Theodore Roethke

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Roethke, Theodore (Vol. 3)

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Roethke, Theodore 1908–1963

Roethke was a major American poet. His life and work are the subjects of Allan Seager's fine biography, The Glass House.

Theodore Roethke's poems began under glass (his greenhouse poems give you the live feel of a special world) and moved underground, underwater, out into the growing universe of roots and slugs, of all the "lewd, tiny, careless lives that scuttled under stones." One is struck by what the world of his poems is full of or entirely lacking in; plants and animals, soil and weather, sex, ontogeny, and the unconscious swarm over the reader, but he looks in vain for hydrogen bombs, world wars, Christianity, money, ordinary social observations, his everyday moral doubts. Many poets are sometimes childish; Roethke, uniquely, is sometimes babyish, though he is a powerful Donatello baby who has love affairs, and whose marshlike unconscious is continually celebrating its marriage with the whole wet dark underside of things. He is a thoroughly individual but surprisingly varied poet….

Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry" (1962), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; copyright © 1963, 1965 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969.

Roethke's work is his own. His shorter poems are distinguished not so much by their matter, which is the stuff of early memories and adult disappointments inevitable to a responsive thoughtful man in mid-century America, nor by their form, which is traditional, but by their tone. He manages to escape the pedestrian flatness of some of his fellows and the strained intellectualism of others. He has as much to say of the interior landscape as of that without, and writes with particular acuteness of the nameless malaise of the spirit. His work gains from the fact that his childhood was intimately bound up with the life of a Michigan greenhouse, which, physically and otherwise, was to afford the material for some of his best lyrics. Their mere titles: "Root Cellar," "Forcing House," "Moss-Gathering," "Child on Top of a Greenhouse," "Flower-Dump," tell of that relatively unfamiliar world.

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), revised edition, Doubleday, 1963, p. 197.

Roethke came into his own as a poet in his group of short 'greenhouse' poems published in 1948. (They are to be found, with most of his other work before The Far Field, in Words for the Wind, his collected edition of 1958.) After a weak start as a conventionally competent versifier, he made his essential artistic advance in these pieces. He had discovered, apparently simultaneously, that his great source of energy was his own uncontrolled, riotous psyche—he called it 'the muck and welter, the dark, the dreck' —and that his youthful experience around his father's greenhouse in Michigan provided just the vivid, squirmingly uncomfortable, and concrete focus his poetry needed to channel and concentrate this emotional tumult. The equally exuberant and disgusted earthiness of these poems, their violent rapport with plants and the slimy sublife of slugs and other such creatures, is unique. Although his later work sometimes carries forth their Rabelaisian gusto … and presents searching moments of psychological realization, and though it can jolt us by dropping suddenly from pure manic recklessness to the most painfully gross and disturbing dejection, it seldom carries through with the same absolute conviction. One reason is the greater ambitiousness of the later work, no doubt. More important is the fact that for the most part Roethke had no subject apart...

(This entire section contains 2688 words.)

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from the excitements, illnesses, intensities of sensuous response, and inexplicable shiftings of his own sensibility. The greenhouse poems enabled him to objectify it for a time, but then he had nowhere to go but back inside himself. We have no other modern American poet of comparable reputation who has absorbed so little of the concerns of the age into his nerve-ends, in whom there is so little reference direct or remote to the incredible experiences of his age—unless the damaged psyche out of which he spoke be taken as its very embodiment. But that was not quite enough. The confessional mode, reduced to this kind of self-recharging, becomes self-echoing as well and uses itself up after the first wild orgies of feeling.

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (copyright © 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 112-18.

Roethke came closest of the poets of our time to repossessing the essential ways of knowing and feeling of our major poetic tradition, the tradition defined by Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson. Emerson would probably have felt that Roethke, of these four [Roethke, Lowell, Shapiro, and Wilbur], came closest to being the "true" poet he had described. Roethke was a Transcendentalist poet, a nature poet, and a poet of the transcendent self conceived both as representative and as defined by its capacity for growth. He was a poet dedicated to a new or "high" kind of "seeing," ultimately to illumination or mystic vision, a realization in experience, not in theory, of what Emerson referred to as the seer "becoming" what he sees. He was a poet who hoped to speak both for and to his time by discovering his own identity—and then creating a new identity capable of moving in a larger circumference by recognizing, accepting, and including within the self more "things," more of "fate," more of the tough resilience of the "not-me."…

Roethke made "reality" his "spirit's true center" as much as Stevens tried to do, and was as much aware of the darkness and terror of the personal depths he explored as Stevens was of the darkness of the "real" as he conceived it. But Roethke sought for a new understanding of reality by the methods of embracing, incorporating, and, finally, achieving a new way of "seeing." Periods of terrible darkness as he embraced the otherness and darkness of "things" were the price he had to pay for his progress….

