Roethke, Theodore (Vol. 8)
Roethke, Theodore 1908–1963
Roethke, an experimenter in forms and voices throughout his career, was one of the most important American poets of his generation. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for his volume The Waking. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3.)
The career of Theodore Roethke remains one of the most remarkable achievements of a period whose creative vigor will surely astonish succeeding ages. Coming near the end of a great revolution in the arts and sciences …, his career is like a history in miniature of that artistic revolt. His work not only managed to recapitulate this culture's war against form and matter, he pushed that attack several new steps forward. Yet, coming after the futile social revolutions which rose from the same drives and so accompanied the artistic one, he also summed up our peculiar inability to capitalize on our astounding achievements—our flight from freedom, from the accesses of power we have released. I see this in his withdrawal into metaphysics, his flight from his own experimental drive, his own voice, his freedom. I must view this career, then, with an astonished awe, yet with sadness.
Roethke's struggle with form first revealed itself in his changing attitudes toward verse form and toward rhetorical and stylistic convention. (pp. 101-02)
Roethke's first book, Open House, seems surprisingly old-fashioned and prerevolutionary. The poems are open and easily graspable; the metric quite regular and conventional. There is even a romantic lyricism which verges on sentimentality and ladies' verse. Here is a typical example [from "To My Sister"]:
O my sister remember the stars the tears the trains
The woods in spring the leaves the scented lanes
Recall the gradual dark the snow's unmeasured fall
The naked fields the cloud's immaculate folds
Recount each childhood pleasure: the skies of azure
The pageantry of wings the eye's bright treasure.
Keep faith with present joys refuse to choose
Defer the vice of flesh the irrevocable choice
Cherish the eyes the proud incredible poise
Walk boldly my sister but do not deign to give
Remain secure from pain preserve thy hate thy heart.
This was followed, however, by The Lost Son and Other Poems—almost entirely in free verse. A marked prosiness, too, came into the language texture, bringing very real successes. (p. 102)
Also in that book, however, were poems which predicted the direction of Roethke's third book, Praise to the End!—a plunge into the wildest and most experimental poetry of the period. Though "To My Sister" is in free verse, we scarcely notice that. The verse flows easily and expressively, underlining the immediate meaning, drawing little attention to itself. It is nearly incredible that the same man could have written [the poem "Give Way, Ye Gates"] in his next book:
Believe me, knot of gristle, I bleed like a tree;
I dream of nothing but boards;
I could love a duck.
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.
Even after the wildest surrealists, that voice sounds new and astonishing; it could be no one but Roethke. It is an achieved style, carrying much meaning, and touching only tangentially other voices we have heard in poetry. (p. 103)
Roethke had opened out before himself an incredible landscape. He had regressed into areas of the psyche where the powerful thoughts and feelings of the child—the raw materials and driving power of our later lives—remain under the layers of rationale and of civilized purpose. The explorations made possible by this book alone could have engaged a lifetime. Yet Roethke never seriously entered the area again.
It is not surprising that Roethke might at this point need to step back and regather his forces. He did just that in the group of "New Poems" which first appeared in The Waking and which were later called "Shorter Poems, 1951–53" in Words for the Wind. Here Roethke returned to the more open lyricism of his earlier verse and gave us, again, several markedly successful poems—"A Light Breather," "Old Lady's Winter Words," and the beautiful "Elegy for Jane." Yet one had a feeling that he was marking time, seeking a new direction.
In Words for the Wind, Roethke's collected poems, the new direction appeared. It was a shock. There had been hints that Roethke was interested in Yeats's voice, hints that he might follow the general shift in twentieth-century verse by following wild experimentation with a new formalism. No one could have expected that Words for the Wind would contain a series of sixteen "Love Poems" and a sequence, "The Dying Man," all in a voice almost indistinguishable from Yeats's. Roethke, who had invented the most raw and original voice of all our period, was now writing in the voice of another man, and that, perhaps, the most formal and elegant voice of the period.
Yet, also in that book appeared "Meditations of an Old Woman," which suggested still another new direction, and promised, I felt, astonishing new achievements. (pp. 104-05)
[Roethke's next book] The Far Field opens with a poem called "The Longing" which harks back to those passages in the earlier book which had promised—both in statement and in vigor of style—further journeys, new explorations; "All journeys, I think, are the same:/The movement is forward, after a few wavers …" but now there is a sense of failure, or failure of desire:
On things asleep, no balm:
A kingdom of stinks and sighs,
Fetor of cockroaches, dead fish, petroleum,…
The great trees no longer shimmer;
Not even the soot dances.
