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SOURCE: "Closing in on the Self," in The Nation, Vol. 188, No. 12, March 21, 1959, pp. 258-60.
[In the following review, Rosenthal offers tempered criticism of Words for the Wind.]
Pick up one of Theodore Roethke's longer poems and you are confronted with a stunning mishmash of agonized gibber, described by the poet himself in an essay written some years ago as "the muck and welter, the dark, the dreck" of his verse. The same essay ("Open Letter," published in Ciardi's Mid-Century American Poets) asserts that he nevertheless counts himself "among the happy poets." And indeed, Roethke at his best throws all kinds of dissimilar effects into the great, ceaseless mixer of his sensibility, stirring together notes of driving misery and hysterical ecstasy, of Rabelaisian sensuality and warm, wet regressiveness:
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…. ("Give Way, Ye Gates")
Some of the allusion here is a little too private. ("Tufty, the water's loose," for example, has all sorts of obvious physiological connotations but probably has something to do with Roethke's boyhood experiences helping out in his father's greenhouse. And it would take more than a feather to knock me over if I were suddenly to learn that "Tufty" was a family nickname for Theodore.) But the passage as a whole, which begins the poem, is a wildly bawdy outcry of desire, thinly and wittily veiled in euphemism.
Later in the poem all this exhilaration withers up and is replaced by language of frustration and suffering, and then of a sort of minimal self-consolation. The over-excitement of the first part, in which the pain of the need behind desire was muted or hidden in humor, is balanced off by a gross, almost infantile desolateness. The images now are of impotence and shame:
Touch and arouse. Suck and sob. Curse and mourn. It's a cold scrape in a low place. The dead crow dries on a pole. Shapes in the shade Watch.
This projection without comment of opposed psychological states is characteristic of Roethke's most interesting work. A desperate exuberance that seems at one moment unrepressed joy of life, at the next the pathetic hilarity of the unbearably burdened, makes the manic-depressive mood-spectrum the law of life. Each opposite is implicit in the other, and that is the only necessary logic at work here. The universe of Roethke's poems is a completely subjective one—not what source of meaning the speaker has outside himself but how he feels within is the key to everything. The private sensibility is a mad microcosm; the speaker responds violently to everything that touches it; and he struggles frenetically to win through to a moment of calm realization in the sunlight of "wholeness." The ebullient anguish of poems like "My Papa's Waltz," "Child on Top of a Greenhouse," and "The Shape of the Fire" is a triumphant realization of the aesthetic of hypersensitivity. Consider the opening stanzas of "The Shape of the Fire."
What's this? A dish for fat lips. Who says? A nameless stranger. Is he a bird or a tree? Not everyone can tell.
Water recedes to the crying of spiders. An old scow bumps over black rocks. A cracked pod calls.
Mother me out of here. What more will the bones allow? Will the sea give the wind suck? A toad folds into a stone. These flowers are all fangs....
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Comfort me, fury….
The reader will come somewhere near the poet's intention, I think, if he imagines the speaker to be giving a voice to the fire and responding to it. It crackles and whispers—what is the secret of its voice? There is a horror in that devouring sound that considers the wood or coals (or anything else) "a dish for fat lips"; the second stanza gives further images for that dry, merciless sound and its terror—the receding of waters before the "crying of spiders" perhaps the most nightmarish of them. The third stanza shows the speaker overwhelmed with the sheer dread of mutability and annihilation that has been accumulated through all these impressions. The whole process is not so much conceptual as it is self-hypnotic. This is the shaping sensibility in operation, and in this sort of thing Roethke is brilliantly successful.
But it is not his only sort of thing, for in addition he often does try to conceptualize, and he tries to give his poems a further implication of victory over the frenzy through a Freudian rebirth of the Self. These efforts are not, by and large, very convincing. Thus, the last two movements of "The Shape of the Fire" are attempts to soar and transcend in the old sense—like the ending of "Lycidas": "To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new." But Milton had a vision of "the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love," and the mourner of his poem speaks to a completely different scale of values—that of the macrocosm ruled over by "the dear might of him that walk'd the waves." That is not the universe of Roethke's poems, and so his ending is contrived, though in its way lovely and delicate.
Something similar happens in "The Lost Son," whose title suggests the psychoanalytical, inward turning of the poet's eye. Roethke's essay "Open Letter" says of this poem that it is at first "a terrified running away—with alternate periods of hallucinatory waiting …; 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 subhuman." So be it—this panicky hunt for pre-intellectual sources of the sense of being truly alive is without doubt one of the real, if uneasy, enterprises of the modern mind. But the poet is not ruthless enough to carry the hunt through—any more than he was able to remain true to the realizations at the beginning of "The Shape of the Fire." He finds another clue to salvation, an easier one, than the frenzied beginning would imply was possible. It is the "lost son's" psychological re-entry into the world of his most vivid childhood memories—the world of the "long greenhouse" which he has called "my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth."
Re-entry into this paradisal womb, one gathers, is the necessary preliminary for a rebirth of the Self. The true "coming-through" into mature, calm reconciliation has not yet occurred, but faith is expressed that it will do so—
A lively understandable spirit Once entertained you. It will come again.
The promise is too pat and wishful—of a Freudian romance with a happy ending. As in most of Roethke's longer work, the dénouement does not live up to the poem's initial demands. Shorter poems like "The Return," "The Minimal," and "The Exorcism" are really better in the way they sustain a sometimes Dantean close-up of minutely detailed, realistic horror on the terms with which they began. I would add also the beautiful "The Visitant," the guilt-filled "The Song," the deeply sad and very original "Dolor," the dreamlike "Night Crow," and the sweatily, feverishly, embarrassedly alive greenhouse poems from Roethke's 1948 volume The Lost Son and Other Poems. Together with certain passages in the longer poems, such pieces constitute Roethke's more lasting achievements.
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Theodore Roethke 1908–1963
(Full name Theodore Huebner Roethke) American poet.
The following entry provides an overview of Roethke's career through 1991. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 8, 11, 19, and 46.
Theodore Roethke is distinguished as one of the most gifted and innovative American poets of the 1940s and 1950s. He is widely acclaimed for his inventive use of language, facile technique, and highly imaginative metaphorical description of the natural world. With the publication of Open House (1941), his first book of poetry, Roethke received critical attention and rose to prominence with The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), Praise to the End! (1951), Words for the Wind (1957), and The Far Field (1964). Roethke's most effective work is characterized by recurring childhood memories and striking primordial imagery that elevate autobiographic detail to archetypal significance. His dynamic and often playful verse relies heavily on intuitive word associations and careful structure for sonic effect. Roethke's penetrating exploration of the past and the subconscious mind reflect a lifelong quest for harmony sought in self-acceptance and transcendence. Highly regarded for his originality and ability to evoke the universal in personal experience, Roethke exerted an important influence on the development of post-war American poetry.
Born to German-American parents in Saginaw, Michigan, Roethke's rural upbringing centered around the family's prosperous greenhouse business. His early experiences among the acres of sprawling flora ended abruptly during adolescence with a series of tragedies—the sale of the family greenhouse business, his uncle's suicide, and his father's sudden death. The last caused him considerable anguish and would have a profound effect on his writing. Roethke earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan and, after trying a semester of law school, undertook graduate studies in English at Harvard University. A university teaching career followed, first at Lafayette College, then Michigan State University, Pennsylvania State University, Bennington College, and finally at the University of Washington where he remained from 1947 until his death. During the 1930s Roethke began to establish his reputation as a poet by publishing work in several prestigious journals, including Poetry, The New Republic, and The Saturday Review. In 1935 he suffered a serious mental breakdown that resulted in hospitalization and cost him his teaching position at Michigan State University. Roethke would suffer from recurring episodes of manic depression for the rest of his life, a source of intense creative inspiration that disrupted his academic career and weakened him emotionally. He produced Open House, his first volume poetry, in 1941, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship four years later. The Lost Son and Other Poems followed in 1948, resulting in a second Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to finish Praise to the End! in 1951, another success rewarded with large grants from the Ford Foundation and National Institute of Arts and Letters the next year. In 1953 Roethke married Beatrice O'Connell, a former student from Bennington, and published The Waking (1953), which won a Pulitzer Prize, followed by Words for the Wind in 1958, the winner of several major awards, including the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize. In the next several years he also published two volumes of children's verse, I Am! Says the Lamb (1961) and Party at the Zoo (1963). After a period of lecturing and extensive travel in Europe on a Ford Foundation Grant, Roethke suffered a fatal heart attack in 1963. He left a substantial body of new work that appeared posthumously in The Far Field, winner of the National Book Award in 1964, and The Collected Poems (1966).
Roethke's artistic development is marked by persistent efforts to attain self-knowledge and unity in nature through the reconciliation of individual experience and revelation. His early poems in Open House are studied adaptations of conventional forms that display his mastery of meter and rhyme, though evince an intellectual rather than sensuous approach to his material. Roethke reveals his affinity for nature imagery and adumbrates the subconscious personal tensions that found expression in his later work. The title poem, "Open House," is a self-referential incantation that anticipates Roethke's regression into the psyche and cathartic inner journeys. With The Lost Son and Other Poems Roethke broke sharply with his contemporaries and began his innovative work, abandoning the restrained structure of his previous poetry for more expressive free verse steeped in irregularity and the irrational. The vivid imagery of the first section, referred to as the "Greenhouse Sequence," is among Roethke's most powerful, reflecting a deep connection to the vegetative world of his early life and evoking Jungian archetypes in pre-conscious experience. Through the symbolism of cultivation and harvesting, Roethke exposes the paradox and reality of life and death. This volume also contains "My Papa's Waltz," which portrays the terrifying godlike stature of Roethke's father, and "The Lost Son," which describes the complex and disillusioning process of individuation in a circular pattern that became characteristic of Roethke's metaphysical explorations. In Praise to the End! Roethke ventured further into the surreal, experimenting with the non-grammatical language of pre-verbal childhood with great effect. Alternating between nonsense verse and oracular declaration, Roethke celebrates self-discovery and the union of body and spirit. The title poem, "Praise to the End!," incorporates elements of nursery rhyme and Freudian imagery of sexual awakening to evoke the sensual joy of worldly experience and metamorphosis. The Waking contains selections from earlier volumes and Roethke's well-known "Elegy for Jane" and "Four for Sir John Davies," inspired by the influence of William Butler Yeats. Their lyrical tone, though less associative than that of the previous two volumes, reaffirms the primacy of intuitive perception and faith over reason. Words for the Wind includes The Waking in its entirety along with a series of love poems and two important longer pieces, "The Dying Man" and "Meditations on an Old Woman." Returning to the meter and rhyme of his earlier work, Roethke explores female consciousness and the contradictions of love and mortality with both empathy and wit. The Far Field contains additional love poems, "Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical," and "North American Sequence," considered Roethke's last great achievement. In this expansive series of meditative passages, Roethke employs the journey motif to juxtapose emotional self-exploration and reclamation with sweeping description of the continent and its varied flora and fauna.
Roethke is widely acclaimed as one of the most important American poets of the twentieth century. In the tradition the Romantic poets and Americans Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, Roethke evokes the mystical and visionary in solitary experience and sustained introspection. Though criticized for derivative aspects of his work, particularly the overt influence of Yeats, Roethke assimilated and extended the modernist contributions of Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot to establish a poetic voice of his own that reached further into the depths of the individual psyche. The Lost Son and Other Poems and Praise to the End! are regarded as his best collections, along with "North American Sequence" from The Far Field. Despite frequent allusion to his emotional life and childhood, Roethke's poetry aspires to the universal and is essentially ahistorical, ignoring social and political events of his time. His diverse work, with its many styles, themes, and moods, defies simple classification, though his effective synthesis of autobiography, playful idiom, and archetypal symbolism was a major influence on beat, confessional, and deep-image poets in subsequent decades. Roethke's innovative attempt to discover psychic origins and to achieve transcendence through intuitive language and organic imagery remains a significant achievement in contemporary American poetry.
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SOURCE: "The Greenhouse Land," in Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1966, pp. 1-17.
[In the following essay, Malkoff provides an overview of Roethke's life and work, noting developmental influences, recurring themes, and his major publications.]
The "lost world" of childhood experience plays a crucial part in the work of many contemporary writers. This is particularly true in the case of Theodore Roethke, who derived much of his poetic power and originality from his attempt to interpret adult life in terms of a permanent symbolism established in childhood. Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on May 25, 1908. His father and uncle owned one of the largest and most famous floricultural establishments in the area at that time. There were twenty-five acres, most of them under glass, in the town itself; and beyond that, farther out in the country, the last stretch of virgin timber in the valley; and finally, a wild area of second-growth timber which the Roethkes converted into a small game preserve. As a child, Roethke would tag after his father as he made his rounds, or wander alone among shoots that dangled and drooped in the silo-rich dark of a root cellar, playing in a pulpy world of beetles, worms, and slugs. Growing older, his relation to the greenhouse world became more active; work and play were combined in hacking at black hairy roots under concrete benches, gathering moss in the swampy field at the edge of the forest, or triumphantly climbing to the roof of the fragile greenhouse. In short, all the joys and fears of growing up were experienced as part of this kingdom of dynamic plant life; and so, it is not surprising that in later years the greenhouse became for Roethke the focus of most childhood memories, his "symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth."
But although the womblike greenhouses were dark and protective, they must have had threatening aspects as well, for Roethke later revised this description in favor of greater complexity. "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."
Symbol of creation and the strict imposition of order upon chaos, on the one hand, of the protective, fertile womb, on the other, the dual nature of the greenhouse corresponds to Roethke's feelings toward his father and mother respectively. Otto Roethke, "a Prussian through and through," was strong and firm, the personification of Ordnung; but this strength was, for his son, a source of both admiration and fear, of comfort and restriction. His father's mixture of tenderness and brutality comes across clearly in Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz." There he describes how Otto, a bit drunk, would roughly waltz him around while his mother looked on disapprovingly, and he himself was both afraid and joyful. On another, soberer occasion, Theodore, who was seven years old at the time, saw his father bring two poachers to a halt with rifle bullets, and then, leaving his gun behind, walk over and slap them both across the face, these men who had broken the natural order.
Roethke's references to his father, no matter what emotional coloring they are given, have one thing in common: they always convey a sense of awesome, godlike power. This is the man who made the flowers grow, a rainbow at his thumb as he held the watering can; this is the man who established law and enforced it. In Roethke's case, the use of the father as symbol of God (as in "The Lost Son") is more than an artificially conceived literary image: it is charged with experience.
Roethke's mother, the former Helen Marie Huebner, appears less frequently, and in less specific terms, through the poet's work, than his father. She is, however, the central figure in one of Roethke's important series of contemplative poems, Meditations of an Old Woman. "The protagonist is modelled, in part, after my own mother, now dead, whose favorite reading was the Bible, Jane Austen, and Dostoevsky—in other words a gentle, highly articulate old lady believing in the glories of the world, yet fully conscious of its evils." Although this is not a childhood recollection, there is a definite sense of continuity between this quiet, literate old woman, and the young mother who, with the nurse, used to sing Theodore to sleep with nursery rhymes in English and German.
Praise to the End!, another of Roethke's sequences, in which he attempts to recapture his childhood world, is filled with representations of this young mother, but they are generalized and archetypal, rarely as individualized as those of the father. Conceivably, since the mother is shown at the apex of an Oedipal triangle, Roethke never learned to deal with the sexual connotations of specific memories. In any case, however simplified the image of the mother may be in Roethke's poetry, it is necessary to keep in mind that she was a complex figure to her son, and often usurped the father as an establisher of values. "My mother," wrote Roethke, "insisted upon two things—that I strive for perfection in whatever I did and that I always try to be a gentleman." And Roethke had also told friends "the story of a brutal fist fight from which he dragged himself home bruised and bleeding, and how it was his mother who refused to let him into the house, ordering him to go back and thrash the boy who had just thrashed him."
Roethke attended Arthur Hill High School. There he wrote a speech for the Junior Red Cross which became part of an international campaign and was translated into many languages. But in spite of the glow of this success, chief among many similar prize-winning achievements, he intensely disliked the high school, the town itself, and (with the exception, at times, of the land owned by his father and uncle) that entire area of Michigan. Like many adolescents, Roethke was very much disturbed by the hypocrisy of the adult world, by the venom of small-town gossip, its pettiness, its sugary destructiveness. Roethke ended by being convinced that the most "respectable" and "human" members of the community were the gangsters and bootleggers who operated out of Saginaw at that time. He would go to all lengths to have a drink with one of his idols; for Roethke, in spite of his genuine affection for the small and helpless of the world, had great, perhaps excessive, respect for power and for those who wielded it.
Roethke received his A.B. from the University of Michigan in 1929, and attended Michigan Law School and Harvard before finally earning his M.A. at Michigan in 1936. He seems to have disliked all of these schools impartially, but it was at Harvard that Roethke showed his poetry to Robert Hillyer, and received encouragement—"Any editor who wouldn't buy these is a damn fool!"—crucial to his career. It was at this point that he abandoned all ideas of a future in law or advertising. He was studying law, and had already written advertising copy which had been used in a national campaign—his first love, after all, had been prose. However, soon after the meeting with Hillyer, Roethke's poetic career was fully under way, and by the mid 1930s he was contributing regularly to numerous periodicals.
From 1931 until 1935, Roethke was an instructor at Lafayette College, and from 1936 to 1943 he was at Pennsylvania State College (becoming assistant professor in 1939). At both schools, he not only taught English, but coached the tennis teams as well. This should serve to remind us of another aspect of Roethke's personality. He wrote of flowers, of the delicate and small things of the world, he sang the spirit as he found it manifested in man and nature; but he himself was anything but delicate—he stood six feet three inches tall and weighed well over two hundred pounds—and he was very much aware of his own physicality. In tennis, or in any game, he was a fierce competitor, quite likely to sulk and storm if he lost. He was a big bear of a man. But that is only a partial truth; he was not slow, and, if he was not light-footed, neither was he totally clumsy. In later years, for example, when Roethke was at the University of Washington, there was once a fire in the waste basket in the English office that left everyone else flatfooted and gaping while Roethke ran for an extinguisher and put the fire out. If Roethke was a bear, he was a dancing bear, not only in physical movement, but in his life as a whole. By the alchemy of his poetry he transformed a gross and ugly material world into an image of the spirit; he created something graceful out of an awkward reality.
By the time Roethke was thirty, the pattern of his life as poet and teacher was set; but the real struggle had only begun. Throughout his adult life, Roethke was subject to periodic breakdowns within a broader cycle of manic-depressive behavior. His torment was compounded, at least for many years, by the need to cover up these breakdowns in order to survive in the academic community, and he suffered an acute sense of humiliation and defilement as a result of both the illness itself and the position in which it put him. However, he was ultimately able to make of this liability one of his chief assets.
Early poems treat the breakdowns from an objective point of view; they are talked about and intellectualized rather than directly experienced. In particular, Roethke says he is going to salvage what he can, and use the illness to move beyond himself, to a greater awareness of reality. Now these poems do not succeed as representations of Roethke's experience because they lack particularity, they are vague rather than universal; but Roethke is not here interested in exploring the nature of insanity itself, but rather the relation of periods of insanity to normal life. He has not yet learned to turn this concern into good poetry, but this point of view is at the heart of his later work. Insanity, for Roethke, is not a phenomenon divorced from life; it is rather incorporated into it. It is an aspect of experience from which one can perhaps learn a good deal more than from one's routine existence.
In later poems, such as "The Pure Fury," "The Renewal," and "The Exorcism," the mental anguish is not simply talked about, but is directly experienced. Roethke manages this with the aid of vastly improved techniques; but the great power of these poems is ultimately due to the vision of insanity as an integral part of life implicit in his earliest work. The anxiety experienced during a psychotic episode, the dissociation of personality, become in Roethke's hands not states of mind peculiar to the insane, but rather more intense perceptions of the human condition as it is experienced by any man.
There is an equally important corollary to this. If insanity involves more acute as well as distorted perceptions of reality, then, in certain areas, the insane man holds a privileged position; he is in the forefront of human consciousness partly by virtue of his insanity, and, if he can control the tools of language, he can write the poetry of prophecy, he can give to the rest of mankind the insight necessary to change one's life so that it will be more in accord with reality than our mind-dulling society allows. In his last years, Roethke was convinced that there was a close relationship between genius and insanity, and he saw himself in the company of those poets who turned their madness into verse. "What's madness," asked Roethke, in one of his final poems, "but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance?" This nobility, according to Roethke, is a product of heightened awareness; it is the tragic vision of life which transforms a meaningless sequence of events into something greater than itself.
In 1941, Roethke's first volume of poems, Open House, was published. (The name, and the very existence, of the title poem were suggested by Roethke's close friend, Stanley Kunitz.) The forty-nine poems represented only a little more than half of the poet's published work. In later years, even most of these began to "creak," and Roethke preserved only seventeen of the poems of his first eleven years of writing in Words for the Wind. Nonetheless, the book was well received, and its apparent conventionality made possible the near universality of praise never accorded his more controversial later work. Roethke used traditional lyric forms, his content tended to be intellectual rather than sensuous; poets such as the metaphysicals, Auden, Léonie Adams, and Elinor Wylie loomed in the background as reasonably well assimilated influences. Although we can now look back on this work and trace the origins of what were to become Roethke's major themes (e.g., the tension between flesh and spirit, the exploration of the self as a search for identity), there was little indication to someone reading his poems at the time of what was to follow.
In 1943, Roethke started teaching at Bennington. Two of the circumstances of his stay there are of note: he no longer taught tennis; and one of his students was Beatrice Heath O'Connell, whom Roethke met again several years later and ultimately married.
In 1947, Roethke arrived at the University of Washington (where he taught until his death) as associate professor. The next year, he was made full professor; and his second book, The Lost Son and Other Poems, was published. It contained several lyrics in the mode of Open House, but the greenhouse poems at the beginning, and the four long developmental poems at the end, were startlingly new, for contemporary poetry as well as for Roethke. The notion that the world of plants might be used as an emblem of human growth was traditional, but not until the greenhouse poems had anyone—not even D. H. Lawrence—combined this with Roethke's concentrated sensuality of imagery and adept manipulation of a subterranean, Freudian universe. The long poems were even more original. Using a framework provided by Freud and Jung, Roethke presented the development of the individual not by means of rational discourse, but in terms of the imagery and symbolism of the natural world, of the world of myth and legend, and the prerational consciousness from which it springs.
In 1951, Roethke published Praise to the End!, a sequence of developmental poems built around the nucleus of the last four works of his previous volume. So successfully did Roethke achieve his goal of finding an adequate symbolism with which to communicate the process of individuation directly, that he found himself in the practically unique position of having instituted, perfected, and finally exhausted a genre. Grumbling critical voices were beginning to make themselves heard; but the disapproval came largely from England, which was busy lowering the reputation of other nondiscursive poets, such as T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas. In general, acclaim was resounding.
One of the most important years of Roethke's life was 1953. He brought out The Waking, which received the Pulitzer Prize; he began the readings in philosophical and religious works which were to play so important a part in his later poetry; and, on January 3, he married Beatrice O'Connell.
The Waking included a selection of poems from Open House, almost all of The Lost Son, and the entire Praise to the End! There were also several new poems, in one of which Roethke announced a new source of inspiration: "I take this cadence from a man named Yeats; / I take it, and I give it back again …" Unquestionably, a certain Yeatsian influence was present in the stanzaic forms, the use of slant rhymes, the lyrical expression of public, philosophical themes. But while the critics were only too glad to believe that Roethke had borrowed something from Yeats, many were reluctant to admit that he had given anything back. The question of whether or not Yeats's influence was properly assimilated will be taken up later in this study. In any case, these reservations were not pronounced enough to prevent Roethke from receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1954. Awards were not new to Roethke; he had, for example, received from Poetry the Eunice Tietjiens Prize (1947) and the Levinson Award (1951). But this, his first recognition on a popular and national scale, was vastly important to a man whose competitive instincts were not limited to the tennis court, who had committed himself fully to the struggle for recognition, and who, only a few years before his death, was able to refer to himself sardonically as "the oldest younger poet in the U.S.A."
Roethke's marriage seems to have been for him a kind of joyous reawakening. His feelings toward his wife are represented in his poetry from the beautiful epithalamion, "Words for the Wind," written during the honeymoon visit to Auden's villa on an island off Naples, through the playful fear of Beatrice's anger in "Her Wrath"; but his final word was the moving "Wish for a Young Wife," his prayer that she live without hate or grief after his death.
The various other aspects of Roethke's life should not be allowed to overshadow the fact that he earned his living as a teacher. However, his concern with teaching went much further than that; he compared good teaching to the dance—a significant experience that cannot be recaptured—and was always concerned with ways of improving his own performance. "The Teaching Poet," an essay, clearly reveals the sympathetic, sensitive nature of his approach. But far more telling than this was the almost universal regard he received from his students: they considered him a great teacher.
As for the faculty, Roethke felt that it should contain more "screwballs"; he certainly seemed one himself, especially during his high periods, and he was not always an easy person to get along with. He could rage unnecessarily against a particular teacher in private. But he was immensely (and honestly) glad when someone had received recognition for achievement, and his public praise for the department as a whole was endless. He was, insists his chairman, more profoundly concerned about the department than most of those who look their "good citizenship" for granted.
Roethke's feelings toward those with whom he worked, and those with whom he competed, were, to say the least, ambivalent. Sometimes, his rage and hate would grow to intolerable levels; he finally came to publish wave after wave of invective in frenzied, Joycean prose, using the pseudonym Winterset Rothberg. In "Last Class," he attacked the members of "Hysteria College," the mindless, impenetrable students, the isolated, passionless faculty. "A Tirade Turning," published posthumously, contains a similar storm of language, directed this time against Roethke's peers: critics, teachers, and poets. But the significant fact is that the tirade does after all turn, the outburst of hate leads to love: "Behold, I'm a heart set free, for I have taken my hatred and eaten it." Identifying his present competitors with the cousins with whom he competed as a boy in Saginaw, Roethke dissipates his rage. It is poetry used as therapy. Possibly, as John Ciardi has suggested, this process is behind much of Roethke's good verse: "This is poetry as a medicine man's dance is poetry. The therapy by incantation. Roethke literally danced himself back from the edge of madness."
In this manner, then, a ranting, dancing bear, Theodore Roethke approached the last, great years of his career. Words for the Wind, which still must be considered his most important single volume, was published in England in 1957, and in this country the following year. It contained The Waking in its entirety, and an equally long selection of new poems. In Love Poems and Voices and Creatures, the psychological quest for the self is given new depth and meaning in philosophical and religious terms. Existentialist thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Buber, and Tillich, and both western and oriental mystics, become the starting points of frenzied metaphysical lyrics. The Dying Man is Roethke's most direct tribute to Yeats, a brilliant sequence of poems that seem to be in Yeats's style, and yet are unmistakably Roethke's; no man who was simply imitating could have written them.
The book concludes with five—four in the British edition—longer poems, collectively entitled Meditations of an Old Woman. These poems, avoiding rational discourse, like those of Praise to the End!, are organized psychologically, in terms of association of imagery, and musically, in terms of alternating themes. The Meditations are the search for the self with new implications, the search for an identity that transcends the temporal limits of the material world; like all of Roethke's more powerful work from this point on, they are pervaded by a growing awareness of imminent nonbeing, of the fact of approaching death. T. S. Eliot has often been cited as having influenced the structure, and, to some extent, the content of these poems. At this suggestion, Roethke was highly indignant (as he was not when Yeats was invoked). Perhaps he was protesting too much. But certainly with regard to content, the points of direct contact with Eliot seem to indicate, as we shall learn, a direct opposition rather than imitation.
There is, however, one sense in which Roethke would not have minded being compared to Eliot; he too had the "auditory imagination," and frequently insisted that his verse was above all meant to be heard. For some years, Roethke had been giving poetry readings whenever he could, and experimenting with recordings. The strain on him was enormous, but he always managed to put on a good show. His major recording, the only one widely available, is Words for the Wind, readings of a selection of poems from that book.
Words for the Wind earned for its author both the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize. It had even become the Christmas selection of the Poetry Book Society when it appeared in England, and Roethke was overjoyed at finally having been accorded that degree of recognition there. There was even more adverse criticism than before, most of it from English poets provoked by Roethke's larger exposure on that side of the Atlantic, and a number of cries of "pseudo-Yeats"; but both criticism and praise were louder than ever before, which itself gave weight to Roethke's claim to acceptance as a major poet. In addition, he was at the center of what Carolyn Kizer called the "School of the Pacific Northwest," a school united not so much by form or intellectual content as by "the feeling area" of their work and by a sense of artistic community. Yet, for a man like Roethke, the apparent security of his position could in an instant give way to limitless extremes of anxiety. Each new successful poem was viewed with terror as possibly the last of its kind. Each comment in which a contemporary was praised could be interpreted as a slight to his own stature. So the struggle did not cease; it barely paused. At times appearing so confident he would bully his friends and guests, at times filled with self-loathing and serf-depreciation, he danced on.
Some of his last years were spent at the house of Morris Graves, while Graves painted in Ireland; some were spent at the home the Roethkes later bought at nearby Puget Sound. There was another trip to Italy, which Roethke did not like, partly because of his inability to master Italian or any other foreign language, and a trip to Ireland which, because of his easy adaptability to the pubs, he liked to excess. It was at a neighbor's pool, near the house at Puget Sound, that Roethke died of a heart attack on August 1, 1963. He was only fifty-five years old, but he had been sick for some time. The film made shortly before his death, In a Dark Time (Poetry Society of San Francisco, 1964), shows him old beyond his age, and the poems of his last years are filled with premonitions of death.
The Far Field appeared posthumously in 1964, including most of the poet's serious verse since Words for the Wind. This volume, which received the National Book Award in 1965, is devoted to the perfection of old forms rather than to the development of new ones. North American Sequence is a series of long contemplative poems, in the mode of Meditations of an Old Woman, with the author this time using himself as persona. Psychological and religious imagery are interwoven in this final revery in search of the self, in search of transcendent identity. The Love Poems once again have a Yeatsian touch, but this lime in the vein of lyrics such as Words for Music Perhaps, rather than the more abstract philosophical poems. Mixed Sequence, for the most part less concentrated in its diction, provides an essential change of pace. And the last part, Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical, is the culmination of the volume, and of Roethke's career. The sequence begins by describing a mystic experience (in "In a Dark Time"), and then explores its implications for the poet's life. Psychology and theology, madness and mysticism, have drawn very close together in this last phase of Roethke's work. The sequence is similar in intent to Roethke's early explorations of the relation of a nervous breakdown to "ordinary" life. But that is the end of the similarity. In content, Roethke has passed from platitudes to a full awareness of the complexities of the human condition; and, in technique, which makes full use of the powerful and exact archetypal imagery of the meditative poems combined with the density of meaning achieved through expert manipulation of form, Roethke is completely equal to these complexities.
With the publication of his collected poems and selected prose, most of the essential materials upon which a fair estimation of Roeihke's poetic worth must be based have become available. Allan Seager is preparing a biography, and several full-length studies of Roethke, including a collection of essays edited by Arnold Stein, are published or underway. This present study is intended as a beginning of the detailed examination of the full scope of Roethke's serious verse necessary to its fair evaluation.
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Open House (poetry) 1941The Lost Son and Other Poems (poetry) 1948Praise to the End! (poetry) 1951The Waking: Poems 1933–1953 (poetry) 1953The Exorcism: A Portfolio of Poems (poetry) 1957Words for the Wind (poetry) 1957I Am! Says the Lamb (poetry) 1961Party at the Zoo (poetry) 1963Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical (poetry) 1963The Far Field (poetry) 1964On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke (essays) 1965The Achievement of Theodore Roethke (poetry) 1966The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (poetry) 1966Selected Letters of Theodore Roethke (letters) 1968Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems (poetry) 1969Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, 1943–1963 (notebooks) 1972Dirty Dinky and Other Creatures: Poems for Children (poetry) 1973
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SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke: A Celebration," in Tulane Studies in English, Vol. 20, No. 0, 1972, pp. 169-80.
[In the following essay, Blessing examines technical devices employed by Roethke to evoke dynamic energy and movement, particularly as evident in his elegies.]
Theodore Roethke was ever one to appreciate the process by which complaint becomes celebration, by which a tirade turns to kissing. He would have understood, I hope, my beginning a celebration of his poetry with a complaint—another man's complaint—against it "We have," writes M. L. Rosenthal,
no other modern American poet of comparable reputation who has absorbed so little of the concerns of his age into his nerve-ends, in whom there is so little reference direct or remote to the incredible experiences of the 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.
Rosenthal is no straw man, though I believe he is dead wrong here. There are, as always, straw men enough to be found. John Wain offers a comically conceived Soviet critic who denounces Roethke's failure to mention "the bread-lines, the war, the racial upheavals," and I might offer a student or two who would venture to say that Roethke is not "relevant." But Rosenthal is a good reader, and other good readers—some of them quite sympathetic to Roethke—have, in gentle ways, intimated that he does not give one "a sense of total participation in life," or that he is "almost untouched by public happenings or by history."
Nonetheless, I think it might be more accurate to say that few, if any, other modern American poets of comparable reputation have absorbed more wholly the concerns of our age into the nerve-ends, nor have more adequately represented in their art the incredible experiences of the age. If, as I believe, the essential experience of modern life is speed, movement, energy, whirl, a sense of unceasing and often violent motion, Roethke surely took it all into the nerve-endings, into the blood and pulse, into the rhythms of his giant body which became the rhythms of his poetry. "Live," he told his classes in verse writing, "out in your fingers." His fingers and their nerve-endings told him that his world was in motion, and he was wise enough to sense that the historical events that swirled around him were but varied forms of the same energy which drove him in his personal evolution as a man and an artist. In fact, I think the root metaphor in all of Roethke's work is the historical event, provided that one understands that any action with all of its context—its total sweep backward into the past and forward into the future—is an event in history. The teaching of a class, the death of a student, the journey out of the self, will serve as well to give a sense of the complexity and dynamism of life—of history—as will the battle of Gettysburg, the assassination of a president, a visit to China. The poet's task—and Roethke's genius—is to make his words become an event, to arrange them in such a way as to create in their reading the sweep and energy of the experience of our time.
Because Roethke was a teaching poet who labored lovingly to help his students discover the secrets of his craft and art, and because many of the notes from which he taught have been preserved, one may with some confidence theorize about what the poet tried to do in his poetry and how he went about doing it. Time and time again the jottings which became the classroom performance demonstrate the vocabulary of dynamism. The key words, repeated in varying forms and combinations, are "energy," "intensity," "speed," "flow." There are lists of devices for heightening intensity in a poem, for speeding the imagery, for creating energy in rhythm. There are aphorisms. "What is the most important element: energy." "Style: What is style but matter in motion?" "A poem means an extra, a surplus of energy." "The enemy of intensity: grandiloquence." There are questions, apparently from students, and hastily scribbled answers:
Q. What do you want in the way of a rhythm, Mr. R.?
A. It's the nervousness, the tension, I think I value most. Blake's bounding line and old Willie's high imperial honking.
Q. You speak of energy in rhythm. What are the factors that seem to enter into, or contribute to, this force?
A. They are so multiple that they constitute the whole art of writing; but I feel what comes to the aid are alliteration of initial sounds and a manipulation and a variation of interior sounds, (repetition of words) particularly vowels. The line—but the verbal forms particularly, particularly the "ing" participial form, impart, as would be expected, movement. This may be because I see the world in motion, but I don't think so. [Italics added.]
There is also the testimony of Roethke's former students, for he seems to have been unforgettable in the classroom. One of the best of his pupils, David Wagoner, has told me that he remembers Roethke's saying, perhaps quoting someone else, that in poetry "motion is equal to emotion." Another, Oliver Everette, writes that Roethke used to snarl, "You've got to have rhythm. If you want to dance naked in an open barndoor with a chalk stuck in your navel, I don't care! You've got to have rhythm. I don't care how you get it." He also remembers that Roethke stressed "motion in poetry," telling the class that "Motion or action should be found in every line. The poetic mind sees things in motion."
It seems to me that Roethke's problem as a classroom teacher was essentially the same problem with which he wrestled as a poet. Given that the poetic eye sees things in motion, given that energy is all, by what techniques does one transfer a sense of that motion and energy to the page or to another's ear? How does one "teach" energy? Not, I think, entirely by telling people to alliterate initial sounds and manipulate interior ones, though I do not wish to undervalue the importance of just such devices. A better clue, I believe, to Roethke's success as a teacher comes from the coed who once told him, "I don't understand a word you say, but I just watch your hands." Or from Richard Hugo, now a fine poet in his own right, who says that he learned at least as much from Roethke's actions—from the boundless energy, what Hugo calls the "overstance," of the teaching performance—as he did from Roethke's words. In Roethke's classroom, apparently, the medium was, to an unusual degree, the message. How do you teach a beat? You don't. But many a student seems to have been surprised to find his foot tapping in time to Roethke's bear-like professorial dance.
"Talent talks," Roethke wrote in one of his notebooks. "Genius does." And Roethke was more than talented. Therefore, the critic who concerns himself primarily with what one of Roethke's poems "talks about," with a paraphrase of the "thinky-think," as Roethke called it, has only a part—and not the best part—of the poem. In his great poems Roethke's "meaning"—never mind the ostensible subject—is always a celebration of the energetic dance of being. To meet his own standards for genius he had to create a revelation of that dance for his audience, and he had to do it by means of his words. In short, he had to make the experience, not talk about it.
As Roethke himself suggested, the devices by which all this is accomplished are "multiple," surely too multiple to be discussed adequately in an article-length study. Nevertheless, a critical thesis ought to be followed by "pages of illustrations," and I have rather arbitrarily decided to illustrate this one by examining the techniques which present dynamism in a few of Roethke's elegies. Energy, the thrust and surge of life, is perhaps most clearly revealed by contrast, most felt when its way is blocked by obstacles or when its motion and sweep are set off against the perfect stillness of death. It is not surprising, then, that Roethke is often at his best in the elegiac mode. "Elegy for Jane, My Student, Thrown by a Horse," "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze," and the little piece called simply "Elegy" in Words for the Wind are some of his more successful attempts to represent the rhythm and pace of life.
Roethke's elegies always celebrate those who have been most active, those in whom energy has been most intensely present. I suppose he was naturally drawn to such people, and he seems to have identified the energy expressed by their bodies, the speed with which they moved and acted, with the creative energy that he prized above everything. The trick is to re-create that energy with words so that the bodily rhythms of the dead move again and breathe again and are again for so long as the poem is remembered. If the trick is brought off, the poet has, in a way, triumphed over death by creating a symbolic and immortal equivalent to the energetic rhythms of the human body.
The first stanza of the "Elegy for Jane" comes close to achieving just such a triumph:
I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils; And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile; And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her, And she balanced in the delight of her thought, A wren, happy, tail into the wind, Her song trembling the twigs and small branches. The shade sang with her; The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing; And the mold sang in the bleached valley under the rose.
The passage is a catalogue of memories expressed as images; it is a bombardment of the senses creating an experience greater than the sum of its parts, for the speed with which those parts are juxtaposed becomes an additional "meaning" given to the recollected portrait of the girl. Jane is a protean figure, evolving through shifting imagery from plant to fish to bird as Roethke's mind leaps from metaphorical association to association. She is clearly not idealized as a physical beauty. Few coeds would be pleased to have their neckcurls likened to tendrils and fewer still would appreciate having their quick sidelong glance bring to mind a "pickerel smile." It is not beauty, however, that Roethke is after here, but energy—the tendrils' thrust toward light, the violent rush of the pickerel. It is the sense of quickness, of startled leaping, of balancing, of motion so contagious that it causes all the world about to tremble in tune with the song Jane sings. There is much that appeals purely to the kinesthetic sense—a feeling of lightness and quickness, of rising and falling, of precarious balancing against the thrust of the wind.
There is an abundance of just that sort of "alliteration of initial sounds and manipulation of interior sounds" which Roethke suggested might contribute to the energy of a poetic rhythm. "Neckcurls" and "tendrils," "quick look" and "pickerel," "wren" and "wind," "startled" and "syllables," and "light" and "leaped" are among the more obvious examples of Roethke's continuous playing of sound against sound, of manipulation and variation of vowel and consonant. There is also the simple, almost primitive diction—a heavy preponderance of monosyllables, a careful avoidance of "grandiloquence." And there is, primarily in the choice and placement of verbs, the sense of the enormous activity of all things—of leaves that whisper and kiss, of mold and shade that sing.
The passage is primarily a hymn to the power of Jane's talking, to her ability to give the quickness of life to the "light syllables." She is the natural poet, her promise never to be fulfilled, and as such she serves as a kind of Edward King to Roethke's Milton. Just as Milton imaginatively gives King the power to move with his singing "The willows, and the hazel copses green," so Roethke imagines Jane's song to be answered by the shade and by the mold "in the bleached valleys under the rose." And, as in "Lycidas," the energy of the elegiac voice is the assurance that the power to make the light syllables leap is imperishable. Though he denies paternity, in one sense the poet is father to the Jane of the poem. His breath becomes the breath of her startled talking; his verbal energy becomes the rhythm to which her body sways.
One of Roethke's most effective devices for suggesting the flickering speed of life is that by which, as in a kind of double vision, he has Jane be both present and not present at the grave. "My sparrow, you are not here," he says, "Waiting like a fern, making a spiny shadow." The bird, the singer with tail into the wind, is not a creature to wait, to be still. Yet she is, at once, "My maimed darling," the Jane who goes to the earth, and "my skittery pigeon," the Jane whose bird-like energy endures in the memory and in the cadence of the poet.
Just as Jane is "not here" and very much "here," the poet is neither father nor lover and yet something of each. In many ways the poem is about a relationship with a student, a relationship which is fully disclosed by the word "love," a shocking four-letter word in this context. Neither the rights of love nor the rites of love allow for such a relationship. We honor the grief of fathers, sympathize with the grief of lovers, but there are no "rites" (surely the pun is deliberate) by which a male professor may speak the words of his love for his student Jane. Yet Roethke affirms and expresses his rights even as he denies that he has them. His role in the ceremonial mourning exists in motion of its own sort, flickering between the role of the father he was not and the role of the lover he was not, existing only in the nameless spaces gaping between those solid, respectable pillars in the house of grief.
"Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze" manages to convey something of the same sense of an elusive, darting "reality," for the three ladies move so swiftly as to manage to be in two places at the same time, to be "Gone" and "still hover[ing]" simultaneously. The ladies, like Jane, have the power to transfer their energy creatively into the life around them, and it is that power which commends them to the memory and to the apotheosizing power of the imagination. The fraus are glimpsed through a flurry of active verbal forms—creaking, reaching, winding, straightening, tying, tucking, dipping up, sifting, sprinkling, shaking, standing, billowing, twinkling, flying, keeping, sewing, teasing, trellising, pinching, poking and plotting. Even nouns such as "Coils," "loops," "whorls," "nurses," "seed," "pipes" and others are potential verbs, suggesting that the names of greenhouse things are squirming with metaphorical action. The ladies are never still, for even when they stand astride the greenhouse pipes, their skirts billow and their hands twinkle "with wet." Their movement is always that of "picking up," and the movement of the poem, like the movement of the climbing roses, is upward from the earth toward the sun. So swiftly do the ladies scurry that the memory blurs fact into fiction, the historical ladies into the mythic. Flying "like witches," they become more and more enormous in their activity until at last they trellis the sun itself, giving support to that strange flower which is the life of our planet.
As the remembered ladies become apotheosized into mythic figures, Roethke imagines them to take on the fecund powers of earth mothers. They straddle the phallic pipes of the greenhouse, pipes belonging to Roethke's father, until their skirts billow "out wide like tents"—as if someone might live there. They have, we are told, the power to "lease out" the seed, to undo the lifeless "keeping" of the cold. And, finally, they give the poet himself a symbolic birth. Acting as midwives to themselves, they pick him up, pinch and poke him into shape, "Till I lay in their laps, laughing, / Weak as a whiffet." The ladies, trellisers of the sun, also trellis "the son," the boy fathered by the greenhouse owner.
Though the ladies are, as the first word of the poem insists, "Gone," they "still hover" in the air of the present. All of the verbs in the first stanza are, as one would expect in a remembrance, in the past tense. Nevertheless, Roethke refers to the fraus as "These nurses of nobody else" as if they were present, as if the memory had managed to recapture in part that which had been totally lost. And, of course, he says that "Now, when I'm alone and cold in my bed, / They still hover over me, / These ancient leathery crones…." The relationship between poet and crones is a highly dynamic one. On the one hand, the hovering mothers "still" have the power to give him life. He lies like a seed, cold and in his bed, and they breathe over him the breath of life, a snuff-laden blowing that lifts him from the keeping of the cold into a life that manifests itself in poetic blossoms. On the other hand, it is the poet who "keeps" the fraus alive, whose breath gives to the dead the power to move and be again. Their energy is entirely dependent upon his ability to intensify the language until their movement becomes tangible in empty air, becomes an event in the viscera of the reader. The poem itself takes its cadence from those German fraus, takes it and gives it back again.
As for the poet, he has, by the end of the poem, lost himself in two places at once. He is in his bed and the time is "Now," yet the crones who hover above him breathe "lightly over [him] in [his] first sleep," presumably that sleep from which one wakes at birth. They are the remembered gateway to the past, these witches capable of collapsing time so that the cold sleep of the adult is at one with the first sleep from which he wakened into life. They are the means by which Roethke demonstrates the sweep of the "Now" in which we always live; for through the fraus who were, through the fraus mythologized and through the fraus who remain as a felt presence, he has made a poetic representation of the living extension of the past into the ever-moving present.
The poem called "Elegy" is short enough to quote entirely:
1 Should every creature be as I have been, There would be reason for essential sin; I have myself an inner weight of woe That God himself can scarcely bear. 2 Each wills his death: I am convinced of that; You were too lonely for another fate. I have myself an inner weight of woe That Christ, securely bound, could bear. 3 Thus I; and should these reasons fly apart, I know myself, my seasons, and I KNOW. I have myself one crumbling skin to show; God could believe: I am here to fear. 4 What you survived I shall believe: the Heat, Scars, Tempests, Roods, the Motion of Man's Fate; I have myself and bear its weight of woe That God that God leans down His heart to hear.
"Elegy" is a poem that took several titles as Roethke worked it into its final shape. The piece was first called "Humility, Its Coarse Surprises Can," after the opening line, a line followed by "Undo the virtues of a carnal man." In that early form the poem was apparently intended as a tribute to an aunt, Julia Roethke. All of the pronouns referring to the dead person are feminine, and another draft, apparently of the same period, has as its subtitle "In Memoriam: Julia Roethke." Underneath her name Roethke had written and lightly crossed out "Dylan Thomas." In many drafts the poem is called "The Stumbling," and Roethke seems to have decided that it suited Thomas better than his aunt, after all. But in final form the poem is, wisely, I think, unassigned, and the neuter pronoun "you" replaces the limiting "he" or "she" which had referred to the dead person in the earlier versions. As it stands in The Collected Poems, "Elegy" celebrates the memory of everyman, all who have been begotten, born and died.
It is a difficult poem, one easily misread. I believe Karl Malkoff, for one, misreads it in his study of Roethke. According to Malkoff, "Guilt is precisely the theme of 'Elegy'…. Indeed, the universe as man knows it is defined by the passage of the seasons,… by the passing out of existence of all life. Once this dissolution has occurred, man can no longer atone for his guilt; his 'essential sin,' his condemnation, is fact forever." The poem does, indeed, open with an admission of heavy guilt, but such an admission demonstrates that sense of humility which may bring even a "carnal man" to salvation by the means of God's grace and with the help of His mercy. It is a poem, I think, that moves from near despair to comfort, from a weight of scarcely bearable woe to a weight that "God leans down His heart to hear."
The form of the poem supports this reading, for as Roethke manipulates his quatrains, they become highly dynamic, suggesting change and development rather than the static hopelessness of Malkoff's interpretation. "Elegy" has the soul of a villanelle; that is, the third and fourth lines of each quatrain act as refrain lines of a sort and give to the poem that satisfying effect of repetition that is the essential pleasure of, say, Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle" or of Roelhke's own "The Waking." With Roethke, however, refrain lines are always similar, but rarely the same. He manipulates such lines so that the reader is arrested by their continuous alteration as much as by their repetition. The ear is set up for an echo that never quite arrives; instead, the ear is teased by words that move about, altering meaning and value in every stanza.
Stanza one is an admission of the narrator's worthlessness, his sinful condition. If all creatures are like himself, he speculates, then the idea of original sin is rational enough. Indeed, his own sinful nature and the woe of the world he inhabits may well seem to make irrational any doctrine which does not begin by acknowledging some "essential sin" as explanation for the fallen nature of the world. Pondering such a creation and his sinful place in it, the poet skirts dangerously near despair, believing that his weight of sin and woe is such that "God himself can scarcely bear." Nonetheless, God "can" bear that weight, and the basis for future hope is established.
In the second stanza, Christ, God become man, takes upon Himself "the weight of woe," and does so "securely bound," as if with both hands tied behind His back. There is a possible pun here, in that Christ, bound on the cross, is bound for Heaven, and thus "securely bound" in a way that precariously bound man is not. In any case, God the Father, the harsh judge who tolerates with difficulty the foolishness of man, has taken on His more merciful aspect, the aspect of the savior who offers Himself as a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world.
The third stanza marks a significant change in the attitude of the narrator, a change marked by a shift in rhyme scheme and the substitution of the word "fear" for the word "bear" that ended the first two stanzas. Essentially, the narrator turns from one kind of knowing to another, from the reasoned to the intuitive. He can bear his "inner weight of woe" because Christ could and did bear it; and should his carefully reasoned doctrine of essential sin fly apart, still he knows what he KNOWS. At the last, a man knows only what his experience tells him—and experience may tell him that he KNOWS some things beyond the need for "reasons." God could believe that the poet lives, is "here," for the purpose of being fearful. We do not ordinarily think of fear as a positive emotion, but in this case it seems to me that it is God Himself who is feared. And the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, a further step in humility for the spiritual stumbler toward grace. God is feared because of the narrator's awareness of his own sinfulness and of the enormous strain of such a weight upon the mercy of God. He knows that he is a sinner in a crumbling skin and that Eternal Justice for such as he has been would be terrible indeed.
But if God can believe in the narrator's humility before Him, the narrator will believe in "the Motion of Man's Fate," in the human power to survive "the Heat, / Scars, Tempests, Floods." If it is the glory of God to show compassion to such woeful creatures as men, it is the glory of men to act creatively in the face of immense suffering, to survive the Tempests and sing (as Dylan Thomas sang) beneath a weight of woe. The poet who believes in the power of human survival and yet remains humble, fearing the Lord, possesses himself ("I have myself") and is capable of bearing the woe that is his portion of Man's Fate. And, for such a one, "That God that God leans down His Heart to hear." Because the narrator has moved from reasoning to KNOWing, because he has come to a contrite admission of his own fear, God has changed from the God who "scarcely" can bear (tolerate) human sinfulness to that God who bends compassionately toward man and listens, not with His judging mind, but with His merciful heart. It is a poem, like the other two elegies, about a dynamic relationship, in this case one in which man and God change as they interact with one another. Within the confines of a tight formal pattern, Roethke has managed to convey an impression of enormous motion and process, an impression heightened by shifting refrain lines, altered rhyme schemes, associative leaps that all but fracture syntax, and by changing the length of the final line, filling it out to five beats after closing the other quatrains with lines that were short a foot. If the poem works, and I think it does, it works because form and meaning are one, because Roethke's technical skill has been equal to the task of presenting process and change in his poem.
It would be foolish to suggest that these elegies represent an adequate sampling of Theodore Roethke's lifetime of poetry. Nonetheless, I think they do illustrate a few of his better techniques for presenting dynamism in a work of art. The propulsion, the forward thrust, of the free verse comes from the intensification of verbs, the frenetic lists of actions, the energetic rhythms, the associative leaps from image to image and the playing off of sound against sound, phrase against phrase. In the more formal piece, Roethke uses his modified repetition to underscore change and development, and he shifts rhyme scheme and line length to suggest shifts in mental or spiritual development. In all three poems the relationships between the poet and the dead or between the poet and God are highly dynamic ones, relationships which alter even as the poet speaks the words of his love. In these poems, as elsewhere in his work, Roethke manages to transfer the rhythm, the motion, of life from his pulse to the printed page. It is this energetic, dynamic quality which I find the essential characteristic of his craft and which makes his poetry worthy of celebration.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10480
SOURCE: "Theodore Roelhke," in The Garden and the Map: Schizophrenia in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture, University of Illinois Press, 1973, pp. 159-90.
[In the following essay, Vernon explores Roethke's affinity for garden imagery and the symbolism of sexual development, personal growth, and self-consciousness.]
In Marvell's "The Garden" mere is a well-known passage that recalls one of the points Eluard's poem "You Are Everywhere" makes:
The Mind, that Ocean where each kind Does straight its own resemblance find; Yet it creates, transcending these, Far other World, and other Seas; Annihilating all that's made To a green Thought in a green Shade.
Marvell begins by citing the classical doctrine of perception, which says that sense images of external objects are accompanied by images in consciousness and that the latter resemble the former as mirror images resemble real things. But then, as Eluard did with the line "you are its resemblance," Marvell undercuts that doctrine by giving the mirror image a kind of integrative autonomy, by annihilating the absolute two-term map relationship and asserting a dynamic unity of external and internal, of subjective and objective: "a green Thought in a green Shade." This is the condition of the garden, as I have been describing it. And the world of Roethke's poetry is above all a garden.
As we have seen, the garden is not the polar opposite of the map; rather the garden embraces and transforms the map, temporalizes it, unfolds it in time. The garden is not total mergence and confusion, a scrambling of all things and all objects together, but unites mergence and separation, unity and multiplicity. This is why the garden in Roethke's world is often a greenhouse, the meeting place of the human and nonhuman, the organic and the rational, the natural—Kenneth Burke has said—and the artificial. Or as Roethke himself put it in his notebooks: "What was this greenhouse? It was a jungle and it was paradise. It was order and disorder." Even when the setting of Roethke's poems is not a greenhouse, his world has this feature of uniting the garden and the map. It is the perfect illustration of the symbolic world described in the previous chapter, of the world that unites space and time, body and world, discreteness and mergence, Being and Nonbeing.
It is also the perfect illustration of the schizophrenia that unites madness and sanity. The first of Roethke's many bouts with "insanity" that landed him in the hospital, and earned him such titles as "manic-depressive neurotic," "manic-depressive psychotic," and "paranoid schizophrenic," occurred in 1935. One night he wandered into the woods near his apartment in University Park, Pennsylvania (he was teaching at Pennsylvania State). He got lost, cold, and wet, but eventually found a highway and thumbed home. He returned to the same woods the next morning, skipping his classes; later in the day he appeared at the dean's office in a disheveled condition, told off the dean, and was sent to the hospital. Roethke's own description of what happened to him in the woods is also a description of the world of his poetry, the "insane" world of the child, the primitive, and the schizophrenic: "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, a blade of grass, even a rabbit. I didn't sleep much. I just walked around with this wonderful feeling."
This is "madness." But as Roethke showed in the poems he wrote ten years later (those published in The Lost Son and Praise to the End!), this is the world of everyone, stripped of repression; it is the world of the child, not as we leave the perceptions of childhood behind, but as those perceptions underlie our continuing experience; it is the world of the garden, and it is the garden itself as the world. The irony of the attempts of others to treat Roethke's schizophrenia, to analyze him, to "help" him, is that they are the very ones who needed help, for their inability to see and feel as Roethke was able to, for their inability to enter into the life of everything around them. Roethke's perception is normal; theirs, and by implication ours, is abnormal, since it neutralizes the primary experience of the symbolic world, of the garden, with the forms of the map and of objectivity, by which here and there, inside and outside, are absolutely separated.
In Roethke, the garden is not only a place; it is also a mode of experiencing, an organization of experience, or better, a process, a way experience happens. And it is a process exactly the same as what Laing calls the healing voyage of schizophrenia. In the previous chapter we saw that the experience of time in this voyage is simultaneously a rising and a falling, a going forward and a going back. Roethke makes precisely this point about his Lost Son and Praise to the End! poems in a notebook entry: "To go back is to go forward." In these poems, regression is also progression; time loops back to gather itself as it goes forward to meet itself. The "itself" that time loops back to gather lies in the prehistory of the world as well as in Roethke's childhood. The landscape of the poems is both the greenhouse operated by Roethke's father in Saginaw, Michigan, and the primordial garden previous to the rise of civilization; and the inscape of the poems is both the emotional state of Roethke as an adult and the childhood experience of life as an undifferentiated whole previous to the emergence of adult consciousness. Children lose this undifferentiated whole as they grow into adulthood. One must go back and recover it in order to become a full man. "To go back is to go forward."
The Praise to the End! poems are a developmental sequence of fourteen long, experimental poems about childhood and the growth out of childhood into adolescence first published completely in The Waking: Poems 1933–1953 (1953). Four of the poems were initially published in The Lost Son (1948), and the whole sequence except for the last poem, "O, Thou Opening, O," was published in Praise to the End! (1951). In Roethke's arrangement (which was not followed in the posthumous Collected Poems), the sequence is divided into two major sections, the first consisting of "Where Knock Is Open Wide," "I Need, I Need," "Bring the Day!" "Give Way, Ye Gates," "Sensibility! O La!" and "O Lull Me, Lull Me," and the second consisting of "The Lost Son," "The Long Alley," "A Field of Light," "The Shape of the Fire," "Praise to the End!" "Unfold! Unfold!" "I Cry, Love! Love!" and "O, Thou Opening, O."
Taken as a whole, the sequence represents one long poem, each part of which (that is, each poem) contains and reaffirms that whole. The movement of progression and regression, of expansion and deflation, occurs rhythmically in each poem and in the overall sequence in such a way that the sequence sways as a tree does, with a unified gradation of movements and countermovements, from the small and quick to the large and ponderous.
The sequence gains its vitality from its regressions that carry the poet and the reader—and the language of the poems—back into that timeless childhood experience of life as an undifferentiated whole, being a radical means of recovering that experience for everyday life. "Whole" is an abstract word; as an experience, however, it is real and tangible, and not always pleasant, as Roethke shows. In Roethke's sequence the human body often regresses to its polymorphous wholeness, its being as a blob, to the womb, just as the world often regresses into a confusion of all its objects together, into slime, and just as language often regresses into nonsense and playing with sounds. These three regressions are inseparable; they are one in structure and feeling in portions of the sequence. Roethke's most explicit description of them occurs in "The Shape of the Fire":
Who, careless, slips In coiling ooze Is trapped to the lips, Leaves more than shoes; Must pull off clothes To jerk like a frog On belly and nose From the sucking bog. My meat eats me. Who waits at the gate? Mother of quartz, your words writhe into my ear. Renew the light, lewd whisper.
In this passage, the mergence of the world—mud—threatens to swallow and merge with the body, and both these images of mergence are followed by a regression of language into nonsense. One is reminded of Burroughs and of all the instances of mergence, especially those occurring in canals or swamps, in his novels. But unlike Burroughs, Roethke emerges from this primordial confusion and liquid mergence of all things, not by flying toward the opposite polarity, toward atomistic separateness, but by combining mergence and separateness in the unity of opposites that is the condition of the garden: by channeling into the world, into separateness, and carrying the wholeness from which that separateness is descended into every manifestation of it.
In terms of temporality, this means that the sequence is about the evolution out of timelessness into that world which unites Being and Nonbeing in time, which unites timelessness and time, the continual absence and presence of time, the sway and countersway that is time. The sequence, more specifically, is about the child's growth in time, and about how growth is that act which is always leaving and simultaneously falling back into itself. The best image of this is the child's literal growth into his limbs, hands, feet, eyes, mouth, penis—and the point of this growth is that the child always both retains himself and moves out of himself, always unites his "parts" with his original and continual wholeness, his body. This is impossible to picture in a map space; it is impossible to "picture," period. In the realistic novel, we saw that "plot" in its basic sense is characterized spatially by a sequence of convergences and divergences; and in The Octopus, we saw the mechanical image of this structure in the railroad and the chutes and elevators that channel wheat into bins. In a map space, the whole is always separated from its parts, or at most is the sum of them. But in Roethke, the whole—whether it be language, world, body, or time—overflows into each of its parts, into the variety of its forms, into each small thing, in the becoming act of growth. This is why Roethke's world is a world of small things—pebbles, petals, slugs, leaves, cinders, seeds, tongues, fingers—but it is also why that world is a whole world.
Since each poem reflects the whole in Roethke's sequence, I will examine the first poem in detail and then move more quickly through the succeeding ones. The first poem says all that needs to be said—but only because the rest follow.
Here is the first section of the first poem, "Where Knock Is Open Wide":
A kitten can Bite with his feet; Papa and Mamma Have more teeth. Sit and play Under the rocker Until the cows All have puppies. His ears haven't time. Sing me a sleep-song, please. A real hurt is soft. Once upon a tree I came across a time, It wasn't even as A ghoulie in a dream. There was a mooly man Who had a rubber hat And funnier than that,— He kept it in a can. What's the time, papa-seed? Everything has been twice. My father is a fish.
The first thing to be noted about these lines is their quality of nonsense and play. Roethke has begun his sequence as close to the condition of primordial mergence as possible, and the casting around of the language, the ranging of it in play, and its decided lack of "meaning" in the usual sense are expressions of this mergence. This is language at its most silent because it is language with little reference outside of itself. It is language as almost pure gesture, as a mouth, where the condition of all the body is that of a mouth. Thus the oral images in the first four lines are most appropriate; the child is truly at an oral stage of development, where everything, including language, partakes of that total narcissistic union for which a baby at his mother's breast is the most apt image. This is why, spatially, most of the images in these lines have to do with being enclosed and with the feeling of softness: play under the rocker, a hat in a can, "A real hurt is soft."
But the language in this section, for all its narcissistic play and its self-enclosedness, is not without a referential function. Indeed the hard edge of reality is beginning to impinge upon the soft primordial wholeness of the child's world; thus the mention of teeth or a hurt or a can, and also the matter-of-fact, almost abstract statements such as "Everything has been twice." This is also the feeling of the section's rhythm and movement: the casting around, the play and flow of language, is twice brought to an abrupt halt by some rather prosaic, flat lines. The language play and nonsense verse occur in four-line units, each line of which has two or three stresses and is not end-stopped; these flow smoothly until they are halted by three-line units with three or four stresses in each line, all of which are end-stopped. This is the beginning of the strophe-antistrophe movement, the sway and countersway, evident throughout the whole sequence. Out of narcissistic play, Roethke pulls up short at the plain fact of the world: "His ears haven't time."
The awakening sense of time is perhaps the most important aspect of this opening section. The word "time" is mentioned three times in this section, the point being that out of a timeless condition of play and self-enclosedness, the child is losing himself into time and is beginning to feet a past grow behind him and a future come toward him. One of the mentions of "time" is born out of that very playfulness, out of the child's casting around with words: "Once upon a tree / I came across a time." These lines should "normally" read, of course, "Once upon a time / I came across a tree." Roethke's shifting of the normal syntax of words, which occurs throughout the sequence, is indicative of the unsettled state of the child's consciousness; a tree is just as new and unfamiliar to him as a time, and both are part of the new world he is inadvertently creating by tossing his words around. It is only natural that the child should come across a time while playing with his words, since that play is simply the birth of the poem itself and since the poem thus born can exist only in the falling away of its words, in time.
The closing three lines of this section accumulate most of the above themes and discoveries, and introduce some new considerations that are to be important in the sequence. The narrator asks, "What's the time, papa-seed?" a question that is to be taken literally: what is time? The appropriateness of asking papa this question is in the fact that the very awareness of the father as father constitutes a time consciousness, a historical consciousness. The latter is made explicit by the ensuing two lines: "Everything has been twice. / My father is a fish." These lines open up the particular nature of that time consciousness, and its difference from the primordial mergence the child is leaving behind. Everything has been twice; there is a dual mode to the world-in-time, as opposed to the self-enclosed nature of play and timeless mergence. Most of the rest of the sequence will be an attempt to unite that dual mode with the previous wholeness of the child, a unity prefigured by the father's being and not-being of himself as a fish.
Throughout the sequence, the father is identified with the male generative principle, what penetrates the amorphous wholeness of preexistence and infuses it with form, gives it parts, limbs, separations. This is why papa is "papa-seed" and why he is also a fish. The fish image in Roethke represents the only formed thing in the undifferentiated mass, the "body without skin," or water; it is the root of that body, which means it is also the father of that body. The identification of the fish with the penis, and thus of the father with the penis, is a natural one. Images of the penis—the fish, the rat, the foot, the worm—are a central focus of many of the sequence's conflicts and resolutions, and can be arranged opposite images of the vagina—holes, nests, gates, caves, water. The unity of male and female becomes the perfect image of the unity of separation and wholeness, of discreteness and mergence, that is the final condition of Roethke's world. This unity is equally a unity of father and mother and a unity, an integration, of the self. This is why a common image of the unity of male and female, the act of fishing, is expressed in one of the last poems of the sequence as a self-directed act of integration: "Fishing, I caught myself behind the ears."
Section two of the poem continues much of the playing with words that constitutes section one, but also introduces several new considerations:
I sing a small sing, My uncle's away, He's gone for always, I don't care either. I know who's got him, They'll jump on his belly, He won't be an angel, I don't care either. I know her noise. Her neck has kittens. I'll make a hole for her. In the fire. Winkie will yellow I sang. Her eyes went kissing away It was and it wasn't her there I sang I sang all day.
The sensual richness of the child's language play reveals a world that is itself sensually rich, a world that plays with and tosses around each of the various senses that open upon it. The world of the child is synesthetic, and all his sense perceptions are present in each separate one, just as the whole of the body is present in each of its parts; thus "I know her noise. / Her neck has kittens," and "Her eyes went kissing away."
Synesthesia has been called a sign of schizophrenia, and as such it reveals the sense in which our most primary experience is schizophrenic. Merleau-Ponty says, "the senses intercommunicate by opening on to the structure of the thing. One sees the hardness and brittleness of glass, and when, with a tinkling sound, it breaks, the sound is conveyed by the visible glass." In this respect, "synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel…." The experience of the child in Roethke's sequence is the opposite. He is learning how to see, hear, and feel, and is thus able to retain the undifferentiated wholeness of experience that converges upon and fills out each separate perception of the world.
These lines also contain the first ambiguous references to "her" in the poem. "Her" is in a certain sense the child's mother, the living representation of his primordial wholeness, and the ultimate object of his regressions. But as the sequence proceeds, "her" obviously comes to indicate another woman, who becomes the focus of all the vaginal images in the poems and thus represents a separate being whom the child, growing out of childhood, must unite with.
Two more points about this section: first, death is experienced for the first time by the child and handily disposed of in play—something that will become increasingly difficult to do as the sequence proceeds. Second, the phrase "I know" is repeated twice, an indication of the child's rapid growth in time. "I know" constitutes in both cases a kind of recognition, and recognition implies that the child possesses a past that is not simply a primordial mergence but a history, an accumulation of experiences.
"I know" triggers the next section, which in feeling, rhythm, and theme is substantially different from the first two.
I know it's an owl. He's making it darker. Eat where you're at. I'm not a mouse. Some stones are still warm. I like soft paws. Maybe I'm lost, Or asleep. A worm has a mouth. Who keeps me last? Fish me out. Please. God, give me a near. I hear flowers. A ghost can't whistle. I know! I know! Hello happy hands.
If the sequence is structured on a kind of expansion-deflation rhythm, the meaning of "deflation" is made clear in the first two stanzas of this section. In the first section the expansive play of the child stopped at the hard edge of the real world; here that stoppage is given the explicit emotional character of fear and the temporal and spatial character of being lost. It is rhythmically expressed by the fact that all the lines are end-stopped, and some even have full stops in the middle. The lines have a kind of atomistic quality, a feeling of things broken apart and lying beside each other. In terms of time, this is to say that the growing time-awareness of the child has suddenly hit a nerve in consciousness that reveals time is slipping away as well as going forward. A kind of fear is produced in the child, a fear that makes him clutch at whatever is at hand in order to stop the passage of time.
This is "being lost," not the loss of orientation that can occur in a map space, but the loss of self in time that necessarily occurs in growing up. The loss of self in time is always accompanied by a coming toward one's self, but either may be experienced more intensely than the other, and in this case the former is. This is why the child grabs at things: in order not to slip away into the past. But the irony is that whatever he reaches for slips away itself—as if he were being blown backward, and reached out of desperation for doorknobs and handles that loosened and came off in his hand. Heidegger's description of fear is apt here: "When concern is afraid, it leaps from next to next, because it forgets itself and therefore does not take hold of any definite possibility." Thus these lines:
Eat where you're at. I'm not a mouse. Some stones are still warm. I like soft paws.
This feeling of jumping from one thing to the next is echoed throughout the sequence. In "The Lost Son," for example: "What a small song. What slow clouds. What dark water. / Hath the rain a father? All the caves are ice. Only the snow's here." Or in "Give Way, Ye Gates":
Touch and arouse. Suck and sob. Curse and mourn. It's a cold scrape in a low place. The dead crow dries on a pole.
The further irony is that this jumping from thing to thing in order to stop time leads finally to regression. The child clutches at everything around him as time slips away, but nothing works, nothing is rooted, until he finally clutches at himself and his world once again becomes self-enclosed. Since the feeling of time slipping away is also a feeling of losing oneself, the solution is to embrace oneself, to root oneself. This is the "near" the child asks God for. His world is not near, because he is being blown away from it, and all its handles come loose. But his hands are near, what he uses to clutch at the world: "I know! I know! / Hello happy hands." The hint of masturbation is unmistakable, especially given the accompanying references to "fish" and "worm." All that is necessary is for the child to direct the use of his hands toward himself, allowing himself to be blown totally back through time, to regress.
Masturbation is an ambiguous act throughout the sequence. On one hand, it is a dead end, a desperate attempt to stave off being lost. The penis itself is a perfect image of the separateness into which the primordial wholeness of the child's world has been channeling; to fasten upon it is to acknowledge the fragmentation of the world that being lost results in. It is to relinquish the world as such, to let it pass by, and to enclose oneself like a snake swallowing its tail. On the other hand, the act of enclosing oneself leads back to that pool of narcissistic and maternal wholeness out of which the child has been thrust, and therefore leads back to the original mergence with the world. The paradox is that the image of separation and isolation, the penis, leads to wholeness, and thrusts the child back into the world he has just relinquished. Masturbation becomes the act by which the child can connect with the erotic nature of his environment, with the life of nature itself. The child says, "I hear flowers," when masturbation is hinted at. This kind of fundamental erotic connection between the child and his world is made more explicit in passages where masturbation is made more explicit, in "Praise to the End!" for example:
It's dark in this wood, soft mocker. For whom have I swelled like a seed? What a bone-ache I have. Father of tensions, I'm down to my skin at last. It's a great day for the mice. Prickle-me, tickle-me, close stems. Bumpkin, he can dance alone, Ooh, ooh, I'm a duke of eels. Arch my back, pretty-bones, I'm dead at both ends. Softly, softly, you'll wake the clams. I'll feed the ghost alone. Father, forgive my hands. The rings have gone from the pond. The river's alone with its water. All risings Fall.
The "near" the child asks for becomes the natural things of the world, as well as his own skin: "It's a great day for the mice. / Prickle-me, tickle-me, close stems." The being lost that had forced the child back on himself has become its own opposite, a being found. The deflation that is being lost has become, of its own movement, an inflation, both literally and figuratively, a mutual embrace of the child and his world.
But as the final lines of the above passage and the following section of "Where Knock Is Open Wide" make clear, that very inflation of the child's world, which is centered in the penis, becomes of its own movement a deflation; thus "All risings / Fall," and the emphasis at the end of that passage upon being alone: "I'll feed the ghost alone," and "The river's alone with its water." Similarly, in section four of "Where Knock Is Open Wide," the narrator says:
That was before. I fell! I fell! The worm has moved away. My tears are tired.
The sway and countersway of time in the sequence, and the sense in which those two movements are born out of each other, is primarily felt in this recurring rhythm of being lost, regressing, and then out of that very regression, expanding and embracing the world erotically, and in turn out of that very expansion, finding oneself lost again. The emphasis at the beginning of the sequence is upon being lost, and at the end upon embracing the world and being found, but each is also present in the other.
The rest of "Where Knock Is Open Wide" reemphasizes, after the brief countermovement of embracing the world, the being lost and being alone of the child's fall into time. Here is section four:
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. He watered the roses. His thumb had a rainbow. The stems said. Thank you. Dark came early. 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? I'll be a bite. You be a wink. Sing the snake to sleep.
The bulk of the section is given as a kind of reverie, a memory, perhaps the only one the child could fasten upon to prevent the recurrence of being lost. The feeling of the passage is a kind of uneasy stasis: there is no intensely felt fear and no radical regression, but neither is there any embracing of the world and progression.
And yet this section does contain the climax of this first poem: "That was before. I fell! I fell!" Out of the realization that the reverie is a reverie issues a temporal self-consciousness, a kind of being inside and outside of oneself that is the basis of time as falling. "I fell!" also refers to the child's sexual sin and to the correlation between the child's sin and that of the race, by calling to mind the fall of Adam. The traditional equation between the penis and the snake in the Garden is made in the next line: "The worm has moved away." The image of the penis also appears three stanzas earlier, and as in the first section of the poem, it appears in terms of a close connection between father and fish:
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.
Not only is this passage another instance of the fact of death, but it is also an allegory which in general displays the authority over life that the father possesses, and in particular displays his displeasure with the son's attempt to express his sexuality, to "talk" with his penis. As in Eden, the child's sin is a sin of disobedience of the father; "Father, forgive my hands," he says in "Praise to the End!" His salvation, as the rest of the sequence shows, will be an attempt to reconcile himself with the father.
The end of the poem, section five, shows the final break with the father that is necessary before reconciliation is possible:
Kisses come 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 father's death dramatically heightens the son's sense of separation from himself, from his original mergence with the world. Time now is "a long long time" since it has fallen out of itself, and the son is "somebody else" since he has done the same. Nothing is in fact present, nothing is here. "Kisses come back," the son says; God is "somewhere else," and even God's house, the world itself, is "not here." The father's death shows that the narrator's reconciliation with the father will be in an important sense a reconciliation with everything, with God, with the world. Thus the line "One father is enough" will find an answer in the last poem of the sequence: "A son has many fathers."
The dominant theme of "Where Knock Is Open Wide" is being lost. There is a momentary interlude, an awakening and being found in section three—"I know! I know!"—but this quickly recedes, and the poem ends on a note of absence.
Being lost is the intense experience of time slipping away. There is an experience related to being lost that equally concentrates on only one aspect of time and therefore produces a similar sense of incompleteness, and that is desire. If being lost is the realization of time slipping away, desire is the realization of time slipping ahead, of time always eluding our grasp. The dominant theme of the next poem in the sequence, "I Need, I Need," is this experience of desire, as its title makes clear. Grammatically, most of the poem is concerned not with what has happened but with what may happen, or should happen. Thus many of the sentence forms are commands or wishes; in section one, for example:
Whisper me over, Why don't you, begonia, There's no alas Where I live.
There's "no alas" because in this new orientation in time to the future there's no pausing to reconsider or catch one's breath. There is a kind of restlessness in this section, not exactly a searching but a quizzical wandering:
Went down cellar, Talked to a faucet; The drippy water Had nothing to say.
This wandering breaks out into pure playful wish in the next section, followed in turn by a conscious realization that the leaping ahead of time means the world is always essentially incomplete:
I wish I was a pifflebob I wish I was a funny I wish I had ten thousand hats, And made a lot of money. Open a hole and see the sky: A duck knows something You and I don't. Tomorrow is Friday.
The image of the hole in these lines and the realization that time is slipping ahead combine in the poem to form the essential structure of desire. Desire is a hole that is always being filled but never retains anything; it is a constant and pure progression, a continual outstripping of itself. It is pure mouth, which is why the predominant imagery of the poem is oral ("Sit in my mouth" at the beginning of the poem, and "My hoe eats like a goat" at the end). Desire is eating, and it is that particular eating, like fire, whose sustenance passes through it instead of being retained.
The images of eating—and of fire—congregate at the end of the poem and become explicitly sexual. At the poem's beginning, oral images appear in terms of the mother, but at the end they are presented in terms of the "her" introduced in "Where Knock Is Open Wide." It is almost as if in order to stop the ceaseless passing through and slipping ahead that constitute desire, the narrator had to invent an object of desire. This is the structure of all sexual awakenings: they are not precipitated by a "her," but the desire already existing casts around until it finds a "her" it can anchor in:
Who's ready for pink and frisk? My hoe eats like a goat. Her feet said yes. It was all hay. I said to the gate, Who else knows What water does? Dew ate the fire. I know another fire. Has roots.
The anchoring of desire succeeds to such an extent that the final image of eating is of desire itself being eaten: "Dew ate the fire." The recurring use throughout the sequence of water and fire to represent the female and male principles indicates that this devouring of desire is simply the inevitable result of sexual fulfillment. It is anything but permanent; "another fire" already exists, its roots are already down, and it will inevitably burst forth to start the cycle over again.
But the last two lines—"I know another fire. / Has roots."—have a further possible meaning, a meaning more indicative of the direction the rest of the sequence will take. If fire, as an image of desire, represents a kind of pure becoming and pure progression, a temporality that always leaps ahead of itself, then a fire with roots represents, paradoxically, a becoming that has a permanence at its heart, a progression that retains itself. It represents the full structure of temporality, the structure for which being lost on the one hand and desire on the other are only partial manifestations. The fire with roots is the very act of growth that is temporality in its most complete sense.
The next poem, "Bring the Day!" is the shortest of the sequence, and represents a kind of peaceful interlude before the emphasis in the sequence shifts to growth and embracing the world. The dominant image of this poem is the kiss, again an oral action, but that particular oral action that is neither a devouring nor a being devoured but rather a kind of floating on the surface of both. The kiss is the image of gentle and mutual appropriation, of the cooperative alliance of things. Thus the poem opens with these lines:
Bees and lilies there were, Bees and lilies there were, Either to other,— Which would you rather? Bees and lilies were there.
The feeling in the poem is one of compatibility. Except for a brief brush with being lost, there is no sense of incompleteness. Rather the images are of things that suit and complete each other:
Leaves, do you like me any? A swan needs a pond. The worm and the rose Both love Rain.
The space of both being lost and desiring was a kind of atomistic space, a space broken up into the separate objects the narrator clutched at to steady and fix himself. Here the space is one that funnels through things and enables them to gently manifest themselves, to introduce themselves:
The herrings are awake. What's all the singing between?— Is it with whispers and kissing?— I've listened into the least waves.
Things hold themselves out in this poem, as we hold objects out on our hands. Their space is a buoyant one that allows them to float before us, to stretch and feel themselves awakening:
O small bird awakening, 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!
The peace of the poem is that quiet that exists before a storm, that stasis out of which beginnings proceed and which even the most violent kind of becoming and progression has to continually carry with it and have at its heart if it isn't to outstrip itself and swallow itself as pure desire.
This becoming with a stasis at its heart is the dominant theme of the next poem, and the continual resolution of the rest of the sequence. The title, "Give Way, Ye Gates," refers to floodgates but also has obvious sexual overtones. Throughout the sequence the gate is an image of the vagina, as in the line "My gates are all caves," in "The Long Alley." The gate is particularly a symbol of the forbidden nature of sexual union, since its function is to block entrance. But in this poem the gates literally give way, and the result is a reawakening and a rebirth of the narrator into the world, both sexually and existentially. Birth is an important theme in the poem, of equal importance to the theme of sexual union. The two themes are collapsed in the line describing the actual giving way of the gates: "Tufty, the water's loose." Tuft means a clump of hair, so refers to the female sexual organ; "the water's loose" calls to mind a release of stored sexual impulses on the one hand and a pregnant woman's breaking water on the other. Together these two meanings indicate the sense in which the giving way of the gates is a surge of energy that carries the child out of the womb into sexual union with another. The giving way of the gates is that surge of energy which is the child's act of growth.
Throughout the sequence, the two kinds of images that best reveal the structure of this act of growth are of openings—gates, holes, mouths, caves—and of water—streams, ponds, lakes, the amniotic fluid. With regard to the images of water, a flood is the most explicit image of growth, for that forward movement always accumulates itself; this is precisely what growth is, the movement forward in time that accumulates itself, the falling that is also a rising. Growth is that activity which never leaves itself behind and yet always goes forward. In this sense, not only a flood but any movement of water embodies the structure of growth, since water always carries its source—water—with it when it moves. The movement of water, precisely like growth, is that flow out of itself which retains itself. This is the point of the closing lines of "Give Way, Ye Gates":
The deep stream remembers: Once I was a pond. What slides away Provides.
Just as water partitions itself out of an original wholeness into more and more refined parts—rivers and streams—but retains that original wholeness, carrying it into each of those parts, so growth is the activity of partitioning one's body into its parts, while always retaining that original mergence, that original wholeness, that "pool," out of which it came.
The imagery of holes reveals a similar structure. In the sequence, the concept of "hole" is used in two senses: as an enclosure, e.g., a pit, and as an opening out of an enclosure. The imagery of enclosures indicates regression and a return to the original condition of mergence. "Who stands in a hole / Never spills," says the narrator in "Give Way, Ye Gates," a sentiment echoed throughout the sequence in all the images of mergence and sinking, of pouring into one's self and filling one's self, that result in a kind of blob existence familiar from Burroughs' novels; thus, in lines already quoted:
Who, careless, slips In coiling ooze Is trapped to the lips, Leaves more than shoes.
The "coiling ooze" is one's own body as well as the amorphous body of the earth; thus it is one's body as a hole or pit in which one is trapped. Similarly, the lines "Everything's closer. / Is this a cage?" in "Bring the Day!" or the phrase "I'm lost in what I have" in "O, Thou Opening, O" refer to the body as it funnels back into itself and fills the hole of itself, to a kind of regressive growth that never leaves itself. Opposed to these images in the sequence are all those of emerging from a hole, of flowing out of one's self. "I've crawled from the mire, alert as a saint or a dog," the narrator says in "Praise to the End!" a line echoed in "O, Thou Opening, O": "I've crept from a cry." This imagery of emergence is related to the experience of desire, of always leaping out of and ahead of one's self. And both are expressions of the becoming aspect of growth, of the structure of human existence as a continual progression; we are always "Looking toward what we are," Roethke says in "Give Way, Ye Gates."
The concept of growth embraces both these aspects of the imagery of holes. Growth is that activity in which we are always being filled and yet always emerging from ourselves; it is the grave and the nest united. Growth is time as falling, and particularly, in terms of the body, time as a falling into and a simultaneous rising out of ourselves. This is growth: we lose and gather ourselves, we slip by ourselves in the very act of falling into ourselves, and we always overflow ourselves without spilling. Roethke's most stunning image of a kind of overflowing that doesn't spill occurs at the end of "The Shape of the Fire":
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.
This is precisely the condition of the body in growth, a fact made clear by Roethke's description, several lines before this passage, of a rose "Rising slowly out of its bed, / Still as a child in its first loneliness." Growth is a perfect unity of stasis and silence with continual becoming, is sustained fullness that trembles at its own brim and simultaneously leaves itself in order to feed itself. That unity of the timelessness of the child's world with the successiveness of adulthood enables time to embrace both presence and absence, both passing and becoming. This is why Roethke's narcissism, evident throughout the sequence, is not idle self-indulgence but that perfect excess of being which is also perfectly trim, that complete absorption in one's self which is also completely impersonal. "Fishing, I caught myself behind the ears," he says in "Unfold! Unfold!" indicating that the reach into one's self, into the narcissistic pool, is also an emergence out of one's self.
In Burroughs, by contrast, the two aspects of growth in time—flying and sinking, emerging and submerging—exist beside each other, with no fundamental connection or unity between them. In Roethke's sequence they exist united, in that perfect unity of Being and Nonbeing which also preserves their separation. To submerge is to emerge in Roethke's poems, or as Roethke said about the entire sequence, to go back is to go forward. Growth is that activity in which one always falls back into the hole of the self, fills that hole, and is consequently impelled forward—all in one motion.
