Theodore Roethke

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Roethke, Theodore 1908–1963

Roethke was a major twentieth-century American poet. His work strongly conveys the physical presence of nature and the human body in dynamic descriptive imagery. The Far Field is generally considered his best and most representative work. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1954 for The Waking. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Kenneth Burke

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Roethke can endow his brief lyrics with intensity of action. Nor is the effect got, as so often in short forms, merely by a new spurt in the last line. No matter how brief the poems are, they progress from stage to stage. Reading them, you have strongly the sense of entering at one place, winding through a series of internal developments, and coming out somewhere else. (pp. 69-70)

Thus, though you'd never look to Roethke for the rationalistic, the expository steps are … ticked off as strictly as in the successive steps of a well-formed argument. And thanks to the developmental structure of such poems, one never thinks of them sheerly as descriptive: they have the vigor, and the poetic morality, of action, of form unfolding. (pp. 70-1)

[You] will rarely find in his verse a noun ending in "-ness" or "-ity." He goes as far as is humanly possible in quest of a speech wholly devoid of abstractions. (p. 73)

If Roethke adheres to his present aesthetic, there are more [abstract] … expressions in ["Burnt Norton,"] one Quartet of Eliot's, than Roethke's Vegetal Radicalism would require for a whole lifetime of poetizing. (p. 74)

[We can use] Kantian distinctions to specify a possible criterion for a purified poetic idiom. The ideal formula might be stated thus: A minimum of "ideas," a maximum of "intuitions." In this form, it can sum up the Roethkean aesthetic. (pp. 75-6)

[We] can see in Roethke's cult of "intuitive" language: a more strictly "infantile" variant of the Dantesque search for a "noble" vernacular; a somewhat suburban, horticulturist variant of Wordsworth's stress upon the universal nature of rusticity; and a close replica of Lawrence's distinction between the "physical" and the "abstract."

With "prowess in arms" (Virtus) he is not concerned. The long poems, still to be considered, are engrossed with problems of welfare (Salus), though of a kind attainable rather by persistent dreamlike yielding than by moralistic "guidance of the will." As for Venus, in Roethke's verse it would seem addressed most directly to a phase of adolescence. The infantile motif serves here, perhaps, like the persuasive gestures of sorrow or helplessness, as appeal to childless girls vaguely disposed toward nursing. The lost son's bid for a return to the womb may thus become transformed into a doting on the erotic imagery of the "sheath-wet" and its "slip-ooze." And in keeping, there is the vocabulary of flowers and fishes (used with connotations of love), and of primeval slime. (pp. 81-2)

Now let us ask what kind of selectivity is implicit in Roethke's flower images (with their variants of the infantile, rustic, and physical).

In particular, what is a greenhouse? What might we expect it to stand for? It is not sheer nature, like a jungle; nor even regulated nature, like a formal garden…. But there is a peculiar balance of the natural and the artificial in a greenhouse. All about one, the lovely, straining beings, visibly drawing sustenance from ultimate, invisible powers—in a silent blare of vitality—yet as morbid as the caged animals of a zoo.

Even so, with Roethke the experience is not like going from exhibit to exhibit among botanic oddities and rarities. It is like merging...

(This entire section contains 3859 words.)

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there into the life-laden but sickly soil.

To get the quality of Roethke's affections, we should try thinking of "lubricity" as a "good" word, connoting the curative element in the primeval slime. Thus, with him, the image of the mire is usually felicitous, associated with protection and welcome, as in warm sheath-like forms. Only in moments of extremity does he swing to the opposite order of meanings, and think rather of the mire that can hold one a prisoner, sucking toward stagnation and death. Then, for a period of wretchedness, the poet is surprised into finding in this otherwise Edenic image, his own equivalent for Bunyan's slough of despond.

Flowers suggest analogous human motives quite as the figures of animals do in Aesop's fables (except that here they stand for relationships rather than for typical characters). 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. Here was a good vein of imagery to exploit, even as a conceit: that is, any poet shrewdly choosing a theme might hit upon hothouse imagery as generating principle for a group of poems. Yet in this poet's case there was a further incentive. His father had actually been a florist, in charge of a greenhouse. Hence, when utilizing the resources of this key image for new developments, Roethke could at the same time be drawing upon the most occult of early experiences. Deviously, elusively, under such conditions the amplifying of the theme could also be "regressive," and in-turning.