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.
These poems, recording that withdrawal, also, I think, suffer from it. The language grows imprecise with pain, or with growing numbness and half-sleep as an escape from pain. It seems less a regression to capture something and re-create it, than a regression for its own sake, to lose something and uncreate it.
Metrically, too, one has a sense of discouragement and withdrawal. (p. 107)
What had happened? To investigate that we must go back through Roethke's work and trace out something of his war against form on a different level. And this is a much more causal level—probably causal to Roethke, and certainly causal to the great war against form in our era—the revolt of the sexes against each other and themselves and, in our time, the revolt of the child against the parent. Here, we must investigate not the technical form of Roethke's poems, but rather their statements about his own human form.
Most of Roethke's best earlier poems record a desperate effort "To be something else, yet still to be!," to be "somewhere else," to "find the thing he almost was," to be "king of another condition." As he said it earliest, "I hate my epidermal dress"; as he said it last, "How body from spirit slowly does unwind/Until we are pure spirit at the end." We see his struggle against his own form, shape, and size in all these poems about regression into animal shape—the sloth, the slug, the insect. Or the continual attempt to lose his large human form in an identity with small forms [, as seen in "The Minimal"]:
… the little
Sleepers, numb nudgers in cold dimensions,
Beetles in caves, newts, stone-deaf fishes,
Lice tethered to long limp subterranean weeds,
Squirmers in bogs,
And bacterial creepers….
This struggle against his own form reached what seemed a sort of triumph in those journey poems where he investigated the landscape as a woman, in the earlier love poems, and in the numerous poems where he spoke as a woman. In the earlier love poems, he did affirm a shape; not his own, but the woman's: "She came toward me in the flowing air,/A shape of change, encircled by its fire," or again: "The shapes a bright container can contain!" This containment must have seemed an answer—to lose one's shape, to be the woman through sexual entrance: "Is she what I become?/Is this my final Face?" and: "I … see and suffer myself/In another being, at last." This idea was repeated over and over. Yet ecstatic as these poems were, there were two disturbing elements. The woman was not affirmed as herself, a person in her own right, but rather as a symbol of all being, or as something the poet might become. And the affirmation was not made in Roethke's voice, but in Yeats's.
The love poems in the final book are considerably changed. Some ecstasy survives: "Who'd look when he could feel?/She'd more sides than a seal," but even ["Light Listened"] suggests a parting or failure:
The deep shade gathers night;
She changed with changing light.
We met to leave again
That 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.
Here and elsewhere—e.g., "The Long Waters" and "The Sequel"—there seems to be a farewell to that ecstasy, a turning away, or turning inward from the discovery that this could not satisfy the hunger. (pp. 108-09)
What appears dominant in the last book is a desire to escape all form and shape, to lose all awareness of otherness, not through entrance to woman as lover, but through reentrance into eternity conceived as womb, into water as woman, into earth as goddess-mother. (p. 110)
The desire to lose one's own form has taken on a religious rationale to support itself. Where Roethke's earlier free-verse poems were nearly always pure explorations, his more ambitious free-verse poems [like "The Abyss"] now try more and more to incorporate a fixed and predetermined religious and irrational certainty:
Do we move toward God, or merely another condition?…
The shade speaks slowly:
"Adore and draw near.
Who know this—
The poem aims to create a stasis wherein a person is one with all things; that is, where all matter is dissolved. This is related, too, to Roethke's search for pure space as an escape from time. That has been strong in the poems for some time, but now [in poems like "The Moment"] it is easier to see why he identifies space with pure being:
Space struggled with time;
The gong of midnight struck
The naked absolute.
Sound, silence sang as one.
Our only experience of identity with all space, of omnipresence, is in the womb; our first experience of time brings the mother's breast which may be withdrawn and so force one to recognize external objects, to give up the narcissistic sense of omnipresence and omnipotence, that unity with all objects which Roethke constantly seeks: "… the terrible hunger for objects quails me."
This, in turn, helps explain both Roethke's praise of madness (since reason forces the acceptance of external forms and objects) and the poems' increasing mysticism. For instance, in his New World Writing remarks on "In a Dark Time," he correctly describes the following as an androgynous act: "The mind enters itself, and God the mind,/And one is One, free in the tearing wind," but also insists that this is a search for God and, moreover, a "dictated" poem. This clarifies, also, the identification of rage with the heart, the true self. Rage is looked upon as a noble quality since it is a rage against the forms of this world, a continued allegiance to one's fantasy of life in the womb.
