Some modern American poets have published novels (Robert Penn Warren, James Dickey, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath). Others have worked hard on novels but never saw them published (Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Clampitt). And still others simply can’t be imagined as novelists. Theodore Roethke, who once declared, “I can become a bird but I can’t write a story,” belongs in this last company.
The recent re-release of Straw for the Fire, a selection from his notebooks first published in 1972, reflects the purity of his devotion. The book contains whole poems, failed poems, promising poem fragments, and comments about poetry. Its editor, David Wagoner, culled the contents from the 277 spiral notebooks Roethke left behind at his sudden death from coronary occlusion in 1963, at the age of fifty-five. A friend and former student of Roethke’s, as well as a notable poet himself, Wagoner may well have made his selections primarily to illuminate Roethke’s poetry, possibly at the expense of other literary concerns. Even so, Straw for the Fire is remarkable for the degree to which the stock-in-trade of the novelist (anecdote, characterization, dialogue) is absent, as are the usual concerns of the cultural critic: politics, social trends, the fine arts broadly. Or as W.H. Auden, who greatly admired Roethke’s poetry, once observed: “Ted had hardly any general ideas at all.” Like his poems, the notebooks brim with turbulent emotion—despair, rage, fear—and yet always with a sense that poetry alone provides the medium for sorting out one’s profoundest feelings. He was a writer secure in his sense of calling.
The details of Roethke’s life are laid out in Allan Seager’s old but serviceable biography, The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke (1968). He was born in 1908 in Michigan’s Saginaw Valley, not a particularly literary environment. As Seager notes: “There were few bookstores in Saginaw then and there are few now.” Roethke’s father, who built and ran a greenhouse, apparently read little beyond a daily newspaper and horticultural journals. His mother did not have much education, though she was fond of novels. Roethke attended public schools, where he did well but did not excel. As Seager, who often displays a likably opinionated tone, observes, “Out of this prosperous region no poet, no painter or sculptor, no composer had ever emerged.”
Yet the poet Roethke not only sprang from such a childhood but turned his childhood—his parents, his friends, and, especially, the family greenhouse—into what was arguably the great theme of his poetry. Though he was destined to spend much of his life among spectacular scenery (he spent more than a dozen years in the Pacific Northwest, teaching at the University of Washington), all the natural landscapes of his adult life seem variations on the greenhouse that served him as a sort of Noah’s ark, sailing across the flat, fertile soil of Michigan’s Saginaw Valley, “carrying her full cargo of roses.”
It was a peculiar microcosm—this thriving family business that advertised itself as “the largest and most complete floral establishment in Michigan.” Nature is perhaps the only unifying thread in Roethke’s poetry; he spent his entire life looking to the natural world for indications of meaning, signals of divine design. In Straw for the Fire Roethke observed, “If God does not exist, neither do we.” Yet his writing showed little interest in science, and his conception of nature often seems pre-Darwinian in its detachment from biological revelation and deducible law. (Roethke offers an illuminating contrast to Frost, who, though born a third of a century earlier, took modern biology to heart. A sonnet like Frost’s “On a Bird Singing in Its Sleep,” which beautifully seeks to reconcile the timeless symbol of the poet with modern evolutionary thinking, originated from impulses alien to Roethke’s sensibility.)
The greenhouse was a midway place, as much infernal as paradisiacal; in Straw for the Fire, Roethke recalls it as “a reality harsher than reality.” His childhood chores (pulling weeds, gathering moss, transporting pots) instilled a deep understanding of just how (in Tennyson’s phrase) “red in tooth and claw” even a garden can be. If his father’s prize roses, of which Roethke later wrote so proudly, in both his poems (“Old Florist,” “Weed Puller,” “Big Wind”) and his scattered prose reminiscences, were one of the true blessings of the universe—a spectacular incarnation of loving husbandry, of poetic romance, of trial-and-error perfectibility in a chaotic environment—Roethke never forgot the ground war constantly being waged underneath their velvety petals. He was particularly drawn to worms, slugs, ants, flies—all those miniature denizens of the soil locked in a combat for which there can be no armistice. He once mockingly, but shrewdly, described himself as “the leading under-the-stone poet of our time.”
