, and I think," he writes: first, of a "trembling… Michigan brook in April, / Over a lip of stone, the tiny rivulet," then of a "wrist-thick cascade tumbling from a cleft rock," and finally of the Tittebawasee River, poised, "between winter and spring, / When the ice melts along the edges in early afternoon. / And the midchannel begins cracking and heaving from the pressure beneath, / The ice piling high against the iron-bound spiles, / Gleaming, freezing hard again, creaking at midnight—." As with the "Cuttings" poems, these increasingly powerful images testify to Roethke's growing ability to work with the moving tide; acknowledging by his fear that he can't be the same as the swirling currents, he yet develops a way of speaking and moving:

And I long for the blast of dynamite,
The sudden sucking roar as the culvert loosens its debris of branches and sticks,
Welter of tin cans, pails, old bird nests, a child's shoe riding a log,
As the piled ice breaks away from the battered spiles,
And the whole river begins to move forward, its bridges shaking.

The longing is so precisely rendered that both reader and poet do experience, momentarily, a movement forward. By becoming aware through the failed embrace of the distinction between himself and the sea and creating a series of metaphors in response to that tension, Roethke has also enabled himself to become more a part of the seaside setting. That is, working with an aspect of this landscape "small enough to be taken in, embraced, by two arms," he has avoided a dissolving of boundaries while yet opening himself to that world. As will be seen throughout the sequence, each such increase in consciousness is signalled by an increasing ability to join with ocean. Here, he records a steady rocking of the spirit ("I rock with the motion of morning") as he leans to move forward then pulls himself back, finally "lull[ing]" himself into a "half-sleep." He is in between, no longer sealed off by his barrier of rocks, but quite careful to claim only a "small" embrace of his surroundings: "And the spirit runs, intermittently, / In and out of the small waves, / Runs with the intrepid shorebirds— / How graceful the small before danger!"

The next poem in the sequence, "Journey to the Interior," takes place later in the evening, in "the moonlight," and uses the word "rehearse" ("I rehearse myself for this: / The stand at the stretch in the face of death" to describe the weave of memory and speculation that Roethke constructs in order to prepare to confront the sea without fully dissolving the boundaries of self. Again, the structure is a response to the problem raised by the failed embrace; as with the rivulet-cascade-river memories of the previous poem, this is a rehearsal, a construct—not a direct approach to the landscape (which would be "death"), but an indirect unfolding of one of its problematic implications. The poem begins by comparing the movement out of the self and toward the world to a journey, one constantly interrupted by dangerous, "raw places" that send the self off on long, circuitous detours:

In the long journey out of the self,
There are many detours, washed-out interrupted raw places
Where the shale slides dangerously
And the back wheels hang almost over the edge
At the sudden veering, the moment of turning.

What has caused his "sudden veering" away from what one might have thought would be a simple and direct "journey" from self to something other, Roethke goes on to suggest, are two problems of which he is now "wary." The first is the risk of violent, surging expansion: "The arroyo cracking the road, the wind-bitten buttes, the canyons, / Creeks swollen in midsummer from the flash-flood roaring into the narrow valley." The second is the risk of reduction and annihilation:

—Or the path narrowing,
Winding upward toward the stream with its sharp stones,
The upland of alder and birchtrees,
Through the swamp alive with quicksand,
The way blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree,
The thickets darkening,
The ravines ugly.

Both threats might usefully be compared to the risks of overpowering contact Whitman imagines in sections 26 and 28—the sudden expansion of being whirled "wider than Uranus flies" followed by his "windpipe [being] throttled."