Growth is the activity that organizes all the countermovements of the poem, the sway and countersway of its rhythm, the progression-regression, expansion-deflation movement of the child's wanderings in the world. Growth unites being lost and desiring or needing—it is that fire with roots by which we are what we become, and it thus unites being lost and being found. The emphasis upon being found in the rest of the sequence is equally an emphasis on coming toward oneself in the world.
The emphasis is also upon uniting with the world, upon filling the world as one fills one's self, while always not-being the world as well, while always flowing out of it. The ambiguity of masturbation in the sequence reflects this being and not-being of the self and the world, and indicates its connection with the concept of growth. Masturbation is a kind of ecstatic self-enclosedness, a being-filled that is also outside of itself and specifically is outside of itself by being in the world, by erotically plugging into nature. Growth is that very excess of being which overflows into the world, into the objects of the world, and enables the body both to define itself on the "ground" of the world and to unite with the world. This is the further significance of the image of catching oneself while fishing: to catch oneself is to generate oneself, to become the father of oneself, and this is possible only because one is united with "mother" earth, with the world. This is why all I have said about growth also applies to the world: the world overflows its objects while retaining itself among them, a phenomenon for which plant life offers the best illustration.
Growth, in other words, is the fundamental condition of the garden, that continual, becoming unity of mergence and discreteness, of unity and multiplicity, that is the full sense of the garden. This is the significance of the images of water and light in the final two poems in this first section of the sequence. Water and light are symbols of that wholeness which impregnates the world and fills it out, which holds things in their separateness while connecting them with everything else. Lines like "The lake washes its stones" in "Sensibility! O La!" and "Light fattens the rock" or "The sea has many streets" in "O Lull Me, Lull Me" all express the intimate reciprocal relationship between wholeness and separation in the natural world. The final poem, "O Lull Me, Lull Me," explicitly connects this organization of the natural world with the ongoing process of growth that the child is experiencing:
The poke of the wind's close, But I can't go leaping alone. For you, my pond, Rocking with small fish, I'm an otter with only one nose: I'm all ready to whistle; I'm more than when I was born.
As a symbol of that wholeness and continuity which informs the process of growth, the pond in these lines is also a symbol of the world itself. The narrator "can't go leaping alone" because growth that isn't fed by the world and that doesn't simultaneously overflow back into the world is no growth at all. This is why, in the same poem, images of the connection between inside and outside and between body and world become prominent for the first time in the sequence:
I see my heart in the seed; I breathe into a dream, And the ground cries. I'm crazed and graceless, A winter-leaping frog.
This is the kind of resolution that will occur often at peak moments in the second half of the sequence.
However, the resolution is still only partial at this particular point in the sequence; the process of growth has begun, but has not yet filled itself out completely. Thus in "O Lull Me, Lull Me," the narrator says: "Soothe me, great groans of underneath, / I'm still waiting for a foot." As in much of the rest of the sequence, the foot is an image of the penis. Roethke's fixation with the penis throughout the sequence is in many respects a fixation with growth, since as the body channels into its limbs, it channels most noticeably into the penis. (In another poem in the sequence, Roethke sings a song of encouragement to his penis to grow: "Be large as an owl be slick as a frog, / Be good as a goose, be big as a dog, / Be sleek as a heifer, be long as a hog,—/ What footie will do will be final.") In the line "I'm still waiting for a foot," however, the indication is that the process of growth is still in its beginning stages; the "foot" by which he is to grow forward and connect with the world, like his whole body, is "more than when I was born," but not quite enough yet.
The references to "her" in these last two poems make the same point. In "Sensibility! O La!" the opening lines are:
I'm the serpent of somebody else See! She's sleeping like a lake: Glory to seize, I say.
Clearly "she" is no longer the mother, but is another, the very symbol of otherness that the poet must connect with in order to truly grow. But at the end of the poem there is a slipping back, not exactly a regression, but certainly a failure to achieve the other and a recognition that such achievement is difficult:
My sweetheart's still in her cave. I've waked the wrong wind: I'm alone with my ribs.
And further on: "Mamma! Put on your dark hood; / It's a long way to somewhere else." The double function of growth, to retain itself and leave itself, is always in danger of slipping exclusively into one or the other. Particularly with regard to the world outside and to the most important manifestation of that world, another person, there is a temptation to draw back; thus "I'm alone with my ribs" and "It's a long way to somewhere else."
Despite these obvious setbacks, the emphasis of the rest of the sequence is upon union with the world in the act of growth. In Roethke's radical insistence upon the full meaning of this union, he abandons the references to "her" and "she" that occur in the first half of the sequence. It is as if before taking the step that most of us take—sexual union—he wanted to explore it fully in a more fundamental way, in terms of our relationship to the objects we encounter every day, at every moment. This is why the dominant emphasis in the rest of the sequence is upon the sexual nature of the world—upon the sexual nature of Being in general. Roethke's vision is of that gap in Being, that Nonbeing which passes through and fills Being out, and requires that the body and the world always mutually embrace and penetrate each other so both can truly grow. The peak moments of the rest of the sequence occur when the narrator and the world slip into each other's skin through the common hole they share, the hole in time that is growth. I will conclude by examining some of these peak moments.
The first occurs in "The Lost Son" and climaxes with a dizzy plunge into the hole of the world, into that pure Nonbeing at the heart of everything:
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.
This passage occurs several stanzas after a description of being lost in which the narrator says, "My veins are running nowhere." By contrast, the "running" of his veins in his passage, the new infusion of life, is the opposite of being lost; it is an intimate connection with the things of the world: "I've more veins than a tree!" The same dizziness that is found in the extreme state of being lost is there, but it moves in exactly the opposite direction; it moves toward the world, penetrates the world: "I'm falling through a dark swirl." The next poem, "The Long Alley," contains lines that express a similar kind of dizzy union, except in this case the world penetrates the protagonist. Here is the entire passage, perhaps the most beautiful one in the sequence, or even in all of Roethke's poetry:
Shall I call the flowers? Come littlest, come tenderest, Come whispering over the small waters, Reach me rose, sweet one, still moist in the loam, Come, come out of the shade, the cool ways, The long alleys of string and stem; Bend down, small breathers, creepers and winders; Lean from the tiers and benches, Cyclamen dripping and lilies. What fish-ways you have, littlest flowers, Swaying over the walks, in the watery air, Drowsing in soft light, petals pulsing. Light airs! Light airs! A pierce of angels! The leaves, the leaves become me! The tendrils have me!
As in "The Lost Son," this incident occurs after a period of being lost and regressing. Here the things of the world, their vegetal, sexual aspect, literally plunge through the body of the poet, and the result is a totally ecstatic experience of being-in-the-world: "The leaves, the leaves become me!" It is this kind of ideal metamorphic moment for which the whole sequence exists. One more example should suffice, from "Praise to the End!":
Arch of air, my heart's original knock, I'm awake all over: I've crawled from the mire, alert as a saint or a dog; I know the back-stream's joy, and the stone's eternal pulseless longing. Felicity I cannot hoard. My friend, the rat in the wall, brings me the clearest messages; I bask in the bower of change; The plants wave me in, and the summer apples; My palm-sweat flashes gold; Many astounds before, I lost my identity to a pebble; The minnows love me, and the humped and spitting creatures.
This is that complete openness which is also completely filled; it is that total self-effacement in the presence of the world which is equally a complete self-fulfillment, a complete realization of the self. Roethke disperses himself, loses himself into even the most inanimate objects, stones and pebbles, and by that very dispersal finds himself fully and collects himself. And this losing and finding oneself in intimate union with the world is the "bower of change" that the poet basks in; it is growth itself.
The space of this union with the world is that perfect unity of space and time which is the space of the garden. Each thing presents itself as autonomous and independent, as something with its own space, and yet all things participate in each other and are drawn together in a common space; they are drawn together by that particular hole in Being which is the body's link with the world, by that mutual temporality of body and world by which they fall into and out of each other, by growth. The space of Roethke's world unites fullness and emptiness, plenitude and nothingness, as growth itself does. All of this can be seen in a passage in "A Field of Light":
I touched the ground, the ground warmed by killdeer, The salt laughed and the stones; The ferns had their ways, and the pulsing lizards, And the new plants, still awkward in their soil, The lovely diminutives. I could watch! I could watch! I saw the separateness of all things! My heart lifted up with the great grasses; The weeds believed me, and nesting birds. There were clouds making a rout of shapes crossing a windbreak of cedars, And a bee shaking drops from a rain-soaked honeysuckle. The worms were delighted as wrens. And I walked, I walked through the light air; I moved with the morning.
The "separateness of all things" is preserved in Roethke's world, and so the space of that world is not one absolute objective block; but neither is it an atomistic space, as in Burroughs, in which each thing is confined totally to itself. Rather it is a space that gathers up objects in all their separateness, as a wave gathers up stones, and integrates them by virtue of that separateness—a space in which objects are always falling into place, a space that simultaneously contracts and expands, a becoming, temporal space.
This space both anchors things and releases them for the grasp of the body; it thus perfectly unites here and there, the subjective point of view and the absolute, objective world, fantasy and reality. It is a space that flows out of itself, as the body leaves itself in growth, and that simultaneously fills and impregnates itself. The image of things leaving themselves is common in Roethke, and the most general example of it, which reveals it as a basic structural principle of his world, occurs in "The Lost Son":
From the mouths of jugs Perched on many shelves, I saw substance flowing That cold morning.
The space of all Roethke's poetry is a metamorphic space, dynamized by time, a space that leaves itself and becomes, changes, as the clouds in the previously quoted passage make "a rout of shapes crossing a windbreak of cedars."
We saw in Chapter One that the schizophrenic world of the map is one in which holes open up, holes such as absolute space or absolute consciousness, both of which are hermetically sealed and are of a different order of being from what they exclude. The space of Roethke's world also contains holes, but they are holes that are both continually being sealed and continually opening. It is space as a collection of mouths, not atoms. As he puts it in "Unfold! Unfold!":
Easy the life of the mouth. What a lust for ripeness! All openings praise us, even oily holes. The bulb unravels. Who's floating? Not me. The eye perishes in the small vision.
Oral images opened the sequence and expressed the primordial wholeness of the child's world. Here they express that wholeness as it is carried into the growing world of everyday experience and united with each separate entity in that world. "The eye perishes in the small vision" because it is drawn into the bottomless hole of each separate thing, thus is drawn into the world itself. This is possible only because the space of Roethke's world—of the garden, and of schizophrenia as the most ideally sane state of consciousness—is one in which all things open upon each other and upon the body, in which subject and object, fantasy and reality, are perfectly united. Space is a hole and things are holes in Roethke's world, but space is also a medium and things are also things, and the pure potentiality of both is also pure actuality.
This metamorphic space, this space of mouths, is the reason Roethke's world, as in Baudelaire's sonnet, is a world of correspondences—correspondences between things and between the body and things. It is also the reason the objects of that world so often speak and sing, not only to the protagonist but also to each other. As Kenneth Burke points out, Roethke prefers verbs of communication to any others in describing the things of the world. Weeds whine, a cracked pod calls, "Even thread has a speech." The world of Roethke's poetry is engaged in a constant energetic exchange with itself and with the body; it is the symbolic world in the fullest sense:
Sing, sing, you symbols! All simple creatures, All small shapes, willow-shy, In the obscure haze, sing! A light song comes from the leaves. A slow sigh says yes. And the light sighs.
Each thing in Roethke's world manifests itself in every other thing, and even—or especially—all opposites exist in and of each other. Roethke says in "Unfold! Unfold!": "Speak to the stones, and the stars answer." Or as he puts it more generally in "O, Thou Opening, O": "The Depth calls to the Height."
This unity of opposites indicates the way in which Roethke's world is a total alternative to the dualistic structures of classical Western thought, an alternative that is manifest in our most primary, everyday experience. Body and world, subject and object, time and space, fantasy and reality, child and man, all exist in a perfect unity, a unity given previous to any reflection, and a unity that couldn't conceivably be otherwise. But each exists also as perfectly autonomous; each is bounded and liberated by itself; each is a hole, a mouth. The garden, Roethke's world, is the condition of growth; it is open-ended, a mouth, since it leaves itself and fills itself in the becoming motion that is growth. This includes the world of inanimate as well as animate things, since the life of that world is the perfect unity of life and death, of Being and Nonbeing, that infuses every moment of our lives. The "other condition" that Roethke claims in the last poem of the sequence to be king of is the schizophrenia of the garden, the condition of the symbolic world, which embraces and unites the garden and the map, unity and multiplicity, life and death, fantasy and reality, while falling and rising in the single flow of growth:
I sing the green, and things to come, I'm king of another condition, So alive I could die!
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McLeod, James Richard. Theodore Roethke: A Bibliography. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1973, 241 p.
Provides a comprehensive listing of Roethke's works, including primary sources, contributions to periodicals, translations of his works, film and musical adaptations, and critical sources about Roethke.
Beaman, Darlene. "Roethke's Travels: An Overview of His Poetry." Green River Review XIV, No. 2 (1983): 79-90.
Explores the inner journey motif and quest for transcendence in Roethke's poetry.
Blessing, Richard Allen. "The Dying Man." In Theodore Roethke's Dynamic Vision, pp. 161-70. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1974.
Offers analysis of Roethke's use of language in "The Dying Man."
Davis, William V. "Fishing an Old Wound: Theodore Roethke's Search for Sonship." The Antigonish Review, No. 20 (Winter, 1974): 29-41.
Examines the development and significance of Roethke's relationship with his father as revealed in his poetry.
Gunn, Thom. Review of Words for the Wind. The Yale Review XLVIII, No. 4 (Summer 1959): 623-6.
A generally unfavorable review of Words for the Wind. Gunn cites shortcomings in examples of Roethke's nonsense verse and admonishes the obvious influence of William Butler Yeats in this volume.
Hoey, Allen. "Some Metrical And Rhythmical Strategies in the Early Poems of Roethke." Concerning Poetry 15, No. 1 (Spring 1982): 49-58.
Examines Roethke's characteristic free verse form, meter, and use of sonic device in poems from The Open House and The Lost Son and Other Poems.
Johnson, Julie M. "'Dance On, Dance On, Dance On': Dance as Image in the Poetry of Theodore Roethke." Massachusetts Studies in English IX, No. 1 (1983): 64-76.
Explores the significance of dance motifs in Roethke's poetry, particularly as such imagery reveals Roethke's poor self-image and longing for unity in physical, psychological, and mystical terms.
Kalaidjian, Walter B. "Understanding Theodore Roethke." In Understanding Theodore Roethke, pp. 1-28. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.
Provides an overview of Roethke's life and major works.
La Belle, Jenijoy. "Archetypes of Tradition." In The Echoing Wood of Theodore Roethke, pp. 84-103. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Examines the influence and synthesis of literary tradition and Jungian archetypes in Roethke's poetry.
Mazzaro, Jerome. "The Failure of Language: Theodore Roethke." In Postmodern American Poetry, pp. 59-84. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1980.
Examines Roethke's effort to establish his own poetic voice through imitation and innovation, reflecting both the necessity and burden of his artistic influences.
Molesworth, Charles. "Songs of the Happy Man: Theodore Roethke and Contemporary Poetry." John Berryman Studies II, No. 3 (Summer 1976): 32-51.
Discusses the characteristic qualities of Roethke's poetry, particularly form, imagery, and aspects of self-analysis, noting his influence on subsequent American poets.
Parini, Jay. "Theodore Roethke: The Poetics of Expression." Ball State University Forum XXI, No. 1 (Winter 1980): 5-11.
Examines Roethke's idea of poetry and the poet, noting his relationship to the Romantic tradition.
Pearce, Roy Harvey. "Theodore Roethke: The Power of Sympathy." In Historicism Once More: Problems & Occasions for the American Scholar, pp. 294-326. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.
Examines Roethke's identification with and expression of sympathy, violence, power, and control.
Pinsker, Sanford. "An Urge to Wrestle / A Need to Dance: The Poetry of Theodore Roethke." CEA Critic XLI, No. 4, pp. 12-7.
Discusses Roethke's mystical fascination with the joy of life and rebirth.
Ramakrishnan, E. V. "The Confessional Mode in Theodore Roethke: A Reading of 'The Lost Son.'" Indian Journal of American Studies 11, No. 1 (January, 1981): 58-65.
Explores Roethke's struggle with personal experience and self-consciousness in "The Lost Son," particularly as expressed in the dynamics of perception and harmony.
Rohrkemper, John. "'When the Mind Remembers All': Dream and Memory in Theodore Roethke's 'North American Sequence.'" Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 21, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 28-37.
Offers interpretation of the "North American Sequence" as a meditative reconciliation of past and present, noting Roethke's painful childhood memories and the psychic fragmentation caused by mental illness in his adult life.
Scott, Nathan A., Jr. "The Example of Roethke." In The Wild Prayer of Longing: Poetry and the Sacred, pp. 76-119. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971.
Examines Roethke's sacramental voice and ecstatic vision, especially as expressed by appeals to wonder, instinct, and the sense of "otherness" in reality.
Smith, R. T. "Critical Introduction to the Poetry of Theodore Roethke (1908–1963)." Green River Review XIV, No. 2 (1983): 11-6.
Provides a summary of major themes and symbolism in Roethke's poetry.
Stein, Arnold. "Introduction." In Theodore Roethke: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Arnold Stein, pp. ix-xx. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1965.
Provides a laudatory overview of Roethke's creative life and poetry.
Sundahl, Daniel James. "Theodore Roethke's 'The Lost Son': Solipsism and The Private Language Problem." Essays in Arts and Science XVII (May 1988) 41-61.
Explores self-referential allusions in Roethke's "The Lost Son," especially as related to Ludwig Wittengstein's conception of language and the limits of expression.
Thurley, Geoffrey. "Theodore Roethke: Lost Son." In The American Moment: American Poetry in the Mid-Century, pp. 91-105. London: Edward Arnold, 1977.
Provides a reassessment of Roethke's literary career, noting the effect of uncritical public sympathy for Roethke and the academic and imitative qualities of his poetry.
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SOURCE: "Poets and Critics on Roethke," in "The Edge of What I Have": Theodore Roethke and After, Bucknell University Press, 1977, pp. 13-36.
[In the following essay, Williams provides a survey of Roethke's critical reception among contemporary poets and reviewers.]
Throughout Theodore Roethke's middle and late career and after his death in 1963, poets have enthusiastically praised his work, while major critics have generally ignored or slighted him. Not until the fifth edition of the well-known anthology, Sanders, Nelson, and Rosenthal's The Chief Modern Poets of England and America (1970), was Roethke included; and only recently in a collection of essays, Profile of Theodore Roethke (1971), the editor, William Heyen, pointed out that nine of his ten contributors were themselves poets (the single exception being Roethke's biographer, the late novelist Allan Seager), thus again reminding one that Roethke is essentially a poet's poet.
What later poets particularly admired in Roethke's work was the unusual intensity of the lyric voice, the projection of a preconscious self into the life of plants and animals, using highly original free-verse patterns that presented the speaker, the I in the poems, as unmasked—the poet himself asserting an oracular voice that tries to sound out archetypal themes, often probing the child-parent relation through a selective use of surrealistic imagery, that is, the "deep image." Carolyn Kizer quoted the poet himself in his role of teacher at the University of Washington (1947–63): "I teach a beat"; and she went on to underscore one of Roethke's characteristic rhythms—the end stopped, strong stress trimeter line, to which the poet continually returned throughout his career. Largely because of Roethke's presence in Seattle, she surmised, a significant number of talented poets gathered there.
If Roethke was revered for his mastery of the short line, he was equally revered for his mastery of the long line. His "great verbal sophistication," as Howard Nemerov describes it, manifests itself, not in the unit of the line, but in the strophe. James Wright, once a student of Roethke's, captures this twofold lyrical quality when, in his own poetry, he writes, praising his teacher: "And sweet Ted Roethke, / A canary and a bear," or elsewhere in referring to Swift's poems: "These are the songs that Roethke told of, / The curious music loved by few." It is this lyricism defining an epic theme—what Stanley Kunitz calls the poet's protean journey of transformation out of the self—that accounts for Roethke's particular appeal and influence. For Kunitz, Roethke's lyrical journey out of the self is a real achievement because he does not indulge his ego, and as a result he "was the first American bardic poet since Whitman who did not spill out in prolix and shapeless vulgarity."
Leslie Fiedler sees Roethke's work as seeking out myth and image in the privacy of dreams rather than in a decaying culture. Roethke's journey is a returning, not to a lost culture, but to the greenhouse of his youth where his father watched over and cared for a floral culture; and it is a return, as Fiedler perceptively describes it, "to all that is truly subversive in the line that comes down to us from Poe by way of symbolisme." Delmore Schwartz, who sees Roethke as original and important enough to be compared to Yeats and Valéry, notes Roethke's genuine awareness of the "abyss," the depths of the unconscious to which all romantic poets must return for self-definition and value. Because this return to the unconscious is dangerous, courting psychic disaster, achievement of self-renewal is at best precarious. Failure is always close at hand, yet self-renewal "is what we want: to be gathered together once more," says James Dickey, quoting from the end of Roethke's "The Long Waters." Roethke extends into modern times that Wordsworthian sense of being, of reunification with nature and one's self, and for this reason alone Roethke is for Dickey the greatest American poet there has ever been.
Perhaps C. W. Truesdale has best summed up Roethke's appeal by equating Roethke's second volume, The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), to Whitman's "Song of Myself"—an extension, in fact, of Whitman's poetics, exhibiting a controlling metaphor of organic growth and a progress from darkness to light: "Most of what we call the American archetypes find themselves again in his work (in unexpected ways), and above all the sense of the land—the vast, the particular, the wasted, the utterly beautiful and the utterly exploited landscape of America, the motherland of Thoreau, Whitman, Twain, even Cooper." Truesdale does not identify the major works, as such, other than "The Lost Son" sequence of poems, but it is the theme of resurrection in that sequence that, for Truesdale, defines Roethke's appeal: "the poet is always the 'lost son' seeking a fresh birth in a new America."
In reviewing Roethke's first collection of verse, Words for the Wind (1958), John Berryman compares Roethke with Robert Lowell; the two "possess the most powerful and original talents that have emerged during the last fifteen years." If Lowell is Latinate, formal, rhetorical, massive, historical, religious, impersonal, then Roethke is "Teutonic, irregular, colloquial, delicate, botanical and psychological, irreligious, personal"—a formidable list of comparisons, indeed, but comparisons that perhaps Roethke would have agreed with, since he had remarked at one time about Lowell's excessive concern with formal structures, and about his lack of intuitive perception. Berryman also singles out the longer poems in "The Lost Son" sequence as Roethke's largest achievement, one of the "fixed objects" in American poetry.
In addition to praise, one is not surprised to find some of these poets acknowledging a direct influence. Kunitz candidly admits that Roethke had taught him a way of coping with affliction. Galway Kinnell insists that no one really had any influence on his work, "until I ran across Theodore Roethke's poems." In accounting for Ted Hughes's poetic power, W. E. Snodgrass sees Hughes doing the same thing as Roethke.
Anne Sexton remembers "writing to Sylvia [Plath] in England after The Colossus came out and saying something like '… if you're not careful, Sylvia, you will out-Roethke Roethke,' and she replied that I had guessed accurately and that he had been a strong influence on her work."
Just what these poets saw in Roethke's work that the critics found convenient to ignore raises interesting questions that I shall try to answer throughout the ensuing pages. Why, for example, should so many critics have remained cool for so long to the romantic archetypes and lyricism that attracted the poets to Roethke in the first place? Perhaps it is the lack of a well-defined terminology for the motive and effect involved in any exchange between two or more poets—as Richard Wilbur has recently suggested in an essay on the subject of poetic influences. Wilbur reminds one that poets do borrow, steal, adapt, translate, impersonate, and parody one another, and that it is the business of other poets and also of the critics to account for this behavior. Wilbur himself discusses the beneficial effects of the Yeatsian influence on Roethke in the early fifties, an influence that Roethke literally documented in "Four for Sir John Davies" and "The Dying Man," as well as the poem later added to the greenhouse sequence in The Lost Son, "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze." In fact, the trimeter line Carolyn Kizer speaks of is a product of this Yeatsian influence. Of course, an influence can become merely derivative if it is not transformed in the younger writer's imagination, for in reading any poet the reader is always put into that position where he must distinguish between what is wholly belonging to the poet—what is stolen, to use Eliot's phrase—and what is merely borrowed. Without referring to particular poems, Wilbur sees Roethke's later poetry, after the "Yeatsian poems," showing an absorption of the older writer's influence, and hence a perfection of the Roethkean voice.
Although many of the major critics were silent about Roethke at mid-century and after, there were some critics who raised specific objections. In his study of modern English and American poets, The Shaping Spirit (1958), A. Alvarez defines the "unmannered," confessional mode of the American poet who writes from a sense of his own isolation within a classless, unstructured society. Speaking about The Lost Son in general, Alvarez argues that Roethke failed to succeed as a confessional poet. Roethke's talent "of a kind" (of a much lower caliber than that of Lowell's or Eberhart's) is delicate and direct in its treatment of the poet's "private troubles" (Alvarez refers to only one of the greenhouse poems, "Cuttings"), but because there is no sense of embarrassment, there is offered only an immediate purity and not that "overbearing, claustrophobic intensity" that Alvarez would have. In Roethke's subsequent volume, Praise to the End! (1951), Alvarez sees the poet as merely exploiting his material, using his verse "as though it were an analyst's couch." Roethke's artistic identity is a matter of nonconformity and being different: "He ends where the important writers begin, in that sense of isolation from which they create an impersonal artistic order."
M. L. Rosenthal's first critical introduction, The Modern Poets (1960), also treats Roethke as part of the confessional school of American writing. The greenhouse poems of The Lost Son volume are (contrary to Alvarez) "embarrassedly alive," yet, "as in most of Roethke's longer works, the dénouement does not live up to the poem's initial demands." Generally a defender of the "new poetry," Rosenthal is severely critical of Roethke's personal manner, "the private sensibility of a mad microcosm" that seeks unity and wholeness that, in the case of "The Lost Son," is merely wishful thinking. In his second study of poetry since World War II, The New Poets (1967), Rosenthal reiterates his position and further extends his remarks to Roethke's posthumous volume, The Far Field (1964), which he sees as "often marred by verbosity, cliché, and derivativeness." Admitting that Roethke came into his own as a poet in his group of greenhouse poems, "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," that these poems enabled him to objectify for a time his "uncontrolled, riotous psyche," Rosenthal nevertheless objects to Roethke's seeming inability to absorb "so little of the concerns of his age into his nerve-ends … so little reference direct or remote to the incredible experiences of the age." In Roethke's hands, then, the confessional mode is reduced to self-recharging and self-echoing.
The charge that Roethke's poetry is outside the experiences of the age is repealed by Monroe K. Spears in his study of modern poetry, Dionysus and the City (1970). Referring generally to "The Lost Son" sequence, Spears admits that Roethke's poetry at its best has a "deep inwardness and closeness to the Unconscious," yet because the Dionysian element is so strong, the poetry refuses to deal with "the world of normal adult experience." As a result, much of the verse tends toward incoherence and "real obscurity."
It has been demonstrated how some poets revered Roethke's lyricism, his voice of the self proclaiming a drama of the new self, but certain critics have found this preoccupation with the self too narcissistic. Discussing the nature of the modern lyric, William Pritchard looks upon Roethke as a representative figure of the "somnambulistic" poet devoid of irony and changing tone of voice. Pritchard would advance the cause of a Frost, or a Lowell—despite the singular tones of a Milton, or a Blake, as Pritchard himself admits—the cause for a lyricism that gestures between lyric impulse and the "wryly satiric." These "negative" critics appear to agree on at least two points: Roethke's limited theme that makes him (embarrassed or not) merely a personal, self-conscious poet, and his lyric form or lyrical monotone. These negative criteria, however, can be turned to Roethke's account.
In his seminal essay, "The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke" (The Sewanee Review, Winter 1950), Kenneth Burke offered for the first time a challenging structural approach to The Lost Son volume. Burke recognizes at once the symbolic importance of the greenhouse for Roethke (in Roethke's words: "A womb, a heaven-on-earth"), and from the thirteen-poem greenhouse sequence (now fourteen), he singles out that poem about the greenhouse itself, "Big Wind," as being representative of Roethke's method in all of these poems—his "intensity of action" whereby the poem develops from stage to stage, with the "unwinding of the trope." It is not the close description of flowers that makes these poems succeed—although this is clearly part of Roethke's intention—but the fact that Roethke can make his flowers suggest analogues to human behavior and motives quite like the figures of animals in Aesop's fables. In exploiting the floral image, even as a conceit, as Burke sees it, Roethke could develop these analogues on different levels of meaning (root, sprout, blossom), all the while amplifying his theme by a regressive withdrawing of the self ("the most occult of early experiences"). In this greenhouse world with its "peculiar balance of the natural and the artificial," there is almost a perfect symbol for that mystery that relates the individual with the social: "In hothouse flowers, you confront, enigmatically, the representation of status. By their nature, flowers contribute grace to social magic—hence, they are insignia, infused with a spirit of social ordination." In establishing Roethke's radicalism, Burke distinguishes between Eliot's aesthetic and that of Roethke's—the latter, for example, expressing an intuition of sensibilities having a minimum of ideas and a maximum of intuitions, hence a poetry of impulse rather than motive. In this way Roethke's vocabulary is shorn of the abstract—words with -ness or -ity endings—that characterize much of Eliot's poetry. Eliot meets the modern problem of identity in terms of doctrine, while Roethke grapples with that problem in opposite terms, regressing as thoroughly as he could, "even at a considerable risk, toward a language of sheer 'intuition.'" Moreover, Roethke's images become symbolically intuitive when they interchange their meanings through repetition in varying contexts; thus fish, water, flower, or girl might form a symbolic cluster by the repetition of each of these images in related contexts. In this way the images fuse their respective meanings: "They are 'fusions' if you like them, 'confusions' if you don't, and 'diffusions' when their disjunction outweighs their conjunction."
In dealing with the longer sequences, including "The Lost Son," Burke touches on two important techniques that have come to characterize Roethke's method in all of his long poems, as shall be seen later. The first is Roethke's shifting voice, extending the I of the speaker into a "cosmically communicating 'voice.'" The second is the way the imagery brings into tension the concrete and the abstract by almost always invoking the notion of "edge" (also suggested by the disjunctive qualities of the truncated, and endstopped lines): "the constant reverberations about the edges of the images give the excitement of being on the edge of Revelation (or suggest a state of vigil, the hope of getting the girl, of getting a medal, of seeing God). There is the pious awaiting of the good message—and there is response to "the spoor that spurs." Burke reprinted his essay in his collection, Language as Symbolic Action (1966), without changing it, for, as he was to say in a note appended there, "I cannot better contrive to suggest the rare, enticing danger of Roethke's verse as I felt it then, and still do."
Nothing of critical importance appeared in the decade following Burke's essay. Perhaps the publication of one notable volume of poetry (The Lost Son) coming seven years after Roethke's first volume, Open House (1941), was not enough of a production to attract serious attention. Also, the radicalism that Burke proclaimed may well have cautioned critics, for Roethke was to become more experimental (as the poems juxtaposed to Burke's essay were to show) in his next volume, Praise to the End!, which effectively extended "The Lost Son" sequence. Moreover, consistency was not Roethke's habit: he introduced a neo-Yeatsian mode in The Waking (1953) and extended it further into Words for the Wind (1958), all the while carrying over poems from one volume to the next. But in the sixties, especially after Roethke's death and his posthumously published The Far Field (1964), a number of important critics began to give this poet their attention. Arnold Stein edited a collection of essays in Theodore Roethke: Essays on the Poetry (1965), the first collection that indicates Roethke's new-found acceptance by the critical establishment. Most of the essays tend to support Roethke's growth as a poet, but because of the breakthrough made by The Lost Son and the radical experiments of the related poems in the Praise to the End! sequence, two questions naturally suggest themselves: do these two volumes—and specifically the former—constitute Roethke's achievement? Is there no growth and development in the later poetry?
Stephen Spender, W. D. Snodgrass, John Wain, and Louis Martz argue for a decline in poetic strength. Spender, for example, acknowledges Roethke's nonegotistic search of the I in "The Lost Son" sequence from these two volumes—hence the title of his essay, "The Objective Ego"—yet in the later poetry Roethke exhibits "the Yeatsian grand manner, he becomes the egotist who burdens the reader with his problems." A perpetual beginner, Roethke could not extend his childlike visions of organic nature into the world of society as everyone must come to know it; "he was not a free enough intellect to dominate the Yeatsian mode." Snodgrass's particularly incisive essay, "'That Anguish of Concreteness,'" similarly sees a failing in the later Yeatsian poems; but if Roethke, "who had invented the most raw and original voice of all our period," had misused the formal and elegant voice of Yeats, he had not done so with Eliot's voice (a less confining influence), which is behind the long sequence, "Meditations of an Old Woman," for here the Roethkean voice clearly emerges. In the later poems from The Far Field, the mystical and religious rationale and the borrowed cadences become too pervasive for Snodgrass, as does Roethke's penchant for rejecting form as he creates it in his seeking a unity with all objects. Eliot's ideas and Yeats's cadences have become models of form, "have rushed in to fill the vacuum of the father-model." Rejection of form, then, becomes itself a form, a convention, and the language then becomes weakened through slackness and "expectability." John Wain, in his essay, "The Monocle of My Sea-Faced Uncle," similarly praises "Meditations of an Old Woman," more for its originality and evocation of a genuinely feminine personality. Roethke is the only poet of the century who successfully refuses compromise between inner and outer reality by insisting on his intensity of vision, and to write about those things "that the mind apprehends only through the intuitions of the body." For these reasons Praise to the End! occupies a central place in the Roethkean canon. Louis Martz, on the other hand, sees Roethke's originality in terms of mind rather than bodily intuition. Applying Wallace Stevens's lines, "The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice," to Roethke's manner, Martz reveals a meditative mode displaying a speaker/actor who "seeks himself in himself in order to discover or to construct a firm position from which he can include the universe." Roethke's meditative manner develops out of the greenhouse poems—"one of the permanent achievements of modern poetry"—and reaches its zenith in the longer sequences making up the last section of The Lost Son, "The Greenhouse Eden" (Martz's title), to which Roethke would return in his later poetry, but never surpass.
The later poetry receives more sympathetic treatment from Ralph J. Mills, Jr., Frederick J. Hoffman, William Meredith, Denis Donoghue, and Roy Harvey Pearce. Mills's essay, "In the Way of Becoming: Roethke's Last Poems," treats the Roethkean journey as a quest for mystical illumination, a quest that alternates between contrary states within the "reflective consciousness" of the speaker—between ecstasy and despair—as in "Meditations of an Old Woman" and "North American Sequence." However, it is not until "Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical," constituting the last section of The Far Field, that Roethke reaches his peak in the process aimed toward "a union with or experience of the Divine." Unlike the freer, Whitmanesque rhythms with their breath-controlled strophes in "North American Sequence," the lyricism in "Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical" is taut and economic, "capable of containing and concentrating immense pressures of feeling," (the two sequences exemplifying Roethke's opposing rhythmic forms). What Snodgrass sees as a weakness in this last volume, Roethke's desire to escape all form and shape, is precisely what Mills commends as "Roethke's mystical perceptions by striking inward steadily with little recourse to external affairs … approximating the instant of naked revelation."
Donoghue, Meredith, and Pearce approach the poetry as an ordering of chaos, both inner and outer, private and public. Donoghue's perceptive essay, "Roethke's Broken Music," follows the Burkean example in tracing Roethke's "intuition of sensibilities" to define that ordering process. If the early poems held out the common romantic idea of the opposing self, the middle and late poems develop the sense of losing one's self at the edge of the abyss, and "the abyss is partly the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch, partly a ditch of his [Roethke's] own contriving, partly the fate of being human in a hard time, partly the poet's weather." This is the way to innocence; the poems are intuitive directions, 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." Donoghue stresses Roethke's universal appeal, insisting that he is never merely a regional or American poet. He gives two valid arguments: first, Roethke's eclectic influences (Eliot, Hopkins, Joyce, Whitman, Stevens, Yeats) preclude such labeling, and, second, Roethke's response to the parental figures (and the wife or lover in the love poems) is so vivid it engrosses all other responses that would better define a regional or local poet. In the poet's search for value and meaning there is an assumption on Roethke's part that this search is only interesting insofar as it is representative, and of no interest when it ceases to be. "Roethke set himself to work toward lucidity and order without turning himself into a case study entitled, 'The Still Complex Fate of Being an American'…. But," Donoghue adds, avoiding a seeming contradiction, "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." It is just this availability, the nature of Roe dike's influence, that is studied in the last chapter of this text.
In Meredith's essay, "A Steady Storm of Correspondences: Theodore Roethke's Long Journey Out of the Self," the assertion is again encountered that the Praise to the End! volume is central, "an anatomy of Roethke's imagery and sensibility" in which he explores the self without egotism. Flirting with "the slow rhythm of chaos," Roethke makes knowledge felt by means of syntax and rhythm; human speech becomes instinctive, "primarily involuntary, an animal cry." Pearce, on the other hand, is concerned with what he calls "the power of sympathy" in the later poetry. Roethke "could not understand the compulsive twentieth-century quest for identity via the route of alienation"; yet there is alienation in the poetry, but it is often associated with violence and only by means of sympathy is that violence transformed into power, thus, "alienation into identification." The argument of Roethke's "North American Sequence" is "to unify and make all of a piece, the world which has invaded the poet, so as to allow him to invade it." In this way the poet comes "to comprehend the full range of the other, that chain of being which moves from the minimal to God." Finally, there is Hoffman's incisive essay, "Theodore Roethke: The Poetic Shape of Death," stressing Roethke's dual language, the metaphysical and the natural. It is Roethke's particular success—unparalleled in modern American poetry—to have kept the two so well balanced, so reciprocal. Similar to Louis Martz, Hoffman regards Roethke's work as a poetry of the mind. The mind entering itself is Roethke's "steady concern," and to effect this metaphysical extension of himself he had to go beyond the greenhouse and the "papa principle" in The Lost Son, even though a sense of return was always imminent. The Roethkean persona looks into death's possibilities, he sees dying as "continual becoming," a knowledge "of growth as a move toward mortality," which finds its best expression in "Meditations of an Old Woman." In The Far Field Roethke develops metaphors of transcendence, that is, the will to transcend the particularity of the temporal process in order to define the self, and it is in the late poem, "In a Dark Time," that Roethke resolves "the mazes caused by life and the problems created by the expectation of death."
As excellent as many of these essays are, they are inevitably concerned with only the general qualities of Roethke's poetry. Within the compass of a brief essay, one can offer little structural criticism of specific poems, although what is provided is a needed emphasis on the Roethkean theme—the journey out of the self.
Aside from Burke's criticism of "The Lost Son," the earliest work done on a specific poem is Hugh Staples's essay, "The Rose in the Sea-Wind: A Reading of Theodore Roethke's 'North American Sequence'" (American Literature, May 1964). Stapes traces the sequence's structural pattern, describing the first poem of the sequence as an overture introducing the thematic imagery that will operate as leitmotifs throughout the sequence. The middle four poems alternate between sets of opposing images, earth and water, for example, or light (fire) and darkness; thus "Meditation at Oyster River" is dominated by water imagery, "Journey to the Interior" by earth imagery, the cycle repeating itself with the next two poems, "The Long Waters" and "The Far Field." A final version is then offered in the last poem, "The Rose," which presents the rose as the symbol of form, and here the sequence reconciles and resolves all the thematic images of the previous poems, gathering them together as a final achievement of unity.
Staples's method is both explicative and critical, and it may be that together with Burke he inspired further explication, the most notable example being the only book-length study so far, Karl Malkoff's Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry (1966). Malkoff's thoughtful explication of the entire range of Roethke's poetry falls short of any critical assessment of the poet's style and structure, but it does serve a most useful purpose in explicating key themes from a psychoanalytical point of view. The longer poems from the last of The Lost Son, for example, show Roethke's "adept manipulation of a subterranean, Freudian universe," and in so doing are original for contemporary poetry at that time. In viewing the poetry from psychological perspectives, Malkoff stresses the poet's personal sense of guilt—sexual in "The Lost Son," and in the form of a personal mysticism trying to take over in "Meditations of an Old Woman" and "North American Sequence." In assuming that guilt operates the controlling theme, Malkoff is forced to account for what appears to be Roethke's ambivalence (between the personal and the impersonal) in conceptualizing terms of myth and legend, and by using Freud and Jung, or other writers of consequence. As a result, Malkoff sometimes belies an impatience with Roethke's poetic strategies, as in the case of "Four for Sir John Davies": "The victory over the powers of darkness and nonbeing … is at best tentative; and this sets the pattern for the bulk of Roethke's remaining poetry, which is characterized by a tormenting vacillation between hope and despair rather than any consistent point of view."
Extending Staples's structural approach and enlarging upon Malkoff's basic explications, a few good studies of individual poems have appeared over the past several years. William Heyen in his essay, "Theodore Roethke's Minimals" (Minnesota Review, 1968), shows how Roethke's random selection of minimals (worms, mice, dogs, children, crows, and the like) is not meant to offer a development or hierarchy, as in a great chain of being, but rather is made to support the poet's varying moods. Most of the images represent stages of becoming and being, as in "Meditations of an Old Woman" where the woman's alternate moods of elation and despair are reflected in the way she interprets the bird and its song during the entire sequence. Heyen's criticism favors a mystical approach to the poetry, and a year later one finds him writing toward that end in a second essay, "The Divine Abyss: Theodore Roethke's Mysticism" (Texas Studies in Language and Literature, Winter 1969). Heyen concentrates on "The Abyss" from The Far Field in order to develop Malkoff's assertion that Roethke was quite familiar with Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism. That the poem's five-part structure corresponds to Underhill's outline of five phases of mysticism (awakening of self; purification of self; illumination; the dark night of the soul; union) is somewhat weakened by Heyen's admission that the fourth phase, the dark night of the soul, finds little correspondence in the poem. Yet the poem is the "prototypical" mystical poem, and the mystical journey it suggests is the very essence of many of Roethke's later poems in Words for the Wind and The Far Field.