This intensely creative rejection of form has great destructive possibilities. On the one hand, we have a search for form; on the other (and probably causal to it), a rejection of form which may result in a rejection of all forms, including any form which one might achieve. The balance between these opposed feelings has changed in Roethke's later poems both because of the introduction of borrowed cadences and because of the religious and mystical rationale. Eliot's ideas and Yeats's cadences have rushed in to fill the vacuum of the father-model which might have suggested a shape to become, and so might have made this world bearable. Yet such a model Roethke either could not find or could not accept. (pp. 112-13)
More and more, Roethke's late poems seem to have lost their appetite, their tolerance for that anguish of concreteness.
In a sense, this combination of one man's voice and another man's ideas has given too much form—or too much comforting certainty. Roethke's formal poems had always celebrated some kind of lyrical certainty, but that was most frequently a certainty about the nature of one's feelings. Now, rejection of earthly forms has become, itself, a rationale, a convention, a form. As the ideas, the metrical shapes and cadencings all grow firmer, however, the language becomes strangely decayed—or at any rate, fixed and self-imitating. The constant terms of Roethke's earlier poems—the rose, the flame, the shadow, the light, the stalk, the wind—are almost emblems. But as all emblems of an absolute have the same ultimate meaning, so all these terms come more and more to mean the same thing. The words tend to dissolve; the poem is more of a musical rite than a linguistic or dramatic one. (pp. 113-14)
W. D. Snodgrass, "'That Anguish of Concreteness'—/Theodore Roethke's Career," in Essays on the Poetry—/Theodore Roethke, edited by Arnold Stein (copyright 1965 by The University of Washington Press; reprinted by permission of The University of Washington Press), University of Washington Press, 1965 (and reprinted in In Radical Pursuit, W. D. Snodgrass, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1975, pp. 101-16).
Iris Murdoch has written that the greatest art "invigorates without consoling, and defeats our attempts to use it as magic." The poetry of Theodore Roethke constitutes an artistic achievement of a very high order. It is poetry suffused with magical transformations suggesting the fluidity of human experience and the metamorphic facility of the creative imagination. It is, moreover, a poetry which invigorates precisely in proportion as Roethke insistently attempts to console both himself and his readers.
Roethke's Collected Poems may be described by one of the poet's favorite metaphors, that of the journey. From his earliest published verse to the final posthumous volume, Roethke strove to recapture both the remembered childhood past of peace and organic security, and the archetypal past, the slime and torment of the subconscious. He grasped for these not as absolute ends in themselves but as means to accepting the inevitabilities of change, the dying of passion, and ultimate finitude. It is his triumph that his best poems permit us to embrace the principle of change as the root of stability; that his best poems, through rhythm and syntax and diction, so evoke passion that we are able actively to sympathize with his sense of loss; and that we can feel, with him, how "all finite things reveal infinitude."
Whoever wishes to write of Roethke is faced with multiple problems. It is not that Roethke is as diversified in his concerns as other poets, or that his language presents obstacles to the rational intellect. Rather, it is his shifts of mood that weary us, though they never cease to fascinate and please. Just beneath the surface of the love poems lurks an almost obsessional concern with death; for every step toward the primeval sources of existence, there is a shuddering retreat toward the daylight world. Even in the middle of that magnificent "North American Sequence," published in The Far Field after his death, Roethke is uncertain of how far he wishes to go, how great a journey into his murky interior he is willing to undertake. In "The Long Waters," he moves confidently toward "The unsinging fields where no lungs breathe," but cries at last: "Mnetha, Mother of Har, protect me/From the worm's advance and/retreat, from the butterfly's havoc/… The dubious sea-change, the heaving sands, and my tentacled sea-cousins." In such poems, there is a powerful tension between Roethke's desire to explore the depths of his sensibility and his natural reticence before the specter of hideous possibilities which may be revealed. The demands of the poet's nature seem to vie with the projects of his imagination. Fortunately, the projects are not ultimately scuttled in the interests of safety, and Roethke goes as far as his imagination can take him. (pp. 131-32)
[There are] peculiar limitations of Roethke's vision, in which he especially excels. We all know that, with the possible exception of Yeats, our poetry has not for some time produced a more melodious singer than Roethke. (p. 132)
A basic approach to Roethke's work should question the direction of his consoling qualities. Roethke was profoundly conscious of impending death, but perhaps even more concerned about the ineffectuality of old age, the fragrance of life and passion lingering in the nostrils without any ability to affect or rouse a benumbed sensibility. In other poets such a fearful premonition might be construed as a nervous apprehension of the loss of imaginative daring and insight. Wordsworth and Coleridge shared this orientation with the approach of middle age. Roethke's nostalgia for youth is a complex element which somewhat resembles the longing of the nineteenth-century Romantic poets. The child's fundamental innocence is a common factor, though Roethke embraces this not as a universal principle. Rather, he sees it as unavoidably attendant upon the benevolent circumstances in which he spent his childhood. In the poem "Otto," named for his father, Roethke recaptures the sense of pride he felt in a parent who controlled a rural environment immersed in the sounds and stinks and inconsistencies of nature. (pp. 132-33)
[Roethke] covets the limited detachment that permits contemplation, and finally imaginative projection beyond the boundaries of the patently real. He strives to cultivate in a distinctly Wordsworthian sense "a wise passivity." In such a tranquil receptivity, as he reports in "The Abyss," "The Burning lake turns into a forest pool"—the violence at the heart of all creation is resolutely transformed into an acceptance of flux and perpetual restoration.