To suppose that once we have located Roethke in the visionary and mystical tradition that begins with Vaughan, Traherne, and Blake and includes Emerson and Whitman, we have sufficiently accounted for his work, would be as serious a mistake as not recognizing that he belongs in that tradition. Roethke also criticized, modified, enriched, and extended the tradition, in part by drawing upon resources outside it, or even hostile to it, in part by proceeding on the inward journey initiated by the earlier poets farther than they had, or deeper into what had been repressed.

Hyatt H. Waggoner, "Centering In: Theodore Roethke," in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton Mifflin, 1968, pp. 564-77.

It was ever Theodore Roethke's experience that out of personal suffering could issue illumination and genuine poetry. He lived dangerously close to the madness that always threatened to destroy his career as poet and teacher, but such tension was fortunate for Roethke the artist, and the reader of his Collected Poems gains a strong impression that the poet realized this. Roethke saw himself as standing at the brink of an abyss, and during the course of his poetry this image becomes symbolic of man's condition. The speakers of his poems often exist in a state of doubt and agony bordering on total despair. But Roethke, in Arnold Stein's terms, cultivated the edge of the abyss, and the creative act held him together….

Critics have charged that Roethke, unlike Yeats or Wallace Stevens, does not earn his affirmation, that there has been too little spiritual wrestling, that in many poems a condition of joy arises artificially and without preparation. These charges are not without some foundation, but it is important to realize that the happiness achieved in any Roethke poem, and this [becomes] apparent in "The Abyss," is not one based on reason, on step-by-step logical confrontations with dissatisfaction, on rational duels with and victories over disquieting thoughts. The movement of most Roethke poems is comparable to that of the fourth section of Yeats's "Vacillation" in which joy is sudden and the realization of happiness is logically unfounded, is intuitive…. This movement is unusual in the body of Yeat's work, but the same sudden leap from pain to joy is frequently apparent in Roethke. One of the reasons that several of Roethke's mystical lyrics of Words for the Wind and especially The Far Field are so successful is that the mystical experience itself is ineffable, does not proceed reasonably. And now in the late 1950's and early 1960's, armed with his study of [Evelyn] Underhill and the mystics she discusses, Roethke has found his rationale, one he had always suspected to be real, but one that leads to a new confidence and power: he can rock irrationally between dark and light, can go by feeling where he has to go….

Throughout his career Roethke was sympathetic with the mystic's point of view, but only in his later work does he bulwark his intimations of mysticism with a formal understanding of its tradition. The voice of Underhill's description of the Mystic Way is inescapable in "The Renewal," "Love's Progress," "Plaint," "The Song," "The Small," "A Walk in Late Summer," and "Meditations of an Old Woman" of Words for the Wind; the same is true of "North American Sequence," "The Manifestation," "The Tranced," "The Moment," "In a Dark Time," "In Evening Air," "The Sequel," "The Motion," "Infirmity," "The Marrow," and "The Tree, The Bird," of The Far Field. If "The Abyss" is the prototypical mystical poem in the Roethke canon, all these others presuppose much of the information in Underhill's book that the poet absorbed. It is seldom that a single book sheds so much light on a major portion of a poet's work. Though, certainly, "The Abyss" is not a literary exercise in which Roethke sets out to parallel Underhill, Roethke weaves Underhill into the fabric of his own spiritual life.

William Heyen, "The Divine Abyss: Theodore Roethke's Mysticism," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Winter, 1969, pp. 1051, 1062-68.

After the early years … when one hears echoes of the poetic fashions of the time (Donne and Auden among them), Roethke found his own voice and central themes in the poems published in The Lost Son and Other Poems. His imagination returned to the Saginaw greenhouse and found there images of the dank, ugly and incredible forces which are the fundament of life. It was a sort of Augustinian recognition of how existence begins in the midst of feces and urine, or, to make the intuition modern, a Freudian insight of the terrible power of the Id, beneath the daylight world of the ego….