Another essay of a more explicatory mode than Heyen's is James McMichael's "The Poetry of Theodore Roethke" (The Southern Review, Winter 1969). McMichael again emphasizes the Roethkean predicament—the journey out of the self, and particularly its relationship to the meaning of God for Roethke, the desire to find one's God: "I have emphasized," says McMichael, "that the sine qua non of Roethke's journey out of the self is his commitment to the mindless part of God's creation." Woman and animals are the mediators of this "mindless part" because they are closer to the "soil." In "North American Sequence," however, woman is precluded from the hierarchy of mediators of this "his most complete definition" of the journey out of the self. McMichael follows Staples's treatment of leitmotifs in the sequence as a hierarchy of elements within an earth-air-water framework. The final poem of the sequence is an ambitious attempt to define the paradoxical relationship between self and other and achieve as much resolution as possible. The rose, as symbol, is outside the hierarchy of mediators that has been at work in the preceding five poems; yet the value of the rose is somehow related to the transiency of this hierarchy, and the fact that this commitment might sink to nothingness leaves the poet (and the reader) with an acute sense of man's central dilemma.
Reworking Burke's ideas about Roethke's "intuition of sensibilities," Jerome Mazzaro develops a linguistic/psychological metaphor to explicate a sampling of the poetry in his essay, "Theodore Roethke and the Failures of Language" (Modern Poetry Studies, July 1970). Again, Mazzaro underscores the success of Roethke's intuitively directed language because it is symbolically informed. But something is lost in the process, and that is language's failure to communicate cognitively when it is intended to function symbolically. Roethke exemplifies that peculiar energy that depth psychologists claim an American culture creates, an energy "emanating from the tensions produced by the distance between the high level of her conscious culture and an unmeditated unconscious primitive landscape." Mazzaro's account for the unintelligibility of some of the poetry, particularly in Praise to the End!, amounts to an apology for the poet: "for complete interaction, his [the reader's] sensitivity to symbolic language must equal the poet's."
As if to exemplify Mazzaro's pronouncement about psychic parity between reader and poet, John Vernon offers his explication of "The Lost Son" sequence in Praise to the End! in his essay, "Theodore Roethke's Praise to the End! Poems" (The Iowa Review, Fall 1971). In attempting to account for the entire "Lost Son" sequence (not to be confused with the greenhouse sequence of an equal number of poems), Vernon discusses the first few poems, particularly the opening poem, "Where Knock is Open Wide," giving very little attention to the central poem, "The Lost Son" (until Vernon's essay very little, if nothing, of critical significance had ever been done with the "nonsense poems" making up part of this sequence). Vernon sees the dynamism of the child's world depicted in these poems; it is a synaesthetic world in which the imagery is predominantly sexual and parental. Father, mother, and self define a trinitarian identity that is always fluid because it is always holding in tension notions of separateness and mergence, of time and timelessness, of presence and absence.
In writing about the rise of a sacramental visionary mode in literature replacing the "supernaturalist figuralism" of the past, Nathan A. Scott, Jr., in his recent book, The Wild Prayer of Longing: Poetry and the Sacred (1971), devotes a chapter to Roethke as the exemplary poet of the sacred. Scott refers to Roethke's Blakean remark that everything that lives is holy, and he sees Roethke's sacramental verse as peculiarly American, promoting a sense of awe or wonder in the tradition of Whitman, Twain, Melville, or Thoreau. Roethke's praise of the small, calling upon snails, weeds, birds, and the like, keeps him away from the mystical, the supernatural, the "Supreme Fictions," even "God." Despite the fact that Roethke's sacramental vision is primarily limited to the non-human world, he deserves to be included "among the major poets using the English language in this century" because he knew "the very essence of the sacramental principle—namely, that nothing may be a sacrament unless everything is."
Brendan Galvin's "Theodore Roethke's Proverbs" (Concerning Poetry, Spring 1972) has given some needed attention to the proverbial, axiomatic quality of Roethke's poetry. A poem is seen as an aggregate of lines, of proverbs, separately recorded at various times in the notebooks, and it is the proverb that, for Roethke, was a way of ordering experience, "strategies" to cope with the problem of identity and to "induce his courageous plunges into the mire of the preconscious, and his subsequent returns."
What can be concluded from this criticism? Perhaps only two or three agreed-upon assertions at most—namely, that Roethke's controlling theme is the journey out of the self, that his lyric mode draws upon those of Yeats and Whitman, and that "The Lost Son" and the related poems forming "The Lost Son" sequence are central to his poetry. The rest is controversy—his mysticism, his symbolism, his range, his objectivism, his influence. Why this controversy persists (a healthy sign in itself) may be due to the absence of any thorough treatment of the poetry itself, that is, a critical assessment of more than one poem or sequence that would help establish the Roethkean mode of identity without reducing the poems to Freudian puzzles as Malkoff does. There is, of course, Burke's incisive but brief treatment of "The Lost Son," but nothing more of any consequence, except perhaps Staples's analysis of a decade ago of that other longer sequence of poems, "North American Sequence." Burke's analysis of "The Lost Son" sequence is directed to the greenhouse poems, "The Lost Son" itself receiving only selected criticism and not an extensive analysis of the entire poem. Staples's analysis of the later sequence is not only good, but also thorough and, therefore, difficult to improve upon; yet there still remains the job of tying this last sequence into the earlier ones, a job that Staples could not have contemplated, focusing almost exclusively, as he did, on the single sequence itself. Allan Seager reports that the long poems making up "North American Sequence" came easily "with an unwonted confidence," that Roethke "knew what he wanted to say and he was sure of his means." If this is true, accepting the centrality of "The Lost Son," the longest poem in the Praise to The End! sequence, then surely the one is an outgrowth of the other. There is, however, that other long sequence, "Meditations of an Old Woman," that comes between the two in time and that is quite similar in technique to the later sequence. There are, then, three long poems (the shorter of the three, "The Lost Son," is some seventy-five lines longer than the nearest contenders for length, the Yeatsian poems) that readily offer themselves for critical assessment as a group.
There are other reasons for treating these long poems as major pieces defining the Roethkean mode; for one, they exemplify in their own way that trinitarian sense of identity that John Vernon observed in the Praise to the End! sequence—the death of the father theme structuring the first poem, perhaps that of the mother the second (since Kunitz believes it was written immediately after the death of the poet's mother), and then the third poem finally concentrating on the mature self. Second, Roethke's greenhouse world, initially explored in the fourteen-poem sequence that makes up section one of The Lost Son, is never absent from these long poems; in fact, the greenhouse image is significant in each poem, making the group itself a unit for that reason alone. Third, each of these poems is somehow concerned with the urban world, the city, outside the "natural" world. In an essay entitled, "On 'Identity,'" Roethke describes his principal concerns as follows: "(1) The multiplicity, the chaos of modern life; (2) the way, the means of establishing a personal identity, a self in the face of that chaos; (3) the nature of creation, that faculty of producing order out of disorder in the arts, particularly in poetry; and (4) the nature of God Himself." He goes on to refer to his own poem, "Dolor," as a footnote to the inanimate sterility of the institution; "the 'order,'" says Roethke, "the trivia of the institution is, in human terms, a disorder, and as such, must be resisted." Resistance is precisely the method these long poems use. It might be said that they resist "false" trivia (institution trivia) with what Roethke would call "true" trivia (the trivia of "natural shapes"). It is the natural shapes running through these poems that contribute to their metric and thematic unity, but it is important to note the presence of an opposing "unnatural" imagery—in other words, intrusions from the city that become more pronounced, developing chronologically through these poems. The "kingdom of bang and blab," the disjunctive and sacred world of moss, mole, and stone depicted in "The Lost Son," can become profane and deadly as, "A kingdom of stinks and sighs, / Fetor of cockroaches, dead fish, petroleum" in the later poem, "North American Sequence." Thus, there is money creeping into the first of these poems; there are "the self-involved" and "those who submerge themselves deliberately in trivia," on the borders of the speaker's mind in the second poem; and there is the waste and decadence "at the edge of the raw cities" in the background of the third poem.
It is not usual to stress the social aspect of Roethke's poetry; indeed his ostensible neglect of the social theme has caused critics to assume that his range is limited, even as Robert Lowell seemed to do in a rather glib remark for The Paris Review (1961): "The things he knows about I feel I know nothing about, flowers and so on"—although Lowell drops glibness for reverence in his poem, "For Theodore Roethke." Roethke's apparent dearth of societal referents in his poetry, however, is really no reason to assume a lack of concern for "the incredible experiences of the age"; on the contrary, his concern can be said to condition and inspire the poetry.
Finally, Roethke's poetry has a tragic dimension so far ignored by all who have written about him. Burke alludes to it when he describes Roethke's verse as having that "rare, enticing danger" about it; and Donoghue, as well, when he speaks about the loss of self as "partly the fate of being human in a hard time," that Roethke's poems, in the middle and late period, are spiritual exercises, a way toward innocence, "never finished" in their "rage for a sustaining order." I am reminded of Yeats's remarks, for he saw the tragic dimension as a controlling form in all artistic expression: "Tragic art, passionate art, the drowner of dykes, the con-founder of understanding, moves us to reverie, by alluring us almost to the intensity of trance," and it is this trancelike condition that Roethke leads one to and away from in these major pieces, "for the nobleness of the arts"—to continue with Yeats's words—"is in the mingling of contraries, the extremity of sorrow, the extremity of joy, perfection of personality, the perfection of its surrender, overflowing turbulent energy, and marmorean stillness." Above all, it is this perfection of personality and the perfection of its surrender that Roethke accomplishes in these poems.
Joyce Carol Oates has admirably restated the problem of tragedy in modern times, and I have accepted her assumptions about the nature of tragedy—namely, that the art of tragedy grows out of a break between self and community; that at its base is fear; that although actual human life may in large part be valueless ("the multiplicity, the chaos of modern life"), tragedy asserts itself as a valuable and unique human passion, "risking loss of self in an attempt to realize self; that if the death of God means the death of tragedy, "then a redefinition of God in terms of the furthest reaches of man's hallucinations can provide us with a new basis for tragedy." Because Roethke's three longest poems are themselves an expression, among other things, of this search for God ("… the nature of God Himself)—a redefinition of God really—they share in the search, as well, for a tragic form.
It is the tragic form inherent in these three poems that perhaps in some way defines Roethke's appeal to later poets. What Staples calls "a dimension curiously suggestive of the epic," in referring to "North American Sequence," might be Roethke's assertion of a tragic form in addition to the appeal of his deep or intuitive imagery and his verbal rhythms, especially in an age of tragic failure, an age more of pathos and nihilism. Certainly, the controversy over the essence of tragedy is healthfully active today, and that Roethke should address this controversy through his art is a testament to his appeal.
In the following three chapters I shall take up, respectively, each of these three long poems in terms of the ideas discussed so far, and in the final two chapters the question of Roethke's influence in terms of the themes and lyrical qualities of the poetry discussed as well as in the poetry of some major contemporary poets. For this purpose I have chosen James Wright and Robert Bly as representative together of one facet of the Roethkean mode of experience; James Dickey by himself representing another vision of Roethke; and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes representing yet another.
It would not be wrong to suppose that many contemporary poets were reacting against the studied ironies and tensions in much of the poetry of Eliot, Stevens, and Auden—perhaps Frost and some of Lowell (and one thinks, too, of Tate and Ransom)—that these poets took a second look at Roethke's romantic stamp that bore the impressions of Wordsworth, Whitman, and Yeats. What they found—the profundity of the lyric forms in the greenhouse poems and the remarkable sequences that followed—proved to have enormous appeal for them; here again was a new voice.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3508
SOURCE: "The Unity of the Greenhouse Sequence: Roethke's Portrait of the Artist," in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 53-60.
[In the following essay, Spanier examines autobiographic allusions to the creative process revealed in the "Greenhouse Sequence" from Roethke's The Lost Son and Other Poems.]
Simplicity is deceptive in Theodore Roethke's "greenhouse sequence," which includes the first thirteen poems of The Lost Son and Other Poems (1848) plus one other poem inserted in two later editions of the group. The works are short and descriptive. They contain few, if any, abstract or philosophical statements. On first reading, the sequence may appear to be little more than an album of snapshots—true in color and sharply focused, to be sure—taken in and around the greenhouse that Roethke's father operated in Saginaw, Michigan throughout the poet's childhood. Roethke seems to have arranged the snapshots in a careful order, though (even his later addition is precisely placed within the group), and it is only when we view the sequence as a whole that the full significance of this body of poems emerges.
There appears to be a general movement forward through the sequence, from the pre-natal life of the cuttings in the first poem to the crisp, perfect blossom of the carnation in the last. Though he is not speaking here specifically about the greenhouse sequence, Roethke's own comments support a cyclical reading of the poems:
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 progress; an effort to be born, and later to become something more…. 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 (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."
As I see it, the fourteen greenhouse poems run the gamut of human experience in more or less chronological order: birth, the struggle to survive in a harsh environment, growth, death, eternity. But the sequence can also be read more specifically as a documentary of the process of artistic creation, from the first pre-conscious stirrings of thought, through the artist's struggle to resist the forces which work against his creation and to develop it fully, to the finished product, which may either fail and be rejected or succeed in achieving perfection and, thereby, eternal existence, Grecian-urn fashion. In this reading, the greenhouse sequence becomes Roethke's "portrait of the artist."
Several critics have sensed that these poems, though they are concrete and simple, might also be read symbolically or allegorically. Kenneth Burke writes that they are "clearly the imagistic figuring of a human situation." He likens them to Aesop's fables featuring flowers instead of animals, saying, "The poet need but be as accurate as he can, in describing the flowers objectively; and while aiming at this, he comes upon corresponding human situations, as it were by redundancy." Richard Blessing adds that "in the greenhouse sequence the reader is asked to supply the abstractions himself—or to leave them out, if he prefers." Theodore Roethke himself invites a symbolic reading, or, rather, demands one, when he calls the greenhouse "my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth."
It becomes evident, then, that these simple poems have been crafted precisely enough and arranged carefully enough to be able to bear the weight of abstraction, just as a perfect crystal goblet, if placed properly, is said to be able to bear the weight of a person standing on it. I will take Roethke at his word that the greenhouse represents "the whole of life" and will examine the sequence as a microcosm of human life, and, more specifically, as an allegorical depiction of the process of creating a work of art.
In my view, the poems fall into several groups, each marking a stage in the "life cycle" of a work of art: (I) pre-conscious beginnings; (II) the "struggle out of the slime"—crude, but tenacious existence; (III) obstacles to survival; (IV) nurture and growth; (V) soaring beyond ordinary experience—striving for perfection; and (VI) products of the effort.
Consistent with the complexity of their subject, these poems are packed with paradox and the tension of opposites. In them there is dynamic interplay between life and death, beauty and ugliness, fecundity and decay, creation and destruction, activity and stillness, past and present. The greenhouse itself is a paradoxical image, as Burke has remarked, embodying "a peculiar balance of the natural and the artificial."
In looking at these poems, then, I will try to "supply the abstractions," as I believe we are permitted and even invited to do, focusing on the part each poem plays in the allegory and considering the paradoxical imagery which Roethke employs to depict the complex, dynamic, often messy and painful process of artistic creation.
I have called the first phase of the creative process "pre-conscious beginnings," and the poems "Cuttings" and "Cuttings (later)" belong in this group. Very little "happens" in these poems; in the eight lines of "Cuttings," we simply view sticks planted in loam slowly awakening to life:
One numb of growth Nudges a sand-crumb loose, Pokes through a musty sheath Its pale tendrilous horn.
"Cuttings" describes the first stirrings of vegetal life on a microscopic scale: we can even see the "intricate stem-fur" on the sticks and their "small cells." The only motion here is the loosening of a grain of sand, yet Roethke has managed to endow such a still scene with a sense of potential vigor in his choice of action verbs: the sticks "droop," small cells "bulge," slips keep "coaxing up" water, a nub of growth "nudges" and "pokes." Thus, in this simplest of poems, we can see Roethke's dynamic and paradoxical imagery operating. In stillness and dormancy there is activity and life.
"Cuttings (later)" continues the description of the sticks slowly coming to life, but here Roethke explicitly relates "This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks" to human experience by asking
What saint strained so much, Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?
He tells us that he feels the stirrings of life in himself; we are witnessing the rejuvenation of a stilted, "lopped" human being beginning a new way of life. To begin to supply abstractions, this could well be a portrait of the artist himself, whose soul has been dried out and pruned by conventional existence and who is beginning to recognize an inner calling to his art. He feels new life coming to him from within, independent of his will, "sucking and sobbing" in his veins and bones. As the artist traditionally looks backward and inward to encounter life at its most basic, so the speaker tells us, "I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet." Again, there is a tension of opposing forces in the imagery. There is simultaneous movement of growth in both directions: the saint "rose" to a new life and small waters are "seeping upward," while the stems are "struggling to put down feet" (italics mine). Similarly, the sprouts "break out" into an external environment, yet there is movement backward and inward as the speaker leans to beginnings. This imagery reinforces the allegorical applications of this poem to the experience of the artist in that an artist's work involves both out-reaching communication and private introspection.
The second group of poems—"Root Cellar," "Forcing House," and "Weed Puller"—abounds with crude but tenacious life, depicting "the struggle out of the slime," to use Roethke's terms. On the allegorical level, we witness in this group the artist's determination that this germ of a work of art will survive. "Root Cellar" presents a vivid description of vegetal abundance and fecundity in a dark cellar. We are told that
Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch, Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark, Shoots dangled and drooped, Lollying obscenely from mildewed crates, Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
Again, the concrete description calls up more abstract associations with human life. In the root cellar we may be reminded of the abundance and tenacity of human life, of people striving and struggling to survive in the most adverse conditions. More specifically, the activity in the root cellar parallels the gestation of a work in the artist's mind. Like the shoots and bulbs, the poet's thoughts and feelings at this stage are chaotic, ineffectual, unpresentable, maybe even a little obscene, but, nevertheless, struggling hard to survive. There is little order but much life:
Nothing would give up life: Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.
Paradoxically, this poem about fecundity and the will to live is set in an environment of darkness and decay, amid "a congress of stinks," just as much art emerges from unpleasantness, pain, and confusion.
In the "Forcing House," there is a feeling of unnatural vigor as the plants are shot with nutrients and pulse with forced steam. The vines, scums, mildews, and blossoms
All pulse with the knocking pipes That drip and sweat, Sweat and drip, Swelling the roots with steam and stench, Shooting up lime and dung and ground bones,— Fifty summers in motion at once, As the live heat billows from pipes and pots.
The mechanisms in the greenhouse mercilessly manipulate nature, trying to improve upon it, just as a poet may not-so-gently "work over" his budding creation in order to perfect it. Language and experience are removed from their normal, natural states and are artificially manipulated, compressed, and intensified by the poet, who, like the operator of the forcing house is perfectly capable of putting "Fifty summers in motion at once." As in the poems already discussed, there is paradox here, too, with nature and artifice in opposition. In the greenhouse and in the artist's mind, natural entities are roughly and sometimes cruelly handled, precisely because the "torturer" (the florist or the artist) cares for them and wants them to improve and thrive.
In "Weed Puller" there is a contrast between the lovely public spectacle of
Lilies, pale-pink cyclamen, roses, Whole fields lovely and inviolate,—
and the weed puller's private view of the underside as he, "down in that fetor of weeds," is
Hacking at black hairy roots,— Those lewd monkey-tailes hanging from drain holes,— Digging into the soft rubble underneath.
This underneath view seems analogous to the sometimes messy "root layer" of the artist's mind, filled with things repressed, forgotten, or decayed, but very much alive and the breeding ground for beautiful creations. While others view only the pretty public blooming of the finished work, the artist, like the weed puller, must engage in a private struggle, grovelling in the messy source of it all, trying to create beauty and order out of chaos:
Tugging all day at perverse life: The indignity of it!— With everything blooming above me.
The artist, too, may find his subterranean work treacherous going, in terms of his own mental health, for the poet describes himself as
Crawling on all fours, Alive, in a slippery grave.
"Orchids," "Moss-Gathering," and "Big Wind" are included in the group I call "obstacles to survival" because they depict some stumbling blocks in the creative process, both external and internal. "Orchids" is a poem of quiet seduction and deadly beauty. The orchids are sensuous and alluring, and they seem almost human: they lean out over the path in the greenhouse and sway close to the face, they are "delicate as a young bird's tongue," they have "soft luminescent fingers," their "musky smell comes even stronger" when the heat goes down and the moonlight falls on them through the glass, and they slowly draw in air through "their fluttery fledgling lips." Lovely as they are, though, the flowers are insidious and must be resisted. The imagery points up their treachery and the need for caution when dealing with them. The orchids are "adder-mouthed," they come out "soft and deceptive," and they drift down from their beds of moss like "devouring infants." The sensuous yet sinister descriptions suggest that the orchids may represent sensuous, worldly pleasures, which, however pleasant-seeming and attractive, may divert the artist from his real work and eventually destroy him.
In "Moss-Gathering" the obstacle to creation is a sense of guilt within the artist himself. Pulling up naturally-growing moss to be used in a cemetery basket, a "made" object, makes the speaker feel mean:
As if I had broken the natural order of things in that swampland; Disturbed some rhythm, old and of vast importance, By pulling off flesh from the living planet.
The conflict and danger here are within the artist. In order to create an art object, any artist must somewhat destroy "the natural order of things," and in this creation there is a sense of loss, "As if I had committed, against the whole scheme of life, a desecration." These conscientious pangs may not be completely undesirable—things to be erased from the artist's mind—but they are potentially crippling to him and do represent an obstacle to creative productivity and, therefore, must be reckoned with.
"Big Wind," analyzed in detail by Kenneth Burke, is a metaphorical narrative of survival as the greenhouse rides out a violent rainstorm just as a ship would ride out a storm at sea. This poem is a portrait of endurance, of something battling against an external assault and finally emerging unscathed. While the owners help by draining the manure machine, watching the pressure gauge on the rusty boilers, and stuffing burlap into holes left by blown-out glass, the greenhouse "hove into the teeth of it, / The core and pith of that ugly storm." The fragile glass house, which finally "sailed until the calm morning, / Carrying her full cargo of roses," may be likened to the delicate (or, at least, sensitive) mind of the artist, as it struggles to survive the attack of a harsh and hostile world upon its sensibilities and emerges from the battle intact, carrying its "full cargo of roses"—its beautiful and cherished creations.
Assuming that the artistic impulse has germinated, clung stubbornly to crude existence, and surmounted the obstacles of insidious distraction, potentially crippling inner reservations, and overt external assault, the time has come for care and nurture so that its fullest growth may be realized. The next three poems in the sequence—"Old Florist," "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze," and "Transplanting"—explore the theme of care and growth.
"Old Florist" is a portrait of a man close to life, nurturing, caring for, and protecting the flowers. Again, there is paradox in that his loving care often consists of destruction. The same "hump of a man" who gently fans life into wilted sweet-peas with his hat and stands all night watering roses also stamps dirt into pots, flicks and picks leaves, pinches back asters, and drowns a bug "in one spit of tobacco juice." Creation and destruction are juxtaposed in the greenhouse as they are in art; the artist must prune and selectively destroy parts of his work in order that it be sound.
"Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze" depicts three "ancient ladies" bustling about the greenhouse caring for the flowers. It did not appear in the first edition of the greenhouse poems but was later inserted between "Old Florist" and "Transplanting" in the volume The Waking (1953) and more recently in Words for the Wind (1958). Louis Martz has complained that this poem with its "Yeatsian" flavor is an "intrusion" and is out of place in the simple greenhouse sequence: "it breaks the natural, intimate presence of those earlier poems, and it ought to be printed elsewhere in future editions of Roethke's poetry." But when the sequence is viewed in terms of the groupings I have outlined, it does belong here, for the three ladies are also nurturing creatures, sometimes even called "earth mothers." We are told that they straightened blossoms, tied and tucked the stems, "teased out the seed that the cold kept asleep," and "They trellised the sun; they plotted for more than themselves." These vigorous, vigilant "nurses of nobody else" are peacemakers, bustling along rows, "keeping creation at ease." Past and present come together in the final lines, as the mature poet remembers how they picked him up, "a spindly kid," and nurtured him, and he tells us.
Now, when I'm alone and cold in my bed, They still hover over me, These ancient leathery crones, With their bandannas stiffened with sweat, And their thorn-bitten wrists, And their snuff-laden breath blowing lightly over me in my first sleep.
"Transplanting," too, is a poem of care and nurture. We watch sure hands swiftly and skillfully transplant the young plants into loam and set them in the warm sun. In this poem, the last of the "nurturing" group, we finally view the triumphant culmination of this tender care, dramatically, as though in slow motion photography:
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.
"Stretching and reaching" is the central motion of the next poem, "Child on Top of a Greenhouse," though we have moved from the realm of plants to that of human beings. In this seven-line poem, quite simply, a child has climbed to the top of a greenhouse and is looking down through the glass at the flowers below end et the people on the ground looking up at him and shouting. The child's climbing where no one has ventured before (much to the alarm of those bound to the earth by aging joints or common sense) is much like the artist's striving to soar above the known and ordinary. The analogy is strengthened when we remember that Roethke called the greenhouse the "whole of life." The poet, like the child, wants to stand atop it, to conquer and master the summit, but it is a terrifying, lonely, and thrilling quest, baffling and upsetting to the less ambitious. Roethke has captured the terror and exhilaration by packing a tremendous amount of action into this very short poem. All is in violent motion with the wind billowing out the child's britches, splinters of glass and dried putty cracking under his feet, flowers "starting up like accusers," the glass "flashing with sunlight," a few clouds "all rushing eastward," elms "lunging and tossing like horses," and "everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!"
The final two poems depict the possible end products of this artistic quest: the reject on the junk heap and the enduring perfect creation. In "Flower-Dump" we view the junk heap. The flowers, weeds, molds, dead leaves, and clumps of roots which have been "pitched" and left to decay are topped by
One swaggering head Over the dying, the newly dead.
This tulip is like the latest literary addition to the artist's waste basket. Happily though, Roethke does not end on the teeming trash heap his series of poems about artistic creation. Instead, he leaves us with "Carnations," a poem about this crisp, intricate, classically perfect flower. The description of the carnation evokes images of the classic age of Greece: the leaves are "Corinthian scrolls," the air is cool "as if drifting down from wet hemlocks," and the poem ends with the description of
A crisp hyacinthine coolness, Like that clear autumnal weather of eternity, The windless perpetual morning above a September cloud.
This still life of cool perfection and timelessness is the perfect culmination for this series of poems about artistic creation, for producing such a classic objet d'art is the goal of any artist.
In the greenhouse sequence Roethke has led us through the whole creative process. We have witnessed the most primitive stirring of an artistic impulse, its first crude but determined efforts to exist, the obstacles to its survival, the nurturing and development of the work, the artist's soaring beyond everyday existence, his failures, and the culmination of his effort in the creation of a classic, eternal work of beauty.
Roethke called his greenhouse his symbol for the whole of life. I would offer a more particular metaphorical equivalent for the greenhouse as it appears in this sequence of poems. As it is a place in which nature is imitated, artificially cultivated, and improved upon, it is much like the mind of the artist, who draws upon nature as the source of his art but manipulates and stylizes it, and, if he is successful, fashions a product which may be more "real" and enduring than the piece of nature it imitates. A work of art, like a hot house flower, may be more perfect than its uncultivated counterpart in nature. Luckily for us, too, the greenhouse is transparent, so that we may look with Roethke into the artistic mind as it creates a work of art.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12840
SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke as a Northwest Poet," in Northwest Perspectives: Essays on the Culture of the Pacific Northwest, compiled and edited by Edwin R. Bingham and Glen A. Love, University of Washington Press, 1979, pp. 186-216.
[In the following essay, Vanderbilt examines Roethke's regional self-identity and distinct American voice, particularly as influenced by his Midwestern origins and later years in Seattle.]
To explore the relationship between Theodore Roethke and the Northwest is very satisfying for several personal reasons. I was Roethke's colleague in his late years at the University of Washington. He knew I admired his poetry, but I was somehow unable to accord him the repeated and fulsome praise I knew that he deserved and almost insatiably required. I now intend to give proper homage to Roethke and make amends for the perversity of my earlier restraint. I shall also atone for my failure in never having shared with Roethke the regional impulse in his later poetry. After his posthumous The Far Field appeared in 1964, I began to discover how important the Northwest was to Roethke. Since then, I have followed the steady flow of critical analyses, revaluations, and rising estimates of his lyrical virtuosity and dynamic vision. (How the insecure Roethke would have savored this belated recognition!) Still absent in this criticism is the importance for Roethke of what D. H. Lawrence termed "the spirit of place."
The neglect is understandable. Testimony abounds that Roethke was in no sense to be mistaken for a regional poet. The evidence is formidable enough that I want to assemble it rather fully at once. I shall then argue the positive case for Roethke as a man and poet whose total career can be understood as a growing possession of his American geography and selfhood. Finally, I want to offer a few comments about Roethke in the light of standard conclusions which so often appear in discussions of literary regionalism, at least since recognition of Faulkner. I mean the pro forma consideration of regionalism as initial response. The writer of major talent then dissolves, transforms, and transcends this regionalism and moves outward to the national, international, and cosmic reaches of his sensibility. That a literary region in American might claim a healthy autonomy through its own shaping myths and archetypes, a unique reason for being that is fully realized in its own necessary form—this possibility has seldom been entertained seriously by our literary historians and critics. Allen Tate observed in 1929, for example, that American regionalists like Lindsay, Sandburg, and Masters, let alone the would-be epic poet like Hart Crane, suffered from the absence of a truly national literature, a "homogeneous body of beliefs and feelings into which the poet may be educated." In particular, "the spiritual well-being of the West," said Tate, "depends upon its success in assimilating the cultural tradition of the older sections." But Tate then hoped that future writers in the "provinces" could help somehow to solve the problem of a national literature by releasing local wellsprings and creating ancillary pipelines into an eventual mainstream culture (my imagery, not Tate's). Only recently, one of our best poetry critics, Fred Moramarco, reviewed a collection of dubiously "Western" poetry and then went on to advance the companion, or universal, theory of regional offerings. The best author will select his local materials with an eye and ear responsive to significant universals. Unlike Tate, Moramarco does not foresee a vital literary regionalism in the future from which larger "verities" can emerge, for he doubts that the distinctive region itself any longer exists. Instead, we live in "post-McLuhan media saturated global village uniformity." The sad result is that "the idea of a regional literature in any meaningful sense died in this country with the passing of Frost, Faulkner, Jeffers and a few other major literary talents who were able to isolate regional qualities and discover the universal verities within them." Compulsively echoed and rephrased by lesser critics over the past fifty years, these demands for significant national and universal expression have encouraged a fair amount of misdirected ambition in the careers of American authors who might otherwise have been content to embrace and vitalize the particular history, folklore, and landscape of their region. Among the victims of this confused purpose, I am afraid, was our poet Theodore Roethke.
No interpreter of Roethke, biographer or critic, has discovered that in his life or poetry Roethke drew either a strong identity or consistent nourishment from his locale. He was above all, we are told, a private, meditative, hermetic sort of man and poet. He derived from his natural surroundings a stream of correspondences to express the agonized progress of the lonely self in its mysterious and sometimes wondrous drive toward transcendence and beatitude.
Biographer Allan Seager writes, for example, that for Roethke, "It was himself he had to sing, not the circumambient world. He only used that." And Seager confirms his judgment with the testimony of Stanley Kunitz, whose friendship dated from Roethke's first teaching job at Lafayette College in the early thirties: "Stanley Kunitz says [Roethke] was not a really close observer, and, of course, he did not need to be since everything around him was useful to him only as signatures of himself." When Roethke traveled, he was interested in meeting a few interesting people rather than touring the monuments or natural wonder of historic places. Many of his friends and colleagues—from Lafayette to Michigan State to Pennsylvania State to Bennington and (after 1947) the University of Washington—would probably concur with Denis Donoghue that Roethke was the autonomous poet who never attached himself to an ideology or a geographical region: "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."
Donoghue's regional list was casual. We may inquire into his two prominent omissions—the Michigan Saginaw Valley of Roethke's childhood and the Pacific Northwest of his final sixteen years. Ample data suggests that Roethke felt no spirit of place in the environs of Saginaw. Seager puts it this way:
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.
Years after, during the first mental breakdown in late 1935 that terminated his brief teaching stint at Michigan State University, Roethke 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 connects with Roethke's poetic self-image as the outsider and points to his regional alienation even earlier. In one of his college essays at the University of Michigan, Roethke had discussed "the poet as criminal," the instance being François Villon. Early on in Michigan, then, Roethke felt himself a lonely poet and species of outrageous free spirit. Or as Seager provocatively sees it, Roethke "may have begun to suspect that poetry, having no voice in the community where he lived, was antisocial…. Poetry was akin to crime. Strange and unwelcome in middle-class America, the poet was a criminal." Though he admired Whitman, the young Roethke would not emulate the people's bard and camarado. He was, instead, the tough-guy poet. "I may look like a beer salesman, but I'm a poet," he announced defensively by way of introduction to the president of Bennington College at a job interview in New York early in the forties. Even through the fifties and into his final years, he continued to fashion and embroider the fiction of the gangster element in his life. He would relate how he had once been on close terms with the Detroit underworld and that the notorious Purple Gang had once "offered to bump my Aunt Margaret off for me. As a favor, you understand." The cadences here might have been lifted directly out of one of the fabrications of Jay Gatsby.
Seager effectively discounts these "memories" of regional outlawry. "In the Thirties, Ted was not near Detroit long enough to ingratiate himself with the gang lords." Excepting the one year in Michigan during the mid-thirties, he was successively at Harvard, Lafayette, and Penn State, safely out of touch with Michigan and its urban underworld.
His first two books of poetry firmly support the thesis that Roethke was never a midwestern regionalist, either by sympathetic identity or literary example. Before Open House appeared in 1941, ten of the poems were anthologized in a volume titled New Michigan Verse (1940). Hungry for a reputation, Roethke was delighted to be published but, says Seager, "he had a few misgivings also because he did not want to be known as a regional poet." Roethke rather explicitly denies, also, any regional impulse in the Saginaw greenhouse poems which create the celebrated breakthrough in the mid-forties and dominate his second book, The Lost Son (1948). When he comments on this work in progress to Kenneth Burke, Roethke stresses not the significance of local place but rather the intention to "show the full erotic and even religious significance that I sense in a big greenhouse: a kind of man-made Avalon, Eden, or paradise." The inspiration and metaphor of the organic greenhouse world appeared to be mythic and not regional. Outside the childhood greenhouse, to be sure, were a community and a region, but the growing youth came to feel this area as annihilating space, either a claustrophobic "particular place" or a pitiless waste land. In a vivid notebook jotting later in the fifties, Roethke remembered "the Siberian pitilessness, the essential ruthless-ness of the Middle West as I knew it."
Roethke came to the Northwest in 1947 to join the English faculty at the University of Washington, and it remained his academic address until his death in the summer of 1963. Yet some colleagues who were closest to him there have told me that he was never a chamber of commerce spokesman for the Northwest. Even before he took up residence in Seattle, Roethke in the East expressed "misgivings about going even further into the provinces" than ever before. When he arrived in mid-September of 1947, he mentioned his initial fears to Kenneth Burke: "I'm afraid I'm going to be overwhelmed by nice people: it's a kind of vast Scarsdale, it would seem. Bright, active women, with blue hair, and well-barbered males. The arts and the 'East' seem to cow them." Neither pub life nor cafe society had much of a chance in this Northwest outpost. "I found, to my horror," Roethke continued, "that you have to go a mile from the campus even to get beer, and there are no bars for anything except beer and light wines in the whole of Seattle, except in private clubs. And there are no decent restaurants, either, as far as I can find out."
Several months later, he wrote again to Burke. Living in the Northwest, it was now clear, amounted to a sort of physical and spiritual exile. "I tell you, Kenneth," he wrote, "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-image 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."
In 1951 he moved out of the University district to North Edmonds, where the house offered a splendid view of Puget Sound. "But oddly enough," he wrote to Babette Deutsch, "it's lonely and I resent the 30 minutes drive each way." After his marriage in 1953 he lived in Bellevue on Lake Washington and finally bought a house across the lake nearer to the University in 1957. But one should not easily conclude that Roethke had slowly become a loyal Northwesterner. Throughout his tenure at the University of Washington, he was inquiring into jobs elsewhere or applying 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 depressing climate in the Northwest. In his first or second year, he entered the following verses in a notebook.
What eats us here? Is this infinity too close, These mountains and these clouds? On clearing days We act like something else; a race arrived From caves … [sic] Bearlike, come stumbling into the sun, avoid that shade Still lingering in patches, spotting the green ground.
Writing to Princess Marguerite Caetani (founder and editor of Botteghe Oscure), he ruefully exclaimed in 1954, "Such a stupid letter!—even worse than usual. But it's partly the weather, I think—the sun hardly ever gets out in these parts. (San Francisco and Berkeley were wonderfully warm & non-foggy the week I was there.)" The climate affected not only his disposition. His physical health also deteriorated. Seager writes: "His arthritis grew worse and became more painful in Seattle's damp climate. (He kept trying to get a job in California for the winter terms where he could be in the sun. He liked the sun.) He seemed to have a permanent bursitis in his elbow, and what he called 'spurs' in his shoulder for which he often got cortisone injections."
Small wonder, then, if Roethke in his later poetry appears not to celebrate the Northwest but, instead, meditates upon death and the Roethkean soul's "drive toward God." Frederick Hoffman recalled that in the summer of 1957, Roethke confided "that he was much concerned with the mysteries and paradoxes of death, and that his new poetry reflected these concerns. It did just that…." Even in the "North American Sequence," William Snodgrass eloquently dismisses the native and regional note and hears instead a predominant urge to regression and death. The "burden" of such poems as "Meditation at Oyster River" and "The Long Waters," says Snodgrass, is "a desire to escape all form and shape, to lose all awareness of otherness … through re-entrance into eternity conceived as womb, into water as woman, into earth as goddess-mother."
Other critics have echoed this conclusion, and some have gone on to remark that Roethke in the Northwest years scarcely seems to have acknowledged the ordinary human life of his community and region, let alone the political and social crises of the nation and world. Perhaps the capacity to respond to a regional ethos in America is linked to the capacity to respond to a national ethos—to feel the pulsebeat of the nation in the whole and in its distinguishing parts. The people of Washington State after the War were affected not only by the Canwell Committee political witchhunts, or logging and aircraft prosperity, but more broadly by Little Rock, McCarthyism, Eisenhower and Nixon, and a standardized civilization exploding with machines, gas pumps, and supermarkets. Where does this life appear in the poetry of Roethke? Simply, it is not there. But in recent years we have glimpsed, in the published notebooks, a Roethke to some degree conscious of both the humdrum and "provincial" and also the national temper of Cold War life in the Eisenhower fifties. But he appears through it all a man tormented by his incapacity to absorb this life, either concretely or abstractly, into his imagination, to ventilate his airtight broodings of self with poems ranging from his Seattle A & P to the shoddy goings-on of Joseph McCarthy and Richard M. Nixon. Being aware of a regional America, he muses, is to be sensitive to the lonely limits of the "provincial" experience lived simultaneously within an American civilization of major shortcomings and meager returns. In short, he cannot go the poetic route of a Hart Crane, Williams, Lowell, or Ginsberg. The following prose excerpts from the published notebooks reveal something of the distinguishing tone of the postwar decade—from Seattle to the nation's capital—which a lonely Roethke heard and felt but was unable to convert into his poetry.
Me, if I'm depressed, I go down to the A & P and admire the lemons and bananas, the meat and milk.
Crane's assumption: the machine is important; we must put it in our lives, make it part of our imaginative life. Answer: the hell it is. An ode to an icebox is possible, since it contains fruit and meat.
Perhaps our only important invention is the concept of the good-guy.
After Mr. Richard M. Nixon, I feel that sincerity is no longer possible as a public attitude.
… there are intense spiritual men in America as well as the trimmers, time-servers, cliché-masters, high-grade mediocrities.
Democracy: where the semi-literate make laws and the illiterate enforce them.
Was it my time for writing poems about McCarthy or my time for sending out fresh salmon or the time of playing happy telephone or my time for dictating memoranda about what's wrong with America?… or my time for crying.
I think no one has ever spoken upon the peculiar, the absolute—can I say—cultural loneliness of the American provincial creative intellectual. I don't mention this as something to be sighed over, worried about, written about—simply say it is simple fact that the American is alone in space and time—history is not with him, he has no one to talk to—Well, the British do.
As a provincial, an American, no fool, I hope, but an ignoramus, I believe we need Europe—more than she needs us: the Europe of Char, of Perse, of Malraux, of Michaux, those living men with their sense of history, of what a freeman is.
An argument can be fashioned, nevertheless, that despite his poetic escape from the ordinary or critical affairs of his fellow earthlings, Roethke in Seattle was, in the most expressive and traditional manner, the poet of his place and time. In his dark confessional pages he spoke powerfully of the poet's spiritual despairs and searchings. Were they not shared, however diffusely, by Northwest folk and in fact, by all addled Americans whose lives were without ties and ballasts in the new global chaos of the mid-twentieth century? Another vivid notebook entry, presumably self-descriptive, supports this view of Roethke's American career and might aptly serve as the poet's own modern epitaph:
The grandeurs of the crazy man alone, Himself the middle of a roaring world.
Other Roethkes insistently emerge from the biographical pages. They blur together to suggest the man and poet who related himself positively to a place of birth, a region of his formative youth, a native land, and finally, a second region of his mature years. Allan Seager underplays this opposite story. The temptation is familiar to all who have conceived or labored to write the coherent biography of a complicated human being. Roethke's shifting masks and identities were varied and complex. He was a man of fierce, self-rending ambivalences. In addition to the previous examples of disaffection from region and country, leading to final escape into the metaphysical, one discovers also Roethke's embracement variously of the communal, the regional, and the national.