Seager speculates that young Roethke might never have grown up to become a poet had his father not died of cancer when the boy was only fourteen; the everyday order of his life was smashed and various new possibilities presented themselves. Yet for all the fierceness of his later commitment to verse writing, Roethke came slowly to the idea of himself as a poet. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he took many literature courses and aspired to write what he called a “‘chiseled’ prose,” but no one in his family had ever made a career in the arts, and pressures were strong on him to find a conventional career. He seems to have written a few poems in college, though he later claimed he began to write in a period of “struggle and unhappiness” during the disastrous semester he spent at the University of Michigan law school.
In any event, struggle and unhappiness seem indissolubly intertwined with Roethke’s career, and one might modify Seager to conjecture that Roethke might never have become a poet had he not been so overwhelmingly beset by psychological turmoil. Throughout much of his adult life he was affected by mental illness, which he treated very much like a companion, arguing with it, bargaining with it, raging against it. In the 1930s, while he was still in his twenties, Roethke suffered a breakdown. Others followed. He was diagnosed as manic-depressive, had long stays, some lasting for months, in mental hospitals, and underwent extensive hydrotherapy as well as shock treatments. In October 1957, as he was about to turn fifty, he suffered a mortifying collapse on the campus of the University of Washington, where he’d become a beloved teacher. Arriving late to class, sweating heavily, raging, muttering incoherently, he was eventually hauled away in handcuffs while his students looked on.
The notebook entries in Straw for the Fire reflect from the inside some of these disturbances:
I can’t go on flying apart just for those who want the benefit of a few verbal kicks. My God, do you know what poems like that cost? They’re not written vicariously: they come out of actual suffering, real madness.
As it happens, I was carrying the book recently while standing beside an airport luggage carousel where a ruptured, overspilling suitcase was going around and around. The symbolism seemed unavoidable. Here was a sight to inspire both sympathy and an uncomfortable curiosity (who would step forward to claim the bag?), much the way reading Straw for the Fire inspires dual feelings as Roethke shambles forward time and again to gather his scattered things together. A noble and a battered soul, he was maladapted for his life’s journey, and he pushed on.
Roethke’s first book, Open House, published by Knopf in 1941, when he was thirty-three, offered few inklings of what a striking and singular career lay ahead. Most of its poems are well turned; few are memorable. He was already in possession of a number of craftsmanly virtues (a feeling for poetic form, a careful attention to linear sonorities within and between lines, a willingness to risk understatement), but his liabilities, too, were striking. He seemed temperamentally unfit for close observation (the book is all but devoid of arresting imagery), and all too ready to settle for tame epigrams and conventional conclusions.
His second book, The Lost Son (1948), was a radical venture. The poet who in Open House had been writing quatrains like this:
Now I am out of element
And far from anything my own,
My sources drained of all content,
The pieces of my spirit strewn
now began writing differently:
Take the skin of a cat
And the back of an eel,
Then roll them in grease,—
That’s the way it would feel.
Much of The Lost Son springs from the irregular, riddled edges of intelligibility—from earliest childhood and from madness, and from madness’s attempts to rehabilitate itself. The “son” of the title is a small child, at times an infant who inhabits a squishy zone of wet diapers, nonsense words, elemental confusions about cause and effect. No other American poet’s work has been more enriched by nursery rhymes than Roethke’s, which twisted and teased out their cadences, catching both their singsong whimsies:
Even steven all is less:
I haven’t time for sugar
Put your finger in your face,
And there will be a booger
and their abrupt terrors:
Kisses come back,
I said to Papa;
He was all whitey bones
And skin like paper.