Roethke counterbalances this fear of annihilation by recounting a long, circuitous journey that, he remembers, gently led him out of himself. The journey—successfully taking Roethke from self-absorption to union with the external—is a rehearsal for the present decision to make or refuse contact with the sea: a rehearsal, or (as we learn only after thirty-four absolutely convincing lines), a "detour"—an indirect, long way around which, avoiding the "raw places" of direct contact with the other, works out a way to eventually allow the "journey out of the self to proceed. Emphasis is given first to the remembered dangers of the road ("dangerous down-hill places, where the wheels whined beyond eighty—"), then to the boy's sense of pride at his mastery of the terrain:

The trick was to throw the car sideways and charge over the hill, full of the throttle.
Grinding up and over the narrow road, spitting and roaring.
A chance? Perhaps. But the road was part of me, and its ditches,
And the dust lay thick on my eyelids,—Who ever wore goggles?—

Gradually, the speaker disappears, and the landscape, a blur of small towns and discarded objects, takes over: "An old bridge below with a buckled iron railing, broken by some idiot plunger; / Underneath, the sluggish water running between weeds, broken wheels, tires, stones." This is the sort of exhausted landscape that Roethke had turned away from in "The Longing." Now, however, transfixed by the rhythm of the speeding car, he begins to lose himself to the flashing scenery. He seems to be still, with the world flowing by ("The floating hawks, the jackrabbits, the grazing cattle—I am not moving but they are") until, finally forgetting himself, he becomes a part of his surroundings, both still and moving: "I rise and fall in the slow sea of a grassy plain, / The wind veering the car slightly to the right, / Whipping the line of white laundry, bending the cottonwoods apart." With the same wind moving the car and the cottonwoods, inside and outside are joined. Although the memory itself is quite powerful, the reference to the "slow sea" reminds the reader that this journey is being recounted and worked with as a way around Roethke's current failure to embrace the waves around him.

The memory concludes with what Roethke has called "the first stage in mystical illumination":

I rise and fall, and time folds
Into a long moment;
And I hear the lichen speak,
And the ivy advance with its white lizard feet—
On the shimmering road,
On the dusty detour.

Although several commentators have cited this passage as a mystical culmination to the sequence, the word "detour" is a reminder that this moment of union in which "all is one and one is all" is only one of several possible results of the journey out of the self. Roethke is investigating the problem of whether one can move out of the self and not be destroyed, not simply describing the possibility of illumination. This memory serves as a demonstration that the journey might be made safely if indirectly and round-aboutly. That is, as the tense change reminiscent of that in Whitman's gradual participation in his grandmother's father' s sea fight—from past ("the road was part of me") to present ("And all flows past")—suggests, working with the memory has led the poet to experience a similar union with a greatly enlarged world here, beside the ocean: "I see the flower of all water, above and below me, the never receding, / Moving, unmoving in a parched land, white in the moonlight." By making his way down this detour, skirting the "raw places" it seeks to avoid, Roethke has increased his technical resources and brought himself to a point where he can make a decision about moving beyond the soul's "still-stand." What is the result? Here in the present, claiming only a blind man's intuition, Roethke changes position, moving away from his fear of death and, with his "body thinking," out toward the world:

As a blind man, lifting a curtain, knows it is morning,
I know this change:

On the one side of silence there is no smile;
But when I breathe with the birds,
The spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of blessing,
And the dead begin from their dark to sing in my sleep

From a position of silence and immobility, Roethke has gazed at the disastrous, unsmiling face of the journey out of the self ("the spirit of wrath"), then at the breathing, singing aspect of the journey, and has chosen to risk contact. And it is this rehearsal, which has indeed "made something" out of his first contact with the sea, that has made possible that greater, although indirect, embrace.

Roethke, by continually raising new questions about his ability to embrace this world directly, repeatedly gives himself opportunities to struggle out of the mire by refining his ability to work with it indirectly, as a medium different from him. Once again, "The Long Waters," the next poem in the sequence, opens with an acknowledgment of fearfulness—Roethke again retreating from the "advancing and retreating waters" he is drawn to make contact with. He begins by suggesting that the sense, as demonstrated by innumerable small creatures, seem to provide both contact and a means of making and expressing newly-discovered distinctions: "Whether the bees have thoughts, we cannot say, / But the hind part of the worm wiggles the most, / Minnows can hear, and butterflies, yellow and blue, / Rejoice in the language of smells and dancing." It seems to Roethke that the languages (wiggling, dancing) employed by these creatures illustrate a kind of thinking that he might use himself. Roethke has pursued this idea further in an essay in which he speculates that for the poet who "thinks with his body: an idea for him can be as real as the smell of a flower or a blow on the head. And those so lucky as to bring their whole sensory equipment to bear on the process of thought grow faster, jump more frequently from one plateau to another…" The senses then, he proposes, might provide an entrance into the external world and a language to give his ideas shape—make them "real." To choose this manner of thinking is to choose not to rely on those extraordinary insights into our world or those intuitions of some other world beyond the range of the senses:

Therefore I reject the world of the dog
Though he hear a note higher than C
And the thrush stopped in the middle of his song.
And I acknowledge my foolishness with God,
My desire for the peaks, the black ravines, the rolling mists
Changing with every twist of the wind,
The unsinging fields where no lungs breathe,
Where light is stone.