Though I am in search of a Northwest Roethke, I should briefly touch the earlier years for the evidence that he felt a certain positive spirit of place and attachment in America before 1947. In the early forties when Roethke arrived at rich and presumably sophisticated Bennington, Seager was struck by his new colleague's "ambiguous fear and admiration of the rich, his ambiguous fear and admiration of the East" which seemed to stir "all sorts of atavistic and Middle Western antagonisms" in the man. Seager did not know then that this Midwest identity had recently become a central concern for Roethke. He had applied for a Guggenheim grant just before. The poetry would advance beyond the private rejection and anger he had earlier expressed in regard to provincial Michigan and the "hideous" life of his youth. "A series of poems about the America I knew in my middle-western childhood," he wrote, "has been on my mind for some time; no flag-waving or hoopla, but 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 to be the writing of a distinctly regional verse:
(1) a dramatic-narrative piece in prose and verse about Michigan and Wisconsin, past 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 programme, 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 find that Roethke had organized his "ideas & feelings about Michigan" not within the Bunyan myth but rather in a primordial myth of the child's Edenic greenhouse world. In the "Michigan" poetry, Roethke did not fulfill his intensely regional undertaking after all. Nor did the outer vegetal life register on the inner Roethke except largely as a human metaphor, to be equated, shaped, verbalized. But the urge to regional description and symbolization, as well as to natural immersion and union, had begun. It remained a part of his creative impulse which he would continue to explore and ultimately frame and express in the Northwest.
In a 1953 appearance on BBC's "The Third Programme," Roethke introduced himself as a poet of unmistakably regional origins. "Everyone knows that America is a continent," he said, "but few Europeans realize the various and diverse parts of this land." He then described his own Saginaw Valley and termed it "a wonderful place for a child to grow up in and around."
Again in an interview shortly before his death, Roethke fondly reminisced about Michigan scenes of his childhood which "still remained in his mind" to influence his poems. Other testimony is now at hand to support this version of Roethke who clearly felt a decisive part of his identity as a man and sensibility as a poet had received salutary strength from the region of his earliest years. It remained as a residue of positive and cherished memory to sustain the maturing poet and enrich the strong poems in his last book which I shall turn to in a moment.
Sometime in his early development, as Roethke understood himself to be an Upper-Midwesterner, he also sensed another part of his identity which should be noted before we enter the Northwest phase. He came to feel his roots as an American. The process is too subtle to trace with absolute certainty. After he became assured of a reputation, Roethke almost emphatically portrayed himself as having been, early on, a national poet in the American grain. Though he was an avid reader of the English poets and dramatists, he recalled first of all his American masters whom, he said, "early, when it really matters, I read, and really read, Emerson (prose mostly), Thoreau, Whitman." And to a degree his memory is corroborated by student documents. His notes from a college course in American literature at Michigan in the late twenties include these releaving comments on Whitman:
What are we to say of Whitman as poet? Selection? Defied rules. Can art be formless NO!
1) An undying energy of life—a tang—vitalizing something.
2) A certain largeness—deals with deep things in life on a large scale.
3) Most great poetry is primal?
In a composition for his rhetoric class, Roethke's theme was his strong response to nature. Again are the hints of a developing American consciousness: "I know that Cooper is a fraud—that he doesn't give a true sense of the sublimity of American scenery. I know that Muir and Thoreau and Burroughs speak the truth." One can scarcely detect these "American" influences in the deeply private poetry that would soon come from Roethke's pen in the early post-college years. No doubt he had to discover other aspects of selfhood—his personal, sexual, and family identity—before he possessed any version of a representative Roethke, Mid-westerner or American.
Soon after Open House appeared in 1941, Roethke seems to have felt a new growth away from the tight limits of this early poetic form and experience as well as, so we may infer, a movement toward a larger, a more inclusive identity. "My first book was much too wary," he wrote Kenneth Burke a few years later, "much too gingerly in its approach to experience; rather dry in tone and restricted in rhythm." And in a pair of anecdotes to Allan Seager in the mid-forties, Roethke illuminates the early making of a self-consciously national poet. The first is a letter after he arrived at Bennington: "It seems I was hired because, according to the president, Lewis Jones, I'm 'a grass roots American with classic tastes.' So, simple fellow that I am, I'm to teach a course in American literature (just people that interest me) next year." Though he is amused by this American version of himself, the man and poet with an as yet plastic and uncertain self-image regarded the comment revealing enough to remember and repeat.
The other occurrence, however, made him belligerently nationalistic. In July, 1946, a less amusing version of the American Roethke had arrived from England. The London Horizon had returned his new greenhouse poems. "It seemed to us that your poetry was in a way very American," the rejection letter announced, "in that it just lacked that inspiration, inevitability or quintessence of writing and feeling that distinguishes good poetry from verse." Seager comments that "this letter made him wrathy and he was still fulminating against the 'god-damned limeys' when I saw him later in the summer."
The sting of this criticism may still have festered when Roethke presently wrote an introductory comment on The Lost Son poems to be included in John Ciardi's Mid-Century American Poets (1950). He now insisted that this poetry was very American and possessed a strong inspiration, inevitability or quintessence of feeling.
Some of these pieces, then, begin in the mire; as if man is no more than a shape writhing from the old rock. This may be due, in part, to the Michigan from which I come. Sometimes one gets the feeling that not even the animals have been there before; but the marsh, the mire, the Void, is always there, immediate and terrifying. It is a splendid place for schooling the spirit. It is America.
So much for American beginnings. In his Northwest years, when Roethke was bidding for and finally winning the cherished poetry prizes against his native competition, we can recognize a highly attuned "American" poet. Indeed, the competitiveness in the old tennis coach (incredibly, one of his duties at Lafayette and Penn State) had fully surfaced in the poetry career the year before the Seattle period began, when the leading influence on American poets was England's top seed, T. S. Eliot. Roethke had sent a manuscript copy of his poem "The Lost Son" to Eliot's current archenemy, William Carlos Williams. Roethke included the following comment: "It's written … for the ear, not the eye…. And if you don't think it's got the accent of native American speech, your name ain't W. C. Williams, I say belligerently." But Roethke's adversary was not Williams; it was the influential exile in England who irritated both men. "In a sense ["The Lost Son" is] your poem, yours and K. Burke's," he continued to Williams, "with the mood or the action on the page, not talked about, not the meditative T. S. Eliot kind of thing. (By the way, if you have an extra copy of your last blast against T.S.E., do send it to me. I can't seem to get a hold of it anywhere.)" Roethke clearly understood that the Eliot cult must be discredited in America before the judges could hear and consider Roethke's (and Williams') native accents. By 1949 he was encouraged. He wrote to Kenneth Burke of new signs that "the zeit-geist, ear-to-the-ground boys in England" were coming over to his side and now calling it Roethke over Eliot: "[They] think I'm the only bard at present operating in the U.S. of A., that everybody is tired of Tiresome Tom, the Cautious Cardinal."
One of Roethke's gratifying intimations of a growing reputation in Eliot's country came in 1950 when John Malcolm Brinnin told him that Dylan Thomas, on his first American tour, wanted especially to meet America's Theodore Roethke. Roethke was very proud of that and enjoyed Thomas immensely. Here was an authentic "roaring boy," a British admirer, and no rival for the American prizes. Finally in 1954 Roethke won his first big award, the Pulitzer, for The Waking. (But he remained envious when Aiken, not Roethke, won the National Book Award that year.) The following year, Roethke was Fulbright lecturer in Florence. Like many American writers before him, he now comprehended his native land more keenly from the vantage point of Europe. His concern, predictably, centered not on the characteristic travails of political democracy in an election year, but rather on the state of American letters. He sized up once again the relative strengths of modern American poets:
Sometimes I think the fates brought me here for my own development: to see my contemporaries, and elders, in their true perspective. And some of the American biggies have dwindled a good deal in my sight. For instance, Hart Crane, whom I once thought had elements of greatness. Except for the early poems, he now seems hysterical, diffuse—a deficient language sense at work. Williams, for the most part, has become curiously thin, self-indulgent, unable to write a poem, most of the time, that is a coherent whole. (This last saddened me a good deal, since I'm really fond of Bill.) Etc. People who have held up are Bogan, Auden, and of course old Willie Yeats, whom I'm not lecturing on; and Tate, for instance, looks better all the time, as opposed to Winters, whose work is often dead, rhythmically, and so limited in range of subject-matter and feeling.
After Words for the Wind (1958) won him most of the major prizes in America he had not yet claimed, including the National Book Award, Roethke was clearly preparing now to beat the world. He was ready to go, finally, after the big one, "to bring the Nobel in poetry to America," as he said with a veneer of patriotism. But the egotism was not far behind. He wrote his editor at Doubleday, "Certainly I'm a vastly better poet than Quasimodo, and this French man [Perse] is good but does the same thing over and over. I think Wystan Auden should be next, then Pablo Neruda, then me…." He had arrived at this "cold, considered objective judgment" of his native genius after a final repudiation of "the Pound-Eliot cult and the Yeats cult." As he told critic Ralph Mills, neither "Willie" Yeats nor "Tiresome Tom" Eliot was ever Roethke's master:
In both instances, I was animated in considerable part by arrogance: I thought: I can take this god damned high style of W.B.Y. or this Whitmanesque meditative thing of T.S.E. and use it for other ends, use it as well or better. Sure, a tough assignment. But while Yeats' historical lyrics seem beyond me at the moment, I'm damned if I haven't outdone him in the more personal or love lyric…. Not only is Eliot tired, he's a [expletive deleted by editor] fraud as a mystic—all his moments in the rose-garden and the wind up his ass in the draughty-smoke-fall-church yard.
The next year, in a London interview, Roethke named the American poets he most admired: Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, and Stanley Kunitz. The last two certainly were no threat to his ambitious climb to the top of the heap. And Auden might be seen not only as a poet ambiguously American, but also a leader of the Roethke cheering section. The year before, as Roethke recalled, Auden had passed along to a mutual acquaintance the compliment that "at one point he was worried that I was getting too close to Yeats, but now he no longer did because I had out-done him, surpassed him, gone beyond him."
One formidable American remained to challenge Roethke in the poetry sweepstakes. This was Robert Lowell, whom Roethke met in summer of 1947 at Yaddo Writers Colony. He had grimly vanquished Lowell in all the recreational contests. "I was croquet, tennis, ping-pong and eating champion," he reported at the end of the summer. Seager writes perceptively here of the distinctly American myth of success and ardor for combat that lay within Roethke's hunger for greatness: "He was like Hemingway. To view literature as a contest to be won is a Saginaw Valley, Middle-Western, American set of mind, and throughout Ted's career he saw Lowell loom larger and larger as his chief opponent." In this contest with Lowell, Roethke received the most punishing defeat publicly in July of 1963 shortly before his death. An admirer of Lowell, the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella, was in Seattle at Roethke's invitation, staying as Roethke's houseguest until later in the week when he gave a poetry reading. Seager recreates the harrowing climax of that evening:
Ted sat in the front row. The reading was well-received and afterward Kinsella permitted a question-and-answer period. Someone asked, "Mr. Kinsella, who do you consider the greatest living American poet?" With Ted in the front row at the high tide of his renown, this was not, in a way, a genuine question but a solicitation of a compliment.
But Kinsella, helplessly candid, hypnotized into tactlessness by his honest opinion, said, "Robert Lowell."
Ted did not explode, but at the party he and Beatrice were giving for Kinsella later that evening, he grumped to his other guests, "That bastard, damn him. Did you hear what he said?" until Beatrice told him it would look better if he just shut up, and, oddly enough, he did. Later, calmer, more sober, Ted realized that Kinsella had a right to his opinion, forgave him and they parted friends.
Perhaps one can rightly infer that the competitive Roethke traced Lowell's national success to his impressive roots in his American region. If so, the challenge to the leading younger poet of the Northeast might come in one manner, then, if Roethke could square off as the leading poet of the Northwest. But aside from the national ambition, Roethke for a number of years had been discovering the natural—and poetic—resources of the Northwest with that "obsessive quality of emotional ownership" that Richard Hugo looks for in the authentic regional poet.
I have recorded earlier Roethke's negative reactions to the environs of Seattle. Once more, the response to place in the mercurial Roethke has a dynamic, positive side as well. One of his first references to a possible academic residence in the Far West comes in a letter of late 1946 when he was on his first Guggenheim Fellowship and afraid that Bennington would not invite him to return (he was technically still on leave from Penn State). He admitted that he had been "brooding about the West Coast." Shortly after, he wrote to George Lundberg, sociology professor at the University of Washington whom he had known at Bennington. Lundberg recommended him to the English department chairman, Joseph Harrison. After some of his characteristic haggling about salary, Roethke arrived in Seattle in September 1947 to become associate professor of English at $5,004.
The Northwest had one salutary effect on him at once. 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." An ounce of rationalization in the frustrated poet may be present here. By contrast, however, he exploded with ideas and poems after he arrived in Seattle. Seager speculates on the causes: "Whether it was the stimulation of a new setting, the West Coast with its opulence of natural life in its almost English climate, or whether he felt that he had been idle too long (and 'idle' meant not that he had not been writing but that he had gone too long without publishing a book) … he filled more notebooks and more loose sheets with poetry in these two years than in any period of his life." He moved out to Edmonds after several years of residence in the University district, finding it "more Northwestern." And for all his restless applying for grants or other jobs to take him away from the University of Washington, Roethke in spring of 1957 did buy the Seattle house on Lake Washington, an act which most money-conscious Americans make when they confirm a place as their home. Roethke was assuredly money conscious.
He was also, by then, the reigning poet of Seattle. I met him not long afterward, and can attest to the fertile results of his presence. He was no longer the only serious practicing poet for one thousand miles around. Poetry readings seemed to be happening almost nonstop-usually on the second floor of Hartman's Bookstore in the District or on campus in the Walker Ames Room of Parrington Hall. Roethke's local students were appearing, while ex-students were returning to Seattle to read from their work. I recall the reading appearances of such visitors as Marianne Moore, Snodgrass, Merwin, Kunitz, Wright, Langland, Ginsberg, Bogan, and Leonie Adams—all of them come to Seattle or detoured there en route down or up the coast because Roethke had made the Northwest a vital corner of American poetry. Roethke himself, not to be outdone, made his own flamboyant public performances, now legendary in Seattle, appearing as the Northwest bard and declaiming his verses to his fellow townspeople, from savants to bourgeoisie, with an effect that would have cheered and amazed the bardic Whitman himself.
A "Northwest Renaissance" in poetry was proclaimed by Seattle poet Nelson Bentley, one of the Roethke faithful. During 1963 in San Diego, where I had gone to teach in a somewhat sunnier climate, I asked John Ciardi when he came through, "Are you conscious in the East of a 'Northwest Renaissance'?" He replied, "I don't know about any Northwest movement, but we all know that one poet named Theodore Roethke is out there."
How intensely Roethke was engaged in his private Northwest movement, a love-hate affair with a locale in which the critical citizen helped to form the integrity of feeling in the poet, we can now begin to gauge in the published notebooks. I mentioned earlier the entries where he comments on the isolation of a "provincial creative intellectual" in America and records the sterile, prosy observations of a frustrated citizen in Seattle. The notebooks also reveal the exhilarating process of a poet exploring his adopted Northwest landscape and converting it into usable tropes and images. But I leave this examination of the notebooks, a fruitful subject, to future students of Roethke and regionalism and turn instead to the published poetry itself.
Roethke's first book of poems in the Northwest appeared in 1951. Praise to the End!, his "tensed-up" version of Wordsworth's Prelude, carried nine new poems which can be read, in one sense, as Roethke's completing the "lean to beginnings" in the previous Lost Son collection. Once more he tracked 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. He will return to this early Michigan in the late Northwest poems, but the goblin fears of childhood are no longer present. To a degree, then, he was ready, after Praise to the End!, to experiment with a new stage of poetic expression that had lain in embryo within the first Northwest notebooks.
A promise of the regional poems to come begins to appear in the new verses of his next book, The Waking: Poems: 1933–53 (1953). "A Light Breather," to select one, reveals a joyous dynamism of the spirit, "small" and "tethered" as before but now "unafraid" and "singing." Together with the unhurried grace of the title poem, these lines point to the dearly earned resolutions shaped in the Northwest settings of his final long poems. Symptomatic of a new phase, too, are poems like "Elegy for Jane," which Seager calls "the first of his poems to have its whole origin on the West Coast" (though one will discover "a sidelong pickerel smile" in Roethke's 1938 notebook). Finally are the more ambitious efforts of the 1953 volume which show a Roethke who is escaping from his prison of the self to engage the ambient world and the being of other living creatures. "Old Lady's Winter Words" is one instance, and Roethke will enlarge this empathy in the "Meditations of an Old Woman" sequence of his next book. Of equal significance in 1953 is the first great sequence of metaphysical love poems, "Four for Sir John Davies." Here Roethke at last is able to reach outside the dance of the solitary self, merge with a partner, and experience a quasi-Dantean transcendence into mature love, the "rise from flesh to spirit." Not surprisingly, these love poems forecast an imminent involvement for Seattle's forty-four-year-old bachelor-poet. Any colleague at the University who read these poems in earlier journal publication might have advised Roethke that he was beginning to sound increasingly vulnerable to the presence of any marriageable woman. On a December evening in 1952 on his way to a reading in New York City, he inadvertently met along the street a former Bennington student, Beatrice O'Connell. He courted her every day thereafter, and at the end of a month they were married. Allan Seager believes that Roethke's marriage presently led him to a heightened awareness of the Northwest world. As his capacity of 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 lime 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, the "Love Poems" segment of the next book. Words for the Wind: Collected Verse (1958), is considerably more than occasions for Roethke to range through his varieties of lecherous punning, metaphysical wit, and Dantean love of a modern Beatrice. The love poems, thoroughly studied for their passionate metaphors of wind and seafoam, light and stones and rippling water as "spirit and nature beat in one breastbone," will perhaps reveal the true beginnings of that distinctive Northwest sensibility which fully emerges in Roethke's last book. Useful also to that end, although for other reasons, are the final three sections of Words for the Wind, with their natural stream of correspondences tallying the movements of the soul, downward to the spiritual DTs and harrowing plunges and upward to the ascensions and harmonious resolutions with an "agency outside me. / Unprayed-for, / And final."
And so we arrive at The Far Field (1964), the final volume which Roethke, almost providentially it now seems, had lived to write. At this zenith came his death. There would be no descent, no failing of creative energy. The Far Field becomes the logical culmination of Roethke's poetic and American sojourn out of the Midwest and through his native land to maturity and reconciliation in the Northwest.
The year before his death, Roethke wrote to Ralph Mills, Jr.: "I am still fiddling with the order and composition of certain final poems." Only weeks before his death, he settled on a structure of The Far Field in four parts: "North American Sequence," "Love Poems," "Mixed Sequence," and "Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical." The first, or "North American," sequence of six poems includes the title poem, "The Far Field." (An original title for the book, "Dance On, Dance On, Dance On," had come from the final poem.) Perhaps I am swayed unduly to believe that in changing the book's title, Roethke was signalling the reader that the opening section with "The Far Field" would carry the crucial burden of the entire volume. In any event, the "North American Sequence" has become the great achievement in Roethke's last book. It might properly be called the "Northwest Sequence" for reasons I hope will be apparent in fairly short order. The genesis of this 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, those poop-arse aristocrats, my father called them, who fed their families into the army or managed the hunt for Bismarck and Bismarck's sister—all this in Stettin in East Prussia, now held by the Poles."
By the end of the decade, Roethke had modified this journey. It was now an exclusively North American and ultimately regional experience. He told Zulfikar Ghose in an interview in London in 1960, during his Ford Foundation fellowship, about his shifting conception and emphasis: "My imagery is coming more out of the Northwest rather than the whole of America." The nature of the journey had changed. In Ghose's words, it was "not like driving a car across America, but an exploration of the North-West."
He had, in fact, developed a 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 comer. The second passage or journey is a return to his origins, a movement eastward to the Michigan of his father's greenhouse and Roethke's childhood. Gone in this experience, as I hinted earlier, are "the muck and welter, the dark, the dreck" which burden the poems in The Lost Son and Praise to the End! 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 that "Siberian pitilessness, the essential ruthlessness of the Middle West." Here he moves beyond the child's insulation from time and death and forward to the mature man's encounter with the voids and abysses and multiplicity of challenges to his spiritual growth. But he does not attain to the outer thresholds of vision, the achieved moments of outer-and-inner union and transcendence that belong to the Northwest passage. Ranging forward and back across the American landscape in the "North American Sequence," then, Roethke's speaker can understandably admit in "The Far Field": "I dream of journeys repeatedly."
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 occasion, when blessedly aided by the soft regional light and wind, the speaker feels the shimmerings of immanence which create a felt convergence, a moment of transcendence and beatitude. By entering upon the other two journeys inland from time to time, he enriches and paces the sequence in alternating rhythms of charged meditation and dynamic movement across American space. The speaker, classically a migratory American, travels inward and outward across the North American terrain in pursuit of his total selfhood. But he returns always to the Northwest shoreline for an ultimate synthesis.
These interlacing journeys and themes and alternating rhythms are sounded in the first poem, "The Longing," and then are centered on a longed-for passage, finally with an American Indian vigor of exploration, to the threshold of full spiritual awareness. Just as this initial poem becomes, musically, a prelude, almost an overture, to the entire sequence, the final poem, "The Rose," will climax and recapitulate the sequence.
"The Longing" opens "In a bleak time, when a week of rain is a year." (We can assume the speaker is in Seattle.) But this is not life-giving rain. The speaker's spirit is in a slump amid the reigning "stinks and sighs, / Fetor of cockroaches, dead fish, petroleum" and the pointless angst of nightclub crooners and their self-pitying, lust-fatigued audience, an unsavory scene of
Saliva dripping from warm microphones, Agony of crucifixion on barstools.
In a regressive aside, he associates pure joy only with children, dogs, and saints. The Roethkean interrupting question focuses the list and impels the poem onward: "How to transcend this sensual emptiness?" The Northwest scene, natural and manmade, fumes in its putrefaction. In bleak contrast to the free-soaring gull we remember at the onset of Hart Crane's The Bridge, Roethke's Northwest seagulls "wheel over their singular garbage." Images which later will foreshadow immanence—the regional light and wind—are invoked in this spiritual torpor to deepen our sense of their absence.
The great trees no longer shimmer; Not even the soot dances.
The spirit, slug-like, recoils. But it retains the hunger for a new start, like "a loose worm / Ready for any crevice, / An eyeless starer."
So the sequence begins in one of the bleak rainy spells with which Roethke in Seattle was all too familiar. In the two remaining sections of "The Longing," we follow the Roethkean voyage of the modern soul in its tormented quest for light and wholeness. He conducts this soul-search initially by going back to the beginnings of elemental life. The clues of the way toward transcendence are sensed in the spareness of the natural world.
The rose exceeds, the rose exceeds us all. Who'd think the moon could pare itself so thin?
A sign is also received in the unnatural light that cries out of the "sunless sea" in the same measures of longing.
I'd be beyond; I'd be beyond the moon, Bare as a bud, and naked as a worm.
Roethke captions this retrogression and desire in the final lines of the section: "Out of these nothings /—All beginnings come."
The conclusion is introduced with a Whitman catalog of the speaker's longing for identification and convergence with the plenitude and beneficence he now feels he may possess in the world, by contrast with the opening section and the ascetic vacuity that followed upon it. In the poems to follow, the desire to pace his spiritual growth in harmony with his natural surroundings will be, at the same time, an esthetic search for a shaping, concrete language that will also express the inexpressible: "I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form." But as of now, the speaker has received only the intimation of future thresholds. He anticipates, meanwhile, a rite of passage through 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. Ogalala? Iroquois.
"Meditation at Oyster River," the second poem of the "North American Sequence," 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 alertness. A soundless pause has readied the time for meditation after urgent longing in the previous poem.
Section two finds the speaker half in love with easeful death, persisting "like a dying star, / In sleep afraid." He yearns for escape from the lonely self, for oneness with the deer, the young snake, the hummingbird—the shy and alert creatures of land and air. "With these I would be. / And with water." At this threshold of poised awareness, "In this first heaven of knowing," Roethke takes us, in section three, on a backward motion toward the source, to "the first trembling of a Michigan brook in April." He feels the old 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 finally 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 shorebirds. The poem closes in a radiant, although not fully composed, vision:
In the first of the moon, All's a scattering, A shining.
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 mouth of the night which awaited him at the close of "The Longing." He now embarks on that second American journey into the past, between Michigan beginnings and Northwest consummations.
As in "The Longing," he begins in dislocation, though not, this time, in spiritual dullness. Roethke initially presents "the long journey out of the self" in a vague, geographical metaphor: to pass through the perplexed inner workings and torments of the emerging self is like steering a lurching automobile through detours, mud slides, dangerous turns, flash floods, and swamps "alive with quicksand." Finally, the way narrows to a standstill, "blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree, / The thickets darkening, / The ravines ugly."
From this introductory standstill, he sets forth on anew soul's journey. In section two, this exploration takes the form of an actual trip westward through the North American interior. The explorer, appropriately, is neither child nor man now but a reckless youth careering over gravel at full throttle, scorning to "hug close" like the fear-ridden older motorist he would become in the previous stanza. With the arrogant confidence of youth, he courts danger and death on the American roadway head-on: "A chance? Perhaps. But the road was part of me, and its ditches, / And the dust lay thick on eyelids,—Who ever wore goggles?" (Roethke is here falling back on his own self-made legend that he had been once the extroverted American roaring boy. In fact, the hypersensitive youth from Saginaw had grown beyond forty before he owned a car and made this western journey through the interior. For an emerging identity, however, Roethke knew well that fantasy is as powerful and "true" as fact.) The second section concludes as the trip 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, the speaker can still feel his "soul at a still-stand," but this time with a difference. Thanks to the remembered journey through the American interior which has intervened, he again moves to the edge of water in the Northwest. 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 originally 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. In a transparent outline modeled and elaborated after Roethke's own example, we may see the internal structure of the five sections to develop this way:
1. Initial retrogression (II. 1-12). The speaker celebrates the joyous minimals of earth, water, and air—the worms, minnows, and butterflies. He confesses his childlike "foolishness"—his "desire for the peaks, the black ravines, the rolling mists," but also the opposite need for security amid "unsinging fields where no lungs breathe, / Where light is stone."
Threshold to convergence approached (II. 13-19). He returns to a firecharred "edge of the sea … Where the fresh and salt waters meet, / And the sea-winds move through the pine trees" in near-concert with the burnt-yellow grass and peeling logs.
2. Retrogression again (II. 20-32). He invokes protection of a Blakean mythic mother against the quietly distressing motions of the worm and butterfly and the "dubious sea-change" but he knows that change and death are also the mothers of pleasure and beauty.
3. Convergence approaches unawares (II. 33-48). The abundant varieties of Northwest coastal images—the leaping fish, the ivy rooting in saw-dust alongside the uprooted trees, the casual osprey and dawdling fisherman, and a sea surface full of imagined flowers both alive and dead—bring the casual speaker almost to a reconcilement of extremes, to feelings of beatitude and immanence.
I have come here without courting silence, Blessed by the lips of a low wind, To a rich desolation of wind and water, To a landlocked bay, where the salt water is freshened By small streams running down under fallen fir trees.
4. Threshold reappears (II. 49-53). "In the vaporous grey of early morning /…. A single wave comes in."
Retrogression once more (II. 54-59). But when the wave reaches "a tree lying flat, its crown half broken," the speaker, vaguely troubled, recalls "a stone breaking the eddying current / … in the dead middle way, / … A vulnerable place."
5. Convergence followed by a light transcendence is briefly achieved (II. 60-78). His receptive "body shimmers with a light flame" in the sea wind as the "advancing and retreating" sea, which images the risings and fallings of the poem, now yields up a visionary "shape" of "the eternal one." The undulant long waters attenuate in the long poetic line, shaping 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 sequence now returns to the opening of "Journey to the Interior"—the metaphorically "narrowing" trip by automobile to a final stalling "in a hopeless sand-rut." (One glimpses in the images the American affliction of Poe and the late Mark Twain.) From this still-stand of the spirit, Roethke again searches the way out by going back. The journey in this case will not be to the interior but an extended return to a timeless childhood, to moments of immanence in that "far field, the windy cliffs of forever, / The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow." In that field, "one learned of the eternal" in the child's world of dead rats and cats, of life-nestings in the field's far corner. For nature's casualties, his young "grief was not excessive." The warblers always heralded Maytime renewal and nature's plenitude. With similar ease, the child could ponder the evolution of mindless shells or indulge his innocent fancies of reincarnation.
Returning to the adult's present, the speaker, no longer constricted, can sense "a weightless change, a moving forward." The earlier narrowing of section one is repeated, but in an image of release, "As of water quickening before a narrowing channel / When banks converge." He emerges to face outward to sea. Like the philosopher's man of Wallace Stevens, he is able to confront an ultimate Protean reality, with more insouciance, even, than the wondering child he once was.
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.
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 in a constellation of Northwest images that the tranquil mind discovers to be the shape of "infinitude":
The mountain with its singular bright shade ..... The after-light upon ice-burdened pines; ..... 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.
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. It appeared in The New Yorker the month before his death. The thorough critic of Roethke's poetry would want more than a score of pages to explicate this beautiful poem and account for it within the entire sequence. I shall try to manage a fraction of the assignment in a few pages.
Appropriately with these verses that close the sequence, Roethke can begin with near-feelings of convergence that by now have been earned. We understand his opening assertion about 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 (lines 4-5).
Section two advances the easy motions of grace onto a pacific ocean "As when a ship sails with a light wind—/ … dipping like a child's boat in a pond." 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 this knowledge, both fact and symbol, 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 repossesses 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;
What need for heaven, then, With that man, and those roses?
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 Whitman 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 longing for "the imperishable quiet at the heart of form" had first occurred within the fluid Whitman catalog of the first poem. He now hears the imperishable quiet in the "single sound" that issues in the Northwest setting of "The Rose" at the heart of this Whitman free form. Phrased another way, 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. After extended longing, he has found the place of his desire. It is glimpsed, significantly enough, not as an ultimate paradiso or a child's insular garden of flowers, but as a transcendent landscape of earth composed both of languid shimmerings and Roethkean edges. The moment then dissolves in the precarious balance of a rapt instant of earthly beauty. The closing lines of the penultimate section of "The Rose" suspend an image of life wakening into, or indistinguishable from, death.
And a drop of rain water hangs at the tip of a leaf Shifting in the wakening sunlight Like the eye of a new-caught fish.
The speaker emerges from the vision to explain himself in the final section. 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 accept even
the rocks, their weeds, Their filmy fringes of green, their harsh Edges, their holes Cut by the sea-slime …
Like the space-time curvature of this journey poem, the poet's spirit matching the condition of the rose in the sea-wind, he has "swayed out … / And yet was still." He can also 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.
So ends an intensive drive toward definition of the many Roethkean selves, of the perplexed American in his country and his region. The "North American Sequence" can be read as Roethke's final portrait, not unlike those late photographs of the poet in a Northwest landscape, his face variously lined with what Robert Heilman read as "suffering endured, dreaded, inescapable, and yet survived and, in an ever maturing art, surmounted." 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.
Finally, this sequence enabled Roethke the poet to assimilate those American peers who meant the most to him without permitting the national echoes to disturb or overpower the regional tonalities. The mastery of this casual plagiarism offers one of the surest signs of the major poet coming into possession of his own definable voice. Merely the final lines of "The Rose," which echo the close of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," show how well Roethke had learned his poetic orchestration from Whitman. The larger motifs of the sequence—the passages through nature and America and beyond to a total selfhood—are indebted similarly to Whitman, especially the "Song of Myself," "Out of the Cradle," and "Passage to India." Echoes of the symbolical American journeys of Hart Crane, likewise a transplanted Midwesterner, and William Carlos Williams's immersion in a local America also abound, as do the parallels and instructive differences with the experimental Eliot of The Waste Land and the Tiresome Tom of the Four Quartets. Clearly important to Roethke, too, are the sensual Stevens of "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" and the more philosophical Stevens of "Sunday Morning," "Asides on the Oboe," and "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction." And we hear the Emily Dickinson of seasonal thresholds, nuances of light, and the edges of death. Sounding clearly, also, are the American nature notes of Emerson's "Rhodora" and Frost's "West-Running Brook," as well as the correspondences of New England coast and self in Robert Lowell—less transcendental but historically richer than Roethke's. But enough. An annotated "North American Sequence," obviously, would extend the references almost endlessly. Astonishing, then, for all Roethke's allusive and emotional range and intensity in this late sequence is the account from his biographer that these culminating long poems "came easily with an unwonted confidence—he knew what he wanted to say and he was sure of his means."
Roethke's American debts for this regional achievement lead naturally, in turn, to the question of his own possible influence on the younger practicing poets of the region. Richard Hugo, William Stafford, Carolyn Kizer, and David Wagoner have carefully evaded the idea of any Roethke "school" in the Northwest while they praise his brilliant example of the verbal pressures and cutting edges possible in a highly disciplined poetry. Surely this is a healthy and necessary spirit of poetic autonomy. The "school" with its intimidating master voice has more often curbed than liberated vital literary expression, regional and otherwise. I suspect, however, that Roethke's regional experience at the end had been fashioned too powerfully not to have become a part of the consciousness of poets writing today in the Northwest. If so, this need not be totally bad. The Roethke idiom has generated intimations, if you will, of a receivable and emerging heritage. But the nature of Roethke's contribution to a Northwest poetry will obviously not be known for some time to come, just as anything nearing a definitive notion of a Northwest ethos awaits the regional intuitions of individual poets, novelists, scholars, and memorializers to come.
Had he lived, would Roethke have continued to mine the Northwest vein of his "North American Sequence"? Elsewhere, the final volume only clouds a possible answer. He had gone on to include more of the torments, the voids, and the self-disintegrations of the past. The best of these metaphysical lyrics include "The Abyss," "In a Dark Time," and "In Evening Air." He did extend himself, however, in the rare sequence of final love poems. With the same daring that led him earlier to create the feminine voice of his "Meditations of an Old Woman" (feminists today might call the effort ill-advised) he aimed in his final love poems to express the perhaps more difficult voice of a sensitive young woman in love. But in previous years he seemed always too restless, too experimental and ambitious to repeat many of his successful innovations. He would throw most of them out the window, as James Dickey once said, and then start anew. In his continuing art as in his religious meditations, Roethke would probably have strained again to "go beyond," "to be more," to outdo himself. The new love lyrics or the "North American Sequence," then, had been tried and completed. Perhaps it would be time, once again, to move on.
One exciting possibility remains on record to point a way that Roethke might have taken had he lived. His wife reported that when Roethke once visited the grave of Chief Seattle, "he knelt in the grass and [crossed himself] seriously." The gesture may tell how soberly he had assumed his late ambition to write an epic of 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 while marauders and military. In this epic drama, which Roethke hoped to create, he said, "through suggestive and highly charged symbolical language," the heroic figures, indicated in his notes, were to include the Nez Perce's Chief Joseph, the Oglala's Black Elk and Crazy Horse, as well as white adversaries like Generals Custer and Crook. The theme would be "the guilts we as Americans feel as a people for our mistakes and misdeeds in history and in time. I believe, in other words, that it behooves us to be humble before the eye of history."
Such a culminating work, as I suggested at the beginning, would have been utterly de rigueur in the eyes of literary critics and Nobel committees—the regional writer impressively widening his range to become the national epic poet and, even more, an American conscience in the world's history. The Nobel-haunted Roethke was all too aware of the required pattern. A passage he entered in the late notebooks almost completely mirrors his anguish. He defiantly justifies his major work as faithfully "American" despite, or even because of, its being "provincial" (he continues to use, somewhat wryly, this pejorative term for the regional). Implicitly and belligerently he is advising the Nobel people to stuff their award.
There's another typical stance: only I hear it. Then just listen: hump, schlump, bump—half the time: a real—did I say real?—I mean unreal, unnatural—thumping away in stupid staves, an arbitrary lopping of lines, rhythms, areas of experience, a turning away from much of life, an exalting of a few limited areas of human consciousness. All right, I say, make like that, and die in your own way: in other words limited, provincial, classical in a distorted and—I use the word carefully—degraded sense; "American" in the sense American means eccentric, warped, and confined.
But we can set aside this too-obvious concern over obligatory soarings upward and outward to national epic, universal archetype, and the larger "areas of human consciousness" and indulge our pride in the native poet whose versatile powers and range of vision expanded within the Northwest landscape and seascape. Immersion in the local and the "confining," the "exalting" of the solitary self in our own "true place," the poet Roethke is saying at last, brings us intermittently to experience in the only way that knowing is finally possible—that is, privately in the desire of the heart—those deep responses and truths that others may wish to elevate with the abstract labels "American" or "Universal." This distinctive regional expression, which he bled for and slowly earned over the years, is what we have overlooked or undervalued in Roethke. By The Far Field, he was virtually creating the Northwest as a regional source of poetic truth. Inevitably with Roethke, expressing the spirit of place also had to mean a revealing of his mature identity as a man and poet. In the transcendental vision of the important last poems, Roethke and his Northwest had finally come to One.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10627
SOURCE: "The Field Where Water Flowers: Theodore Roethke's 'North American Sequence,'" in Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry, University of Illinois Press, 1981, pp. 31-61.
[In the following essay, Nelson examines theme and image of "North American Sequence" in The Far Field, drawing attention to Roethke's pastoral tone, American sensibility, and frequent allusion to the infinite and rebirth.]
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, The mimetic chortling of the catbird Down in the corner of the garden, among the raggedy lilacs, The bobolink skirring from a broken fencepost, The bluebird, lover of holes in old wood, lilting its light song, And that thin cry, like a needle piercing the ear, the insistent cicada, And the ticking of snow around oil drums in the Dakotas, The thin whine of telephone wires in the wind of a Michigan winter, The shriek of nails as old shingles are ripped from the top of a roof, The bulldozer backing away, the hiss of the sandblaster, And the deep chorus of horns coming up from the streets in early morning.
My decision to place a chapter on Roethke after a discussion of the influence of the Vietnam war on American poetry may first appear improbable. A far less public poet than those I have just discussed, Roethke rarely shows interest in events in American history; indeed, until late in his career he gives little overt evidence of an attempt to come to terms with his national origin. Of course the obliteration of historical references in Roethke's early pastoralism may itself be a response to history, but that is not my immediate concern here. My concern is rather with the way in which Roethke's work, partly because of these differences, offers a strategic perspective on the poetry of the last two decades.
Roethke's career in several respects parallels those of the poets I will discuss in subsequent chapters. Even more than any of them, his vision was quite fully articulated before he began openly to engage his sense of American history. Like Kinnell and Duncan, he does so in open forms very much in the Whitman tradition. I will emphasize the last phase of Roethke's career, particularly his "North American Sequence," where, as the epigraph above suggests, he opens his greenhouse world to a more literal American landscape. Partly because of the power of Roethke's vision, partly because the period in which he worked was a less traumatic one, the conflict between poetic aspiration and a constrained sense of historical possibility is less intense in "North American Sequence." Nonetheless, like the poets I examined in the first chapter, Roethke finds his vision threatened by its exposure to American culture. The result is a poetry, grounded in loss and courting failure, that in many ways anticipates the poetry of the 1960s.
Midway in Roethke's career, a playful ambivalence enters his poetry. This ambivalence, in which previously secure images become either unattainable or ambiguous, foreshadows the more radical uncertainty of his final poems. In his enigmatic little poem "The Beast," for example, the speaker approaches a great, overgrown door and sees beyond it "a meadow, lush and green" where a "sportive, aimless" beast is playing. Watching the beast, he catches its eye; thereupon he hesitates, falters, and falls to the ground. He attempts to rise, but collapses again. When he is able to stand at last, the beast with its great round eyes has gone: "the long lush grass lay still; / And I wept there, alone." The narrator never actually enters the meadow; he falls "hard, on the gritty sill," and does not go beyond. The reader never learns where the meadow is, nor the identity of the ambiguous beast. These things are evocative precisely because they are so gnomic. The poem's symbols have the open-ended quality of dream images. Indeed the meadow may be the multireferential field over which dreamers fly; for the poet it is simultaneously the external world and a forgotten terrain within himself. Other passages in Words for the Wind suggest much the same duality:
On a wide plain, beyond The far stretch of a dream, A field breaks like the sea; A field recedes in sleep. Where are the dead? Before me Floats a single star. A tree glides with the moon. The field is mine! Is mine!
Field, meadow, and plain—with their ravishing openness—make up one end of Roethke's polarized poetics of nature. At the other end are spaces of enclosed germination—including, of course, the famous greenhouse poems. Both types of space have their characteristic inhabitants. To the fields belong the many species of birds who fly above them; to the greenhouse, the tiny animals who cluster there—snail, slug, and worm: "When I was a lark, I sang; / When I was a worm, I devoured." These animals embody the emotive qualities of their respective spaces, and they suggest thereby what human use those spaces have. The greenhouse provides both a retreat and an organic resource; there the self, "marrow-soft, danced in the sand." It is a kind of evolutionary swamp which nurtures the self until it can embrace its wider surroundings. Kenneth Burke has superbly catalogued the "vegetal radicalism" of the dense, vital "realm of motives local to the body" which animate Roethke's greenhouse world. Among the wrestling thatches of damp stems, Roethke discovers "severedness, dying that is at the same time a fanatic tenacity; submergence (fish, and the mindless nerves of sensitive plants); envagination as a homecoming."
The fields offer suitably more expansive possibilities for both growth and threat. If the greenhouse presents a smothering, claustrophobic death, the fields proffer the risk of death through over extension. The fields challenge us to attempt an excess of becoming; if we accept that challenge, the self may be sacrificed to the landscape: "I fear myself in the field, / For I would drown in fire." Yet death in Roethke's poetry—whether in greenhouse or field—is always a rite of passage toward rebirth. Often it is willing and even deliberate. The old woman who meditates over her death declares, "I'm wet with another life," and her words point to the self-delivery implicit in rebirth. The new life she is wet with is her own:
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;
In these open fields, the secret reserves of the self fertilize a new poetry of expansion. The old woman leaves her father's eye, for in nature's setting she is self-born. But Roethke's lines also have an autobiographical context; the greenhouse and a field beyond it mapped the natural borders of his childhood—the one a protected space overseen by his father, and the other a joyous but threatening exposure to the world.