The title poem of The Lost Son belongs in my mind in any anthology of classic American poetry. In its five sections and six pages, it presents a kind of spiritual and poetic autobiography: it may be the Roethke poem par excellence. It undertakes a meta-phorical journey, beginning in panic in a cemetery (“At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry”) and ending in a tranquil moment in a wintry Michigan landscape (“The light moved slowly over the frozen field”). The composition is formally eclectic—everything from nursery rhymes to spare free verse to slowed-down long lines verging on prose (“Goodbye, goodbye, old stones, the time-order is going”). Its concluding lines are quiet and almost monosyllabically simple, with one startling exception:
A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
The beauty of understandable is that ultimately it isn’t understandable: it speaks to the mysteries of the soul’s communion with a spirit beyond itself.
Inconsistency may be a poet’s prerogative, as Whitman so felicitously claimed: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.” Even among poets, however, Roethke seems strikingly bifurcated. His notebooks veer dizzily between self-disgust and self-preening, between laments over his ignorance and delight in his genius. He writes: “My great truth: it is possible to love the human race.” And on the same page, he comments: “The only time I feel a sense of kinship with people is at the movies or in the bus on the last ride.” An astute reader of his poems and journals might come up with the same diagnosis of manic depression that his doctors eventually arrived at after extensive interviews. Roethke certainly didn’t make things easy for his critics. True, they can probably find, somewhere in his voluminous papers, a corroboration for almost any assertion they would make. And yet, some counterassertion is doubtless waiting somewhere in ambush.
I’m struck, for instance, by how little Straw for the Fire concerns itself with direct, sharp-eyed observation, and how often Roethke’s poems rely on blurry lines like “a bleak stone on a great flat shore” or “the waste lonely places.” It’s a weakness probably exacerbated by his haste to universalize what lay before him. In Roethke’s poetic cosmos, a tree quickly changed into a Tree, a pebble became Stone, a cove expanded into the Sea. Yet it’s also true that he constantly exhorted himself, and his students, to scrutinize the natural world in all its honed particularity: “To love objects is to love life,” “Nothing seen, nothing said,” etc.
Roethke presents his critics with deeper problems than inconsistency. His poems typically resist paraphrase; it’s often difficult to summarize what he’s saying. The poems of The Lost Son can be so primal, so close either to a child’s preliterate imagination or to the incoherencies of the mad, as to render ridiculous and inflexible anybody who would ascribe fixed meaning to them:
Once upon a tree
I came across a time,
It wasn’t even as
A ghoulie in a dream.
And while Roethke after The Lost Son turned to greater metrical polish and more elevated diction, the poems in Words for the Wind (1958) and his final, posthumous book The Far Field (1964) can be equally hard to understand. Take the opening stanza to one of his most familiar poems, “The Dream” (1955) :
I met her as a blossom on a stem
Before she ever breathed, and in that dream
The mind remembers from a deeper sleep:
Eye learned from eye, cold lip from sensual lip,
My dream divided on a point of fire….
Even the poem’s great admirers (I’m not among them) probably at some point must ask: What does the first line mean—let alone the rest of it? Is Roethke saying, in effect, “When we met, she reminded me of a blossom on a stem”? Or: “From the first, my psyche was prepared for her”? Or: “We came together in a world of symbols, before language”? While paraphrase can be perilous (a medical operation performed by doctors of literature that often kills the patient), it remains the critic’s standard way of proceeding, which may explain why so much Roethke criticism seems soft and credulous—unhelpful. If Roethke was an artist with little patience for a poetry of ideas (he said of himself, “There are few people who have had a more sincere hatred of thinking”), he nonetheless poses an intransigent critical challenge: What do we do with a poem that is less an argument than a dance of syllables?