Many poets feel victimized by civilization, which is supposed to put us out of touch with what is most genuine in ourselves. Roethke's is an essentially anarchic personality, thoroughly amorphous and shifting. In his poems he associates himself most completely with water, always changing in the intensity and direction of its internal movement, always rhythmic in its perpetual ebb and flow. The aridity of conventional life, the expedient veneer called civilization, is effaced by the poet's ability to get out of himself, the self which has been erected as a mask between his nature and his awareness. (p. 133)
Roethke was not unaware of his inability to achieve union with "the other" which is the lost self, and it is his awareness which makes the perpetual longing so noble and moving. As in the philosophy of an absurdist like Camus, the absence of faith in an external power capable of ratifying the value or correctness of our actions is not sufficient motive for abandoning commitment. If there is something vacuous in commitment to commitment itself, such an orientation does enable the organism to retain its sense of vitality and purpose. For Roethke, where there is song there is life. The negative possibilities that beset us are to be at least temporarily dispelled by the singer's continuing desire to articulate them and sing them into oblivion. On occasion, the singing may resemble the chanting of a would-be conjurer, and the optimistic resolution may be unconvincing, but we are prepared to forgive the poet his lapses in gratitude for his successes. The nervous strength of Roethke's best work disposes of most notions of easy resolutions. (pp. 133-34)
The surrender implicit in the sexual act, the abandonment of what Roethke calls "the proud incredible poise," is a frightening prospect for him [in his] early period, though it is transformed into an absolutely ruthless self-revelation in the later work. This peculiar strain, peculiar especially for a passionate singer of erotic love, never quite disappears. In "Love's Progress," the warm expectation of sexual union and the eager call to action: "Love me, my violence,/Light of my spirit, light/Beyond the look of love," dwindles to the plaintive note of "Father, I'm far from home," and finally, "I fear for my own joy;/I fear myself in the field,/For I would drown in fire."
It is rather strange to find such a progression in the poems of a man who often wrote with lyrical abandon and hysterical warmth. Of course, the combination of opposites is an integral feature of Roethke's work. As M. L. Rosenthal has noted, the laughter which rings in Roethke's voice is most frequently "the pathetic hilarity of the unbearably burdened." His assertiveness is neither defiant nor forced, but a natural expression of his need for release from an introspection which often verges on the obsessive…. [It] is his ability to intoxicate with sound patterns and to make his images pirouette and dissolve without any concomitant exhaustion of clarity that first arrests our consciousness. (p. 134)
What is involved for Roethke in the surrender to sensualism, in the willingness to lower his guard, is the refusal to intellectualize his condition. (p. 135)
Roethke finally affirms the primary importance of accepting experience on its own terms, without evasion. When we are free, he says in "Journey to the Interior," we can be "Delighting in surface change, the glitter of light on waves," "Unperplexed in a place leading nowhere." There is an element of static resignation here which is somewhat unsavory. Roethke wants to stand solidly rooted in the earth he loves, gathering everything to him, all sensation, every trace of loveliness, like the rose "Rooted in stone, keeping the whole of light,/Gathering to itself sound and silence—/Mine and the sea-wind's." We must learn to be explorers of the knowable, the finite, the perishable, if we "would unlearn the lingo of exasperation." Such resignation is neither ignominious nor unpleasant in itself, but the implications are likely to seem unsatisfying to a modern audience still smarting from the rigors of Robert Lowell's latest sequence.