If history were to enter Roethke's poetry at all, it would clearly be most likely to appear during encounters with the second kind of landscape. Put simply, it is easier to forget America in a greenhouse than it is on the prairies. Moreover, in order to personalize landscapes of distance, Roethke would have to take into himself more than their idealized correlatives. Indeed, in Open House, where his poetry tries to be ahistorical, the personalized versions of open space are rather strained and awkward, while intimate spaces already show some of the convincing intensity they achieve in the first section of The Lost Son and Other Poems.
Roethke's whole career moves toward a poetry that can encompass both these locations simultaneously—toward a textuality extending the body's privacy to an immense landscape and, at the same time, harboring the world within the body's space. In their most conclusive form, the introspective values associated with the greenhouse—meditation, repose, retreat to the womb, death and germination in darkness—are condensed in the image of stone. The values associated with the fields—motion, flight, ravishment, ecstatic self-realization through risk—are condensed in the image of light. Between stone and light, between the earth and the air, stands a poet whose vertical flowering would link them both. "I live in air; the long light is my home; / I dare caress the stones, the field my friend; / A light wind rises: I become the wind." By verbally mediating between stone and light, the poet can link the landscapes they represent. The movement toward a poetry where greenhouse and field can coalesce culminates in "Meditations of an Old Woman" and "North American Sequence," Roethke's masterpieces. In the second, especially, Roethke seeks a language which will give voice to "the unsinging fields where no lungs breathe, / Where light is stone."
"Meditations of an Old Woman" is the more accessible of the two poems. It has a clear narrative persona, with which the reader can easily identify, and a meditative context that prevents associative leaps and structural breaks from seeming too disruptive. It even, retroactively, makes the more fractured associativeness of "The Lost Son" less threatening. To the extent that Roethke presents a convincing image of an old woman's consciousness, the poem appears to be a tour de force of empathic identification. Yet the woman's hesitation between passivity and action, with naturalistic correlatives of pool and river, is really an elaboration of Roethke's own polarity of enclosure and openness. Moreover, giving the two alternatives sexual force and making the choice between nesting and flying a woman's problem is an entirely traditional decision. Roethke's human vision is less new than his excited sense of discovery would lead us to believe. The femaleness of protected resources and the male-ness of energy in motion are a poetic given.
These perceptual categories inhere in the language; to fuse them is not so much a narrative or psychological problem as a verbal one. Yet Roethke, as Allan Seager's biography of him demonstrates, saw his poetic enterprise more competitively than his green mysticism suggests. More, perhaps, than he may have known, he was an ideal poet to confront the ground reality of language directly.
It is not until "North American Sequence" that Roethke fully realizes his own combative need for sheer verbal performance. In that poem, he also accepts the cultural pressure behind his art. "North American Sequence" is a more faulty achievement than "Meditations of an Old Woman" because it risks much more, but it is also, finally, a greater poem. It is the only major poem in which Roethke accepts his specifically American roots. Because of that, the poem cannot wholly succeed, but that is its strength. The willingness to fail becomes for Roethke the aesthetic equivalent of his temptation to die. For the first time in his career, it is not merely the mystical speaker who would die, but the poem in which he speaks.
In "The Longing," the first poem in "North American Sequence," the search for light incarnate begins in a demonic version of the greenhouse world. Vitality has degenerated into corruption: "A kingdom of stinks and sighs, / Fetor of cockroaches, dead fish, petroleum." This resembles the landscape Roethke mentions in his "First Meditation," where the self and the world converge in despair: "I have gone into the waste lonely places / Behind the eye; the lost acres at the edge of smoky cities." Here again "the slag-heaps fume at the edge of raw cities" and "the gulls wheel over their singular garbage." This is a specifically American vista and its concomitant sense of a jaded, guilty sexuality is equally American. The speaker calls himself "a loose worm / Ready for any crevice," and the sexual image is not accidental. In "The Longing" this sense of physical revulsion is particularly intense. It is as though the greenhouse life has been distributed all over the landscape, exposed to cultural forces, and left to decay. More significantly, perhaps, the inside of the poet's own body is now vulnerable to the body politic. The once potent vegetable shoots, and those sheath-wet sproutings in the poet himself, have succumbed to an unfulfilled lust that "fatigues the soul"; the figure of the worm now offers a cowardly reversion to shapelessness.
"How," Roethke asks, "to transcend this sensual emptiness?" His answer is his own version of America's ever more belated cultural optimism. Despair, we convince ourselves, is the foreknowledge of our oncoming joy. The very proximity of death will return us to our revitalized origins. For Roethke, then, the very decomposition of the spirit presages its salutary immersion again in the world of the flesh. "What dream's enough to breathe in?" he asks, "A dark dream"—a dream illuminated by the dark light of eyes turned toward the body's depths, a dream of "a body with the motion of a soul." Thus the worm and slug, verging on formlessness and insensate matter, suggest a new beginning for a self ravaged and vulnerable. Shapelessness becomes universality and self-transcendence: "I'd be beyond; I'd be beyond the moon, / Bare as a bud, and naked as a worm." Purgative journeys are apparently pre-eminently cleansing; spiritually on the other side of the moon, he recovers a virginal sexuality. Reduced to the empty vertical shape of a man—"to this extent I'm a stalk"—the poet is open to an influx of life outside himself. And the life outside will have to revive him, for even an industrial swamp is democratically procreative. Like Whitman, he pleads simply to participate in unselfconscious becoming: "I would with the fish, the blackening salmon, and the mad lemmings, / The children dancing, the flowers widening."
The wish for otherness is just that—a wish, but it appears to be sufficient. The shift from slag heaps to salmon streams is entirely willful and arbitrary. It is sanctioned by a cultural fantasy that now has post-Freudian justification—the wilderness is still psychologically accessible in all of us. Not in each of us, but in all of us; collectively we still harbor the continent in its original fertility: thus the plea for otherness and the inclusive listing. One can believe the same thing elsewhere, of course, though Conrad thought the journey to origins needed the analogy of a trip to the Congo, and Lawrence thought it might help to come to the New World. In America, however, one simply embraces all things and places. Nowhere else could a poet be thought other than foolish for flinging together fish, children, flowers, "great striated rocks" and even "buffalo chips drying."
"North American Sequence" alternates rhythmically between periods of emotionally-charged self-exploration and precise though kaleidoscopic descriptions of nature. These different types of discourse are so readily identifiable that a reader could collect and rearrange them to make several more consistently coherent poems. Yet the result would not be so powerful. It is precisely the willed rhythm of movement between inside and outside, between the self and the world, and the complementary alternation between depression and joy, which propel poet and reader into the final vision. The introspective personal sections become increasingly ecstatic and mystical as the poet tries to move more deeply into the organic world he contemplates within himself, but this movement is checked by continuing reversals. The self is repeatedly nullified or emptied; nature again presents its dying face. As a poetic device, this kind of rhythm is unavoidably imprinted with echoes of Whitman's Song of Myself; Roethke, then, is compelled to find some way to repossess this rhythm and make it his own. He cannot entirely succeed, however, and his accomplishment here, contrary to Harold Bloom's analysis in The Anxiety of Influence, is founded on this very limitation.
Roethke brings this tension to the surface, exploiting it to dramatize the poem's verbal battle. In "Meditations of an Old Woman," he has his title character say that "the body, delighting in thresholds, / Rocks in and out of itself." In "North American Sequence," the Whitmanesque assurance that this rhythm is preeminently biological is abandoned. The juxtaposition of self and other parallels natural rhythms because the language has usurped nature; nature is a felicitous manifestation of will. The poem itself becomes the "Beginner, perpetual beginner" that the old woman proclaims herself to be.
The poem's continuous rhythm of expansion and withdrawal is reinforced when Roethke watches the tide at the beginning of "Meditation at Oyster River." Since the dying salmon, the mad lemmings, and the opening flowers of the first poem would fulfill themselves as inevitably as the tide, it is appropriate for young crabs and tiny fish to ride the tide shoreward in the second poem of the sequence. Nature begins to respond to the poet's call; the water surrounds him momentarily, and we anticipate his joining the tide, but instead he retreats to a safer perch. The decision is a partial rejection. He resists the natural world even while reaffirming his need for it. Then suddenly he unveils a full experience of the tide that could only be achieved from within the water. Not, however, the literal water at the shoreline, for the tides have been reconstituted in the water of words. The pull and tug is now inherent in the temptation to speak. Perched on his rock, he verbalizes the inward stresses of the oncoming waves—the forward thrust of the tide, the water sculpted by sandbars and fringed by beds of kelp, "topped by cross-winds, tugged at by sinuous undercurrents." He receives the benediction of the tide when the water laps his toes, but only that. Then he appropriates the energy, internalizes it, and dreams of a final cleansing. It would be like ice melting in the spring—weakening, shattering, and flowing, suddenly unburdened of both its human and its natural debris:
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.
In a few lines, we move from the "tongues of water, creeping in quietly," to this image of violent evacuation. The shock is considerable, not only because the passage is intrinsically destructive but also because it is a deliberate aggression against the Whitmanesque listing in "The Longing." The import is difficult to escape: there will be no loyalty to nature here except as it can be used to suit the poet's spiritual imperatives. This is an aesthetic alternative to the more literal historical usurpation of the American wilderness—rather less damaging, of course, but in service of needs no less dark. "I have left the body of the whale," Roethke writes, "but the mouth of the night is still wide." Free from the self's restrictive darkness, there is yet the wider darkness of the communal self. Emptied of himself, the poet comes into "the first heaven of knowing," a knowledge revealed when the poem celebrates its power. The power is a freedom to remake nature, almost to obliterate it. Like Whitman, Roethke reconstitutes nature in his speaking voice, though Roethke makes the violence of the process more visible. The poem summons its landscapes only to discard everything but their essential energy. It is not only a mystical, trance-like tone we hear in the poem's final meditation; it is an assertion of priority: "I rock with the motion of morning; / In the cradle of all that is." To this impersonal voice, the tide is now an intimate otherness that originates within: "Water's my will, and my way, / And the spirit runs, intermittently, / In and out of the small waves." For an instant his body seems part of the mutual vibrancy of landscape and self, though it is really the text that is holding them together in its net. There his consciousness is dispersed over its own perceptual field: "All's a scattering, / A shining."
The third poem begins by reversing this euphoric mood. The self retreats to its anguished territory and bodily darkness closes in again, through darkening thickets and contorted ravines. The poem juxtaposes its title, "Journey to the Interior," with its first lines: "In the long journey out of the self, / There are many detours." It is a paradox the poem will nullify by force. The journey out of the self will proceed into a true interior we will share with the heart of a new world.
When we start the third poem, we assume that the poet has symbolically cleansed himself of civilization. The bleak clutter of an industrial wasteland in the first poem was exchanged for a world of sandpipers and herons in the second. Though a collection of trash intrudes again, it is carried away on a flood of water. The problem would seem to be solved, so we expect Roethke's experience to be less compromised. Thus the car that introduces "Journey to the Interior" is divisive and unsettling. Surprisingly, Roethke does not reject this standard symbol of the contemporary wasteland; he embraces it. Roethke provides what for him would seem an unlikely tribute to the teenage myths of the late 1950s. He recalls risking his life to drive eighty miles an hour on a dangerous road, and his celebration of this bravado is no less loving than his catalogues of natural life: "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?" By now this memory would be hopelessly sentimental, but "Journey to the Interior" was first published in 1961, and Roethke just manages to be innocent of the specific cultural self-consciousness that would have made the passage impossible. Instead, the homage to America's mechanical fantasies is more general; on that level, Roethke is quite aware of his inverted pastoral-ism. The poet has traded in his greenhouse for an automobile. Nonetheless, at the still center of his car ride he finds the greenhouse again.
Through the windows of the car, Roethke discovers that "all flows past"—dead snakes and muskrats, hawks circling above rabbits, "turtles gasping in the rubble," and even "a buckled iron railing, broken by some idiot plunger." All this detritus of nature's cruelty gathers in a catalogue evoking the rhythms of universal change. The passage obviously extends the breaking of the ice-jam passage in "Meditation at Oyster River." There he wished the self, like thawing ice, could be freed as though blasted by dynamite. Here the violence is more literal and commonplace; it is thereby at first more resistant to visionary synthesis. If this landscape "exceeds us all" it does so only by asserting a brute reality beyond our intervention. That, of course, is exactly Roethke's intention—to demonstrate that even the Darwinian side of America's landscapes can provide the raw material for textual transformation. Thus it would be a mistake to conclude that this "detour" into rude violence is peripheral to the poem's chief ambitions. Structurally and rhetorically, "Journey to the Interior" parallels all the poems in the sequence with its movement through descriptive catalogues to a visionary moment. Its dark world of dying things is not a lapse into a negative apocalypse that the sequence later overcomes; it is a necessary stage in the poem's development. It captures the one purgative experience essential to all visions of American communality—trial by visual fact.
What we see lends simply to contradict what we believe. Moreover, in a nation obsessed with the desire to create an ideal community, belief is generally codified before it is tested against reality. That was very much Roethke's artistic situation when he came to write "North American Sequence." His poetic world had been mapped out long before, and there was little if anything he could discover about it in his last years. What he could do, however, was to expose his vision to history, to open his greenhouse to the world at large. That is what he does most daringly in "North American Sequence." The result is a poem whose visionary synthesis must virtually contradict the catalogues of loss on which it is founded. The poem's transcendent moments depend so much on sheer assertion that they are always on the verge of becoming merely manic artifice. Yet Roethke's power of conviction just manages to sustain our trust in his vision. He convinces us that on the edge of our cultural hysteria is a zone of beneficial calm:
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.
Roethke succeeds for a moment in fusing a traditional opposition in American culture. The machine and the garden are brought together and shown to have a common core. Indeed, the machine is hurled into what is left of the garden and, at least as a metaphor, gets closer to the garden's source than did any of America's historical expeditions. Roethke's vision from the car is almost a mechanistic recapitulation of Wordsworth's boyhood memories in The Prelude of running, then stopping short to see the earth still whirling past him. For a moment, Roethke believes that not he but the things around him are moving.
The poem builds to a new pastoral ecstasy, though it is an ecstasy dependent on a poetic will symbolized by an onrushing car. As so often in his work, Roethke describes his meditative immersion in the physical world in terms of elemental transformation—earth to water, air to fire, stone to light. In "The Dream," where sea and shore meet wood and meadow, the image of a woman changes a field to a glittering sea. Here in this willed poetic space where all dying things commingle, he declares, "I rise and fall in the slow sea of a grassy plain." These wide plains of vision gather the separate things of America into a common dance of death. In the territory of her poem, Roethke's old woman recovers all her past in her present, both love's worst day when "the weeds hiss at the edge of the field" and the meadows where she remembers herself as a young girl—"running through high grasses, / My thighs brushing against flower-crowns." In "North American Sequence," the prairie recalls the more public fuming wastes at the opening of the sequence and foreshadows the far field of the eternal near its close. Floating on this field of American locations, the poet tries to find them all a place in his greenhouse Eden. Outside history, the new greenhouse will nurture a set of landscapes themselves imprinted with history's image. Each time is to be a collection of times, each moment a whole cycle of moments. Each voice and every movement will be democratic. Making himself the stage for this drama of simultaneous events, Roethke gives voice to America's special version of negative capability. He is bereft of purposeful motion—"beyond my own echo, / Neither forward nor backward, / Unperplexed, in a place leading nowhere"—committed to being only one unique vehicle for the country's self-expression. Roethke verges on an image of himself emptied, almost unborn, yet ripe, with the nation's earth filling his mind. He wants, as Gal way Kinnell has described it, to make himself "vacant as a / sucked egg in the wintry meadow, softly chuckling, blank / template of myself." For Roethke, to unveil this empty, original form would be to see his own face reflected in a generalized image of the genesis of the nation's natural life.
In the closing stanzas of "Journey to the Interior," Roethke begins to articulate the shape and texture of an image that has hovered, half-voiced, throughout his career—the central form of forms. As we shall see, the notion of a form of forms runs through Robert Duncan's work as well. For Roethke it is not so much a mystical talisman, though if Roethke's visionary passages are severed from his descriptive reveries, the form of forms would be reduced to that; it is more his obsessive creation and re-creation of a central project that can never be wholly achieved because our history continually denies it. This primary form must combine erosive, temporal flux with subsuming, atemporal pattern. His phrase for this aboriginal goal is "the flower of all water." In the midst of the natural processes gathered together by the poem's advancing and retreating tide, Roethke asserts that these opposing rhythms are fulfilled in a single place: "I see the flower of all water, above and below me, the never receding, / Moving, unmoving in a parched land, white in the moonlight." Every fluted wave, all the endless curving arcs of water, rise up through him to turn inward on a central flowering. The passage suggests that he has discovered the hidden paradigm of sheer fluidity, but the image is really a fiction sustained by intratextual associations. "I rehearse myself for this," he admits, for "the stand at the stretch in the face of death." Each poem in the sequence is a new rehearsal, and the sequence as a whole is a series of rehearsals. Roethke's verb implies not so much a preparation for the inevitable as an elaborately staged ritual that will enable him to possess the inevitable within the poem.
Throughout "Journey to the Interior" our anticipation of that end is partly anxious. From the opening car ride, "where the shale slides dangerously / And the back wheels hang almost over the edge," through the descriptions of a conventionally picturesque town rendered foreboding, to the catalogue of vulnerable or dying creatures, a sense of threat continues. His images are adaptations of his more secure pastoralism, but with a new nervousness. Earlier in his career, he could write of a wish to hear "a snail's music," and we could accept this as an extension of his greenhouse attentiveness to minute and soundless motion. Now a surreal uneasiness invades these dreams. When he claims to "hear the lichen speak, / And the ivy advance with its white lizard feet," we may reasonably wonder if these images communicate not only heightened awareness but also a sense of inexorable violation.
A similar ambivalence is at work in Roethke's evocation of the flower of all water; it is set against a sterile background—"a parched land, white in the moonlight." The flower, it seems, both opposes and fulfills its surroundings. Roethke casts his vision as an affirmation; "the spirit of wrath," he writes, "becomes the spirit of blessing." Yet the final line extends Whitman's dream of a democratized, luxuriant death to an image whose joy could easily turn to terror: "And the dead begin from their dark to sing in my sleep." Ten years later W. S. Merwin would be writing lines like these to summon the communality of collective dread.
At its moment in time, the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, Roethke's poem can offer these images of collective renewal straightforwardly; they are not yet totally undermined by their historical context. Within a few years, Roethke's optimism would have appeared complicit with more dubious cultural enthusiasms. To maintain some independence for his vision, Roethke might have had to distance himself from arguments for open forms outside the world of poetry, at the risk of damaging his vision by its own defensiveness. By the mid-1960s "Journey to the Interior" would have been undone by too many bitter ironies. As at other points in American history, the image of a hawk circling above its prey would have had a military correlative. Similarly, the ruined landscape of "The Longing" and the catalogue of dying things in "Journey to the Interior" would have been ineluctably demonic in five years, merely commonplace in ten. By then, Roethke could hardly describe the rippling tide as "burnished, almost oily" without being literal and therefore unintentionally comic. Yet I am not arguing that "North American Sequence" would not have succeeded had it been written later; I am saying it could not have been conceived at all. Like the car Roethke recalls driving, the poem's route skirts disaster; it travels the edge of his historical moment, hanging halfway over the abyss. From our perspective, the poem is filled with poignant vulnerability. Like many credible American affirmations, it is designed to age instantly, to appear from the outset to have been written in the past. We can believe, then, that the dead have sung in Roethke's sleep, even though we know that their voices in our darkness would be more harsh.
"North American Sequence" draws its strength from Roethke's acceptance of the categorical frailty of its vision. Like us, he knows that the poem's Edenic pastoralism is already a nostalgic artifice. It exists in the poem's "long moment" and nowhere else; it is, Roethke writes in the next poem, "a vulnerable place, / Surrounded by sand, broken shells, the wreckage of water." This place is Whitman's shoreline, the narrow vantage point where continent and sea may be exchanged so rapidly that neither seems troubled by its past. Roethke returns to this territory in "The Long Waters" to show us that he, like Whitman, can still perform this aesthetic sleight of hand. Moreover, he tells us, he can play this game with the same ingenuous rapture: "How slowly pleasure dies!" he exclaims, then later: "I embrace the world."
If there is excessive bravado in these claims, it is touched with saving self-mockery. This playfulness is made possible by the poem's confidence in its own textual ground. As we enter the fourth poem, "North American Sequence" now contains its own reserve of organic life. Like the country at large, the poem is itself a wellspring of energy. When Roethke returns to descriptive reverie in "The Long Waters," he is recovering familiar poetic territory. Indeed it is territory now incorporated in the poem's form. When he moves from meditation to description, he is no longer duplicating a transition from the self to the external world; instead he is balancing two kinds of poetic language. The rhythm of excursus and return is a verbal rhythm. As the language moves forward, the natural settings already detailed are carried along as well. Each particular animal and place, exact in its isolation, echoes the other things the poem describes. It is therefore no longer necessary to worry that the land is finally unknowable. Whatever can be seen and named suffices: "Whether the bees have thoughts, we cannot say, / But the hind part of the worm wiggles the most." The part of nature that can be aesthetically co-opted serves, synecdochically, to redeem the rest. It is not only the poem, then, which is renewed by these successive visual catalogues; nature itself is revitalized when the poem gives attention to its changes.
The catalogues in "The Long Waters" are variously humorous and reverent. Thus "the worm's advance and retreat" comically invokes the motion of the tides, and Roethke even proceeds to ask protection from such essential rhythmic force. Yet there are also intense and almost overawed descriptive celebrations: "A single wave comes in like the neck of a great swan / Swimming slowly, its back ruffled by the light crosswinds." Both these images draw attention to the poem's power of vision, to its ability at once to specify and to exaggerate. Whatever the poem sees, it changes and perhaps also fulfills. Throughout "The Long Waters" Roethke is supremely confident of his transformative resources. That security enables him to move between the comic and honorific without disrupting the poem's tone. Overshadowed slightly by the darker vision of "Journey to the Interior," yet also partly freed by that preceding poem's purgative fear, "The Long Waters" establishes a new perspective of bemused respect. In that gaze, both "the butterfly's havoc" and "the heaving sands" are at home.
Roethke has generalized his greenhouse ambience. What was once a quality of perception dependent on a particular place has been adapted to any location. That alone would not represent a radical development in Roethke's aesthetic. We might expect that he would, in Bachelardian fashion, internalize the greenhouse world and become capable of extending its nurturing warmth to the rest of his experience. A series of little greenhouse poems about different miniature landscapes would naturally follow. But a long poem sequence, moving rapidly through a wide range of settings and emphasizing the act of poetic transformation, is another matter. It asks whether the American landscape at large can become a greenhouse for the questing self. That is one of our culture's founding questions. Roethke's private greenhouse space thereby suddenly becomes both characteristic and public.
That sense of larger ambitions lends a covert uneasiness to the first four sections of "The Long Waters." The uneasiness is anticipatory. We know that the variations in mood are building to a need for another visionary synthesis. Another verbal resolution will have to draw these new images together. Salmon leap for insects, ivy puts down roots, a fisherman dawdles over a bridge. Each of these things is unique, yet they share a common rhythm; their separate actions verge on communality. That union will have to be verbal, for it is not given to us in the natural world. Indeed, our sense of verbal expectation is increased by allusions to the language of resolution used earlier in the sequence. Roethke names the gestures of plants, animals, and men, then he summarizes those names in the poem's demonstrated rhetoric: "These waves, in the sun, remind me of flowers." This statement can be rationalized—trout and pine trees may gesture as instinctively as unfolding flowers; they can register on the eye as successive waves of phenomena. Yet the memory Roethke invokes is really of a relation to the poem's language. In these descriptive sections, Roethke relaxes into a daydream of naming in order to gather energy for a new articulation of the poem's depths. Once again, he will speak of the flower of all water.
As with each of the first three poems, the penultimate moment is one of self-abnegation. He claims to be merely the passive recipient of the vision, to be first the land's breath and only then its voice. "I have come here," he writes, "without courting silence," and the irony in a poet's making that particular assertion is apparent. Yet he is in a sense merely the vehicle of imagery already present in the landscapes described. Of course, he has selected, arranged and vocalized those settings; he has given them whatever imperative toward communal form they now display. Nonetheless, the poem increasingly communicates a sense of inevitable force that gives Roethke's posture of passivity some justification. Having set all this in motion, he can step back and pretend innocence. "I remember," he writes, "the dead middle way, / Where impulse no longer dictates."
Roethke would have us believe that he is no longer governed by the fatal self-pity of the first poem. His need to be reborn is collective, involuntary, and it can be realized through the instinct of the elements to play at metamorphosis. Nature, or at least nature apprehended, is a series of analogies. Moreover, those analogies converge on one another in the poem's space. There they do not merely clarify one another, they touch. And in touching they waken to a new life, "as a fire, seemingly long dead, flares up from a downdraft of air in a chimney." Roethke wants to speak from the point where these forces meet. He wants to occupy the verbal shoreline, the textuality, between self and other. Ambiguously, then, he can be both witness and agent, actively propounding a vision of selfless empathy. The destination of all he sees and describes, he is also the point of departure for its fresh emergence. He will consummate all nature in a single form, while scattering everywhere seeds of himself. The eyes of his poem see inwardness everywhere:
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. I, who came back from the depths laughing too loudly, Become another thing; 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.
These are the last two stanzas of "The Long Waters," and they present what is so far Roethke's fullest vision of the form of forms. Rather than a single unifying figure, his vision is a series of parallel and perhaps equivalent images. In that sense, it merely testifies again to the poet's desire to make multiple images seem simultaneous. Yet this "shape" that rises out of the poem's "advancing and retreating waters" does carry the impulse further. Part of that effect is simply cumulative, but the cumulative force still requires suitable language with which to stage its re-emergence. Roethke makes several passes at that language here, and they provide a dramatic glimpse of the synthesis toward which he is working.
The passage is a kind of retrospective and anticipatory summary of Roethke's poetic goals. It reaches back through "North American Sequence" and uses it to gather together the poet's previous work. The sequence of equivalent descriptions serves to conjoin all the paired opposites Roethke has celebrated during his career. At their center is this ambiguous "shape" now openly used to contain a variety of restorative images. Like Yeats's image of the dancer, from which Roethke drew inspiration, the shape he sees is paradoxically both an object and an action. In two of his most well known love poems, Roethke saw this universal form manifested in a woman's body; he called it "a shape of change, encircled by its fire" and marvelled at "the shapes a bright container can contain." Here the shape is encircled as well by the play of light and movement about an opening flower; it is an eternal figure, summoning child and vine branch to its common ground. Like the body of the old woman in Roethke's "Meditations," the form of forms is at once dense and airy. It is a universal shape of change through which all birth and death must pass.
The figure Roethke wants to describe is partly a very abstract and generalized extension of a body image primitive enough to represent all embodiment. Like the shape of the human body bent by age or curved in foetal sleep, it would resemble the earliest curled form shared by men, animals, and plants. To the extent that the image is organic and relatively static, Roethke's early greenhouse poems account for its imperatives toward growth and change. Yet Roethke also extended this archetype to inorganic matter. Through much of the middle part of his career, therefore, bodily process is used to draw the elements into association with the body image. When we breathe, for example, the body fills with air, and when we sleep, the body acquires the heaviness of stone. As stone and light, earth and fire, permanence and change coalesce verbally in the body image, it becomes an increasingly representative figure—the enduring and decaying house where each of us lives.
Yet the body that is so verbally allusive is not really the natural body but the body of the poem. The rapturous and playful catalogue in the conclusion to "The Long Waters" dramatizes the collective force of the poem's language. We are to imagine, with Roethke, that the descriptive and exclamatory appositives in the first of these two stanzas impinge on a single figure. They do so here, in the text we read. With the poem's senses dispersed in several landscapes, the poem itself is at once the poet's body and the thinking of the world's body. "Small waves," he wrote earlier, "repeal the mind's slow sensual play." Now he has learned that the poem that counterpoints such likenesses between external physical movement and his own perceptual processes can create and contain their entire interaction: "So the sea wind wakes desire. / My body shimmers with a light flame." "I roam elsewhere," he writes, "my body thinking." The poem draws each of these elsewheres together, so that the rhythm of the tides is transferred to the poem's breathing.
The shape emerging from the poem's waves seems both familiar and separate, both a friend and the poet himself. It reflects everything of himself he had forgotten, yet makes him "become another thing." It is both personal and archetypal. Thus it emerges at once from the poet's sleep and from the ocean's depths. It is greeted with tears of relief and benediction that flow from himself and from the ocean's salt water. The poet is himself, he is a stranger, and finally he is everyone. Only through the poem's disguise can he maintain this multiple role. It is a role that American poets have often assumed in more blatantly prophetic form. Nor is this the first time Roethke himself has sought to become a representative and unifying figure. Yet "North American Sequence" is perhaps the first time he hints that the slug and worm of his private greenhouse poems are actually vestigial culture heroes, explorers working toward the source of a greenhouse Eden that belongs to all of us.
The "I" in the last two stanzas of the fourth poem in the sequence stands not only for Roethke and for the poem itself but also for a broad American audience. We too are gathered into the poem's voice. As a speaker, the poet fills the traditional American role of prophetic witness. That role had been functioning covertly in Roethke's poetry for some time, but "North American Sequence" makes it considerably more apparent. As a result, the quality of sheer performance becomes central to the experience of the poem. Roethke is trying for a definitive reintegration of self and nature, and we watch him try over and over again. That sense of continual recapitulation, of assaying yet another time the same textual synthesis, makes his creative effort here more patently self-conscious and deliberate than it has ever been before. What some critics experience in Roethke's poetry as embarrassing self-promotion, too artificially orphic, becomes the actual subject of "North American Sequence." In the process, Roethke's vision acquires a new credibility. We no longer have to believe that the vision exists outside the poetry, that it is so pervasively real it is "neither voice nor vision." We only have to recognize that Roethke wants the vision to succeed and that his desire is characteristically American.
The composite landscape of "The Long Waters" is unashamedly synthetic. It is a made place where the poet can summon all of nature's seasons to one mind. By shuffling together a collection of natural sites, the poem would create a varied but harmoniously accessible textual space, a continent on the printed page open to all of us. The project, of course, cannot literally succeed. Yet Roethke accepts the provisional status of his poem's solution, and he even admits that its implicit contradictions are as much comic as mystical. That gives the poem a genuine poignancy; it cannot achieve what it sets out to do. Moreover, each time the poem makes large claims for its vision, the purely verbal quality of those claims will make them seem mere posturing.
The ecstatic synthesis of these two stanzas gives us a glimpse of a personal and cultural unity that will not be. It echoes the partial and anticipatory conclusions of the first two poems in the sequence, recovers the more dramatic synthesis at the end of "Meditation at Oyster River," and leads us to expect yet more radical summations from "The Far Field" and "The Rose." Yet these parallel statements of formal apotheosis are also equivalent and even interchangeable. Delayed, diverted, repeatedly almost achieved, the poem's form is imminent throughout. It is a tentative form in continuous motion, at once scattered and whole. "I lose and find myself," Roethke writes, and the poem too is "gathered together" and dissolved in "the long water."
Roethke would like to exist simultaneously in visionary transcendence and ironic deflation. Thus it is appropriate, though unsettling, that each of his verbal resolutions is discarded when the next poem in the sequence begins. As Richard Blessing has observed, "The narrator has slipped back into spiritual despondency in the space between poems." Each of these regressions brings us up short, yet they are implicit in the precarious rapture of the preceding vision. If we can learn to move back and forth between the dark and light of vision at will, we will have internalized the poem's lesson. It is a lesson addressed both to Roethke's own sometimes violent emotional reversals and to the country at large. For the American dream of a humanized wilderness must have its darker side as well.
Into that darkness once again the sequence descends at the beginning of the fifth poem, "The Far Field": "I dream of journeys repeatedly: / Of flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel." This repeats the movement toward and into closed space that opened "Journey to the Interior." The visionary synthesis at the end of "The Long Waters," then, is not a natural given; it is a feature of the poem's performative force, and Roethke will have to work his way toward it again through fear and loss. We have, however, brought with us a sense of the potential interchangeability of human artifacts and natural life, so the car of "Journey to the Interior," which returns as well, no longer seems to violate the poem's wider focus. Roethke imagines being trapped in a sand-rut "Where the car stalls, / Churning in a snowdrift / Until the headlights darken." The image of the car wheels churning echoes the description in "Meditations of an Old Woman" of a "journey within a journey," lost, "the gate / Inaccessible," possessed of tremendous futile energy, like "two horses plunging in snow, their lines tangled." It is a paralysis of fear endured in slow motion, yet savored, as when Roethke (elsewhere in the same volume) imagines that a meadow mouse which escapes after he captures it must now live under the owl's eye, like a "paralytic stunned in the tub, and the water rising."
The feeling of paralysis amidst danger, one of the most common dream events, puts Roethke in touch with one of his childhood memories—the field "not too far away from the ever-changing flower-dump," whose end drops off into a culvert. There collects, as in the ice-flow passage of "Meditation at Oyster River," a mixture of human and animal debris: tin cans, tires, and "the shrunken face of a dead rat, eaten by rain and ground-beetles." There too he finds a tomcat, shot by a watchman, "its entrails strewn over the half-grown flowers." A few years later, Galway Kinnell describes a similar scene more vividly in "The Porcupine"; its effect on both poets is comparable, as Roethke begins to think of himself emptied, simplified by death.
First, however, he needs to elevate these specific images into a general image of death that can be a more manipulable verbal resource. "At the field's end," he writes, "one learned of the eternal"; these deaths are the common voice of all the worldly things the poem has assembled. He suffers for them, but his "grief was not excessive," for there are also "warblers in early May." The natural rhythms of life and death give him, in the poem, a context for contemplating himself with "another mind, less peculiar." Perhaps, he muses with a playfulness resembling that of the poetry he wrote for children, he'll return in another life as "a raucous bird, / or, with luck, as a lion." The choices are all willed and fanciful, even the more primitive ones. He writes of lying naked in sand, "Fingering a shell, / Thinking: / Once I was something like this, mindless," and he thinks he might "sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire." The image of envagination and the empty shell invoke both the evacuated, archetypal template of the self and the moist greenhouse where it acquires its face. Yet the birds and far field suggest the vast reaches of air and the self opened to the infinite. "The Long Waters" laid the ground-work for a figure unifying self and world; "The Far Field" extends that synthesis to the two poles of nature introduced early in Roethke's life—the close greenhouse and the wide field.
Roethke is working to create a far field, deep and open but as close as the page he writes his poem on, whose verbal rhythms can unify greenhouse and field and do so not for himself but for all of us:
I learned not to fear infinity, The far field, the windy cliffs of forever, The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow, The wheel turning away from itself, The sprawl of the wave, The on-coming water.
This is the far field where the poem's many waters will gather to flower together. There all outward movement returns to itself, folding disparate things into a single flowering: "The river turns on itself, / The tree retreats into its own shadow." The field will fold together all North American landscapes, as mountain meadow water and a glacial torrent flow together in the alluvial plain. Thus each distant spring, each American tributary feeds our inward reservoir, while the self, brimful of its inwardness, overflows everywhere. From the center of this Whitmanesque self, as from a single stone, spread concentric rings of water, carrying reflected and diffused light ever outward: "The pure serene of memory in one man,—/ A ripple widening from a single stone / Winding around the waters of the world." This outpouring water is also a benediction and an embrace, both freeing and bringing home what it touches. The poet's vision, conferring on each thing the dignity of its single name, meanwhile draws each thing within its reach to possess it. In the final lines of "The Far Field," a collective consciousness can appear to be cleansed of longing, for it contains everything. An omnipresent force in nature, the poet's will suffuses inanimate matter and sets it to dream in words: "A man faced with his own immensity / Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire."
"I have come to a still, but not a deep center," he writes, "a point beside the glittering current." There "My mind moves in more than one place, / In a country half-land, half-water." This mediating land, the territory between self and world, between earth and water, is the textuality the poem maps out for itself. Into this land, and into his poem, he must die to be reborn as a collective figure. "I am renewed by death, thought of my death." Yet there is not one death, but many, and each is a renewal. Each time the self is lost, it is regained in the image of the world, in every immediate dying change before his eyes: "The dry scent of a dying garden in September, / The wind fanning the ash of a low fire." "He is the end of things, the final man," the first and last man—Adamic, for the end of things is foretold by a true beginning; each final man begins his life anew. The self—mysterious sea-cave in which the world drowns to breathe again—will be repeatedly buried and uncovered by the tides. In the body of the poem he can become, as he puts it elsewhere, "A phoenix, sure of my body, / Perpetually rising out of myself."
At the field's end, hovering over the ever-renewing grave of the sea, Roethke recovers the lost innocent self in a new image of his text as a body. Now the sea-shape of this body, foolish and ancient, green and dying ("In robes of green, in garments of adieu"), can forgo all anxious postures. Its form, sea-blessed, is not imprisoning slime or unmoving stone. It is the site of all changes, the nexus where movement must pass whether to be contained or freed. "The body," he writes elsewhere, is "but a motion in a shoe." All movement is thereby imprinted with this image of the empty self—all things fulfill themselves under the sign of the body, whose shape of change is the sign of the form of forms. "Flesh, flash out of me," he writes in a notebook, but the need to be free of a body is supplanted by the discovery of his body anywhere in North America he looks. "The flesh," he once wrote, "can make the spirit visible." Thus "the flesh fathers dream" as wide as the world. "And I became all that I looked upon." The greenhouse body grows until the far field itself is enfleshed.
The greenhouse world of his childhood, which Roethke explicitly summons to his side in "The Rose"—the final poem of the sequence—now nurtures even the farthest bloom of the waves. "The leafy mind" of his early poems "that long was tightly furled" has thick leaves opening in every elsewhere. Roethke thinks of roses in a tiny childhood world at last granted its true space, in greenhouses six hundred feet wide. He remembers his father lifting him high over the elaborate hybrids: "And how those flowerheads seemed to flow toward me, to beckon me, / Only a child, out of myself." In "The Rose," the distant field flowers through the poet—out of the ground on which he stands. "There are those to whom place is unimportant," he writes in the poem's first line, "but this place, where sea and fresh water meet, / Is important." The rose of baffled wonderment in the first poem ("The rose exceeds, the rose exceeds us all") is transformed into a figure for a self exceeding the limits of time and space, yet supremely flowering in its place:
But this rose, this rose in the sea-wind, Stays, Stays in its true place, Flowering out of the dark, Widening at high noon, face upward,
This place is the collective sign of all the sites the poem celebrates and engenders. Roethke therefore catalogues anew the beach and the meadow, the sea and the air, filling "The Rose" with diverse American places in the culmination of his sequence. So that any place, any moment, is the scene of the entire continent's survival. He lists the songs of several birds, "the mimetic chortling of the catbird" and "the bobolink skirring from a broken fencepost," then orchestrates a cacophony of sound—cicadas, the shriek of nails ripped from a roof, horns and bulldozers. But he absolves the raucous clatter of its variety in a comprehensive gesture:
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,
"Beautiful my desire," he continues, "and the place of my desire." When desire is deeply rooted in its immediate place, it can surpass self-mortification to voice the collective will of the land, but only the poem has so flexible and representative a location. The sequence of poems began in a paralyzed "agony of crucifixion on barstools" where "not even the soot dances." It ends when the crown of thorns smiles and takes flight: "I sway outside myself / Into the darkening currents … Was it here I wore a crown of birds for a moment?" "I played in flame and water like a boy / And I swayed out beyond the white seafoam":
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. And I rejoiced in being what I was: In the lilac change, the white reptilian calm, In the bird beyond the bough, the single one With all the air to greet him as he flies, The dolphin rising from the darkening waves; And 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.
The rose is a universal figure, but here it is also uniquely American, symbolizing the cohering self-expression of North America's land. The America that flowers here is, of course, largely a visual one. Roethke has not opened his poetry to specific historical events but rather to a variety of sites, including those that have become industrial wastelands. The landscapes, then, represent both possibilities lost and possibilities yet untried. This attributes a static, spatialized character to American history, a tendency Roethke shares with many other American writers.
The resolution Roethke offers us in "The Rose" is exclusively verbal, almost gratuitously so, yet this fragility increases its force. Culturally and personally, the poem offers a momentary way of attaining a harmony the world does not offer. As Adrienne Rich will do ten years later, Roethke works out verbally a synthesis not available elsewhere in human experience. Unlike Rich, however, Roethke does not really expect the poetry to change his life. For a man at times unhinged by guilt and self-doubt, the poignancy and necessity of a vision that is wholly a willed artifice should be apparent.
"North American Sequence" is an artifice that also reaches out to gather all of Roethke's poetry together. We can hear in it echoes of images recurring throughout his career, though that is true of almost any of his poems. More important is the poem's effort to be the apotheosis of that imagery, liberating its heaviness and its edge of despair. If the rose in the final poem is rooted in stone, then stone thereby flows and looses the weight whereby "his thought is tied, the curving prowl of motion moored to rock." There is energy in even that absolute repose: "I touched the stones, and they had my own skin." "My flesh," he wrote earlier, "is breathing slower than a wall." "I know … the stone's eternal pulseless longing," "I know the motion of the deepest stone." He has lodged himself verbally at the center of the earth's most eternal substance, and he feels his spirit, too, bound up in the body's unyielding matter. But the immobility of body and stone is only a thickening of the circle of changes; so the spine, emblem of the body's rigidity, is the vortex of a new unfolding. "I turned upon my spine, / I turned and turned again," he writes, so as to become a rose, "a blaze of being on a central stem."
In the deepest stone starts that slow-moving curve traced later by the opening flower and the cresting wave. The original poles of nature are abandoned for a continuum in motion, where the elements are interchanged and self and other become one another unpredictably. Yet in the final moments of the poem, a further resolution appears. Water and flame, stone and light, the fecund "lilac change" and sterile "reptilian calm," seem almost to coalesce. Here, where world and body interpenetrate the poem's flesh, "North American Sequence" holds its forces in momentary stasis. In the image of the rose unfolded in the sea-wind, at once vulnerable and eternal, intimate and indifferent, the poem voices a dream of all motion taken up by form. Deep within the self, and everywhere outside us, is this far field where water flowers in stone.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4632
SOURCE: "Our First Contemporary," in Theodore Roethke's Far Fields: The Evolution of His Poetry, Louisiana State University, 1989, pp. 1-13.
