Theodore Roethke

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Roethke, Theodore (Vol. 1)

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Roethke, Theodore 1908–1963

Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, Roethke is the author of Words for the Wind and The Far Field.

Roethke seems to me the finest poet now [1961] writing in English. I [say] this with a certain fierceness, knowing that I have to put him up against Eliot, Pound, Graves, and a good many others of high rank. I do it also cheerfully, however, for stating his own idiosyncratic and perhaps indefensible views is part of a reviewer's business. I think Roethke is the finest, not so much because of his beautifully personal sense of form (approved even by Yvor Winters, our most insistent watchdog in these matters), but because of the way he sees and feels the aspects of life which are compelling to him. The powerful, almost somnambulistic statements of his observations and accountings come to us as from the bottom of the "deep well of unconscious cerebration" itself, from a Delphic trance where everything one says is the right, undreamed-of, and known-by-the-gods-all-the-time thing that should be and never is said. The best of Roethke's poems are very nearly as frightening and necessary as "darkness was upon the face of the deep," and as simple and awesome as "let there be light." It is this world of perpetual genesis, his own genesis, recurring, continually available if only the perceiver is up to it in mind and body, that Roethke has somehow got down in words….

Roethke is of the company of the great Empathizers, like Rilke and D. H. Lawrence, and in this association none of those present need feel embarrassment. They are the Awakeners, and can change your life not by telling but by showing, not from the outside but from within, by the lively and persistently mysterious means of inducing you to believe that you were meant to perceive and know things as Rilke, as Lawrence, as Roethke present them….

He wrote two kinds of poems: song poems … and long free-verse meditations. These are successful poems in different ways, but I shall not be moved to comment on them as performances, as dazzling as this kind of consideration could easily show them to be. What matters to me is not so much the form the poems took as the sensibility that lived in them, the superior quality of observation that made them possible: the presence of insight, of vision….

His poems are human poems in the full weight of that adjective: poems of a creature animal enough to enter half into unthinking nature and unanimal enough to be uneasy there, taking thought at what the animal half discerns and feels. This position, which at times seems triumphantly an extraordinary kind of wholeness impossible to animals and possible to men only on rare occasions, is the quality that Roethke has caught in his best poems….

There is great joy in Roethke's poems, great sorrow, and great fear as well; one feels that unspeakable dread is never very far from any line, any perception. But everything he says has the authority of the earned vision, paid for with part of an extraordinary human life. Roethke is one of the few great poets (and I am prepared to retract no adjective in sight) who have been able to make effective statements: ones you believe, and believe in, at first sight, like a look into the one right pair of eyes in the world.

James Dickey "Theodore Roethke" (1961, 1964), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964,...

(This entire section contains 1886 words.)

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1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 147-52.

Behind the profusion of experience we [note] in Roethke's writing one comes upon a preoccupation with the poet's own self as the primary matter of artistic exploration and knowledge, an interest which endows the poems with a sense of personal urgency, even necessity…. It partakes of what Martin Buber includes in his definition of the "primary word I-Thou," which is the speech of a person's entire being in relationship with the other creatures and things of the world, for Roethke viewed the self as continually seeking a harmonious dialogue with all that is. The bulk of Roethke's poetry derives its imaginative strength from the author's restless quest for that communion in which self and creation are joined. (pp. 7-8)

The title poem [of Roethke's first collection, Open House] is a frank announcement of his intention to use himself in some way as the material of his art, but we are not told how. The poem is sharp in its personal disclosure and might justifiably serve as a motto for all of Roethke's subsequent verse….

A certain economy and simplicity of diction, as well as insistent, forceful rhythms, more freely employed as he matured, are … lasting trademarks of his style, even though he abandoned some of them almost entirely on occasion in favor of experiments with considerably looser forms…. But the experiments are always interspersed, even in recent work, with returns to the simple lyric. (p. 9)