The duality, in the apparent simplicity, of his method probably leads back, as with the somewhat mystic ars poetica of so many contemporary poets, to the kind of order statuesquely expressed in Baudelaire's sonnet, "Correspondances," on mankind's passage through nature as through "forests of symbols," while scents, sounds, and colors "make mutual rejoinder" like distant echoes that fuse "in deep and dusky unity." (pp. 82-3)

What, roughly, then, is the range of meaning in Roethke's flowers? In part, they are a kind of psychology, an empathic vocabulary for expressing rudimentary motives felt, rightly or wrongly, to transcend particular periods of time. Often, in their characters as "the lovely diminutives," they are children in general, or girls specifically…. The preconscious, the infantile, the regressive, the sexual—but is there not in them a further mystery, do they not also appeal as a pageantry, as "positions of pantomime," their natural beauty deriving added secular "sanctification" from the principle of hierarchy? For the thought of flowers, in their various conditions, with their many ways of root, sprout, and blossom, is like the contemplation of nobles, churchmen, commoners, peasants (a world of masks). 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 this respect they could be like Aesop's animals, though only incipiently so. For if their relation to the social mysteries were schematically recognized, we should emerge from the realm of intuitions (with their appropriate "aesthetic ideas") into such "ideas of reason" as a Pope might cultivate ("whatever is, is right" … "self-love, to urge, and reason, to restrain" … "force first made conquest, and that conquest, law" … "order is heaven's first law" … "that true self-love and social are the same"). A Roethke might well subscribe to some such doctrine, notably Pope's tribute's to "honest Instinct"—but in terms whereby the assumptions would, within these rules of utterance, be themselves unutterable. (pp. 85-6)

Some of the short pieces come close to standard magazine verse…. But mostly, here, we want to consider the four longer pieces: "The Lost Son," "The Long Alley," "A Field of Light," and "The Shape of the Fire."

Roethke himself has described them as "four experiences, each in a sense stages in a kind of struggle out of the slime; part of a slow spiritual progress, if you will; part of an effort to be born." At the risk of brashness, we would want to modify this description somewhat. The transformations seem like a struggle less to be born than to avoid being undone. Or put it thus: 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…. 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.

The four poems are, in general, an alternating of two motives: regression, and a nearly lost, but never quite relinquished, expectancy that leads to varying degrees of fulfillment. In "Flight," the first section of "The Lost Son," the problem is stated impressionistically, beginning with the mention of death ("concretized," of course, not in the name of "death," which would be at the farthest an abstraction, at the nearest an abstraction personified, but circumstantially: "At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry"). When considering the possible thesaurus of flowers, we were struck by the fact that, in the greenhouse poems, there was no overt reference to the use of flowers for the sick-room and as funeral wreaths. Deathy connotations are implicitly there, at the very start, in the account of the Cuttings, which are dying even as they strain heroically to live. And there is the refuse of "Flower Dump." But of flowers as standing for the final term of human life, we recall no mention. Roethke has said that he conceives of the greenhouse as symbol for "a womb, a heaven-on-earth." And the thought of its vital internality, in this sense, seems to have obliterated any conscious concern with the uses to which the products of the florist's trade are put. In any case his present poem, dealing with a lyric "I" in serious danger, fittingly begins in the sign of death.

The opening stanza, however, contains not merely the theme of deathlike stagnation. There is also, vaguely, talk of moving on…. And throughout the opening section, with its images of rot and stoppage, there is likewise a watching and waiting. Even a rhetorical question is, after all, subtly, in form a quest. Hence the call for a sign ("Out of what door do I go, / Where and to whom?"), though it leads but to veiled oracular answers ("Dark hollows said, lee to the wind, / The moon said, back of an eel," etc.), transforms this opening section ("The Flight") into a hunt, however perplexed. (pp. 86-7)

[Though the second section] is but a series of restatements, it has considerable variety despite the brevity of the lines and despite the fact that each sentence ends exactly at the end of a line. And the Grammatical shifts, by dramatizing the sequence of topics, keep one from noting that the stanza is in essence but a series of similarly disposed images (symbolizing what Roethke, in a critical reference, has called "obsessions"). (p. 89)

The third section, "The Gibber," might (within the conditions of a lyric) be said to culminate in the act that corresponds to the attitude implicit in the opening scene. It is sexual, but reflexively so: the poet is disastrously alone…. Against a freezing fear, there is a desperate cry for infantile warmth: "I'm cold. I'm cold all over. Rub me in father and mother." The reflexive motif is most direct, perhaps, in the lines: "As my own tongue kissed / My lips awake." The next lines (Roethke has called them a kind of Elizabethan "rant") culminate in a shrilly plaintive inventory of the hero's plight:

     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,

the lamentation being summed up, by a break into a different rhythm:

                 Money money money
                 Water water water

Roethke's Vegetal Radicalism is not the place one would ordinarily look for comments on the economic motive. Yet you can take it as a law that, in our culture, at a moment of extreme mental anguish, if the sufferer is accurate there will be an accounting of money, too. It will be at least implicit, in the offing—hence with professional utterers it should be explicit. So, the agitation comes to a head in the juxtaposing of two liquidities, two potencies, one out of society, the other universal, out of nature. (And in the typical dichotomy of aestheticism, where the aesthetic and the practical are treated as in diametrical opposition to each other, does not this alignment encourage us to treat art and the rational as antitheses? For if money is equated with the practical and the rational, then by the dialectics of the case art is on the side of an "irrational," nonmonetary Nature.) (pp. 90-1)

Though the second section was entitled "The Pit," here actually is the poem's abysmal moment, after which there must be a turning.