Instead, he situates himself at that place of his desire, a world full of potential where the senses might be fully engaged:

I return where fire has been,
To the charred edge of the sea
Where the yellowish prongs of grass poke through the blackened ash,
And the bunched logs peel in the afternoon sunlight,
Where the fresh and salt waters meet,
And the sea-winds move through the pine trees,
A country of bays and inlets, and small streams flowing seaward.

This is a complete world where the four elements—fire, water, earth, wind—all meet and interpenetrate. Grass pokes "through" the fire's ash, winds "move through" the pines, fire touches the sea, fresh waters meet salt. In short, this is a universe no longer immediately threatening, as in "Oyster River," but open to the senses' penetration.

Characteristically, however, Roethke immediately retreats from this decision to immerse himself in the sea-edge world. Discovering a familiar problem implicit in his description of the charred, reviving landscape, he thrusts himself away, back into the depths, and gives himself another opportunity to climb out. Addressing Mnetha, Blake's guardian of two "perpetual infants" who are kept forever innocent, he acknowledges his fear of the flurry of change and new birth that the natural world offers him. He reaches back, in fact, to the language-bearing worm and butterfly of the opening lines of the poem and sees them again, now as examples of disorder and retreat: "Mnetha, Mother of Har, protect me / From the worm's advance and retreat, from the butterfly's havoc, / From the slow sinking of the island peninsula, the coral efflorescence, / The dubious sea-change, the heaving sands, and my tentacled sea-cousins." Once articulated, however, these fears of the flowering ("coral efflorescence"), changing, and selfdissolving world can be countered. Roethke does so by calling attention to another, unnamed deity who might intensify and shape that about-to-dissolve world rather than free him from it:

But what of her?—
Who magnifies the morning with her eyes,
The star winking beyond itself,
The cricket-voice deep in the midnight field,
The blue jay rasping from the stunted pine.

Magnifying the morning—these examples indicate—involves adding the presence of the viewer to an otherwise unmarked world, that of night sky, "midnight field," and "stunted pine." Her presence, voicing the world while not being overwhelmed by it, seems to be a standin for the poet, for Roethke immediately turns to his own faculties of imagination and memory that might intersect the changing world and magnify its potential. A remembered "pleasure," he argues in the next stanza, dies slowly; it lasts like a "dry bloom" still holding its battered shape under the coming "first snow of the year," and in doing so gives depth and richness to his present contact with the world: "Feeling, I still delight in my last fall." This opening expression of doubt, then, forcing Roethke to acknowledge the havoc of the sensual world, has also led him to assert the role of human memory and imagination in deepening, and thus rendering nonthreatening, the order of that world. In a sense, he has spelled out, in the image of memory as a magnifier, what the indirect contact of the two previous poems simply demonstrated.

The final three sections of "The Long Waters" investigate this combined use of memory and the senses in contacting the world, and do so with a similar pattern of statement, challenge, and a deepened restatement. Roethke begins by repeating his commitment to enter the "rich desolation of wind and water" stretching before him. To move toward that world, he reminds himself, is to enter the advancing and retreating world of time:

In time when the trout and young salmon leap for the low-flying insects,
And the ivy-branch, cast to the ground, puts down roots into the sawdust,
And the pine, whole with its roots, sinks into the estuary,
Where it leans, tilted east, a perch for the osprey,
And a fisherman dawdles over a wooden bridge,
These waves, in the sun, remind me of flowers:
(emphasis mine)

