Theodore Roethke Roethke, Theodore (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

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John D. Boyd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anthony Libby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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]...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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