Hence, section four, "The Return." Recovery in terms of the "father principle." Memory of a greenhouse experience: out of night, the coming of dawn, and the father. After the description of the dark, with the roses likened to bloody clinkers in a furnace (an excellently right transition from the ashes theme at the close of the previous section to the topic of steam knocking in the steam pipes as a heralding of the advent), the movement proceeds…. (p. 91)

And after talk of light (and reflexively, "light within light") the poem ends on his variant of religious patience and vigil, as applied to the problem of super-egoistic rationality:

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

There has been a coming of light after darkness, a coming of warmth after cold, a coming of steam after powerlessness, a coming of the father and of his super-egoistic knock—and now at the last a more fulsome coming is promised. And within the rules of this idiom, "understandable" is a perfect discovery. It is perhaps the only "intellectualistic" word (the only word for "rational") that would not have jarred in this context.

All four of the long poems follow this same general pattern. (p. 93)

All told, to analyze the longer poems one should get the general "idea" (or better, mood or attitude) of each stanza, then note the succession of images that actualize and amplify it. Insofar as these images are of visible, tangible things, each will be given its verb, so that it [will] have sufficient incidental vividness. But though, in a general way, these verbs will be, either directly or remotely, of the sort that usually goes with the thing (as were dogs to bark, or pigs to grunt), often there may be no verb that, within the conditions of the poem, the noun objectively requires.

For instance, at the beginning of "The Shape of the Fire," there is a line "A cracked pod calls." As an image, the cracked pod belongs here. It is dead, yet there is possibility of a new life in it. Hence, topically, the line might have read simply "A cracked pod." Similarly, there is the line, "Water recedes to the crying of spiders." If spiders stand in general for the loathsome, the line might be translated formalistic ally: "The principle of fertility is overcome by the principle of fear." However, though pods may rattle, and spiders may weave or bite or trap flies, pods don't call and spiders don't cry.

In considering this problem most pedestrianly, we believe we discovered another Rhetorical device which Roethke has used quite effectively. That is, whenever there is no specific verb required, Roethke resorts to some word in the general category of communication. Thus, though "shale loosens" and "a low mouth laps water," a cracked pod calls, spiders and snakes cry, weeds whine, dark hollows, the moon and salt say, inanimate things answer and question and listen or are listened to. To suggest that one thing is of the same essence as another, the poet can speak of their kissing, that is, being in intimate communion (a device that has unintended lewd overtones at one point where the poet, to suggest that he is of the essence of refuse, says, "Kiss me, ashes," a hard line to read aloud without disaster, unless one pauses long on the comma). The topic is clouds? Not clouds that billow or blow, but that would just be? The line becomes: "What do the clouds say?"

There are possible objections to be raised against this sort of standard poetic personifying, which amounts to putting a communicative verb where the copula is normally required, or perhaps one could have no verb at all. But it does help to suggest a world of natural objects in vigorous communication with one another. The very least these poetic entities do is resort to "mystic participation." The poet's scene constitutes a society of animals and things. To walk through his idealized Nature is to be surrounded by figures variously greeting, beckoning, calling, answering one another, or with little groups here and there in confidential huddles, or strangers by the wayside waiting to pose Sphinxlike questions or to propound obscure but truth laden riddles. One thus lives as though ever on the edge of an Ultimate Revelation. (pp. 96-8)

[Similes] are very rare in Roethke. The word "like" appears, unless we counted wrong, but three times in the four long poems; "as," used as a synonym for "like," occurs not much oftener. Indeed, one way to glimpse the basic method used here is to think, first, of simile, next of metaphor, and then (extrapolating) imagine advancing to a further step. Thus, one might say, in simile, "The toothache is like a raging storm," or metaphorically, "The raging tooth." Or "beyond" that, one might go elliptically, without logical connectives, from talk of toothache to talk of ships storm-tossed at sea. And there one would confront the kind of ars poetica in which Roethke is working.

The method may be further extended by the use of a word in accordance with pure pun-logic. Thus, if in "reach" you hear "rich," you may say either "reach me" or "rich me" for the reach that enriches. ("Rich me cherries a fondling's kiss.")