It is perhaps gratuitous to refer to Robert Lowell at the conclusion of a piece which has deliberately restricted itself to Roethke, and yet I find the reference unavoidable. There are qualities in Lowell's best work that seem to me essential elements of modern poetry, and these are clearly lacking in Roethke. One is not surprised to discover this absence in the later verse, for the object of Roethke's strivings often seemed rather inane and impossibly idyllic, particularly in the early volumes. Roethke soars happily when he beholds "The cerulean, high in the elm,/Thin and insistent as a cicada,/And the far phoebe, singing,/… A single bird calling and calling." The landscape is exotically rural. His vision is landscaped with images out of the poetic past. He refused to make himself intimately conversant with the materials of the modern world, which is, after all, an urban universe. (pp. 136-37)
The attention Lowell pays to particular varieties of the human experience enables him to bring a more comprehensive perspective to his exploration of the human heart. Roethke's speculations appear to be of the defiantly hothouse genre by comparison—they are carefully cultivated, rather lush in themselves, but somehow lacking the vitality of context. It seems to me that the surrender of the modern sensibility to things as they are, to Experience in the archetypal mode, must be preceded by a thorough acknowledgment of precisely what such acquiescence involves. Otherwise, the resignation is disappointing in its insignificance. One admires and is moved by the energy of Roethke's struggle to get beyond morbid introspection, but one is not convinced that the battle was fought along spiritually fruitful lines, at least insofar as we are concerned. There is irony in the strange spectacle of an ostensibly "universal" poetry impressing us with the basic privateness and limitation of its relevance. (pp. 137-38)
Robert Boyers, "A Very Separate Peace: On Roethke" (originally published in Kenyon Review, November, 1966), in his Excursions: Selected Literary Essays (copyright © 1977 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1977, pp. 131-38.
I think [Roethke] often didn't understand much of what he read. I mean he didn't understand it the way a critic or good literature teacher would understand it. I believe he so loved the music of language that his complicated emotional responses to poems interfered with his attempts to verbalize meaning.
When he read his favorites aloud, Yeats, Hopkins, Auden, Thomas, Kunitz, Bogan, poets with 'good ears,' something happened that happens all too infrequently in a classroom. If a student wasn't a complete auditory clod, he could feel himself falling in love with the sounds of words. To Roethke, that was the heart and soul of poetry. (p. 50)
Richard Hugo, "Stray Thoughts on Roethke and Teaching," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1974 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Richard Hugo), January/February, 1974, pp. 50-1.
[Roethke] was the first American bardic poet since Whitman who did not spill out in prolix and shapeless vulgarity, for he had cunning to match his daemonic energy and he had schooled himself so well in the formal disciplines that he could turn even his stammerings into art. If the transformations of his experience resist division into mineral, vegetable, and animal categories, it is because the levels are continually overlapped, intervolved, in the manifold tissue. Roethke's imagination is populated with shapeshifters, who turn into the protagonists of his poems. Most of these protagonists are aspects of the poet's own being, driven to know itself and yet appalled by the terrible necessity of self-knowledge; assuming every possible shape in order to find the self and to escape the finding; dreading above all the state of annihilation, the threat of nonbeing; and half-yearning at the last for the oblivion of eternity, the union of the whole spirit with the spirit of the whole universe.
Roethke's first book, Open House (1941), despite its technical resourcefulness in the deft probings for a style, provided only a few intimations of what was to develop into his characteristic idiom. The title poem, in its oracular end-stopping and its transparency of language, can serve as prologue to the entire work:
My truths are all foreknown,
This anguish self-revealed….
Myself is what I wear:
I keep the spirit spare.