[In the following essay, Balakian draws attention to Roethke's influence on modern American poetry, particularly his synthesis of autobiographical detail and transcendental consciousness reflected in the subsequent work of beat, confessional, and deep image poets.]
Poets' reputations rise and fall with the currents of aesthetic fashion, the prevailing winds of critical methodology, and the vicissitudes of religious and philosophical world views. Of course reputations are not always an indication of artistic achievement, and the complex cultural processes that canonize writers and cast others into oblivion are not always just or reliable. No artist is immune from the relativism of a historical moment, yet I believe that truly significant art of a previous era will continue to define a part of the present and in doing so will transcend the relativism of any historical moment.
The complex reasons for the present decline in Roethke's reputation as a poet are not my concern here. Yet I find it odd that the judgments of some of our most influential critics of twentieth-century poetry find him to be a poet of lesser importance and do not accord him the value a poetic harbinger deserves. No doubt the current trend toward critical methodologies based on linguistic theory and tied to a tradition of French rationalism has had something to do with a milieu that is not particularly sympathetic to the kind of poetry Roethke has written. His intuitive psychology, lyrical language, and suprarational view of the universe do not seem suitable for critics engaged in the rational methods of linguistic analysis. It may be true, too, that Roethke's shifts in style and idiom—what may appear to be a lack of external harmony within the body of his work—during the five decades in which he wrote have made him difficult for critics to categorize. Although I do not see Roethke through a hagiographer's lens, I do believe his rightful place is that of an innovative poet who has been a major source of influence on the poetry of our time.
One can argue forcefully, as I wish to, that no single book of poems is as important to the evolution of the idioms that have dominated American poetry in the four decades following World War II than is The Lost Son and Other Poems, published in 1948. Most of these poems were written and published in American magazines and journals in the early and mid-forties.
Hyatt H. Waggoner and James E. B. Breslin have portrayed accurately the shift in American poetry that became apparent by the mid-fifties and marked an end to the final phase of modernism that was waning by the late forties. Certainly Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956) and Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959) are landmarks in their rejection of the autotelic, symbolistic, and purportedly impersonal poetry of late modernism. Ginsberg and Lowell were concerned with breaking down the barriers between life and art and finding a representative identity that was more subjective and personal than that which T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, or Wallace Stevens had created. By the late fifties and early sixties Ginsberg, Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Denise Levertov, James Dickey, James Wright, and Robert Bly, to name several, were proceeding along new lines. They were writing poetry that was more openly autobiographical and personally emotional; their poems reflected a sense that poetic language was part of a life process; their language was more demotic and their diction more colloquial. As Breslin puts it, they sought "ways of ordering poetry that [would] not stifle consciousness" and "new ways of binding form and flux so that temporality will not seem to have been violated."
Not only did the subject of the poet's past become important, but also material of the poet's family became significant to this new poetry. In the way that inherited Western cultural myths, symbols, and history were crucial to the modernist poet's sense of the past, experience derived from personally inherited history—blood history—became central to the postmodern poet's idea of the past. The impact of World War II, the nightmare of the Holocaust, and the terror created by the atomic and now nuclear age, seem to have discredited for poets much of the meaning and viability accorded Western civilization. For example, the overarching Western myths and texts that stand behind "The Waste Land," "The Cantos," or "The Bridge" became far less meaningful and therefore less usable to American poets after World War II. And if it can be said, as I believe it can, that familial history has supplanted a good deal of cultural history for the poets of our time, then certainly Roethke's The Lost Son, Ginsberg's Kaddish, and Lowell's Life Studies emerge as the seminal family cycles of the era. Each book in its own way is groundbreaking, each uses autobiographical and inherited familial sources to shape a myth out of history, and thus each marks a break with the modernist idea of the past.
Breslin maintains that the evolution of American poetry after modernism can be best understood by dividing the period into five major groups: the beat, confessional, deep image, Black Mountain, and New York schools. In a broad sense, the poetry of these five groups, he argues, characterizes the major poetic reorientation of our period. Although such a paradigm may be too schematic, it gives a perspective on our age and helps make historical sense of Theodore Roethke. If we look at our era in terms of these five movements, which in sum can be said to give definition to the dominant trends, it becomes clear that Roethke in The Lost Son had anticipated many of these new directions. (Oddly enough, Breslin fails to discuss Roethke as a significant force in this historical evolution.) For no single book of poems, written at such an early date—a good decade before Lowell and Ginsberg had their breakthroughs—incorporates more of the innovative forms and poetic assumptions that have come to define the contemporary idiom in American poetry.
In The Lost Son, Roethke is confessionally Freudian in the manner that would become important to poets like Lowell, Berryman, Plath, Sexton, and Ginsberg. Yet the psychic identity of his persona, the lost son, is based predominantly on Jungian psychology. And it is, of course, the Jungian idea of consciousness that would be embraced by the deep imagists like Bly and Wright and by other poets such as Gal way Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, and Charles Simic in their attention to the idea of collective mind. What Roethke described as his "telescopic" method of presentation contains several of the assumptions that lie behind the deep-image technique. And Roethke's protean experiments with form anticipate various elements of the dynamism of open-field form that would become important to the Black Mountain poets.
Roethke's confessional voice in The Lost Son grew from the painful experience of his private life. Unlike his modernist predecessors, he did not attempt to transform his personal suffering into a medium that was impersonally mythic or aesthetically self-contained. If emotional trauma and psychic pain are apparent in "Prufrock," "The Broken Tower," or "Sunday Morning," for example, the origins of Eliot's, Crane's, and Stevens' suffering and me private details that would uncover their unique personalities were not their poetic concerns. Conversely, Roethke's poems confront the intimate self and turn the bald sources of experience into grist for the poet's transforming power. Roethke's childhood in his father's greenhouse and his history of mental breakdowns are the central autobiographical events which inform the creation of the lost son.
His father's twenty-five acres of greenhouses in the Saginaw Valley and the hothouse world of peat moss, plant cuttings, carnations, roses, cyclamen, and compost organisms was the loamy place out of which he would shape his mind and delve into his psychic and familial past. The greenhouse became the glass womb in the mind where a lifetime's source of figurative language blossomed into a concept of self. Roethke lived much of his adult life in the throes and cycles of manic depression for which he was periodically hospitalized and on occasion given shock treatment. His battle with life at the mind's edge was a passageway for him into the wilderness of his psyche and soul. With Roethke one is forced to restate an old truth: his mental instability was a source and fuel for his art.
The Freudian kind of confessionalism in The Lost Son is realized, to a large degree, in Roethke's ability to make use of traumatic and ecstatic childhood experience and his need to probe his private dream world in order to release psychic tensions and relieve himself of past burdens and repressed guilt. By wrestling with his painful past, he sought a way to confront his father, the greenhouse keeper who haunted his imagination. Although Freudian notions were not unknown to modernists like Eliot and Crane, such a confessional psychology was at most only obliquely associated with the poet's personal life in the poems. By contrast Roethke's poetry of confession makes use of the details of autobiography in a way that is significantly different from the modernists.
The psychic life of his persona, the lost son, is defined by the family landscape of Roethke's greenhouse childhood: his father, Otto, whose untimely death left Roethke at age thirteen a lost son; those Old World employees, Max Laurisch, Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz, who were horticulturists and extended kin in the poet's memory; and the greenhouse chores—like weed pulling, moss gathering, and transplanting—that as a boy Roethke performed ritualistically and assiduously for his father. The grounding of a poetic cycle in such highly personal concerns would become a common assumption for poets such as Plath, W. D. Snodgrass, Sexton, Lowell, Berryman, and Ginsberg by the late fifties and early sixties. Roethke—like Lowell with his New England Protestant family and Ginsberg and his politically radical Jewish family—is concerned with the mythic shape of his family past and with the archetypal and cultural significance of that past. This psychological and cultural way of transforming family history into confessional poetry also differs significantly from another kind of domestic poetry, often more simple (meditations on wives, husbands, sons, daughters, etc.), that is prevalent in Romantic and Victorian poetry and that has become popular again in the past decade. In short, much of what is innovative about The Lost Son stems from Roethke's pioneering this postmodern form of familial confessionalism, which contained at least part of the new era's "new confession," as Emerson once put it. Roethke wrote in a notebook entry:
I was crazed Into meaning more profound than what my fathers heard, Those listening bearded men Who cut the ground with hoes; and made with hands An order out of muck and sand. Those Prussian men Who hated uniforms.
This new kind of confessionalism could be successful only if the unveiling of the private life could achieve universality. The naked self and the representative nature of that self must constantly overlap—sometimes fully merged and at other times in a necessarily uneasy tension. It has been well documented that Roethke had, especially during the forties, a deep interest in Jungian psychology, and this interest served his evolving poetics. In creating the lost son, he wished to unite a deeply personal consciousness (a Freudian concept of the mind) with an impersonal or collective idea of the psyche which was based largely on a Jungian concept of the unconscious. This unique merging of Freudian and Jungian psychology in The Lost Son anticipates both the Jungian proclivities of Robert Bly's deep imagism and the Freudian confessionalism of Lowell, Ginsberg, Berryman, Plath, and many others.
Numerous times during those years, Roethke recorded his feelings about the nature of the collective mind in the "lost son" poems. He came to believe that one could move forward spiritually only if one returned first to the origins of one's psychic life. He asserted that his new poems oozed out of an "older memory" and "dribbled out of the unconscious." A world of cosmogonic occurrences and a state of primal feeling defined the evolving personality of the lost son. And his wonderful depiction of his Jungian crow of chaos became a veritable emblem for his art:
When I saw that clumsy crow Flap from a wasted tree, A shape in the mind rose up: Over the gulfs of dream Flew a tremendous bird Further and further away Into a moonless black, Deep in the brain, far back. ("Night Crow")
This peculiar blend of Freudian and Jungian concepts evolved out of Roethke's approach to the natural world. Nature became his objective correlative, that medium through which he could forge a confessional voice able to contain a personal self and a representative version of that self—something mythic. Given the realities of Roethke's childhood, nature would always be a vehicle of the evolving self and a container for the spirit's life and the mind's form.
For Roethke, nature was not only religion brought down to earth, a container of emblematic meanings and an embodiment of human consciousness as it was for Emerson; nature was the script of his life—myth and autobiography bound into one. The natural world was the reality in which his childhood was lived and his family's drama acted out. His Freudian relationship to his parents could not be separated from the stuff in the greenhouse. Because he invented his lost son—the myth of himself—out of the hothouse world his father created, nature became both an emblem of autobiography and the container of a universal soul. He referred to his greenhouse as a "womb, a heaven-on-earth."
This compelling and idiosyncratic relationship with nature was crucial to his ability to make of the lost son a confessional voice and a mythic mask—a poetic character with what one must term an ontogenetic and a phylogenetic identity. This myth making thus allowed him to turn the lost son into a character with an archetypal heritage whose identity resonates with that large cast of lost sons who have preceded him: Jesus, Job, Oedipus, Telemachus, Hamlet, Huck Finn, Ishmael, Quentin Compson, Stephen Dedalus, to name a few. In seeking his own father and his spiritual Father, the lost son is, in every sense, on a pilgrimage—on a passage at once out of the self and into its mucky interior.
Roethke's ability to create a phylogenetic identity for the lost son and to dramatize a "racial memory" derived to a large degree from his ability to "telescope image and symbol," as he put it. His acute awareness of this technique discloses the degree to which he felt he could penetrate the human psyche and face the mystery in things.
I believe that, in this kind of poem, the poet, in order to be true to what is most universal in himself, should not rely on allusion: should not comment or employ many judgment words; should not mediate (or maunder). He must scorn being "mysterious" or loosely oracular, but be willing to face up to the genuine mystery. His language must be compelling and immediate: he must create an actuality. He must be able to telescope image and symbol, if necessary, without relying on the obvious connectives: to speak in a kind of psychic shorthand when his protagonist is under great stress. He must be able to shift his rhythms rapidly, the "tension."
It is precisely through this "psychic shorthand" and "telescoping" that he created images "deep" enough to hold and express his protagonist's primordial identity. Delmore Schwartz addressed this quality of psychic depth in Roethke with great insight when he noted: "The reader who supposes that Roethke is really a primitive lyric poet loses or misses a great deal. Perhaps the best way to describe what is under the surface is to quote Valéry's remark that the nervous system is the greatest of all poems."
Thus Bly's insistence that deep images unlock the unconscious mind was a discovery Roethke had made in the mid forties in the first four "lost son" poems. During the late fifties and early sixties, Bly would advocate a poetry that transcended the constraints of the human ego and allowed man to participate with nature and be at home in the universe. Calling for an alternative to the cerebrally oriented and rationally enclosed literature characteristic of writers like Lowell, Arthur Miller, and Saul Bellow, Bly singled out only Walt Whitman and Roethke as American poets who have brought us "news of the universe." Bly's belief that deep images lead us back to the primary connections between the human self and the animistic world was in some way an emanation of Roethke's poetics of two decades earlier. For Roethke had created a sacred and numinous nature and an archetypal mind that embodied what Bly later called a "poetry that reaches out in waves over everything that is alive." Bly was advocating what Roethke had accomplished in The Lost Son: a poetry that was aesthetically and ontologically organic—free of a dualistic human identity. Perhaps no protagonist in American poetry learns to overcome the dualisms of the Western rational mind with more happy passion than the lost son, who cries at the closing of "A Field of Light":
My heart lifted up with the great grasses; The weeds believed me, and the nesting birds. There were clouds making a rout of shapes crossing a windbreak of cedars, And a bee shaking drops from a rain-soaked honeysuckle. The worms were delighted as wrens. And I walked, I walked through the light air; I moved with the morning.
Roethke is not a projectivist in the post-Poundian way that Charles Olson lays out in his famous "Projectivist Verse" essay. Roethke's sense of form and intent is different from that of poets like Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Denise Levertov. However, his kinetic language, his bardic feeling about the spoken quality of the poem, and his organic and dynamic concept of consciousness dovetail with the forms of inclusive openness that Olson and the Black Mountain poets would be practicing and preaching by the early fifties. Roethke, who was older than Olson, shared one major source of influence with him—William Carlos Williams. The impact of Williams on Roethke accounts for some of the kinetic language and protean form in the "lost son" poems, and several of the poetic principles that Olson would advocate in his 1950 projectivist verse manifesto had, in the "lost son" sequence, already become second nature for Roethke, who wrote with both the compulsive containment of a metaphysical and the discursive openness of a Poundian.
Many of the essential ideas in Olson's projectivist essay indicate the degree to which Roethke's experiments intersect with the Black Mountain orientation. Olson calls for a "revolution of the ear" and "the kinetics of the thing." "The poem itself must," he says, "at all points, be a high energy construct," for "it is from the union of the mind and the ear that the syllable is born." For Olson, the poem has to unite linguistic rhythms with physiological rhythms, and he insists that "verse will only do in which a poet manages to register both the acquisitions of his ear and the pressures of his breath."
Olson's idea of organic free verse form leads him to think of the poem as a field in which the words that embody objects create a "necessary series of tensions." In this dynamic idea of form it is essential that the poet not dissipate his linguistic energy in any way. "The descriptive functions generally have to be watched, every second, in projective verse, because of their easiness, and thus their drain on the energy which composition by field allows into a poem. Any slackness takes off attention, that crucial thing, from the job at hand." The kinetic field, Olson believes, is shaped to a large degree by the relationship between linguistic sound and the movement of the poet's consciousness. Thus the poet can, "without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech." And the success of such an effort rests largely with the ear—"the ear, the ear which has collected, which has listened, the ear, which is so close to the mind that it is the mind's, that it has the mind's speed." This dynamic kind of poetic language, Olson believes, could carry the kind of energy poetry has not "carried in our language since the Elizabethans."
Roethke's own breakthrough to the principles of organic form occurred, of course, in the forties when he began working on The Lost Son. In a letter he wrote to Williams while he was at work on the poem "The Lost Son," he proclaims an idea of dynamic poetic speech that sounds a good bit like Olson. He has written a poem, he says, "for the ear and not the eye … with the mood or the action on the page, not talked about, not the meditative, T. S. Eliot kind of thing." This letter and the others Roethke exchanged with Williams in the forties reveal his enthusiasm for Williams' idea of organic form. Thus, in a historical sense Williams becomes a common source for Roethke and Olson.
A comic aphorism Roethke recorded in a notebook of the mid-forties indicates how deeply he felt about the importance of the ear: "All ear and no brain / Makes Teddy inane." Like Olson, Roethke has no use for slackness or lack of linguistic pressure. His notebook entries of the mid-forties stress his commitment to a dynamic and organic free verse, and, like Olson, he complains that "so much of modern verse seems tensionless." Although Roethke was not a theorist as Olson was, his belief that if the poet "can't make the words move, he has nothing," is similar to Olson's advocacy of dynamic language in an open field. In discussing the influences on the "lost son" poems, Roethke points to "German and English folk literature, particularly Mother Goose; Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, especially the songs and rants." Oddly enough, but not coincidentally, we find Roethke and Olson both appealing to the dynamism of Elizabethan English in their desire to reclaim some original energy for contemporary free verse.
In his desire to write "a poem that is the shape of the psyche under great stress," Roethke created an organic form that flexed its syntax. The protean shape of the lost son's mind is, to a large degree, generated in the euphonic qualities of Roethke's ear which in turn shape the kinetic force of the line. The dimensions of the lost son's psychic experience create—in the most organic way—the stresses in the lines and the nature of the lines that constitute the stanzas in the four lost son poems. Like Olson, Roethke disdains artificial syntactic connectives and the use of traditional metaphor and simile. His goal is to create a language that embodies in every aspect of its form the content of the mind. That moment of manic frenzy in section 3 of "The Lost Son"—which is followed by the two lines made up of "money" and "water" that disclose the matter-spirit duality in the protagonist—exemplifies this kind of protean organicism.
All the windows are burning! What's left of my life? I want the old rage, the lash of primordial milk! Goodbye, goodbye, old stones, the time-order is going, I have married my hands to perpetual agitation, I run, I run to the whistle of money. Money money money water water water
A poet of consequence to the evolving direction of his art is naturally a beneficiary of a given moment in history. As a poet coming to maturity in the waning phase of modernism, Roethke was able to have a perspective on that great generation. He could make selective use of the innovations of the period and absorb what he had to of writers like Eliot, Stevens, Williams, James Joyce, and William Faulkner—to name several who influenced him. Unlike poets of the generation to follow him, who often felt antagonistic about the modernist masters, Roethke felt both connected to and yet, I think, shrewdly distanced from the age of Eliot and Pound.
Roethke's maturation during the middle decade of the century gave him a healthy and creative perspective on modernism as well as a broad cultural vantage point. For as a mid-century American poet, he was able to bring together—to synthesize in his idiosyncratic way—dominant post-Christian intellectual movements: Romanticism, Darwinism, and modern psychology (Freudian and Jungian). Roethke had enough historical distance from these intellectual world views to be able to create out of them a set of assumptions and ultimately an aesthetic myth from which his language and poetic concerns could evolve.
Critics have examined at length the importance of British Romanticism, American Transcendentalism, and Freudian and Jungian psychology in Roethke's work. But Roethke's organic aestheticism is also, at least in part, an emanation of Darwinism. He is, of course, in no way a Darwinist; in the obvious sense, he is neither secular nor deterministic. Rather, proceeding from certain Darwinian assumptions, he extends his own version of what can be called post-Darwinian myth. Darwin's organic conception of life, growth, and evolution, and his idea of an organic architecture unifying the entire scheme of plant and animal life, had immense meaning for Roethke. His ability to identify with the subhuman world of plants, stones, and microorganisms in The Lost Son and Praise To The End!, his assertion in "The Waking" that "the lowly worm climbs up a winding stair," and his sense of phylogenetic origins in "The Far Field," where we find him "Fingering a shell, / Thinking; / Once I was something like this, mindless, / Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar," exemplify how thoroughly he absorbed a vision of the Darwinian cosmos.
Viewing Roethke from the vantage point of the century's final decade, one might say that he pioneered our first important postmodernist poems. In creating a mythic autobiography out of his vision of certain intersecting intellectual forces that shaped America at mid-century, he was able to find a relationship between an idea of the transcendent, a modern notion of the natural world, and a concept of the contemporary human self. In forming a new script from the intellectual realms his imagination filtered to the supple language of his rhetoric, the greenhouse keeper's son and the spiritually driven manic-depressive poet forged our first contemporary confessional persona.
It is important to keep in mind that behind these three modern intellectual trends lies Roethke's idiosyncratic but deep commitment to a Judeo-Christian tradition. The more orthodox idea of God that he presents in his final group of poems, "A Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical," discloses a persistent sense of otherness—a pre-Romantic sense of the separateness that exists between man and God—which is evident at various points in various forms throughout Roethke's poetry. His interest in Christian mysticism, his use of mystical ideas and tropes, and his thorough reading of Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism underscore this dimension in Roethke's work. Numerous notebook entries reveal Roethke's spiritual zeal, among them "Those damned old mystics have got me despising myself," and "If God does not exist, neither do we." Finally, this Judeo-Christian aspect of Roethke's art in no way contradicts or adds confusion to the modern sensibility he created out of Romanticism, Darwinism, modern psychology, and literary modernism. That his Judeo-Christian strain could be also an integral part of his vision is a testimony not only to his genius but to the largeness of his poetry and the permanence of the myth he made for our time—a myth he created out of both his personal past and our cultural past.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6344
SOURCE: "Poetic Empathy: Theodore Roethke's Conception of Woman in the Love Poems," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 56, No. 1, January, 1991, pp. 61-78.
[In the following essay, Floyd-Wilson examines Roethke's representation of women in his poetry, noting Roethke's idealization of the female persona and attempt to transcend self by portraying women as the dual embodiment of the universal and particular.]
In a poetic universe teeming with greenhouse life and distinctly lacking in human beings, Theodore Roethke's two series of "love poems" have a conspicuous presence in a complete collection of his work. While an "utter assent to other people, other lives … marks the best poetry" of his contemporaries, Roethke concentrates on the lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder. His early verse focuses on the "I," and in a self-described "journey out of the self" the poet explores primordial memories, subhuman life and a child's perception of the world. Stephen Spender describes the development of Roethke's work as a movement "from the child's absorption in the physical nature around him, to confrontation with the polarity of people and things outside—women, the woman!—and at the end the separation of spirit from body, the confrontation of death." Roethke emerges from Praise to the End!'s (1951) "interior life of childhood" to discover "woman" as lover for the first time in the 1958 volume Words for the Wind. Loving another person becomes a process of self-awakening for a man who heretofore rarely stepped out of his own consciousness, and found his comfort and identity in "[t]he gradual embrace / Of lichen around stones." To case the awkwardness and fear inherent in this self-expansion, the poet feels "most drawn to the woman of the Love Poems when she is least human, most animal." "She" is woman in the absolute sense—a general, almost mythic figure.
Although written before the love poems, Kenneth Burke's essay "The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke" sets the tone for the critical debate concerning Roethke's portrayal of women. Burke notes that even Roethke's early verse courts an absolute woman and that it lacks what he terms "personalization." According to Burke, Roethke confronts and individualizes human relations successfully in his poem "Elegy for Jane," but fails to "personalize" in most of his other verse. While several critics have debated over the influence of Burke's criticism on the love poems of Words for the Wind, it is my contention that the neglected love poems of The Far Field show a more overt achievement of personalization.
Roethke's female in these first love poems may be a "creature of spiritual and mythological proportions" who helps him achieve "harmony with the cosmos," but she is not "affirmed as herself" or a "person in her own right." The second series of love poems, contained in the posthumous The Far Field has received little critical attention compared to its predecessors. Although overshadowed by "The North American Sequence" and "Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical" in the same volume, these thirteen poems "have a simplicity … openness," and "personal quality not often found" in Roethke's verse. Although Roethke did not arrange these love poems, six of them do imply an intended series: he dons the mask of a young female, creating a series which Coburn Freer calls "meditations of a young woman." In the only full-length essay devoted exclusively to Roethke's love poems, Freer asks, rhetorically, "Why should this mask have appealed to Roethke at this particular stage of his development?" In answer to Freer's question, I believe that Roethke needed to enter the female's consciousness, much in the way he did in "Meditations of an Old Woman," in order to personalize her. Not only does assuming the female voice provide "the needed focus for a more personal love lyric," it gives Roethke a sense of a woman individualized. Once he reassumes his own voice, he depicts her objectively as a whole other person in a manner that reveals an "inward blessedness" and a "plain tenderness" lacking in his first love poems.
Theodore Roethke's idealization of "woman" originates from a guileless wonder rather than an inculcated web of traditions and symbols. Unlike many other poets, Roethke's main poetic interaction with a female occurs in a few isolated works relatively late in his career. In contrast, Roethke's "toughest mentor," William Carlos Williams, wrestles with the "ineluctable mystery of Woman" incessantly; Williams's idealization of women stems from a conscious obsession "to find out about them all." By insisting that "[a]ll women are not Helen, / I know that, / but have Helen in their hearts" ("Asphodel"), Williams implies that the tradition of a feminine ideal haunts him as a modern poet. Roethke, on the other hand, only responds to the enigma of woman, or any person for that matter, "when a specific human relation touch[es] him and he grasp[s] it." By comparing him to Williams, one discovers an elemental simplicity in Roethke's experience with women. While Williams builds upon the complexity of culturally emphasized sexual differences, Roethke finds poetic power through regression. He derives inspiration from a "realm of pure impulsiveness" that predates "motives" and the significance of difference, freeing his responses of "all arrière-pensée, all ulterior purpose." His "discovery" of woman moves him toward a recognition of a self differentiated from the world. Although Williams's poetry may, in fact, travel along a parallel track, moving from the abstract "muses of Patterson to a celebration of his wife and marriage in 'Asphodel'," his interest in women often takes the impersonal and highly developed form of "fascinating experimentation." The sensations of individual human love overwhelm Roethke, and in a defensive effort not to "drown in fire," he writes his first love poems for "a woman with an empty face." The final love poems, therefore, mark a personal achievement in emotional maturity and wholeness in terms of Roethke's approach to the female. While in Words for the Wind Roethke's love poems explore the self, portraying woman as an abstraction, in The Far Field the poet recognizes woman as another "I," equal, actual, and particularized.
As Randall Stiffler and other critics note, the "major source of conflict" in the love poems of Words for the Wind "is in the lover himself, and love for him is a dynamic emotional continuum." The conflict concerns a desire for the woman, love's power of "self-discovery," and a fear of the possible "self-annihilation" inherent in both physical and spiritual intimacy. Beginning with a dream of woman and the delights of love, the poems move through ambivalence, desire, fear and rage, exploring the opposing allurements of spiritual and physical fulfillment. Coburn Freer interprets the poems through the Prodigal Son parable: "[T]he person who is loved [the poet] must bear the entire burden of being forgiven and receiving," and to avoid this "psychic burden, the beloved, the Prodigal, has an almost obsessive desire to retain his own identity." In order to maintain his own identity in the face of love, the speaker alternately idealizes and belittles the woman, never recognizing her as an equal. He views her and love as invading impurities that will destroy his sense of self, without acknowledging the woman as an individual with her own selfhood.
Roethke meets his beloved in "The Dream" from Words for the Wind, and slates that "Love is not love until love's vulnerable," revealing both comprehension and fear of the paradoxes of his newly found passion. Throughout me sequence he portrays the woman as powerful, unknowable—sometimes encompassing eternity and sometimes, nothingness, depending on the stability of his own identity. In "Words for the Wind" he calls her a "substance" and a "[c]reaturely creature," depicting her as almost subhuman. According to Stiffler, by "making her less human and more animal, Roethke's desire for her grows. He assimilates her to the intimacies of his Greenhouse worldview, and he can therefore more easily approach her." In "All the Earth, All the Air" she is as "easy as a beast," and in "Words for the Wind," "[s]he frolicks like a beast." By portraying her as a lower "creature" Roethke places distance between himself and the woman; he achieves the same goal by raising her to the status of goddess and worshiping her from afar. In "I Knew A Woman" the poet plays the adoring suitor to a woman whose movements mesmerize and dazzle him. He nibbles meekly "from her proffered hand," and follows behind her "for her pretty sake." She teaches him the joys of touch, taking the superior role, and he admits (with tongue in cheek perhaps), "I'm martyr to a motion not my own." In "The Dream," she magically turns "the field into a glittering sea," which he plays in "like a boy." As the sequence progresses, "She wakes the ends of life," and "knows all" that the poet is. By portraying himself as a "fond and foolish man," and the woman as both bestial and divine, the poet establishes an unequal relationship wherein he claims to "see and suffer" himself "[i]n another being, at last."
Seeing and suffering himself in another being leads to a sense of expansiveness for the speaker. In his essay "On 'Identity'" Roethke speaks of breaking from "self-involvement, from I to Otherwise" and of becoming aware of another being in order to bring on "mysteriously, in some instances, a feeling of the oneness of the universe." Throughout the love poems, Roethke's love for the woman has an element of universality. Since she represents both change and eternity to the poet, his union with her symbolizes his movement from the "I" to the "Otherwise." "All things bring [him] to love," and all things—the rose, the oyster, the star, and the leaf—"[a]re part of what she is." He finds "her every place," and feels "her presence in the common day." In "The Sententious Man," he even tastes his sister when he kisses his wife. She is a "shape of change," and in her presence he "start[s] to leave [himself]." For me woman to act as the agent by which the poet achieves this sense of interconnection, she must necessarily remain both aloof and indefinite in character.
As the sequence progresses, Roethke characterizes the woman in more negative terms, illustrating his growing fear of her effect on his consciousness. In the poem appropriately entitled "The Other," he implies than his identity has become too entangled in the woman. "What is she, while I live?" he asks, complaining that he feels "plague[d]" by "her Shape." His desperation grows as he wonders, "Is she what I become? / Is this my final Face?" "The Pure Fury"'s speaker finds himself on the edge of psychic disintegration, and he blames his "darling" for his despair and mental instability. In the first stanza he recalls another "fearful night" when "every meaning had grown meaningless," yet he had found unity and restoration in the morning through the minimal world: "I touched the stones, and they had my own skin," he says. In the second stanza he asserts that the "pure" live alone, implying that the relationship contaminates him and engenders his mental degradation. The speaker's "fear of losing his self in the woman leads him very near a state of derangement." He explains that he loves "a woman with an empty face" and when she "tries to think," nothingness "flies loose again." He scorns the philosophers who theorize on nothingness, since he actually lives "near the abyss," and is keenly aware that the "self can be … annihilated." When his "darling squeaks in pure Plato," she seems to represent the very nothingness he dreads. The third stanza equates "the need for solitude" with an "appetite for life," a need which ironically intensifies his despair to a state of "pure fury." In the final stanza he explicitly blames the "she" for his near loss of self: "Dream of a woman, and a dream of death," he exclaims, and then asks "When will that creature give me back my breath?" Far from being personalized, the woman in this poem seems as mysterious and ominous as death.
The poet admits that his fear actually stems from "those shadows" that "start from [his] own feet," and love of a woman intensifies the vulnerability and unsteadiness of his own identity. In "Love's Progress" he ends the poem, "I fear for my own joy; / I fear myself in the field, / For I would drown in fire." The poet fears the expansiveness and unity that love entails and that the woman represents. As Coburn Freer notes, "No problems have been solved" in the sequence. Not only does the woman remain vague and dehumanized, the poet senses a loss in his own identity. In "The Renewal" he seeks a reintegration of self: "I know I love, yet know not where I am; / I paw the dark, the shifting midnight air. / Will the self, lost, be found again? In form?" Without mentioning the woman, he claims a moment of "[i]llumination" that leads him to love and expansiveness, ("I find that love, and I am everywhere"). Love, and not the woman, becomes the focus for the poet. In the concluding poem "Memory," the speaker says the woman "knows all I am," but that "[l]ove's all. Love's all I know." Since Roethke treats love as a search for his own identity, and conceives of the woman as almost psychologically parasitic, the "she" fails to materialize as a human being equal to the poet in this sequence of poems. While Roethke has incorporated "other people" in his poetry with this first series of love poems, in my opinion he has yet to individualize relations in the manner Burke suggests.
In his earlier poem "Elegy for Jane," Roethke proves that he has the ability to utilize his intimacy with the natural world while individualizing human relations. In contrast to the situation of the love poems, the dramatic situation of an elegy poses little threat to the poet's identity. The girl's young age and her lifelessness increase her approachability for the poet. The final lines of the poem explain that he has "no rights in this matter, / Neither father nor lover," and this lack of a relationship provides the necessary objectivity for Roethke to express tenderness for a particularized female:
If only I could nudge you from this sleep, My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon. Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love….
In contrast to the woman of the love poems, Jane is no longer a "shape of change." Not only does Roethke give specific physical details of the girl ("the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils; / … a sidelong pickerel smile," but he also acknowledges her proper name, a concrete label that helps to distinguish the specific from the general. He compares Jane to a wren, a fern, and a pigeon, characterizing the "light syllables" of her talk, her "spiny shadow," and the absence of her "skittery" movements respectively. Unlike those in the love poems, these nature metaphors accentuate Jane's human qualities rather than overwhelm them.
The poet's relationship to Jane is an inherently unequal one of teacher to student, which gives him some connection to her while maintaining a safe distance between them. Although Roethke despairs over the ambiguity of his connection to the girl, her distance allows him to keep his own identity intact. The last two stanzas emphasize his ability to confront human relations; through his use of the second person, a technique practically absent from the first sequence of love poems, Roethke breaks from self-involvement, moving "from I to … Thee" ("On 'Identity'"), and successfully individualizes Jane. While Roethke achieves "personalization" in this poem, Jane's non-threatening (and unequal) state, and his vague relationship to her help separate this elegy from the love poems. The Roethke who has rights in the matter as a lover fails to particularize the woman of Words for the Wind in this manner.
"Meditations of an Old Woman" concludes the volume Words for the Wind, and Freer conjectures that Roethke chooses this feminine mask "to imply that the demands of the lover can only be handled through this perspective." The poem stands as Roethke's first extended use of a female persona, and employing the mask appears to be a step in the poet's progression towards confronting woman (and his fears of love) through poetic empathy. As in "Elegy for Jane," Roethke again creates a dramatic situation in which the female poses little threat to the male's psyche. Not only is the old woman incapable of making "sensual gifts to and demands of a man," Roethke bases the character on his deceased mother, dissociating her from the woman of the love poems. Nevertheless, it seems possible that entering the consciousness of a female brings Roethke closer to recognizing his lover as a person in her own right. Roethke may, in fact, have had Burke's notion of personalization in mind when he composed "Meditations of an Old Woman." While critics have acknowledged the possible effect of Burke's criticism on the first love poems, the influence of "personalization" on "Meditations of an Old Woman" and the second series of love poems has received little attention. In a 1952 epistolary response to Burke's essay, Roethke, referring to the poem "Old Lady's Winter Words," asks the critic to "take a look at the current Kenyon. There's apiece (by me) that may bear out your prophecy: about a person…." It seems significant that this poem stands as the only predecessor to "Meditations of an Old Woman" spoken from the perspective of an elderly female.
The adoption of a female persona makes "Meditations of an Old Woman" a transitional piece between the two series of love poems. Although Roethke protects his own identity by creating a non-threatening character, he does have the old woman ask, "What is it to be a woman?" The question confronts the very perceptions of woman that Roethke perpetuates in the love poems. In "I Knew a Woman," the speaker characterizes the female as a "bright container." The old woman of the "Meditations" asks if being a woman means "To be contained, to be a vessel?", seemingly referring to the woman as merely a sexual recipient or a bearer of children, and asking if these aspects of the female make up her whole self. As a living female well past her fertile years, the old woman knows that her "being" has a "flame" and a spirit beyond the utilitarian connotations of a "container."
Fascinated by the movement of the mind, Roethke creates for himself an accessible persona in the old woman in terms of her wisdom and intellectual approach to life. In contrast to the woman of the love poems, who has bestial traits and often seems indistinguishable from the natural elements, Roethke dons a female mask whose articulate, intelligent, and defined presence overshadows any exclusively "feminine" qualities that might intimidate a male by their sheer foreignness. In describing the old woman, Roethke says, "she's tough, she's brave, she's aware of life and she would take a congeries of eels over a hassle of bishops any day." In other words, Roethke empathizes with and admires a woman who can say, "I was always one for being alone, / Seeking in my own way, eternal purpose." She relishes both her solitude and her search. In "Meditations of an Old Woman," Roethke creates a female within himself, yet he deemphasizes the aspects of woman which most frighten him. Dissimilar to the female figure in the love poems, the old woman confesses that she has "become a strange piece of flesh," indicating a disconnected condition of mind and body. Even her youthful memories seem confined to the "[f]lesh-awkward" adolescent years when one's physicality seems to have a life of its own. Underplaying the physical and augmenting the intellectual spirit allows Roethke to form and enter a relatively permeable female consciousness.
Donoghue notes that the "answers come too easily" to Roethke in "Meditations of an Old Woman." In his estimation, Roethke assumes a serene wisdom and stability, or an "autumnal calm" without "really earning it." In my assessment, the true autumnal calm comes in Roethke's posthumous volume, The Far Field. Rosemary Sullivan appraises The Far Field as a "book of reconciliation and atonement, of final statements on themes that have preoccupied [Roethke] from the beginning—themes of love, [and] identity…." Biographer Alan Seager observes that at this time Roethke's mind and poetry seem "to have forgiven everyone everything, demolished its hatreds, and solved all its discords." The mature Roethke sounds less angry when he concludes in "Journey to the Interior" that "[t]he spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of blessing," in contrast to his earlier lament, "Where's my eternity / Of inward blessedness? / I lack plain tenderness." The love poems of The Far Field reveal a more generous spirit and emotional maturity than their predecessors. Not only does he adopt the persona of a young girl, he achieves a level of "personalization" equal to that attained in "Elegy for Jane." In the poem just preceding the love sequence, Roethke writes,
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….
This passage describes a successful journey out of the self—of moving from the "I to Otherwise." In his late poems, Roethke discovers that not only can the lost self be found again, but it can also become less fragile by moving away from self-absorption.
Experiencing the "true ease" of his self gives Roethke the stability to don the mask of a woman who resembles the female of Words for the Wind in terms of age and vitality. In six love poems from The Far Field, Roethke charts the young girl's own journey out of the self, confronting through the persona female experiences that mirror his past struggles with love. By creating the persona of a young girl, Roethke enters the "consciousness of woman, an 'I' different … from the center of consciousness of the earlier love poems…. In the process the poet's separate identity is not lost, but put aside." Roethke's ability to "put aside" his own identity illustrates his progression. As the final love poems indicate, Roethke's sense of self has strengthened to the point that he can move beyond the "I", and individualize his relations with his female lover.
"The Young Girl" begins the sequence and establishes that her spiritual journey has begun. "What can the spirit believe?," she asks, echoing her poetic ancestor of "Meditations of an Old Woman," who exclaims, "The soul knows not what to believe." The young girl, on "coming to love" seeks an understanding of her own identity that encompasses the body and the spirit:
What can the spirit believe?— It takes in the whole body; I, on coming to love, Make that my study.
She recognizes that the spirit "takes in the whole body," and she plans to "study" the relationship between the two. In the second stanza, she skips on the shore with such a sense of newness that she seems almost to have just emerged from the sea—the source of all beginnings. Her eyes wander without focusing and her thin arms move without purpose, emphasizing her unformed state and lack of direction:
We are one, and yet we are more, I am told by those who know,— At times content to be two. Today I skipped on the shore, My eyes neither here nor there, My thin arms to and fro, A bird my body, My bird-blood ready.
Intuitively (perhaps through the power of innocence) she has a sense of her body and soul in harmony. Malkoff notes that the bird is a "symbol of soul in Roethke—and blood—symbol of body—," thus "bird-blood" connotes this unity. The girl admits that she has been "told by those who know" that "[w]e are one, and yet we are more," recalling the speaker of the earlier love poems—"Each one's himself, yet each one's everyone." As Roethke repeatedly asserts, feeling this "oneness of the universe" ("On 'Identity'") remains inextricably linked to the journey out of the self. Paradoxically, the process of discovering one's identity can bring on the fear of self-annihilation. The young girl implicitly acknowledges this fear when she observes that we are "[a]t times content to be two," confessing that a state of separateness may ensure a more peaceful existence. Nevertheless, the young girl is "ready" to embark on the trip "from self-involvement, from I to Otherwise" ("On 'Identity'").
In "Her Words," the second poem in the sequence, Roethke removes the mask momentarily and refers to the young girl in the third person. The poem describes an encounter between the girl and "her true love," and hints at the complexity of loving while attempting to retain one's identity. By comparing the girl to a cat, Roethke draws upon the distinction made in "Meditations of an Old Woman" between the "self-involved" women and those who feel "the soul's authentic hunger." The young girl of "Her Words" believes she can "'delight in a lover's praise, / Yet keep to [herself her] own mind….'" This separation of the soul from one's actions resembles the behavior of those selfish "cat-like immaculate creatures" the old woman describes. But "Her Words" concludes with a "'storm, the storm of a kiss,'" indicating that the power of the lovers' union may overwhelm the young girl beyond her anticipation. As the other poems in the sequence reveal, the young girl does experience the "soul's authentic hunger" despite her efforts to keep her "own mind."
The immediately following poems, "The Apparition" and "Her Reticence," seem to parallel Words for the Wind's "The Pure Fury" in terms of the speakers' fears of psychic disintegration. The title "The Apparition" could apply to the "soft-footed one / Who passed by"—(her lover)—or to the girl, sans heart, sans soul. She wonders if she should grieve or mourn in reaction to both her lover's disappearance and the death of her own identity. In "Her Reticence," the girl wishes to send her beloved an unconnected part of herself:
If I could send him only One sleeve with my hand in it, Disembodied, unbloody, For him to kiss or caress.
Her imagination seeks a way to give something to her lover, yet protect the self. In "The Pure Fury" the poet asks "When will that creature give me back my breath?" and, similarly, in "Her Reticence" the young girl fears losing her "whole heart" and "soul" to her lover. She feels vulnerable, physically and spiritually, and dreads the consequences of revealing her growing dependence on him.