[Even] though Roethke wrote some beautiful love songs (like Words for the Wind) and nonsense verse, it is the complex vision of the greenhouse poems and the attendant ability to render, and humanize, the details and moods of nature, as symbols of large truths about all of life, which is central to his accomplishment.

Michael Harrington, "No 'Half-Baked Bacchus' From Saginaw," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), February 21, 1969, pp. 656-57.

Roethke's poetry is one of the most exhaustive, vital, and vivid reports we have of a soul in the several agonies normally recorded in one human life. The intensity results from an absorption in a form of subliminal nature, a deep sense of the most elementary agonies attending the process and the necessity of living. But it has other causes as well. Roethke impressed both his friends and readers profoundly as a human being, almost overwhelmingly "present," in his person as in his poetry….

If we grant Roethke the right to his first metaphors, we find it difficult not to permit him the concluding ones—despite the fact that these are more suddenly (or at least, more unexpectedly) grasped. The mind's entering itself seems to me to be Roethke's steady concern. Far from a solipsistic condition, or a madly egocentric one, what we have is the process of self-examination which all of us come to when we need to "stand aside," when we abandon the "papa principle" or it abandons us. We are less certain that God enters the mind. Roethke points out that God is not customarily supposed, by the "hot-gospelers," to enter the mind, but rather invades the heart….

At least in terms of the evidence, Roethke has come the long way, to climb out of both his fear of chaos and his trust in easy and comfortable confidences, and to stand in the place of "papa," ministering not so much to the many as to the One he has himself created. Perhaps the idea strikes us as fanciful; but one can, I am sure, be too much handicapped by logical or even eschatological necessity, to see the neatness and convincingness with which "In a Dark Time" stands as a genuine resolution of the mazes caused by life and the problems created by the expectation of death. Roethke's death, seen in the light of this mort accomplie, most properly sets the seal to his life, in terms of the imaginative brilliance and the moral courage which dominate and direct his poetry.

Frederick J. Hoffman, "Theodore Roethke: The Poetic Shape of Death," in Modern American Poetry: Essays in Criticism, edited by Jerome Mazzaro, McKay, 1970, pp. 301-20.

Theodore Roethke had a singular, almost fanatical fidelity to poetry. Like Dylan Thomas, he "drank his own blood, ate of his own marrow to get at some of the material of his poems." The unfolding of his lyric genius was slow, harried, stumbling, but irreversible. In the greenhouse of childhood memories—a jungle and a paradise he called it—he discovered his lifelong subject matter: the mysterious shooting out of green life from the rich and rank fetor of dying.

From [The Lost Son] to [The Far Field] he wrote poems of an imperious and unnerving need, as though haunted by some raging "dark angel" in his mind and pulled by invisible undertows to the edge of nonbeing. He was uncannily alive to, and attracted by, a dark kingdom of slugs, molds, worms and stones where the will was nearly extinguished. Yet he was as attentive as Thoreau at Walden Pond to the swelling bud. He would slide downward to "primeval sources" in order to leap upward into the "realm of pure song" where in mystical jubilation "all finite things reveal infinitude." His spirit waited for the premonitory tremors that announced a resumption of motion, a waking to light and force.

Herbert Leibowitz, "As if Haunted By a Raging Dark Angel," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 9, 1972, pp. 4, 10.

Roethke was a man profoundly dedicated to poetry. He courted its inspiration, and labored at its craft. He taught poetry with energy and brilliance. He worked hard to "promote" poetry, though perhaps too much by way of promoting merely his own practice of it. And, finally, he wrote many good poems, and a few great ones. By any just standards, he made of his dedication a success….

At his best, Roethke found, as he ought to have found, that it was love that could kill the "self" and at the same time hold his actual death brilliantly at bay. Love of slugs, flower dumps, geraniums; love of light, of earth, of blood, and wind, and stones; love of students, love of women, love of a lost father, love of God: these could momentarily free him from that obsessive ego, and impel him into a sense of primal innocence (womb, greenhouse, nursery rime) in which he found a pure part of his best being. Here he is found saying: "Artist's problem: to get to the best in one's self. And then get away from it." Roethke's strengths lay in his power to get back, down, and through all the dross and dreck, and into his best self. It was perhaps his failing that he rarely got away again.

Douglas Paschall, "Roethke Remains," in Sewanee Review (© 1973 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1973, pp. 859-64.


Roethke, Theodore (Vol. 19)


Roethke, Theodore (Vol. 8)