The section of poems with which The Lost Son opens may catch by complete surprise the reader who has seen nothing but Roethke's previous work. While emphasis on nature is still maintained attention has now moved away from the earlier images of natural and seasonal activity in the larger sense to a reduced, microscopic scrutiny of plant life that seems almost scientific in precision but is obviously prompted by the poet's intuition, passion, and sympathy…. Roethke's inclination in these poems to reveal a deep and permanent tie between the "minimal" world of flowers, plants, and small creatures he so benevolently scrutinizes and the inner world of man prepares for the sequence of experimental monologues, the first of which appear in the last section of The Lost Son and which are continued in Praise to the End…. The sequence poems are, so far as I know, unique in modern literature…. In several of the poems … from The Lost Son … Roethke presses back toward the very beginnings of existence in his concentration on the life process of plants. This practice by itself is sufficient to separate his interests from his contemporaries' and to display his genuine innovation. Roethke wishes in these poems to uncover through his imagination the laws of growth in a flower and relate them to the development of the human self, though it is done metaphorically rather than scientifically. But short lyric poems are ultimately unsatisfactory as vehicles for such ambitions because they are not flexible enough and do not readily permit the singular approach to experience the poet now envisages. What he is aiming at is a poetic "history of the psyche" (his phrase) which opens with the earliest stages of life and traces the evolution of the spirit in its ordeal of inner and outer conflicts, its desire for "unity of being," to borrow a term from Dante by way of Yeats, that final condition of grace which is a harmony of the self with all things. In Roethke's later work the love of man and woman is involved in this idea of unity and so is an awareness of the Divine. Yet the protagonist's route in the poems is anything but easy, for regressive instincts, desires to remain on the lowest plane of existence or to become a lump of inanimate matter, war upon the natural impulse to growth. The spirit tries to release the self from these destructive attractions and to rise toward the full embrace of life. Nature is the context in which the individual assumes at last his rightful identity, finds love, and engages the spirit in further encounters. (pp. 11-17)

Ralph J. Mills, Jr., in his Theodore Roethke ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 30), University of Minnesota Press, © 1963 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).

There are many things wrong with the poetry of Theodore Roethke, things which become the more troubling when one reads him in this collected edition [Roethke: Collected Poems]. His seriousness is frequently too solemnly serious, his lyrical qualities too lyrically lyrical. His mystical vein often seems willed, forced, even made up for the occasion, as if it were one with a desire to write that sort of poem. (I am not suggesting that Roethke's feelings were not genuine in this regard. I am speaking only of their expression in his poems.) The love poetry is frequently embarrassing….

And yet Roethke is a very interesting and important poet. For one thing there is the valuable formal experimentation of the poems which comprise "Praise to the End!" (as well as the last section of "The Lost Son and Other Poems" and the first poems in "The Waking"), the brilliance there with which he uses imitations of children's voices, nursery rhymes, his beautiful sense of the lives of small creatures, the shifting rhythms and stanza forms which … serve his purposes with wonderful appropriateness….

[In] the last book he published, [The Far Field], there are signs, for example in "Meditation at Oyster River," of a new and promising expansiveness and tentativeness, a new watchfulness and patience with respect to his experience, and forms of speech appropriate to these qualities. For the reader, the pity is not to be able to see where this would have taken him.

David Ferry, "Roethke's Poetry," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter, 1967, pp. 169-73.

Though not definitive, Roethke: Collected Poems is a major book of poetry. It reveals the full extent of Roethke's achievement: his ability to perceive reality in terms of the tensions between inner and outer worlds, and to find a meaningful system of metaphor with which to communicate this perception; his related skill in translating the rhythms of experience into the rhythms of poetry. It also points up his weaknesses: the derivative quality of his less successful verse, the limited areas of concern in even his best poems. The balance, it seems to me, is in Roethke's favor. A professed imitator, he made his voice unique; preoccupied with self, he was universal in his struggles. He is one of our finest poets, a human poet in a world that threatens to turn man into an object.

Karl Malkoff, "Exploring the Boundaries of the Self," (© 1967 by The University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Summer, 1967, pp. 540-42.

The illusion of variety in Roethke's poetry vanishes the more he is read. In matters of metrics, cadence, language Roethke was openly eclectic. He himself stressed his eclecticism. In the occasional pieces in the Selected Prose Roethke tosses bouquets to the poets from whom he learned: Donne, John Davies, Words-worth, Yeats (to whom he is perhaps most indebted), Auden, Bogan, etc. A list of poets about whom he cared or who cared for him might read like an anthology of English and American verse. One is sometimes tempted to see him as a poet created by the tradition. What matters finally in Roethke's work, however, is an obsessive preoccupation with the self. It is the root of his originality and his claim to major status. He is, no matter the guise (whether metaphysical or romantic or surreal), a confessional poet….

Roethke belongs to the small company of visionary poets, and yet the Roethke I remains ungainly and pathetically suffering, so unlike the poetic identities of Blake, Wordsworth, Whitman….

Eugene Goodheart, "The Frailty of the I" (© 1968 by The University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Summer, 1968, pp. 516-19.


Roethke, Theodore


Roethke, Theodore (Vol. 101)