Some thirty years later—he seemed never to forget an experience—in the first of his Meditations of an Old Woman, the old woman being presumably his mother when she is not Roethke himself, he was to offer, through the medium of her voice recalling a bus ride through western country, a recapitulation of that same sensation: "taking the curves." His imagination was not conceptual, but kinesthetic, stimulated by nerve ends and muscles, and even in its wildest flights localizing the tension when the curve is taken. This is precisely what Gerard Manley Hopkins meant when, in one of his letters, he spoke of the "isolation of the hip area." The metamorphosis of the body begins in the isolation of the part. (pp. 99-101)
The confirmation that he was in full possession of his art and of his vision came seven years later, with the publication of The Lost Son (1948), whose opening sequence of "greenhouse poems" recaptures a significant portion of his inheritance…. The world of his childhood was a world of spacious commerical greenhouses, the capital of his florist father's dominion. Greenhouse: "my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth," was Roethke's revealing later gloss. In its moist fecundity, its rank sweats and enclosure, the greenhouse certainly suggests a womb, an inexhaustible mother. If it stands as well for a heaven-on-earth, it is a strange kind of heaven, with its scums and mildews and smuts, its lewd monkey-tail roots, its snaky shoots. The boy of the poems is both fascinated and repelled by the avidity of the life-principle, by the bulbs that break out of boxes "hunting for chinks in the dark." He himself endures the agony of birth, with "this urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks, cut stems struggling to put down feet." "What saint," he asks, "strained so much, rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?" This transparent womb is a place of adventures, fears, temptations, where the orchids are "so many devouring infants!" (p. 101)
Roethke's passionate and near-microscopic scrutiny of the chemistry of growth extended beyond "the lives on a leaf" to the world of what he termed "the minimal," or "the lovely diminutives," the very least of creation, including "beetles in caves, newts, stone-deaf fishes, lice tethered to long limp subterranean weeds, squirmers in bogs, and bacterial creepers." These are creatures still wet with the waters of the beginning. At or below the threshold of the visible they correspond to that darting, multitudinous life of the mind under the floor of the rational, in the wet of the subconscious.
Roethke's immersion in these waters led to his most heroic enterprise, the sequence of interior monologues which he initiated with the title poem of The Lost Son, which he continued in Praise to the End (1951), and which he persisted up to the last in returning to, through a variety of modifications and developments. "Each poem," he once wrote, "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 progress; an effort to be born, and later, to become something more." The method is associational rather than logical, with frequent time shifts in and out of childhood, in and out of primitive states of consciousness and even the synesthesia of infancy. Motifs are introduced as in music, with the themes often developing contrapuntally. Rhythmically he was after "the spring and rush of the child," he said … "and Gammer Gurton's concision: mütterkin's wisdom." There are throwbacks to the literature of the folk, to counting rhymes and play songs, to Mother Goose, to the songs and rants of Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, to the Old Testament, the visions of Blake, and the rhapsodies of Christopher Smart. But the poems, original and incomparable, belong to the poet and not to his sources.
The protagonist, who recurrently undertakes the dark journey into his own underworld, is engaged in a quest for spiritual identity. The quest is simultaneously a flight, for he is being pursued by the man he has become, implacable, lost, soiled, confused. In order to find himself he must lose himself by reexperiencing all the stages of his growth, by reenacting all the transmutations of his being from seed-time to maturity. (pp. 102-03)
Roethke's explanation of his "cyclic" method of narration, a method that depends on periodic recessions of the movement instead of advances in a straight line, seems to me particularly noteworthy. "I believe," he wrote, "that to go forward as a spiritual man it is necessary first to go back. Any history of the psyche (or allegorical journey) is bound to be a succession of experiences, similar yet dissimilar. There is a perpetual slipping-back, then a going forward; but there is some 'progress.'"
This comment can be linked with several others by Roethke that I have already quoted: references to "the struggle out of the slime," the beginning "in the mire." I think also of his unforgettably defiant affirmation: "In spite of all the muck and welter, the dark, the dreck of these poems, I count myself among the happy poets."
In combination these passages point straight to the door of Dr. Jung or to the door of Jung's disciple Maud Bodkin, whose Archetypal Patterns in Poetry was familiar to Roethke. In Jung's discussions of progression and regression as fundamental concepts of the libido theory in his Contributions to Analytical Psychology, he describes progression as "the daily advance of the process of psychological adaptation," which at certain times fails. Then "the vital feeling" disappears; there is a damming-up of energy, of libido. At such times neurotic symptoms are observed, and repressed contents appear, of inferior and unadapted character. "Slime out of the depths," he calls such contents—but slime that contains not only "objectionable animal tendencies, but also germs of new possibilities of life." Before "a renewal of life" can come about, there must be an acceptance of the possibilities that lie in the unconscious contents of the mind "activated through regression … and disfigured by the slime of the deep."