Much of this verse is highly auditory, leaving implicit the kind of tonal transformations that Hopkins makes explicit. And often the ellipses, by weakening strictly logical attention, induce the hearer to flutter on the edge of associations not surely present, but evanescently there, and acutely evocative (to those who receive poetry through ear rather than eye). (pp. 98-9)

Though Roethke's lines often suggest spontaneous simplicity, and though the author has doubtless so cultivated this effect that many lines do originally present themselves in such a form, on occasion the simplicity may be got only after considerable revision. (p. 100)

[By] eschewing the "rationality" of doctrine (a "parental principle" which one may situate in identification with father governments or mother churches, or with lesser brotherhoods themselves authoritatively endowed), the poet is forced into a "regressive" search for the "superego," as with talk of being "rubbed" … "in father and mother." Eliot could thus "rub" himself in dogma, borrowed from the intellectual matrix of the church. But Roethke, while avidly in search of an essential parenthood, would glumly reject incorporation in any cause or movement or institution as the new parent (at least so far as his poetic idiom is concerned). Hence his search for essential motives has driven him back into the quandaries of adolescence, childhood, even infancy. Also,… the search for essence being a search for "first principles," there is a purely technical inducement to look for definition in terms of one's absolute past; for a narrative vocabulary, such as is natural to poetry, invites one to state essence (priority) in temporal terms, as with Platonist "reminiscence"—an enterprise that leads readily to "mystic" intuitions of womb heaven and primeval slime.

The battle is a fundamental one. Hence the poems give the feeling of being "eschatological," concerned with first and last things. Where their positivism dissolves into mysticism, they suggest a kind of phallic pantheism. And 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, or getting a medal, of seeing God). There is the pious awaiting of the good message—and there is response to "the spoor that spurs."

Later poems repeat the regressive imagery without the abysmal anguish. Thus, in "Praise to the End!" our hero, expanding in a mood of self-play … follows with snatches of wonder-struck childhood reminiscence mixed with amative promise:

            Mips and ma the mooly moo,
            The like of him is biting who,
            A cow's a care and who's a coo?—
            What footie does is final.
                                    (pp. 104-05)

[In] the theme of childhood reverie, as ideally reconstructed, the poet can contemplate an Edenic realm of pure impulsiveness.

Yet perhaps it is not wholly without arrière-pensée. For is the motivation here as sheerly "regressive" as it may at first seem? Is not this recondite "baby-talk" also, considered as rhetoric, one mode of lover-appeal? And considering mention of the wink and the bite in connection with talk of the fall, might we not also discern an outcropping of double meanings, whether intended or not, in reference to a "mooly man" who "had a rubber hat" and "kept it in a can"? The cloaking of the utterance in such apparent simplicity may not prevent conception of an adult sort here, particularly as the lines are followed immediately by talk of "papa-seed." (pp. 106-07)

Though Roethke has dealt always with very concrete things, there is a sense in which these very concretions are abstractions. Notably, the theme of sex in his poems has been highly generalized, however intensely felt. His outcries concern erotic and auto-erotic motives generically, the Feminine as attribute of a class. Or, though he may have had an individual in mind at the moment, there is no personal particularization in his epithets, so far as the reader is concerned. He courts Woman, as a Commoner might court The Nobility (though of course he has his own "pastoral" variants of the courtly, or coy, relation).

But because his imagism merges into symbolism, his flowers and fishes become Woman in the Absolute. That is what we would mean by "personification."

By "personalization," on the other hand, we would mean the greater individualizing of human relations. (Not total individualizing, however, for Aristotle reminds us that poetry is closer than history to philosophy, and philosophy seeks high generalization, whereas historical eras, in their exact combination of events, are unique.) In any case, we have seen one recent poem in which Roethke has attempted "personalization" as we have here defined it: "Elegy for Jane (My student, thrown by a horse)." Though not so finished a poem as "The Visitant," it conveys a tribute of heart-felt poignancy, in a pious gallantry of the quick confronting the dead, and ending:

    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:
    I, with no rights in this matter,
    Neither father nor lover.

Perhaps more such portraits, on less solemn occasions, will be the Next Phase? Meanwhile, our salute to the very relevant work that Roethke has already accomplished, both for what it is in itself, and for its typicality, its interest as representative of one poetic way which many others are also taking, with varying thoroughness. (pp. 107-08)

Kenneth Burke, "The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1950 by The University of the South), Winter, 1950, pp. 68-108.

John D. Boyd

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There is a widespread emerging consensus that Roethke must be judged, along with Robert Lowell, as one of the two American poets of his generation most likely to achieve a durable, major reputation. (p. 409)

For most readers the verse which best represents this poet, and which compels one to return to him again and again, is that body of poems in which a thriving microcosm is set in motion: the poems about orchids and geraniums, about bats, night crows, field mice and summer storms, about a girl thrown by her horse, a small boy waltzed to giddy joy (or is it terror?) by his tipsy father. Above all, it is the so-called "greenhouse poems," in which one finds the special Roethkean voice. These are the poems that prompted John Berryman, in a moving elegy on the death of Roethke, to lament, "The Garden Master's gone," and led Kenneth Burke, in one of the earliest and best essays we have, to celebrate Roethke's "vegetal radicalism" [see excerpt above]. Roethke himself spoke of "the greenhouse, my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth" confirming what would be evident enough without such corroboratory evidence: that from Roethke's childhood experiences around a greenhouse in Michigan, run by his father, he evolved a set of poetic images and symbols, a vocabulary, a tone, a way of apprehending the natural world, which were to serve him steadily (some would say obsessively) through the rest of his career. (pp. 409-10)

[It] is largely through the formal or structural properties of these poems that Roethke has worked magic upon his somewhat unpromising materials….