Roethke wore his influences so openly and gratefully that to point them out can appear almost picayune. If his Collected Poems is a kind of wildlife sanctuary for the work of other poets—the Theodore Roethke Nature Preserve—it’s the easiest thing in the world to identify the creatures among its branches. Here’s a flock of Whitmans. Here’s a covey of Yeats. Here’s a stray Auden and a loud but shadow-loving Blake…. At times, his poems can seem like an extension of an acknowledgments page (“I take this cadence from a man named Yeats,” “Be with me, Whitman, maker of catalogues”).
Roethke has been critically lambasted for his open borrowing, but he was probably right to advise his students not to “fret too much about being ‘influenced.'” Reliably, over time, poems lacking a distinctive voice will harmlessly drop away, and in Roethke’s case we’re left with a clutch of verses unmistakably his own. The nineteen lines of perhaps his most famous poem, “The Waking” (1953), couldn’t have been written by anybody else:
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
This is one of only three poems I know (the others are Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”) that foster the happy illusion that they might have taken precisely this elaborate stanzaic arrangement even if the Italians had not invented the villanelle three hundred years ago. The form provides an ideal structure, with its refrain lines and constricted rhyme scheme, for Roethke’s spiraling, vatic utterance.
With this poem, too, you might ask, what is the poet saying? But here the answer can only be: plenty. He has arrived at a music rich enough to encompass a range of mutually sustaining associations. The speaker seems partly a poet; partly a leaf upon a tree; partly, perhaps, a soul waiting to be born, as in Frost’s “The Trial by Existence.” One senses a wisdom in the poet’s acceptance of life’s puzzles as well as an abiding joy in that recognition; and in the penultimate stanza, an inveigling invitation as well: “The Waking” becomes a sort of valentine.
When you begin to read intensely a poet you admire, sometimes there’s a clearly demarcated, bittersweet juncture when you realize that, for all your enthusiasm, you’ll never find everything you’d hoped to find. You’ve come upon one of those artists who can only take you so far, either because of their limitations or because of yours—it scarcely matters which. Although it happened a good many years ago, I remember clearly this experience in my reading of Roethke. I’d chanced upon his comments to one of his best-known poems, “In a Dark Time,” specifically its last three lines:
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
The lines say, “The mind enters itself”: this suggests (visually at least) an androgynous act, a hole disappearing into itself…. An unpleasant image. It is stock myself, and maybe stock mystical doctrine.
But the next line? “And one is One.” This seems a genuine double, at the least. In the Platonic sense, the one becomes the many, in this moment.
The poem chronicles an internal struggle in which “the self dies.” Roethke means not merely to have it out with himself, but to go further: the lines seek to speak nakedly of that most ineffable of spiritual evolutions, in which one becomes One—and in the writing he loses those readers who would prefer to get there by indirection. And one is One? As I reread these concluding lines, and his comments, it grew apparent that Roethke was never going to matter to me the way some of his contemporaries did: Elizabeth Bishop, say, or John Berryman.
Often the Roethke I find most worth returning to, most replenishing, is a poet of small lyrical poems and slightly ragged surfaces: “Child on Top of a Greenhouse,” “The Chums,” “The Young Girl” (with its pulsating last two lines: “A bird my body,/My bird-blood ready”), “Heard in a Violent Ward.” For me, one of his last poems, “Wish for a Young Wife,” belongs among the most haunting short love poems I know, its final rhyme stumbling with magnificent nimbleness:
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.
As terms of endearment go, “lizard” and “writher” verge on the preposterous, and “May your limbs never wither” sounds like something Bottom might declaim in the play-within-a-play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “The longer I live, the tireder I get of good taste,” Roethke declared in Straw for the Fire, and in this brilliant little poem he took a chancy trip into the land of absurdity, where he discovered not merely meaning but profundity: those spare, wonderful last few lines reverberate with a magnanimity that will outlast the grave.
Roethke wrote two superb poems about his father, the brief and often anthologized “My Papa’s Waltz” and the somewhat longer, less well known “Otto.” The father in “My Papa’s Waltz,” an early poem, looms so large as to be simultaneously thrilling and terrifying:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
In “Otto,” the father, by the poem’s conclusion, has become poignantly dwindled:
I’d stand upon my bed, a sleepless child
Watching the waking of myfather’s world.—
O world so far away! O my lost world!