In the world of time, advance is cyclically linked to decline; trout leap as insects fly low; a newly cast down branch roots itself while established roots are pried out whole; as a pine tree sinks, an osprey uses its perch to lift itself. Previously, this "dubious" movement would have inspired retreat; now the poet realizes that this cyclical pattern also lifts human memory out of worlds cast down. The presence of his memory, then, "magnifying" the sea's waves into the familiar shapes of lilies and morning-glories, helps him to engage his senses and, "Blessed by the lips of a low wind," come forward to enter this "rich desolation." Once again, however, this insight must be tested. The blessing is followed by a quivering moment of doubt where, as another "long swell, burnished, almost oily" washes toward him, he fearfully erects a barrier and uses memory not to deepen his response to water but to find an emblem for his feelings of vulnerability at loosening his boundaries. What would it be like to enter this world without the tools of memory and desire to reshape it?

I remember a stone breaking the eddying current,
Neither white nor red, in the dead middle way,
Where impulse no longer dictates, nor the darkening shadow,
A vulnerable place,
Surrounded by sand, broken shells, the wreckage of water.

Immediately though, as if his momentary tendency to remain inert and stonelike "in the dead middle way" proved no match for the combination of slowly dying memory and the whispering sea, Roethke finds himself awakened again:

As a fire, seemingly long dead, flares up from a downdraft of air in a chimney,
Or a breeze moves over the knees from a low hill,
So the sea wind wakes desire.
My body shimmers with a light flame.

And wonderfully, now that his senses are in contact with the world, his spirit is able to awake, move, and (reaching back to "The Longing" for the term) shimmer. The awakening of desire—the method Roethke has developed for entering and shaping the world through memory—has been a slow process bringing him to a union that has been doubted, lost, and won several times over.

Interestingly, Roethke chooses to end "The Long Waters" not with these striking lines, but with a passage that Cary Nelson rightly characterizes as "mere posturing." Roethke concludes by claiming that, set loose from his fear of dissolution, he is able to "Become another thing," disperse himself to the gathering waters, and "embrace the world." This progression neatly completes the sequence's major themes, but the strikingly pat presentation contrasts noticeably with the painstaking advance and retreat we have just followed. This manner of presentation seems to be a deliberate signal of another intensification of the problem, a signal supported by an additional claim that although he senses in the sea's waves a "shape" that corresponds to an aspect of his sleeping spirit, Roethke is unable to label it clearly. That is, he signals his inability, at this stage, to make more than a striking pose out of his union with the waves.

I see in the advancing and retreating waters
The shape that came from my sleep, weeping:
The eternal one, the child, the swaying vine branch,
The numinous ring around the opening flower,
The friend that runs before me on the windy headlands,
Neither voice nor vision.

The last line is particularly telling. To see the shape as a montage of traditional images—alternately the "one," a child, a branch, a numinous ring, a friend running—is deliberately to "conceive too much of articulation," suggesting that although a union has been established, there has not yet been a proper assessment of its limits. To achieve "Neither voice nor vision" is to have put nothing into useful form and to indicate both a temporary end to one poem and the need for further meditation.

"The Far Field" attempts to think through the necessary limits to embracing "the advancing and retreating waters" by linking the sea of the previous poems with the far field of eternity in order more forcefully to bring to awareness the problem of "immensity."… Is it too much to claim that a single individual might comprehend and articulate such an expanse? The poem begins, as has become customary, by answering that unspoken question with an expression of fear that temporarily negates the previous union and provides the poet with another opportunity to remake his answer to that problem. Roethke imagines driving out a "long peninsula," alone, in a frightening thrust away from the mainland and out toward the sea: "Ending at last in a hopeless sand-rut, / Where the car stalls, / Churning in a snowdrift / Until the headlights darken." Roethke responds to the fear of what "Journey to the Interior" called those "interrupted raw places" where one could be overwhelmed and diminished by remembering a series of equivalent "ends" he experienced as a child: a culvert at the end of a field; a pile of discarded cans and tires; the decayed face of a dead rat; the entrails of a cat, blasted by a night watchman. The images parallel the stalled car, but, by placing them in a larger context of constantly changing shapes, Roethke understands why, as a child, his "grief was not excessive": the field's end was also the "nesting-place of the field-mouse"; and both the flower dump and the "twittering restless cloud" of an elm tree insisted that the world was "ever-changing." In a similar manner, he also "learned of [his own place in] the eternal" through viewing his own body in that larger context. Lying "naked in the sand," "fingering a shell," sinking "down to the hips in a mossy quagmire," or sitting with bare knees "astride a wet log" were all ways of indirectly "thinking" himself into contact with an older world by reliving his earlier shapes: "Once I was something like this, mindless, / Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar." As a child, then, he reminds himself, he "learned not to fear infinity, /… The sprawl of the wave, / The oncoming water" by developing an artistic, sensual means of thinking about, and thereby indirectly participating in, the constant movement of time and shapes. He learned to give himself to "infinity" in a way that "was not excessive."