[Many] elements, some of them nonstructural, helped Roethke forge a uniquely energized descriptive poetry. Berryman felt that "all previous poets' attention to plants has been casual. Flowers and weeds alike writhed and lived on the page [in Roethke] as they never had before." Some of the means by which Roethke created this writhing life are fairly obvious even on casual reading, and some have been noted by critics: the symbolic suggestiveness of Roethke's plants, by which parallels between the plant and human worlds are so often implied; the proliferation of strong action verbs, by the use of which a world we ordinarily perceive as quiescent and static becomes dynamic; the resolutely concrete and sensory vocabulary …; the heavy charge of rich sense impressions, so reminiscent of Keats; and, finally, the unmistakable Roethkean tone, an apparently detached, almost clinical preciseness, which yet manages to convey a hushed, breathless mystery and excitement….

Roethke's vegetative world partakes of a life force partly its own, partly its fictively defined observer's; as in so much romantic and post-romantic literature, the sense of aliveness that critics have savored here is the product of an interpenetration or coalescence of subject and object. (p. 411)

[We] say something substantial about the greenhouse poems when we note that they owe much of their "writhing life" to this crackling atmosphere of contending opposites. One manifestation of this is the somewhat covert presence of a living authorial voice, uniting the clinical and the compassionate, the enthralled. Another … is the omnipresent tension between the forces of life and death…. (p. 412)

Roethke unites in an especially dramatic way "the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative."… The emotive atmosphere of these poems is deeply ambivalent; the empathy by which we share the joy of invincible growth is blended with the pain of struggle, the revulsion of decay and death…. Even humor is sometimes oddly mixed with horror and disgust, creating a kind of whimsical macabre…. Other contraries abound: the static and the dynamic, the active and the passive, stillness and movement, struggle and surrender, motion in contrary directional patterns. The greenhouse itself, locale and symbolic microcosm for the whole sequence, "blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial," while it "still subordinates art to nature." (pp. 412-13)

Roethke has shown infinite care and inventiveness in shaping his materials. The poems have an air of felicitous improvisation, a function, no doubt, of several factors: brevity, the flexible free verse, the offhand, colloquial idiom, and the primitivism implicit in the subject matter. Nevertheless, each poem has a remarkable inner logic, which an appreciative reader intuits rather than observes. Each poem has been allowed to define and shape its own uniquely appropriate formal coherence from within, in accordance with its own subject and theme. Because of the peculiarity of these themes, one hesitates to pun by using the term "organic unity," but the brief description I have just given of the formal dimension of the greenhouse poems might almost serve (indeed, has served) as a good Coleridgean definition of that term. And it does serve to define their formal qualities, as well as their themes. (pp. 413-14)

[The dynamism of the greenhouse world] is sufficient to define something of the distinctiveness (perhaps uniqueness) of Roethke's efforts, in relation to other literary treatments of plants. The further point needs to be urged that in these poems the organization generates its own dynamism, which (1) contributes significantly to our impression of relentless energy, already salient in the poems' content alone, and (2) enriches our understanding of the manifold possibilities for expressing in poetry the artist's delight in form, our awareness of the variety of formal resources available to him.

The only critic who seems to have understood this quality in Roethke's greenhouse poems was Burke…. (p. 414)

Always we can locate more than one, sometimes a great many [formal patterns in these poems], and always they illustrate precisely what Coleridge meant by "organic form"": each pattern seems to have "grown" from the particular materials at hand, never imposed arbitrarily from without. This organic unity, while it occurs in some other Roethke poems, is by no means his invariable strength. Its absence has been deplored in many of the later, Yeatsian poems; critics have sought doggedly to find it in the controversial sequences in and following the Lost Son volume, but there is no consensus yet as to their success. (p. 418)

[Sound patterns] are conspicuously active in every one of the greenhouse poems. Roethke was always an alliterative poet, and the density of phonetic devices is especially heavy in this sequence, so that we are sometimes reminded of Hopkins, or of Anglo-Saxon verse, both of which apparently were important stylistic influences on Roethke. Besides alliteration (and internal consonance), we find a conscious, controlled use of assonance and internal rhyme. Both patterns (consonant and vowel repetitions) are rife in "Orchids," as in all the others. Roethke will sometimes play with an assonance or consonance pattern (or both at once) involving a series of sounds…. (p. 420)

Often the sound patterns are used to reinforce other patterns of progressive development within the poems…. [However, even] when this shaping of sound sequences to accommodate other patterns is absent, the sequences are one more means of fusing the lines of the poem into a whole which has continuity and momentum.