The next poem, "Her Longing," illustrates the transformation that the self undergoes when it needs another being. Sustaining a correspondence to Roethke's own struggle for identity, the poem relies heavily on the world of smaller creatures to describe the renewal of the young girl's ego:
Before this longing, I lived serene as a fish, At one with the plants in the pond, The mare's tail, the floating frogbit, Among my eight-legged friends, Open like a pool, a lesser parsnip, Like a leech, looping myself along, A bug-eyed edible one, A mouth like a stickleback,— A thing quiescent!
Before she had yearned for another, the young girl had "lived serene as a fish" without a sense of identity or a need for self-definition. Her existence within the minima) world had been one of part to whole—the "tail" of a mare, a "frogbit," and the parasitic "leech." The second half of the poem describes her conversion to a bird that "the sea itself cannot contain," and metaphorically the change mimics natural evolution. Her longing engenders a power and vitality within that sends her soaring with "the gar-eagle, the great-winged condor." The poem climaxes with her metamorphosis into a phoenix, the ultimate symbol of rebirth. Not only does the young girl escape the soulless existence of the "self-involved" criticized by the old woman, but also as a "phoenix" she "flame[s] into being" through her desire for another. By beating her wings "against the black clouds of the storm," the girl proves herself willing to confront the darkest aspects of "[p]erpetually rising out of" herself. She moves away from the serenity of solitude to embrace the tumultuous but spiritually revelatory "other."
"Her Time," the last poem in the sequence, attempts to describe (to the extent that language can) an epiphanic instant that stands outside of time. In a flash of understanding, the young girl conceives of herself as simultaneously unified with and disconnected from the external world. The poem flows in a continuous sentence, yet Roethke strives to pinpoint the revelatory instant with recurrent time qualifications of "when" and "before":
When all My waterfall Fancies sway away From me, in the sea's silence;In the timeWhen the tide moves Neither forward nor back, And the small waves Begin rising whitely, And the quick winds Flick over the close whitecaps, And two scoters fly low, Their four wings beating together, And my salt-laden hair Flies away from my faceBefore the almost invisible Spray, and the small shapes Of light on the far Cliff disappear in a last Glint of the sun, before The long surf of the storm booms Down on the near shore,When everything—birds, men, dogs— Runs to cover: I'm one to follow, To follow. (emphases added)
When the girl's "[f]ancies sway away" and when the "tide moves / Neither forward nor back," she seems a part of the natural elements. Her mind moves with the water. The vast range of her vision makes her exact location indeterminable. Although she is only "near shore," she feels the spray of water. She seems closest to the "two scoters" flying low. In the same moment that she appears indistinguishable from the external world, she realizes her separateness and individuality. She emphasizes her individuality by making it clear that she follows "everything"; after the "birds, men, dogs … [run] to cover," then she is "one to follow." The repetition of "follow" gives significance to the fact that she is momentarily alone and the very last to seek shelter. Conversely, her following stresses her connectedness to others. She must remove herself from the elements and join the others before the "storm booms / Down on the near shore." The girl has learned first-hand of her concurrent state of dependence and independence. In the process of loving another being, she has come to understand that "[w]e are one, and yet we are more,… [a]t times content to be two."
In this sequence of poems, the young girl experiences a journey out of the self and a process of self-definition akin to Roethke's own. By adopting a female persona Roethke creates a woman with an inner life—a consciousness—and in doing so, his lover becomes personalized. Seager mentions that Roethke wrote these poems out of concern for his wife, Beatrice. Although referring to the landscape poems of The Far Field, Seager makes an important observation pertaining to a change in Roethke towards his wife in these last years: "[H]e had ceased to regard Beatrice as an acquisition whose beauty would enhance his reputation every time he appeared with her…. [H]e came to see what she meant to him as a woman, how great his dependence on her was … and he began to love her … with a true love." This biographical information helps mark the distinction between the love poems of Words for the Wind and those of The Far Field. By assuming the mask, Roethke recognizes his lover as a fellow human being who seeks and suffers in a life analogous to his own.
The remaining love poems "comprise a very mixed bag." Two lyrics, "Light Listened" and "His Foreboding," recall the Words for the Wind series in terms of their approach to love. "Light Listened" echoes "All the Earth, All the Air" and "I Knew a Woman," two of the more celebratory love poems of their sequence. The woman appears in touch with the elements, and as the last line has it, "Light listened when she sang." She moves and changes "with changing light," and nothing "could be more nice / Than her ways with a man." "His Foreboding" presents a darker side of love, stressing the speaker's dependence on the woman as an "incommensurate dread / Of being, being away / From one comely head." In this line, the poet equates the dread of "being" with "being away" from his beloved, a correspondence that encompasses the paradoxes of living and living. For the speaker, being alone means returning to "nothingness," and the "loneliest thing" he knows is his "own mind at play."
The lyric "Song" demonstrates the progression of Roethke's approach to love since Words for the Wind. His "wrath" and "rage" have faded with time. In the first stanza, the speaker sees "wrath" as the "edge" or sharpness of his thoughts that he had "carried so long / When so young." The second stanza questions a future that lacks one's self-protecting rage: "Will the heart eat the heart? / What's to come? What's to come?" Roethke's reconciliation to his dependence on his beloved shows itself in the last stanza. In contrast to the earlier love poems, the poet speaks directly to his lover, and asks her for the answers; while in Words for the Wind, he mocks his lover who "squeaks in pure Plato" and has "an empty face," The Far Field's speaker acknowledges the value of the woman's inner self by seeking her wisdom. Freer notes that "the woman has the transcendent knowledge that the poet lacks, and also has the knowledge of the present and its possibility of fertile regeneration." The poem shows that the speaker still has doubts concerning his own strength of mind, but he also has the courage to confront his loved one on an equal level.
"Her Wrath," "The Shy Man," and "The Happy Three" have no counterparts in Words for the Wind. They approach love in a lighter manner, and each contains examples of personalization. "The Happy Three" depicts a domestic quarrel humorously. His "darling wife" nags and frowns in a typically human fashion. The poet leaves the house in irritation "[t]o drink some half-and-half / On the back lawn" in the company of their pet goose, Marianne, "[n]amed for the poetess." By reporting a dialogue and providing domestic details, Roethke creates a slice-of-life poem that personalizes the characters involved. Although he describes a scene of discord, he does it comically, and admits that his "banked-up vertigo / Vanished like April snow; / All rage was gone." The final lines celebrate the lovers' reconciliation, as he, his wife, and Marianne romp "out again, / Out again, / Out again, / Three in the sun."
"Her Wrath" also characterizes anger through humor. Not only does the poem recognize the woman's emotions (a circumstance completely absent from Words for the Wind), but it also names the poet's lover—"Beatrice." While Roethke does compare his Beatrice to Dante's idealized Beatrice, she remains many steps removed from the earlier "absolute woman." In "The Shy Man," Roethke calls his lover O'Connell's daughter," O'Connell being Beatrice's maiden name. While the poem may be a "mannered imitation of Irish song," it illustrates Roethke's improved ability to confront human relations in a traditional manner. "'I am not alone,'" he says, "'For here close beside me is O'Connell's daughter.'" Roethke particularizes his loved one, and acknowledges in simple terms the support she provides.
"Wish for a Young Wife" makes an appropriate conclusion to Roethke's last sequence of love poems. It stands as the only love lyric that reaches the level of personalization of "Elegy for Jane," yet surpasses the elegy in emotional maturity:
My lizard, my lively writher, May your limbs never wither, May the eyes in your face Survive the green ice Of envy's mean gaze; May you live out your life Without hate, without grief, And your hair ever blaze, In the sun, in the sun, When I am undone, When I am no one.
In this poem, Roethke speaks directly to his wife, recognizing their age difference and offering a tender prayer for her future. With unmatched generosity, Roethke wishes her eternal youth and happiness, understanding that he will someday be "no one." Roethke's hope for his wife's prolonged existence in the face of the inevitable dissolution of his own identity reflects an unprecedented sense of emotional security and spiritual wholeness. In contrast to the "The Pure Fury" in which Roethke blames woman for the death of self, "Wish for a Young Wife" celebrates the woman's life while the poet accepts his own mortality. In wishing that her "hair ever blaze, / In the sun, in the sun," Roethke echoes the climax of "Meditations of an Old Woman," in which the speaker equates "The sun! The sun!" with "all we can become!" Not only does Roethke successfully confront human relations and realize a particularized female, but he also wishes her the joys of "becoming" even after he is "undone."
The whole of Roethke's work charts his progress as a spiritual man, as well as his development as a human being. His poems record the painful process of maturation, of breaking from "self-involvement," and seeking the relationship between the self and the not-self. Loving his wife increases the complications of his struggle for identity. In Words for the Wind, intimacy with a woman poses a threat to the poet's psyche, causing him to dehumanize the female out of self-preservation. Personalizing and objectifying another person, or recognizing the other's reality as equal to his own becomes an important step in Roethke's journey out of the self. By personalizing Jane and donning the mask of the old woman, Roethke makes significant advances towards the "inward blessedness" of The Far Field. The young-girl sequence expands Roethke's poetic empathy for his beloved. As a final word, "Wish for a Young Wife" shows an unselfish Roethke who in the face of his own extinction exults in the vitality of an individualized woman.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7165
SOURCE: "'The Method is Cyclic': The 'Lost Son' Sequence and Praise to the End!," in Theodore Roethke and the Writing Process, Ohio University Press, 1991, pp. 54-73.
[In the following essay, Bogen explores the process of self-discovery and maturation as expressed by Roethke in "The Lost Son" and Praise to the End!, especially as influenced by parental relationships and sexual awakening.]
If Roethke became a "master of description" in his composition of the greenhouse poems of the early '40s, his work during the rest of the decade was focussed on developing powers of "suggestion." The four-poem "Lost Son" sequence which concludes Roethke's second book is the first manifestation of this new development. While the greenhouse poems lead to self-discovery through the examination of specific memories, the later work is concerned with underlying patterns behind the memories; in it Roethke begins to delve directly into the unconscious, without the mediation of greenhouse description. The result is complex, highly experimental work unlike anything Roethke had done before. In Chapter 5 we will take a close look at the new ways of writing behind an example of this work, but first it is necessary to consider the material as a whole. The four-poem "Lost Son" group is the first of the sequences of longer poems which become increasingly important in Roethke's career, including "Praise to the End!," "Meditations of an Old Woman," and "North American Sequence." It is also the only group of poems to be incorporated in two separate volumes: as the conclusion of The Lost Son and Other Poems in 1948 and as the opening of Part II of Praise to the End! in 1951. In Roethke's development of the "Lost Son" poems and Praise to the End! as sequences we can see the overall process of self-discovery he underwent from the mid-'40s to the early '50s.
Writing about "The Lost Son" in his essay "Open Letter," Roethke summarizes the general movement of the poem and the sequences in which it is included:
This crude account tells very little about what actually happens in the poem; but 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 (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." Are not some experiences so powerful and so 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 bringing 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 know where the depths are or can recognize them; or, if they do, are afraid. (Roethke's emphasis)
The two-level description of the greenhouse poems points to the "depths" Roethke mentions here in its connections between the self and the primal world of natural processes. The drive toward "beginnings" Roethke announces in "Cuttings (later)" leads the poet back to the "slippery grave" ("Weed Puller") where life starts and ends, and Roethke's original title for the greenhouse poems, "News of the Root," suggests a thorough examination of these depths. But in 1945 Roethke complained that the greenhouse poems were "not sufficiently related." The greenhouse experience is obviously one of the "powerful" ones Roethke mentions in "Open Letter," and we see its repetition "with variation and change" in each poem. But the greenhouse poems do not, in the end, develop a "succession of experiences" that would reveal a "history of the psyche." Though some critics have since found broad patterns in the greenhouse poems—a progression from physical description to meditation, "a general sense of growth," a movement toward transcendence of the past—Roethke's own dissatisfaction with the relations among the greenhouse poems led him toward a much more deliberate concept of progression in the "Lost Son" sequence. If the greenhouse poems are like separate photographs of memories carefully arranged in an album, the "Lost Son" sequence is like a movie. The sequence of longer, multisectioned poems allows the poet to undertake a kind of "journey" in the process of writing, to extend his self-discovery beyond the bounds of specific scenes and memories.
This extended self-discovery involved changes not only in the idea of progression among poems but also in style. While the two-level nature of the greenhouse poems anchors the poet's discoveries about himself in images from the natural world, the sequences of Roethke's middle period are considerably more dense symbolically, with more complex relations between the physical and psychological dimensions. As Roethke moved from "description" to "suggestion," he began to work more "intuitively," as he put it; and the result is poems which develop a whole range of suggestions in different images. A worm, for example, functions simultaneously as a literal creature used for fish bait, an archetype of mortality, a phallic symbol, and an image of regression and lowliness. This associative richness, with its abundance of psychosexual connotations, reflects Roethke's extensive forays into "the depths" of the unconscious, which we will see in more detail in Chapter 5. In the completed texts, the wealth of suggestions is augmented by the poet's predominant interest in what he called "dramatic" expression in this period. In the greenhouse poems Roethke wanted to "be true to the actual," but his development of the poems in the sequences as dramatic pieces changed the context of images considerably:
All these states of mind were to be rendered dramatically, without comment, without allusion, the action often implied or indicated in the interior monologue or dialogue between the self and its mentor, or conscience, or, sometimes, another person.
By removing comments, allusions, and direct action in the physical world in his drive for the dramatic, the poet creates difficult, often disjointed work in which images are liberated from their standard contexts. Meaning is expressed in a fundamentally new way, as Roethke notes in "Open Letter":
If intensity has compressed the language so it seems, on early reading, obscure, this obscurity should break open suddenly for the serious reader who can hear the language: the "meaning" itself should come as a dramatic revelation, an excitement. The clues will be scattered richly—as life scatters them; the symbols will mean what they usually mean—and sometimes something more.
This new, more suggestive approach is vital to the poet's more complex self-discovery in the sequences. With it, Roethke is able to develop, as he put it, "a genuine imaginative order out of what comes from the unconscious."
As Roethke noted in the seminar on identity, "The human problem is to find out what one really is: whether one exists, whether existence is possible. But how?" (Roethke's emphasis). The greenhouse memories respond to the first part of this comment, showing the poet "what he is"; in the sequences that follow these poems, Roethke goes on to consider the broader question of "whether existence is possible" for him. The sequences trace what Roethke called the "mental and spiritual crisis" of confronting his own experience, of integrating the world of the greenhouse—including his father's death and his own maturation—into a clear sense of his identity in the present. The process of engaging the past and incorporating discoveries from it in a deeper sense of self is at the heart of Roethke's work on the "Lost Son" sequence and Praise to the End! "To begin from the depths and come out" was his overall goal. As the sequences take shape we can see the poet gradually moving toward a resolution of his confrontation with the past.
Roethke's work of the mid to late '40s divides roughly into two periods: from 1945 to the fall of 1947, during which he composed the four-poem sequence included in The Lost Son while teaching at Bennington and Pennsylvania State; and from fall of '47, when Roethke moved to the University of Washington, to the completion of Praise to the End! in 1950. Within these two periods the poet developed the sequences in several stages. First came a three-poem version of the "Lost Son" sequence, without "A Field of Light." This was followed by the four-poem version published in The Lost Son. In late 1947 Roethke completed the title poem of Praise to the End! He then went on to the eight other new poems in this book, conceiving them as a single sequence in the following order: "Where Knock Is Open Wide"; "I Need, I Need"; "Bring the Day!"; "Give Way, Ye Gates"; "Sensibility! O La!"; "O Lull Me, Lull Me"; "Unfold! Unfold!" and "I Cry, Love! Love!" The last stage of Roethke's work involved dividing this group into Parts I and II of the finished text and integrating the original "Lost Son" sequence in the new volume. Looking at these stages in order, we can see how Roethke's understanding of himself and his past evolved in the process of writing.
As "Open Letter" explains, Roethke's progress on this journey of self-discovery is "cyclic." This cyclic quality is reflected in the repeating five-part structure Roethke uses for three of the four poems in the "Lost Son" sequence. The pattern of self-exploration in "The Lost Son," described in detail in "Open Letter," involves an initial sense of stagnation, flight from it, regression to an irrational level, then recreation of a childhood greenhouse experience, leading to a more satisfying vision of self and world. This pattern is followed, with some variation, in the two poems written immediately after "The Lost Son": "The Long Alley" and "The Shape of the Fire." "The Lost Son," "The Long Alley," and "The Shape of the Fire" were all completed by February, 1947 and represent Roethke's first sense of the sequence; in a letter at this time he wrote that the finished manuscript of his new book contained only "three long poems." This first group of three poems is a highly coherent unit which exemplifies the kind of cyclic progress Roethke describes in his essay. Though the process of self-discovery is repeated in each poem, the poet's self-understanding increases as the sequence progresses; he gradually becomes more aware of how the process works, more confident of its final outcome. From a state of calm expectation—"Wait"—at the end of "The Lost Son" (5.25), Roethke moves toward self-acceptance and a desire for active confrontation with reality—"I'll take the fire"—in "The Long Alley" (5.10), and then on to what Louis Martz calls "full maturity and conscious power" in "The Shape of the Fire." The titles of the three poems, all from the world of the greenhouse, reflect this movement: The poet starts out as a "Lost Son," then perceives "The Long Alley" ahead of him, and finally comes to know "The Shape of the Fire" at the heart of the greenhouse and his past.
Added to the "Lost Son" sequence in the fall of 1947, "A Field of Light" involves the same general movement from a sense of personal stagnation to a new vision of self, but there are several important differences between this poem and the three composed before it. Unlike the other "Lost Son" poems, "A Field of Light" is written entirely in the past tense; it thus seems less dramatic and chaotic than the other works. The title of the poem does not suggest the intensity of the enclosed greenhouse, as do the others, but rather a sense of freedom and spiritual illumination in the open field. In fact, the specific greenhouse experiences which surface in the fourth sections of the other poems are completely absent from "A Field of Light." The five-part structure is replaced by a more compact three-part organization which leaves no room for a long, irrational "Gibber" ("The Lost Son," Part 3) or a "Return" ("The Lost Son," Part 4) to the greenhouse. The stress in the later poem is not so much on the process of self-discovery as on the vision of self attained after the process is completed. In contrast to the other poems, "A Field of Light" has its longest, most developed section at the end, in which we see a man at peace with himself and nature:
I could watch! I could watch! I saw the separateness of all things! My heart lifted up with the great grasses; The weeds believed me, and the nesting birds. There were clouds making a rout of shapes crossing a windbreak of cedars, And a bee shaking drops from a rain-soaked honeysuckle. The worms were delighted as wrens. And I walked, I walked through the light air; I moved with the morning. (3.14-22)
All of these differences suggest an increased distance on Roethke's part from his past and a slight movement away from the regressive and irrational aspects of his personality. These changes may reflect the temporary therapeutic effect of completing the original three-poem sequence. Roethke was certainly aware of the potential for psychic progress through writing. Commenting on his work in 1955, he described his poems as an attempt to "transmute and purify my 'life,' the sense of being defiled by it." "A Field of Light" seems a more "purified" poem than the ones written before it. The differences between "A Field of Light" and the other three poems may also reflect changes in Roethke's life. During the two-year period in which the first three poems were written, Roethke spent a great deal of time in his hometown. He worked there on the original "Lost Son" sequence in the summer of 1945 and from January, 1946 until the completion of the three-poem series in February of the following year. A few entries from the poet's notebooks of this period suggest the kind of immersion in his past Roethke was undergoing during the months in Saginaw:
Long, fruitless introspection, characteristic of the German, relieved by occasional dim flickers of insight. Like a half-blind animal that at best can see no colors but gray, he broods and broods. My memory, my prison. I am nothing but what I remember. What was the greenhouse? It was a jungle, and it was paradise; it was order and disorder: Was it an escape? No, for it was a reality harsher than reality. The long mind roves back. I wear between my eyes the image of death. I carry death in my mouth. Blundering man, gentle with birds, Whom the caterpillar caressed, Whom the snake kissed. I was never his son, not I.
In his notebooks the poet constantly examines his memories, trying to determine his true relation to the greenhouse, to his father, to aspects of himself. Even the process of memory itself is called into question. This is a considerably more intense process than the "looking" at the past Roethke had done in the greenhouse notebooks; it involves not only gathering material from the past but critically judging it and trying to determine its meaning. Memories are developed not so much as narratives important in their own right but as tools for self-scrutiny. As we will see in the next chapter, Roethke works continuously at liberating unconscious material in these notebooks, not just remembering events but actually creating whole worlds of psychic imagery from his plunges into "the depths." This kind of intense introspection was often painful for Roethke, as the reference to "my memory, my prison" and the description of himself as a "half-blind animal" suggest.
In addition to this immersion in the past, Roethke suffered his second mental breakdown during this period—after Christmas, 1945—which may be reflected in some of the more irrational parts of the sequence. However, it is important not to exaggerate the role of Roethke's breakdowns in his poetic work. To compare Roethke with Sylvia Plath and Rimbaud, as one critic does, is to romanticize mental derangement and reduce these poets' vastly different work to a form of inspired—or induced—madness. To suggest that writing about himself was psychologically "dangerous" for Roethke, as another critic does, is romanticization of a different sort which conjures up a distorted image of the poet as martyr to his own sensitivities. Roethke's biographer Allan Seager gives a plausible interpretation when he suggests that the five-part structure developed in "The Lost Son" reflects the pattern of the poet's breakdown, with the second and third sections expressing "the terror, the physical and psychic exhaustion of his stay in the hospital." But Seager goes too far in implying that Roethke's mental illness provided the "substructure" for the entire poem. Neither "The Lost Son" nor the other two poems in the group I have been discussing describe or arise directly from Roethke's breakdown. Rather, they are based primarily on an intense imaginative reliving of the past, as Roethke's comments in notebooks and the essay "Open Letter" make clear.
"A Field of Light" was written during a much calmer period in the poet's life, the summer of 1947, a month of which Roethke spent at the Yaddo Writer's Conference in rural New York. Roethke's physical distance from Saginaw and his past the relaxed atmosphere of Yaddo, and the friendship and support of other writers, notably Robert Lowell, are reflected in the brighter, more peaceful tone of the poem Roethke eventually came to see as an "interlude" in the "Lost Son" sequence. Roethke's decision to insert this "interlude" in a group of poems he had originally considered complete is a choice which suggests an increased sense of control over the personal material from which the poems are derived. With "A Field of Light" added, the sequence no longer reflects its own chronological development in Roethke's life; a reordering of personal experience is involved. This re-ordering implies an ability to see how the sequence presents the self and a desire to arrange that presentation in a certain way.
Though the last of the four "Lost Son" poems to be written, "A Field of Light," is more self-accepting than the others, Roethke is not satisfied with the kind of "progress" involved here. If he were, he would have kept the poems in their order of composition, concluding the series with the least "troubled" of the four. Roethke's final arrangement of the sequence links the later vision of self in "A Field of Light" back to the poems which gave rise to it and changes it from an endpoint to an interlude in a cycle. Kenneth Burke summarizes the value of this kind of cycle-making in "The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke":
The dangers inherent in the regressive imagery seem to have received an impetus from without, that drove the poet still more forcefully in the same direction, dipping him in the river who loved water. His own lore thus threatened to turn against him. The enduring of such discomforts is a "birth" in the sense that, if the poet survives the ordeal, he is essentially stronger, and has to this extent forged himself an identity. [Burke's emphasis]
What new sense of identity has Roethke developed by inserting "A Field of Light" in the "Lost Son" sequence? The self we see in the completed sequence seems less troubled, less obsessed with specific childhood experiences than it does in the original three-poem series. The intensity built up in the first version of the sequence through repeated patterns in structure, style and subject matter is now interrupted by a poem that offers what Louis Martz calls "a retrospective view of the development of the entire sequence." "A Field of Light" shows the enlightenment and ease toward which the sequence as a whole has been headed.
Inserted in the middle of the group, this "retrospective view" adds a suggestion that the poet will eventually be able to put the intense experiences of the earlier poems into perspective. At a future time he will presumably see these psychic processes in the relatively calm way he looks at them in "A Field of Light," and in retrospect the most vivid aspects will not be the "dark" ones—the terror, the irrationality, the regression to childhood—but the "light" at the end of the experience. The position of "A Field of Light" between the second and third poems of the original sequence also modifies the structure of the group, setting up a new balance between two poems focussing on "darkness"—"The Lost Son" and "The Long Alley"—and two poems focussing on "light"—"A Field of Light" and "The Shape of the Fire." Though this re-ordering of the poems does not eliminate the "darker" passages in the concluding work, the inclusion of a new poem in the sequence "brightens" the group as a whole. Stressing in "A Field of Light" that the final illumination, not flight or regression, is the most lasting part of the process of self-discovery, Roethke makes the affirmative vision at the end of the four-poem sequence all the more powerful.
The addition of "A Field of Light" to the middle of the "Lost Son" sequence is the first major step in Roethke's cyclic progress. The self-discovery involved here comes not from new understanding of a specific memory, as it had in the greenhouse poems, or from progressive repetition of a pattern of psychic development, as it had in the first three "Lost Son" poems, but from complex interactions among the different sides of the poet's experience seen in the works. "A Field of Light" comments on the other poems in the sequence from the distance of its retrospective vision; but this vision, set in the middle of the group, is then modified by its new role as an "interlude" rather than a summary. Cycle-making of this sort demands constant re-evaluation of poems and the experiences they describe. This includes returns to the "depths" even after they seem to have been left behind, in the "perpetual slipping-back" that is part of the cyclic process. Burke's "birth" metaphor is appropriate for this intense, laborious process. In a reading of the four-poem "Lost Son" sequence, Roethke mentioned that the last poem of the group, "The Shape of the Fire," was originally an attempt to conclude the exhausting process of self-exploration he had been undergoing as he was writing these works.
This attempt was not successful. By the fall of 1947 Roethke had completed the four-poem "Lost Son" sequence and had begun teaching at the University of Washington. The Lost Son and Other Poems was due to be published the following year, but the poet was still immersed in the cyclic process of self-discovery he had begun two years earlier. Its first manifestation after the move to Washington was the poem "Praise to the End!" Commenting on this piece in a letter to Kenneth Burke, Roethke stresses its close thematic relation to the "Lost Son" sequence:
I've just finished a long (97 lines) poem, the last probably from the dark world. The tone of some of the passages is somewhat the same; but what is said (dramatically) is different. The thing is much "clearer," I think, than the other: can really be worked at as equations: There's a more complicated "ecstasy" passage, which resolves into death-wish.
Though "Praise to the End!" in its final version has four sections, an explanatory outline Roethke provided for it suggests the five-part structure of the three original "Lost Son" poems:
1) Act 2) Reaction to act (quiet, sense of impotence) 3) Song: reasons for act reaction again 4) Two flashbacks related to act, then the present again 5) Sublimation (The fact that there are few human symbols here isn't accidental.)
The middle sections here seem particularly close to the earlier five-part model, including the sense of exhaustion in the second section, the irrational song of the third part, and the regressive flashbacks in the fourth part. From these similarities it might seem that "Praise to the End!" represents a return to the obsessions of the first three "Lost Son" poems, and that Roethke, in effect, learned nothing from his composition and arrangement of the four-poem sequence. However, the differences between "Praise to the End!" and the "Lost Son" sequence indicate some important developments in the poet's understanding.
Though Burke's "Vegetal Radicalism" essay provides an excellent analysis of the Lost Son volume, his assertion that "Praise to the End!" and other poems written directly after The Lost Son "repeat the regressive imagery without the abysmal anguish" undervalues the persistent element of despair in some of these works. The cause for this despair can be seen in the "equation" Roethke felt summarized "Praise to the End!": "onanism equals death." Unlike the "Lost Son" poems, "Praise to the End!" begins not with general stagnation but with a specific masturbatory "act." The poet's reactions to this act—despair, flight into irrationality, regression—are reminiscent of the "Lost Son" sequence, but the final ecstasy is now seen as a "death-wish." The return to the past in Part 3, instead of refreshing the poet and leading him to a revitalized sense of self, now involves him with "graves" (3.25), "ghosts" (3.28), "owls" (3.21), and dreams of being "all bones" (3.13) as the father's death looms imminently over adolescent experience. In "Praise to the End!" the past is not a greenhouse but a grave.
The despair underlying "Praise to the End!" also colors the father's presence in the poem. The role of the dead father as a judgmental figure—"Father Fear," as Roethke calls him—had been hinted at in the "Gibber" section of "The Lost Son" (3.16-17). In "Praise to the End!" this aspect becomes dominant, as the poet begs mercy for his autoerotic transgression: "Father, forgive my hands" (1.12). But the father also has a benign side: his role as a loving guide who can help the son in his progress toward maturity. This ambivalent vision of the father is at the heart of the two sequences. While the judging father arises from the son's masturbatory guilt and is bound up with a death-wish, the loving father represents the hope of successful progress toward resolution of the problems of identity and sexuality. When the judging father appears, the poet is mired in his own failures, the bleak world of onanism and death. The loving father, in contrast, is a model who can lead the poet from masturbation toward genuine love, from fear and guilt toward a renewed sense of self.
In the "Lost Son" sequence as a whole the potentially destructive aspect of the father is gradually overshadowed by his nurturing abilities, and he becomes a "lively understandable spirit" ("The Lost Son," 5.21) who can guide the poet to a kind of maturity. But in "Praise to the End!" these positive qualities are gone; the poet must beg forgiveness of a "Father of tensions" (1.4), a "ghost" (1.11) whose condemning presence leads him eventually toward death.
The change in the role of the father from the "Lost Son" sequence to "Praise to the End!" reveals some basic limitations in the final resolution of the four-poem sequence. The incompleteness of the vision of self attained in the "Lost Son" group is dramatized by the contrast between the last four lines of the sequence—
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 Shape of the Fire," 5.15-18)—
and these lines from the beginning of "Praise to the End!":
The rings have gone from the pond. The river's alone with its water. All risings Fall. (1.13-16)
In the first passage the stress is on containment, security, constant nurturing; the long lines with their smooth, regular rhythms and the half-rhymes at the ends of the lines augment this emphasis. The lines from "Praise to the End!" illustrate a situation in which this security breaks down; the enclosing "rings" of the calm "pond" are gone, and the "river" takes over, breaking the smooth order of the verse form as it pushes toward a "Fall." The "river" here is clearly sexual and points to a problem which is not adequately resolved in the "Lost Son" sequence.
Though "The Lost Son" and other poems in the sequence hint at sexual activities in references to "serpents" ("The Long Alley," 1.1), "eels," "mouths of jugs" ("The Lost Son," 1.55, 3.22), and other suggestive images, sexuality generally remains on the level of infantile fantasy in these poems. Though masturbation is mentioned, the conflict between easy autoerotic gratification and the desire for sex with another person does not predominate; and the fact that the poet is by himself in the ecstatic scene at the end of the sequence seems to have no negative connotations. However, when more adult sexual needs are considered in "Praise to the End!" the absence of another person in the concluding vision of self is connected with onanism and death. Roethke mentions this in his letter to Kenneth Burke:
I've been astonished to find that in the last 24 lines of affirmation there is not one reference to anything human except the line: "I've crawled from the mire, alert as a saint or a dog." And a saint is hardly human. All the other images are fish, birds, animals, etc … Onan's folly. (Roethke's ellipsis)
In another letter he refers to the union with nature at the end of the poem—a union which is similar in tone and imagery to that at the end of "A Field of Light" or "The Shape of the Fire"—as "Ecstasy-death wish, etc. (Sublimation carried to its ultimate end)." The ecstatic vision of harmony becomes, like masturbation, a flight from confronting real sexual needs and a disobedience of the father. While the nurturing father in the "Lost Son" sequence leads the poet toward personal security and self-acceptance, the judging father in "Praise to the End!" shows what Roethke has not achieved: intimate relations outside the self. The poet's first response to this new challenge is flight and a longing for death.
Though "Praise to the End!" depicts a failure to attain a level of social and sexual maturity, the conclusion of this work is not completely hopeless. In "Open Letter" Roethke says the following about the end of the poem:
Is the protagonist "happy" in his death-wish? Is he a mindless euphoric jigger who goes blithering into oblivion? No. In terms of the whole sequence, he survives: this is a dead-end explored. His self-consciousness, his very will to live saves him from the annihilation of the ecstasy. (Roethke's emphasis)
"Self-consciousness" and a "will to live" are qualities the poet has gained by the end of the "Lost Son" sequence. Though the self-acceptance achieved here gives the poet the confidence to "explore" masturbation and its consequences, Roethke eventually comes to consider the attempt to deal with sexual needs exclusively through the self-oriented vision of the "Lost Son" sequence a "dead-end." The cyclic process of self-discovery involves continual re-thinking of previous conclusions in this way. As Roethke noted in "Open Letter," each poem is "complete in itself; yet each in a sense is a stage." As former endpoints become stages in a cycle, the poet's awareness of self grows. "Transcend that vision. What is first or early is easy to believe. But … it may enchain you" [Roethke's ellipsis], the poet wrote in a notebook during this period. "Praise to the End!" points out a kind of enchainment in self, in which the sexual excitement of the "duke of eels" (1.8) is always followed by a sense of despair, impotence and death, a feeling of being "asleep in a bower of dead skin" (2.31), and "All risings / Fall" (1.15-16). Later poems will attempt to transcend this lonely pattern of arousal and sorrow. This transcendence, however, does not involve discarding the earlier sense of self but rather including it in a newer, broader vision.
Written after "Praise to the End!" in 1949–1950, the remaining eight poems in Roethke's third book were conceived originally as a sequence tracing the poet's growth from early childhood to maturity. A letter indicates that the six-poem sequence making up Part I of the published text at first also included "Unfold! Unfold!" and "I Cry, Love! Love!" Later these two poems were removed from the sequence and placed at the end of Part II. In February, 1949 Roethke sent a draft of the first poem of the group, "Where Knock Is Open Wide," to Kenneth Burke, outlining his initial plans for the eight-poem sequence in a letter:
This piece is conceived as the first of a sequence of dramatic pieces beginning with a small child and working up. A kind of tensed-up Prelude, maybe: no comment; everything in the mind of the kid.
The title "Praise to the End!" is from The Prelude and suggests an interesting link between the new sequence and the poem Roethke wrote just before it. Here are the lines from which this title is taken:
How strange that all The terrors, pains, and early miseries, Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused Within my mind, should e'er have borne a part, And that a needful part, in making up The calm existence that is mine when I Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end! Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ; Whether her fearless visitings, or those That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use Severer interventions, ministry More palpable, as best might suit her aim.
Referring to the title in another letter, Roethke tells Burke that "Ambiguities, ironical and otherwise, are intended." Wordsworth's confident, assertive lines stand in clear contrast to a poem in which "Praise to the end!" becomes a death-wish.
Though Wordsworth's position is treated ironically in Roethke's poem, the lines from The Prelude also suggest a goal for Roethke: self-acceptance and harmony with nature. The first attainment of this goal at the end of the "Lost Son" sequence was shattered by the emergence of powerful sexual needs in "Praise to the End!" In the "tensed-up Prelude" which follows it, the poet attempts to trace his own sexual development as he dramatically reconstructs "The terrors, pains, and early miseries" of childhood and adolescence. The cyclic development of the sequence takes another turn here. In a misjudgment typical of his work on sequences, Roethke had believed "Praise to the End!" to be the last poem "from the dark world," But the new issues this poem raised sent him back again for new answers. This return to the past is an extended and more self-critical version of the returns in the "Lost Son" poems; it puts the past we have seen in the earlier sequence under a microscope by separating it into different periods and focussing more directly on the sexual issues raised by "Praise to the End!" The fact that the new sequence is made up entirely of dramatic monologues gives Roethke's encounter with the past an added intensity. He is not only returning to childhood as he had earlier but actually reliving it, speaking with the child's voice as he seeks to express everything "in the mind of the kid." This more intense and detailed treatment of past experience represents for Roethke another step in the cyclic progress toward "The calm existence that is mine when I / Am worthy of myself!"
The eight-poem "tensed-up Prelude" breaks naturally into four units. Roethke published the second, third and fourth poems of the series under the single title "Give Way, Ye Gates" in 1950. At the conclusion of this group he added the following note:
I wish to have these three poems considered as an entity, the group making one poem from childhood into a violent adolescence: a caterwauling.
If this three-poem group is taken as the core of the sequence, the opening poem of the volume, "Where Knock Is Open Wide," takes the sequence back from "childhood" toward infancy, while "Sensibility! O La!" and "O Lull Me, Lull Me" move forward from "violent adolescence" toward young adulthood. The last two poems of the sequence, "Unfold! Unfold!" and "I Cry, Love! Love!," represent an adult perspective, which helps explain why Roethke eventually separated them from the rest of the series. Briefly, the first four poems of the sequence trace the child's development from infantile confusion and fear of his parents' power—
A kitten can Bite with his feet; Papa and Mamma Have more teeth. ("Where Knock Is Open Wide," 1.1-4)
—through the first awareness of his own independent sexuality—"I know another fire. / Has roots." ("I Need, I Need," 4.15-16)—with its attendant anxieties; to a sense of sexual readiness—"It's time to begin!" ("Bring the Day!," 3.7)—based on a faith that "What slides away"—parental nurturing, a childhood sense of security—will, in the end, "provide" ("Give Way, Ye Gates," 4.16-17). The next two poems examine the autoerotic stage of "John-of-the-thumb" ("Sensibility! O La!," 2.4) as the young man develops a clearer sense of self and other through sexual fantasies. The last two poems depict conflicts in the adult between a genuine desire to love and the death-wish derived from guilt Roethke noted earlier in "Praise to the End!"
The arrangement of the poems for the completed volume is the last stage in Roethke's cyclic progress. When it was published in 1951, Praise to the End! was divided into two sections: Part I contained the first six poems in the "tensed-up Prelude" while Part II included the "Lost Son" sequence, followed by "Praise to the End!," "Unfold! Unfold!," and "I Cry, Love! Love!" As I mentioned, Roethke originally wrote "Unfold! Unfold!" and "I Cry, Love! Love!" as the concluding part of the eight-poem "tensed-up Prelude," but these poems have enough similarities to the "Lost Son" series and "Praise to the End!" that they do not stand out awkwardly in Part II of the finished volume. Both poems are written from an adult perspective, and we see in both the old progression from stagnation, through regression, to a new vision of self. Stylistically these two poems are indistinguishable from the others in Part II; the short lines and sing-song rhythms that mark the early poems in the sequence gradually disappear as the series progresses. Richard Blessing points to these stylistic and thematic similarities among the poems of Part II:
Poem after poem begins with the thought of death and with the language of death…. The voice is anxious, the sentences terse and frequently truncated, without subjects. The imagery is oppressive, establishing a kind of wasteland as spiritual landscape. But out of such beginnings the poet sets about making a verbal gesture of cherishing, a gesture celebrating life and its motion.
In their position at the end of Part II in the finished volume, "Unfold! Unfold!" and "I Cry, Love! Love!" complete this "gesture," capping the volume and linking both sections. They respond to the insufficiencies "Praise to the End!" revealed in the "Lost Son" sequence by going beyond the vision of self-acceptance at the conclusion of "The Shape of the Fire" to include a new understanding of sex and death.
We can see this new attitude in the secure, assertive tone of the last poem of the sequence, "I Cry, Love! Love!" The poet's confidence here is not based on an exaggerated idea of his own importance or a delusion of complete self-knowledge, as lines like "Bless me and the maze I'm in!" (2.7) and "Behold, in the lout's eye, / Love" (2.25-26) indicate. Neither is it based on mere "reason," as the opening of the poem's second section makes clear. Rather it is grounded in an expanded sense of self-acceptance which has developed over the course of the "tensed-up Prelude." In "Open Letter" Roethke stresses the personal validity of the final vision of identity here:
None the less, in spite of all the muck and welter, the dark, the dreck of these poems, I count myself among the happy poets. "I proclaim, once more, a condition of joy!" says the very last piece.
The line following this proclamation, "Walk into the wind, willie!" (2.16), prepares us for the confident confrontation with death that occurs in the last section of the poem:
I hear the owls, the soft callers, coming down from the hemlocks. The bats weave in and out of the willows, Wing-crooked and sure, Downward and upward, Dipping and veering close to the motionless water. (3.1-5)
The scene here, with its "bats," "owls," and "hemlocks," is even more evocative than the one at the conclusion of "Praise to the End!," and Karl Malkoff finds an "implicit acceptance of the death wish" at the end of "I Cry, Love! Love!" However, viewing this poem in the context of the sequence it originally completed, we can see that "I Cry, Love! Love!" is not a recapitulation of "Praise to the End!" but the culmination of the poet's response to it; the death-wish of the solitary onanist is replaced by a new perspective which confidently reaches out toward union with another person. The landscape of death at the beginning of the section is converted into a scene which compounds birth and procreation:
Who untied the tree? I remember now. We met in a nest. Before I lived. The dark hair sighed. We never enter Alone. (3.15-19)
Though sex is seen as a symbolic return to the womb, this new "entrance" does not represent the end result of a solitary man's wish for death but rather a union between two people which produces life.
In Part II of the final text, then, the isolated security of the "contained flower," at first countered by the onanism and death of "Praise to the End!," eventually grows into a "condition of joy" which points toward entrance into new life through sexual union. This vision is not reached directly by the adult mind of Part II but rather comes from a dramatic reliving of the poet's development from infancy to maturity. After this "tensed-up Prelude" has been written, the original ironic aspect of the title Praise to the End! is changed. The quotation from Wordsworth is no longer primarily a reference to the death-wish in a single poem but rather an allusion suggesting what the collection as a whole has accomplished: an inclusion of all the "terrors, pains, and early miseries" of past experience into a more accurate and secure sense of self-worth.
In the complex process of writing Praise to the End! Roethke proceeded, as he put it, "from exhaustion to exhaustion." Each apparent conclusion he reached—in the three-poem and later four-poem "Lost Son" sequences, in "Praise to the End!," and in the "tensed-up Prelude" that followed it—was incorporated in a broader cyclic pattern which then demanded new work as issues were raised through new juxtapositions of poems. Repeated plunges into "the dark world" of the past and the unconscious are at the heart of this process, gradually leading the poet toward deeper self-awareness. This work in cycles allowed Roethke to enrich and expand the process of self-discovery begun in the greenhouse poems, as he progressed from the careful examination of individual memories to an extended "history of the psyche."