The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618

“Words for the Wind” is a love poem in four parts. In it, Theodore Roethke demonstrates his characteristic concern for and sense of union with nature, his questing curiosity about the meaning of things, and finally his belief that meaning is ultimately discovered through feeling and intuition, not through rationality. Yet what really helps the speaker to become one with all and to answer the questions he asks (or, really, to recognize the unimportance of the questions or the answers) is love felt for and returned by another person.

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There appears to be no progression in the various parts of the poem, but there is a pattern. The speaker repeats verses (apparently addressed to no one) that resemble snatches of old songs (“Love, love, a lily’s my care”) or nonsense rhymes (“She’s sweeter than a tree”). He also notes events in nature: “The shallow stream runs slack;/ The wind creaks slowly by.” He has questions about what he observes: “Are flower and seed the same?” Sometimes, there are answers that defy common sense: “Whatever was, still is,/ Says a song tied to a tree.” The speaker also describes his own contented condition: “Mad in the wind I wear/ Myself as I should be.” He believes that nature is favorably disposed toward him because “the birds came down/ And made my song their own.” The poet’s beloved appears from time to time, raising no conflicts, as accepting and pleasant with the poet as the rest of nature is: “She likes wherever I am.”

The first three parts of the poem repeat these elements, but in the fourth there is a difference, as the poet’s love comes near, dominates the lines, physically embraces the poet, and finally leads him out of himself into a larger and fuller life. The activities of the two become one, as he does “what she does.” His lover transcends ordinary categories; her skin is not merely beautiful or smooth or soft, but “hilarious,” a word that also indicates the happiness that she has brought him.

In an image very familiar to Roethke’s poetry, the two dance, expressing at once their vitality, their singularity, and their union. The poet is happily able to say, “Isee and suffer myself/ In another being, at last.” “Suffer” carries both the modern meaning, “endure the pain of,” and the older one, “allow.” Because his lover accepts him, because his life means as much to her as it does to him, she feels his hurts and his sorrows, and she also excuses and tolerates those elements of his personality that neither he nor she admires. A further meaning of these lines is that because the two lovers now share a life, the poet can see and understand both his triumphs and his shortcomings more clearly because he sees them with and through the eyes of another. Perhaps the most powerful words in the poem are the final ones, “at last,” with their implied message that the search for love, the attempt to find this quiet, restful place and time in nature and in life, has been a long and sorrowful one.

In the last section of the poem, one sees that there has indeed been a progression in the poem, as the poet draws closer and closer to his lover, whose presence and emotion overwhelm the poet and the poem at the end. “Progression” may be the wrong word to describe this change, for that word is too logical and orderly. The movement of the poem has been rather like that of the wind to which it is addressed: moving sometimes forward and sometimes backward, swirling without apparent purpose, but ultimately informing and directing life itself.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

Roethke married his wife, Beatrice, in January, 1953, and “Words for the Wind” was published the next year, so while it is clearly a celebration of his love for her, it is more specifically an epithalamium, or wedding song. The tradition of the epithalamium, a poem in celebration of a marriage, began in antiquity and reached what many regard as its finest expression in Edmund Spenser’s “Epithalamion” (1595). Such a poem is usually set in a pastoral environment in which the poet not only praises his bride but also invokes the tender elements of nature and asks for divine blessings on the nuptials. Roethke performs all these traditional poetic tasks but with a modern twist: The poet and his love are not only in nature but also a part of it; not only the bride’s beauty is noted but also her sensuality; and, finally, there is no need to ask the blessings of God because love itself is a confirmation of and experience of divinity.

A number of images and metaphors appear in this poem and connect it to the rest of Roethke’s work, which makes use of the same devices. Most notable among these are the images of the stone, the rose, the tree, light, and the vine as well as the metaphor of the dance, which Roethke often used as a way of describing life lived properly, with a sense of regard for other life. Foremost among the metaphors for life, though, is wind, for not only does the word “wind” appear in the title of the poem, but also the poem itself is the title poem for the volume in which it was collected.

In Roethke’s poetry, as in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” (1819), wind represents not only the vitality of life itself but also the confusion of that life. The wind not only reminds one that the world itself is alive but also upsets, confuses, and disorients. Wind appears several times in the poem, but equally important is the poet’s relationship with the wind. At the end of “In a Dark Time” (1960), the poet is “free in the tearing wind,” a statement that indicates that although the poet has achieved a kind of release, he is still in the middle of a maelstrom. In “Words for the Wind,” however, the love that the poet shares with another brings genuine and lasting peace: “I get a step beyond/ The wind, and there I am,/ I’m odd and full of love.” Even though the poet is “odd,” he does not feel strange, for love sustains and nurtures him.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 111

Bloom, Harold, ed. Theodore Roethke. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Bogen, Don. Theodore Roethke and the Writing Process. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991.

Bowers, Neal. Theodore Roethke: The Journey from I to Otherwise. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Kalaidjian, Walter B. Understanding Theodore Roethke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Kusch, Robert. My Toughest Mentor: Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams (1940-1948). Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1999.

Malkoff, Karl. Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Seager, Allan. The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Stiffler, Randall. Theodore Roethke: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1986.

Wolff, George. Theodore Roethke. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

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