This reminder—this rehearsal—frees him from his opening fear of being overwhelmed; now able to entertain imaginatively and indirectly the "thought of my death" and his subsequent connection with "earth and air" as the simple loosing of the scents of a garden or fire to the air, he is "renewed by death" and experiences a forward movement of the spirit: "I feel a weightless change, a moving forward / As of water quickening before a narrowing channel / When banks converge, and the wide river whitens." This forward movement is made possible by the poet teaching himself again how to think about the broad, surrounding expanses. Roethke returns to the combination of stillness and movement first introduced in "The Longing" in order to explain this manner of participating without being dissolved:

I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.

Holding himself out of the force of the main current, Roethke insists that he is able to join it by looking at it ("my eyes stare") and, most importantly, by flexibly thinking about it ("my mind moves in more than one place"). That outward movement, or embrace, has made possible, in turn, an insight into what "The Longing" called "the imperishable quiet at the heart of form"—an insight now carefully qualified, however, as an approach to "a still, but not a deep center." Full insight, for both Whitman and Roethke, is an overpowering deepness—an approach to an "infinity" beyond words and articulation.

The quiet tone of these lines is convincing and prepares the reader for a second, and more limited, attempt to define the shape discovered in the union between the individual and the long waters: "The lost self changes, / Turning toward the sea, / A sea-shape turning around,—." The lost self, the self that has loosened its hold on its original boundaries, turns toward the sea and, identifying with the waves it faces but also remaining a thinking creature, becomes both a man and a "sea-shape turning around." To realize that one has the potential to merge with such an expanse is to awaken to one's own immensity without being overwhelmed by it: "A man faced with his own immensity / Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire." He wakes these waves within himself, but, because he has approached them indirectly, through "finite things [which] reveal infinitude" without themselves carrying the infinite's full weight, he finds himself no longer threatened by "The murmur of the absolute"; it simply "fails on his naked ears." So, Roethke can claim that, as a single man, he is, through such a merger, also an "old man" in the sea's "robes of green" or, more abstractly, "the end of things, the final man." Touching those long waters, working with them without fully embracing them, his work is a limited thrust into immensity: "A ripple widening from a single stone / Winding around the waters of the world."

The final poem of the sequence, "The Rose," is both a summary of the sequence's overall movement and a demonstration of what Roethke has learned about how to embrace the other. Its central image is a wild rose blowing in the sea wind, a figure, as Nelson remarks, "for a self exceeding the limits of time and space, yet supremely flowering in its place." Indeed, the sea rose, which "Stays in its true place," "Rooted in stone," yet also unfolds its petals, extends its tendrils, and drops down to the waves—"struggling out of the white embrace of the morning-glory," "Moving with the waves, the undulating driftwood"—is a completed version of the spirit that has been given struggling form in the sequence. The rose functions as an ideal image (unlike the poet, it is bound by no limitations and thus embraces "the whole of light," all of "sound and silence") to which Roethke may compare himself, and thus assess where his poem has arrived. In a sense, the ideal rose and his apparent distance from its fully realized potential are the problems that spur both the meditation and demonstration of this poem and of the entire sequence.