Even the meter is occasionally if not consistently functional. The poems are all in free verse, and the general shape is varied from one poem to the next: sometimes the lines are uniformly short, sometimes uniformly long, sometimes freely fluctuating in length. Often a pattern of line expansion or contraction is correlated with meaning: in "Root Cellar" the lines fluctuate with unusual regularity, evoking the breathing vegetation so eerily described. In "Weed Puller," the longest line is "Those lewd monkey-tails hanging from drainholes,—"; in "Orchids" the longest line, "The faint moon falling through whitewashed glass," is soon followed by a series of lines in which there is a definite ritardando, in keeping with the intensifying hush and spookiness:

                  Lips neither dead nor alive,
                  Loose ghostly mouths
                              (pp. 421-22)

[There is considerable sophistication of form] in these remarkable little poems…. Roethke was as careful about the arrangement of his poems in the sequence as he was about the shape of each individual poem…. (p. 424)

John D. Boyd, "Texture and Form in Theodore Roethke's Greenhouse Poems," in Modern Language Quarterly (© 1971 University of Washington), December, 1971, pp. 409-24.

Anthony Libby

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Roethke remains, despite shadows of doubt about his ultimate value, a seminal voice in contemporary poetry. He must be one of the most uneven poets ever called "great" in serious critical writing. He consistently explored new territory only to retreat into the security of old and often secondhand styles. He could be as false to his deepest visions as he was to his unique voice. But if his poetry sounds with echoes from the past it also reverberates into the future. For all his occasional clumsiness Roethke is a poet's poet…. [He was] a dominant influence on most of our recent mystical or oracular poets, poets of transcendent landscapes and magical transformations. (p. 267)

The rivers of [Roethke's] "North American Sequence" appear in such physical detail that we wonder at first whether physical description is the whole aim of the poetry. In a way it is; Roethke wants us to feel the objects in his poetry as he leads us to the revelations he will not always articulate, or cannot articulate, lacking … precision with abstract language.

If some critics have understood "North American Sequence" too much in terms of a traditional mystical opposition between spirit and matter, Roethke's imprecision is at least partly to blame…. Actually Roethke seeks an interpenetration of sense and spirit. "A body with the motion of a soul" …, the body fully itself with its own spiritual grace, immersed in the flow of being where "All finite things reveal infinitude."… Like Bly and Dickey, Roethke is an earthbound mystical poet, a champion of the senses…. Final knowledge is to be sensed, not spiritually intuited. In describing the end of the mystical progression in "The Far Field," Roethke suggests something like Eliot's "still point of the turning world"; but he does it with a realistic physical image: "I have come to a still, but not a deep center,/ A point outside the glittering current."… (p. 273)

Roethke is not, however, always so firm in his resistance to that transcendence which implies separation from the physical…. Eliot may have intruded more upon his consciousness than he liked. Often, especially in his last poems, he seems to accept the tenets of Eliot's other-worldly mysticism, and the concomitant tendency toward abstraction, the use of purely symbolic terms to define a non-sensual state. But his abstractions lack the subtle force of Eliot's. In Four Quartets the image of the rose, though it lacks any real sensual referent, concentrates the force of the entire poem. When Roethke, in "The Rose," writes of "the rose in the sea-wind," the image not only derives too obviously from Eliot's symbol, it seems contrived and flat, an oddly dead flower in the otherwise beautifully vital sequence.

Roethke's problems with abstract language and symbolism cannot, of course, all be blamed on Eliot, who is too often held personally responsible for the academic excesses of modern American poetry. Roethke's tendency toward abstraction and symbolic overload appears even in the Williams-influenced flower poems of The Lost Son—for instance, "Cuttings (later)," which unlike the first "Cuttings" loses a rich suggestiveness when Roethke plugs it into theological concepts both trite and vague. Even without Eliot's influence, the temptation toward vitiating symbolism would probably have increased as Roethke's theological imagination became more complex, more pedantic. But he remained, partly because of Williams's influence, at least theoretically aware of the dangers of abstraction. (pp. 273-74)

Some of Roethke's finest lines can be as abstract as anything in Eliot. But in general he is less comfortable with logical argument than Eliot, a weakness especially evident in his final poetry, in the highly "lit'ry" and artificial language of the "Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical" in The Far Field. Since his abstractions tend to accompany an uncharacteristic yearning for transcendence from the world of sense, it is hardly surprising to find Eliot's ultimate abstraction, "God," in much of this poetry. (pp. 274-75)

Despite his history of mental illness Roethke was not usually so much a manic depressive as such an orthodox mystic as St. John of the Cross, who experiences first the absolute despair of the dark night, then the sudden, absolute ecstasy of union. For Roethke, such a dichotomy, like the opposition between "God" and the world, could not convincingly be sustained. The imagery of his most effectively mystical poetry, poetry not of transcendence but of physical immersion, combined darkness and light in a union ambiguously beautiful; and it was that dark revelation which Roethke's poetic descendants had begun to explore even as he himself fell away from its difficult truths. (pp. 275-76)