This principle is reflected in the myth of "the night journey under the sea," as in the Book of Jonah, or in the voyage of the Ancient Mariner, and is related to dozens of myths, in the rebirth archetype, that tell of the descent of the hero into the underworld and of his eventual return back to the light. The monologues of Roethke follow the pattern of progression and regression and belong unmistakably to the rebirth archetype. (pp. 103-04)
The love poems that followed early in the 1950's … were a distinct departure from the painful excavations of the monologues and in some respects a return to the strict stanzaic forms of the earliest work. (p. 105)
Even when he had been involved with the dreck of the monologues, he was able, in sudden ecstatic seizures of clarity, to proclaim "a condition of joy." Moreover, he had been delighted at the opportunity that the free and open form gave him to introduce juicy little bits of humor, mostly puns and mangled bawdry and indelicate innuendoes…. Now he achieved something much more difficult and marvelous: a passionate love poetry that yet included the comic, as in "I Knew a Woman," with its dazzling first stanza:
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved, she moved more ways than one.
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).
Inevitably the beloved is a shapeshifter, like the poet himself. "Slow, slow as a fish she came." Or again, "She came toward me in the flowing air, a shape of change." "No mineral man," he praises her as dove, as lily, as rose, as leaf, even as "the oyster's weeping foot." And he asks himself, half fearfully: "Is she what I become? Is this my final Face?"
At the human level this tendency of his to become the other is an extension of that Negative Capability, as defined by Keats, which first manifested itself in the Roethke greenhouse. A man of this nature, said Keats, "is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubt, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason … he has no identity—he is continually in for and filling some other body." In "The Dying Man" Roethke assumes the character of the poet Yeats; in Meditations of an Old Woman, he writes as though he were his mother; in several late poems he adopts the role and voice of his beloved.
The love poems gradually dissolve into the death poems. Could the flesh be transcended, as he had at first supposed, till passion burned with a spiritual light? Could the several selves perish in love's fire and be reborn as one? Could the dear and beautiful one lead him, as Dante taught, to the very footstool of God? In "The Dying Man" he proposes a dark answer: "All sensual love's but dancing on the grave." (pp. 105-06)
The five-fold Meditations of an Old Woman that concludes Roethke's selective volume, Words for the Wind (1958), is almost wholly preoccupied with thoughts of death and with the search for God…. Here he returns to the cyclic method of the earlier monologues. In the First Meditation the Old Woman introduces the theme of journeying. All journeys, she reflects, are the same, a movement forward after a few wavers, and then a slipping backward, "backward in time." Once more we recognize the Jungian pattern of progression and regression embodied in the work. The journeys and the five meditations as a whole are conceived in a kind of rocking motion, and indeed the verb "to rock"—consistently one of the poet's key verbs of motion—figures prominently in the text. The rocking is from the cradle toward death:
The body, delighting in thresholds,
Rocks in and out of itself….
Stanley Kunitz, "Roethke: Poet of Transformations," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1965 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 23, 1965 (and reprinted in Contemporary Poetry in America: Essays and Interviews, edited by Robert Boyers, Schocken, 1974, pp. 99-109).
[My] chief impression [of The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke] is the degree to which Roethke's first collection tells us what's coming. The end was in the beginning to an extent I hadn't realized. Previously, my impression was that one merely waited him out in Open House, waited for him to loosen, to enter the Kingdom of Roots and Stinks in The Lost Son that Kenneth Burke presciently saw as Roethke's own ("You've found it, Ted!" he's supposed to have said). But one finds the rhymes, the traditional forms, the taste for the metaphysical mode in the last poems as in the first…. Of course the later formal poems carry the signs of one who has developed his medium to the point where it's the perfect reciprocal of his meaning. But the fondness for epigrams and playful verses, the conspicuous absence of overtly political themes, the heavy end-stopping and verbal wit of the Donne-like lyrics, at once serious and fanciful: all of these have their parallels in the late work.
For my money, Roethke's later metrical poems don't show the same degree of advance as his looser ones. Sure, a late metrical statement such as the celebrated "In a Dark Time" is a different order of being from "The Adamant," but it's closer to its antecedent than the amazing long meditations ("Meditations of an Old Woman," "North American Sequence") are to theirs—that is, to the freest of the Open House poems, "The Premonition." And yet even that early memento mori anticipates "The Far Field" in its mingling of resignation and an acceptance that becomes a celebration. (p. 386)
The title of the first collection [Open House] proclaims its author's intentions of telling all, but either he didn't have much to tell then or he held back. In fact, the latter seems to me the more likely, since he'd already been brushed by Angst (and not so lightly) by the time of his late first book, in memory of which he used to refer to himself in Seattle as the nation's oldest living younger poet. Toward the end it's open house indeed, and both the metrical and the free poems reveal the thought of one who speaks for our collective blundering struggle from the slime of mere being into the consciousness of our divinity, of the voice that is great within us. That surely must be the most striking feature of Roethke's career In fact, he's a test case of the writer whose interest in himself is so continuous, so relentless, that it transforms itself and becomes in the end centrifugal. With hardly a social or political bone in his body he yet touches all our Ur-selves, our fear and love of our fathers, our delight in the minimal, our sense of decrepit age tied to us as to a dog's tail when our imagination, ear, and eye never delighted more in the fantastical, our relish of the lives of plants and animals, our pleasure in women who have more sides than seals, our night fears, our apprehension of Immanence.