The poem begins with a long description of "this place, where sea and fresh water meet." Everything is in movement: hawks sway in the wind, eagles sail, gulls cry, the tide rises, birds flash and sing. In time, as the poet watches and listens, this motion gradually diminishes until "The old log subsides with the lessening waves, / And there is silence." Summarizing his carefully developed abilities to join with this world, Roethke writes: "I sway outside myself / Into the darkening currents, / Into the small spillage of driftwood, / The waters swirling past the tiny headlands." Deliberately, this embrace, in effect the entire sequence, is described in quite modest terms. Both the limited context for the movement—"small spillage," "tiny headlands"—and the contrast, in the next lines, to a grander, remembered union complete with a "crown of birds," place this embrace in carefully limited perspective, exactly that developed by the many discussions of such a connection throughout the sequence. Through "change and variation," that is, the embrace has been refined.

The next two sections focus on this modest union with "the darkening currents"—demonstrating and assessing the technique that has made this connection possible. This is done quite precisely. Comparing the spirit's constantly adjusting sense of itself to the movement of a ship ("rolling slightly sideways, / The stern high, dipping like a child's boat in a pond— / Our motion continues"), Roethke immediately juxtaposes that rolling, piecemeal sense of development to that of the ideal rose that "Stays, / Stays in its true place" and knows itself whole. How is that human, non-ideal movement achieved? Like Whitman in section 33 calling deliberate attention to the act of flinging his fancies out toward an arctic world, Roethke returns to the gradually silenced world of section 1 and quite consciously shows us how that connection was accomplished. "What do they tell us, sound and silence?" he writes—that is, what does this observed distinction give him that might be worked with or "used?" How might memory or desire or other forms of indirect participation "magnify," and thus make accessible, that aspect of this potentially overpowering landscape? "I think of American sounds in this silence: / On the banks of the Tombstone, the wind-harps having their say, / The thrush singing alone, that easy bird, / The killdeer whistling away from me." A long, Whitmanesque catalog follows in which Roethke demonstrates how one fills silence with sound, seasons, and occupations. He moves outward, as he has learned to do in the course of this poem, through use of his full mental powers: enumeration ("I think of American sounds"), memory ("the catbird / Down in the corner of the garden"), and the careful discrimination and patterning of the various sounds. Magnifying and working a problem posed by the distinctness of the other is how a poet, in contrast to a rose, embraces, however indirectly, the world. Interestingly, as Roethke completes this demonstration and returns to the darkening "place of my desire," he once again distinguishes his achievement—approximating the "single sound" at the "heart of form" with a "twittering" of multiple movements—from an impossibly removed ideal:

I return to the twittering of swallows above water,
And that sound, that single sound,
When the mind remembers all,
And gently the light enters the sleeping soul,
A sound so thin it could not woo a bird.

This distinction is referred to again in the sequence's conclusion, where Roethke celebrates "the place of my desire," the place where his desire has been focused and given form:

I live with the rocks, their weeds,
Their filmy fringes of green, their harsh
Edges, their holes
Cut by the sea-slime, far from the crash
Of the long swell,
The oily, tar-laden walls
Of the toppling waves,

By living "with the rocks," Roethke points to the way he has, like the Indian of "The Longing," become absorbed by this particular setting in the course of the sequence, but he also insists, in using that phrase, that his proper place is at the edge of the sea, rather than in the middle of crashing swells. He has been out in those waves, of course, but in a way that needs to be carefully set forth:

Near this rose, in this grove of sun-parched, wind-warped madronas,
Among the half-dead trees, I came upon the true ease of myself,
As if another man appeared out of the depths of my being,
And I stood outside myself,
Beyond becoming and perishing,
A something wholly other,
As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,
And yet was still.

Once, Roethke writes, "near this rose," he had an insight into "the true ease" of himself. But like Whitman's full contact with his soul in section 5, that was in the past: "once we lay such a transparent summer morning." And if—again like Whitman in that section—that full insight into the "depths of my being" seemed "as if he had realized his connections with the full range of created things (Roethke with "the wildest wave alive," far on the horizon; Whitman with "all the men ever born"), now Roethke lives at the edge of the sea, "far from the crash of the long swell," working out a series of more limited and more indirect contacts with those waves and his "being." If, then, what is in him remains "something wholly other," Roethke has, at the same time, worked out a way to bring us "nearer" to it.


Theodore Roethke Poetry: American Poets Analysis


Roethke, Theodore (Vol. 1)