When Roethke's final poems fail it is often because they seek—through abstract statement and the clichés of orthodoxy—too easy a resolution of his ambivalence toward the mystical experience. But the final abstractions of "In a Dark Time" are partly redeemed by its deeply resonant closing phrase, "free in the tearing wind."… Roethke explains this passage by saying that the mystical experience is "no moment in the rose garden," that "God himself, in his most supreme manifestation, risks being maimed, if not destroyed." The mystic who participates in the divine consciousness must suffer the same danger. This [is an] unusually contemporary version of mysticism, in which dark night and ecstatic vision have become simultaneous, inextricable from each other…. Unlike the traditional transcendent mystic, the contemporary visionary often locates himself not in an imagined area of cosmic peace but at the center of a storm. This is Roethke's "steady storm of correspondences" but also the storm of irreducible particulars. The locus of vision is the point of maximum tension among all the world's dualities, the breaking point of a pattern constantly threatening to fly apart. The turmoil that characterizes Roethke's vision here anticipates Bly's plunge "Into the wilds of the universe" … or Plath's electroshock revelation in "Mystic": she is "Used, utterly, in the sun's conflagrations."

The imagery that attends such mystical experience is properly ambiguous, more dark than light…. Phrases like "dark water" occur throughout [poets such as Roethke, Bly, and Plath], and the idea of immersion in that water informs their mystic imaginations…. [Often], as in Roethke's "A Field of Light," it must be read as literal. In "dead water," under "a fine rain," the speaker falls into "a watery drowse."… Roethke characteristically uses such terms to describe his gentler visionary states. Though the end of "Field" announces a vision not of unity but of "the separateness of all things," the description carries an overriding sense of union: "I moved with the morning." Variants of this line (like "I rock with the motion of morning" …) occur frequently in Roethke…. (pp. 276-77)

Often the solid world is imagined wholly as water…. But the sense of earth in watery flux is not always soothing, especially when the poet confronts the final implications of unifying immersion. (p. 277)

Throughout "North American Sequence" water that does not already surround the poet threatens and promises to submerge him, as he correspondingly internalizes it; in "The Far Field," as the water approaches the poet feels within himself "a weightless change, a moving forward / As of water quickening before a narrowing channel," and there follows the meditation on the "thought of my death."

This immersion, the flow into water or into earth, "flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel" … implies a new mysticism, one opposed to the mysticism of transcendence not only because it is described in immediately physical terms and because it suggests a deep ambivalence in its imagery of darkness and its more literal suggestions of death. Because the water which receives the poet has usually become internalized, the image of movement into watery darkness also suggests, unlike images of transcendence, a movement into the depths of the self, and "down into the consciousness of the race."… (pp. 278-79)

Jung's influence on Roethke has been misunderstood, or understood too much in terms of logical dualities by critics who emphasize the orthodox aspects of Roethke's mysticism…. Except in his last and most theologically conventional poems Roethke seldom falls into … simple progressions. Because he tends to discover a paradoxical light within the darkness, not beyond it, his poetry, like Bly's and Dickey's, constantly involves images of dark light, "bright shade," "shimmering" illuminations in shadow. Like Plath and Bly, Roethke's favorite light seems to be the shimmering moon, as coldly dark as it is light. (pp. 279-80)

Sometimes stones are made animate, like the laughing stones in "A Field of Light," but more often stones remain stones, dead but paradoxically heavy with spiritual resonance. Confronting this lithic preoccupation, critics tend to discover death wishes in Roethke as well as Plath. But to identify with stones is not necessarily escapist or self-destructive; it can be the logical end of a particularly visceral sort of mysticism, mysticism which depends on physically experiencing spiritual abstractions. Though the lithic experience seems as close to the experience of unchanging timelessness as the resolutely earthbound poet can come, at the same time stones, especially Roethke's and Plath's stream-washed stones, are physically part of the constant flow of matter, dissolving and dissolving in accord with the earth's deepest reverberations….

[Stones] form part of a constellation of images (often surrealist) of darkness, dim moons, water, death, and transformation. (p. 280)

Roethke's women often play a mythic and implicitly mystical role…. [But they] often seem ill-suited to the task of guarding dark secrets. Rather than being powerful they appear childishly vulnerable, soft and furry like the baby animals and plump birds which quiver about them. Though some of Roethke's love poems are evident triumphs, many, especially toward the end, degenerate into pop love-song cliché, frequently involving the wind. As his words go limp, heavily precious sentimentalism takes over. Like the "essayistic" language of much of the philosophical poetry, here sentimental language creates the effect of excessive abstraction; the vitality of individual experience becomes lost in generalizing triteness. It remains fairly clear … [that] Roethke uses women—as he uses animals in his meditations—as "mediators" in his journey to the spiritual heart of nature. But to succeed in this aim—even disregarding the idea that women may be less appropriate for such an instrumental role than animals—requires more control of tone, and more psychological self-assurance, than Roethke usually possesses.