As with Papa, so with the universe…. You might say this was Roethke’s continual fate as a poet: things were either overwhelmingly proximate and threatening, or they were remote and dismayingly perishable. Rarely could he locate an adult middle ground from which life could be appraised from a secure vantage, something at once manageable and comprehensible.
My taste for the Roethke of small poems and subtle effects clearly isn’t everyone’s. As various anthologies attest, for many readers he’ll always be a poet of long-lined reflections and substantial sequences, as in “Meditations of an Old Woman”:
The bulks cannot hide us, or the bleak sheds of our desolation,
I know the cold fleshless kiss of contraries,
The nerveless constriction ofsurfaces—
Machines, machines, loveless, temporal;
Mutilated souls in cold morgues of obligation.
One of the problems with this passage is that it doesn’t sound particularly like either a woman or an old person; in its cadences, vocabulary, and associations, it is unmistakably Roethke in middle age. For all their capacious pacing, Roethke’s longer poems often feel a little claustrophobic.
He aspired to write poems that were “the shape of the psyche itself.” In the longer poems particularly, the words “soul” and “spirit” commonly appear:
So the spirit tries for another life,
Another way and place in which to continue….
The spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of blessing….
I rock between dark and dark,
My soul nearly my own,
My dead selves singing.
The genius presiding over these poems was Whitman, whose “I embrace multitudes” Roethke transformed into “I embrace multitudes of selves”: Roethke was attempting to mirror the flow of his own consciousness, his many contrarily pulled inner states in his soul’s quest for tranquillity and enlightenment. These are poems of solitude, in which the speaker—even if ostensibly an old woman—is always Roethke himself, and the landscape, whatever its variations, is that stark and unrelieved internal expanse where a man finds no mediating beings between himself and his maker.
Roethke is the central figure even in his famous “Elegy for Jane,” which is subtitled “My Student, Thrown by a Horse.” Affecting as the poem is, the girl remains elusive, perhaps because she is presented through metaphor: in a mere twenty-two lines she becomes a pickerel, a wren, a sparrow, a fern, and a pigeon. The more salient, touching figure is the poet himself, the grieving teacher, who stands beside the grave “with no rights in this matter,/Neither father nor lover.”
It was as a lover, however, that Roethke and his poetry found their way most satisfyingly into “another being, at last.” His marriage to his former student Beatrice O’Connell, in 1953, when he was forty-four and she was twenty-seven, seemed to save him; it’s certainly hard to imagine how Roethke in his final years would have managed without her. Marriage lent a measure of peace to a man whose life had been continually torn by strife, as well as introducing into his poetry a subject previously little celebrated, romantic love. Devotion to Beatrice was what inspired a subtly rhymed and marvelously expansive stanza in the title poem of Words for the Wind:
The breath of a long root,
The shy perimeter
Of the unfolding rose,
The green, the altered leaf,
The oyster’s weeping foot,
And the incipient star—
Are part of what she is.
She wakes the ends of life.
Words for the Wind contained a substantial sequence of love poems, and if some are more memorable than others, the reader never doubts the authenticity of the underlying experience. Indeed, it’s one of the great pleasures in reading Roethke that, however you occasionally question his methods, you never question the breadth of his emotions: fear, depression, despair, disorientation, self-loathing, as well as self-congratulation, elation, wonder, religious awe….
Largely because he’s so convincing in his handling of the darker feelings, Roethke’s moments of sunny exultation rarely feel boastful or undeserved. We take joy in his joy. The final words of his final book, The Far Field, are “As we dance on, dance on, dance on.” It’s a vision of a world in which nothing ever ends in life except turmoil and confusion, anxiety and despair, our squelched hopes, our bitter disappointments—the inessential things.
April 17, 2008