No more than his beloved mentor the Wild Old Wicked Man was Roethke a mystic. But I think that unlike Yeats, whose final commitment always was to the poem …, Roethke was a genuine ringding Godlover…. [He] convinces me that he's not exploiting his intimations of immortality. I guess it's the perfect finish and symmetry of Yeats' career and the ferocious act of will and dedication they imply that make me draw back a little even while they beckon irresistibly. Roethke's more human, a clumsy bear of inordinate delicacy whose dancing and risk-taking seem if not more authentic at least less guaranteed of success. By turns witty, mocking, tender, contemplative, farcical, angry, metaphysical, this charismatic and unpredictable man was above all a Fool of God and a minute observer of his presence in tendrils, elvers, salt water, shore animals, birds, streams, tin cans, flowers, rusted pipes, leaves, light. And these don't exist merely to give him metaphors for his verses; they are the Other whose presence gives unexpected, even paradoxical, dimensions to the work of this most self-centered of poets. (pp. 387-88)
Stanley Poss, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1975, University of Utah), Autumn, 1975.
Roethke's free verse is end-stopped and slow [in "Orchids," and is characterized by a minimum of active verbs]…. The last five lines are largely a list of substantives, for example, and lines two through four are a list of modifiers.
[The] suspended, almost unpredicated syntax could be referred to static or passive attributes of the object; but it works primarily to help voice the speaker's feeling. He is obsessed, nearly overwhelmed, and more caught up by the object and its qualities than by statements he could predicate about them.
And the same emotional direction is suggested by the poem's other notable stylistic parts. The present tense, for example, works oddly with the two-part, day-then-night structure; the effect is to suggest reverie, which is a mental process, yet to maintain the natural object's dominance over the mental process. Similarly, the rhythm moves in slow, short, equal spasms, heavily defined by pronounced pauses and consonances ("soft and deceptive,/limp and damp"), a movement which suggests absorbed helplessness. A sort of enervated panic aroused by the unconscious life of the natural object becomes, by the poems's last word, so insistently suggested that we might call it explicit. The emotion of defeated hysteria emerges as an emphatic surrender of the poet's voice to the physical scene.
[In "Orchids" there is found] the general technique of description, and also an experience: wonder, the experience of fascination with a physical scene—its cruelty and its persistent unconsciousness. (pp. 125-26)
[The poem renders] the experience of being dominated by a metaphor—and by the unsuitable, unlike parts of it: orchids are like human life, but, not conscious, they have an eery persistence that is both repellently and hypnotically nonhuman. (p. 126)
The striking choices of word in "Orchids" tend to be affective and anthropomorphic: "deceptive," "delicate," "devouring," "ghostly."… Roethke embraces the pathetic fallacy easily and openly…. (pp. 126-27)
"Orchids" takes the fusion of emotion with the natural object as an accepted starting-point: as granted. There is no gesture toward defining a literal, personal motivation for the emotion; neither does the poet try to suggest that the emotion is irresistibly part of the orchids—this is a frankly special sensibility or mood, and the poem consists of rhetorical elaboration of the emotion by means of description. Questions of motivation are meant to be disposed of by the convention or starting-point of the poem….
What does this difference in rhetorical procedure mean for the way in which [the] poem relates Romantic wonder to the sense of derangement or distress? "Orchids" emphasizes the powerful aspect of natural life which is quite alien to consciousness…. "Orchids" insists upon the object's predominance in a manner (or convention) which emphasizes its own voice—obsessed and neurasthenic…. (p. 127)
Robert Pinsky, "Wonder and Derangement: 'Orchids,' 'Badger,' and 'Poppies in July'," in his The Situation of Poetry (copyright © 1976 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1976, pp. 118-33.