The second stanza of "The Pure Fury," which could be offered in evidence of the awkwardness of Roethke's philosophical abstractions, also exemplifies the inadequacy of his abstract women, though here the problem is not exactly sentimentality…. [The] woman described in this poem [has been called] an anima figure, but she seems too foolish and insignificant for that rather heavy role, more stereotype than archetype…. (pp. 281-82)

Perhaps inevitably, Roethke's most forceful and enlightened woman is not the figure of a lover but an intelligent mother-figure. "Meditations of an Old Woman" not only contains an attack (in "Fourth Meditation") on spiritually pretentious clichés about women but it creates a clearly female being who is fully individuated and as human as Roethke…. She is a convincing representation, partly because not simply archetypal, of a basic female force that Roethke successfully evokes in few of his poems…. Reduced to archetype, this woman is related to the fulfilling natural force Roethke will later seek in "North American Sequence" where, as W. D. Snodgrass has written, the final aim is entry "into water as woman, into earth as goddess-mother." The actual means of that entry remain ambiguous; as "Enshroud" and "Terrible" suggest, Roethke's female is as potentially ominous as she is enlightening, when he confronts her fully. In this respect she resembles Bly's women who guard the secrets of dark waters under the earth, the Great Mothers whose current violent reappearance in our racial psyche he describes at length in his essay "I Came Out of the Mother Naked." (pp. 282-83)

Roethke could not, of course, be expected to travel so far into [the] surrealist vision [as Bly and Plath]…. His unique value lies partly in his ability to develop much of the poetic and spiritual vocabulary they have carried further and to articulate the vision at a time when it seemed far more eccentric than it seems now. That vision—the animism, the "body consciousness," the particularly corporeal approach to mystical contact, with the evolutionary and apocalyptic imagery that logically follows—has become almost commonplace in poetry now. This happens not entirely because of Roethke's influence; the vision is at least in its large outlines collective; fragments of it keep turning up…. In the darkness beneath the waters Roethke saw something extensive enough to touch us all, something ancient that calls forth terror and ecstasy, but something at the same time new, and newly come to the deep dreams of our deepest poets. (pp. 287-88)

Anthony Libby, "Roethke, Water Father," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), November, 1974, pp. 267-88.


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A pervasive interest in the poetry of Theodore Roethke is that man creates the world he perceives, hence Roethke accepts as axiomatic the reciprocity between the external, perceptible, world and the faculties of the human mind. "Interlude" develops this theme while offering a comment on the creative process itself.

In the opening three lines of the poem, Roethke presents a vitalistic conception of nature, alluding unobtrusively to the physical properties of man by introducing the term "hand" in a colloquial phrase. A familiar referent describing the uncontrollability of "air," "hand" is among the indices of meaning providing an interpretation for "the rush of wind."… Since the verbs imply violence, injury and disarrangement ("tender leaves" are despoiled, "confusion" exists), what emerges is an anthropomorphic image of the wind, the wind according to the demands of his individual perception, encourages the reader to understand an external force within the context of human nature. His reason for doing so becomes clear in the remainder of the poem.

Foreground established, Roethke introduces the poem's characters. "He waited for the first rain in the eaves." Central to an understanding of the piece, the "we" eludes explicit identification and might be approached more profitably as a strategy; for it is an attempt to depict man (generically, the poet specifically) confronting the energizing forces of nature, perceiving the disparate elements of reality and finally seeking to harmonize his view by forming a Gestalt. Thus, at the end of the first stanza, the reader sees man posed in expectation "for the first rain"—man, who has been both observer and participant in the diaphanous interval between order and "confusion" awaits the ensuing storm so that he may continue translating nature's performance into poetic form.

The tempest increases in intensity…. Despite the dangers inherent in the upheaval, the poet-seer desires it to continue, for this is both dynamizing agent and raw material for his poem. Expectation becomes muted however, as the poem observes that the moment is passing….

       The wind lay motionless in the long grass.
       The veins within our hands betrayed out fear.
                                       (pp. 26-7)

Invested with human qualities, functioning as a violent instrument transforming the world from order with "confusion," [the wind] now lies still, corpselike….

There is [a] significant reason for the expression of "fear." Namely, it is the poet's cry for the loss of the wind as a source of poetic inspiration. Expectation defeated, the interlude of revelation passed, Roethke ends his poem—the closure itself serving as a final tribute to the creative function of the wind. (p. 27)

C. E. Nicholson and W. H. Wasilewski, in The Explicator (copyright © 1978 by Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Spring, 1978.


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