From the recollections of his youth in Michigan to the visionary longings of the poems written just before his death, Theodore Roethke embarked on a quest to restore wholeness to a self that seemed irreparably broken. In the words of editor Edward Hirsch, “He courted the irrational and embraced what is most vulnerable in life.”

Pages: 200 pages
Publisher:The Library of America (2005)
Language: English

Hirsch’s selection and perceptive introduction illuminate the daring and intensity of a poet who, in poems such as “My Papa’s Waltz” and “The Lost Son,” reached back into the abyss of childhood in an attempt to wrest self-knowledge out of memory. Roethke’s true subject was the unfathomable depths of his own being, but his existential investigations were always shaped and disciplined by an exacting formal stringency, as equally at ease with Yeats’ vigorous cadence (“Four for Sir John Davies”) as with the spacious Whitmanian idiom on display in the virtuoso efforts of The Far Field. This gathering of Roethke’s works also includes several of his poems for children, and a generous sampling from his notebook writings, offering a glimpse of the poet at work with the raw materials of language and ideas.

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I proclaim once more a condition of joy. –Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke pitted himself against oblivion—“I practice at walking the void,” he said—and was not afraid of the strange, the uncanny, the mysterious. He courted the irrational and embraced what is most vulnerable in life. “Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries,” he declared. I love the way he celebrated and moralized the American landscape, schooled his spirit in the marsh and mire, and transformed himself into a major romantic poet. Readers of this new Selected Poems will find a worthy successor to Whitman and Emerson, our quintessential philosopher who proposed that “there are two absorbing facts: I and the Abyss.” Here is a mid-twentieth-century American poet who self-consciously inherited and extended the romantic tradition of Yeats, Stevens, and Crane, and belongs to that visionary company.

Roethke grew up in the harsh soil and savage climate of Michigan, where his German-American family owned a 25-acre greenhouse, one of the largest in the Midwest, in the Saginaw Valley. (It was gossiped that the Roethkes had “Ein Nagel im Kopf”—a nail in the head, a vernacular expression that suggests arrogant eccentricity.) The countryside was flat and vast, and he often wandered the far fields. He dwelled in the midst of rocks and plants, weeds and moss, flowers of all kinds (his father specialized in orchids and roses). Subsequently, the “tropical” world of the greenhouse came to stand for the lost world of his childhood and, at the same time, to serve as the central symbol—both the heaven and hell—of his poetry.

Roethke was a young teenager when his father died (Otto Roethke was an indomitable man with a strong Prussian temperament and a delicate gift for growing things) and the kingdom of his childhood collapsed. As his biographer Allan Seager points out, “what he lost when the dirt fell in his father’s grave was going to take him the rest of his life to learn.” Nothing more momentous ever happened to him, and his Oedipal love and fear of his father (“My Papa’s Waltz” captures the furious duality of his feeling) was inextricably intertwined with his complex, idiosyncratic feelings for nature. As he recalled in the poem “Otto,” which he wrote near the end of his life:

In my mind’s eye I see those fields of glass,
As I looked out at them from the high house,
Riding beneath the moon, hid from the moon,
Then slowly breaking whiter in the dawn;
When George the watchman’s lantern dropped from sight
The long pipes knocked: it was the end of night.
I’d stand upon my bed, a sleepless child
Watching the waking of my father’s world.—
O world so far away! O my lost world!

Roethke never entirely recovered from his childhood, but like a gritty, roaring, postwar American version of Rilke, he turned it into a fertile source for art. It was the feeling for his vanished Midwestern childhood as well as his sense of forever being “the lost son”—to use the title of his second book—that first drew me to his poetry.

The deep-seated struggle and determination to become a poet is one of the defining features of Roethke’s life. He possessed what in a student essay he called “a driving sincerity,” and all his life regarded himself as an initiate, a “perpetual beginner.” He loved the catchy, strongly stressed rhythms of children’s verse, of Mother Goose and other folk material, and incorporated them into hilarious nonsense poems and innovative long sequences. A childlike orality (“I sing a small sing”) with an undertow of need or longing is one of the distinguishing marks of his poetry.

Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

Roethke caressed the primitive sounds of words and believed that “repetition in word and phrase and in idea is the very essence of poetry.” Repetition suited his obsessions. He was devoted to poetry as a form of “memorable speech” and struggled to compete with his own supreme masters. There was something abject and beautiful about the way that he devoured other poets whole (from John Donne and Sir John Davies to Emily Dickinson, W. H. Auden and Léonie Adams) and survived his own overwhelming influences. In this way, he was a sort of Arshile Gorky of modern American poetry. “The Kitty-Cat Bird” takes this subject of influence into the parabolic realm of nonsense poetry (“Be sure that whatever you are is you”). A revealing prose piece is called “How to Write Like Somebody Else.”

One thinks of him as a huge dancing-bear of a man, a heavy drinker, a “ring-tailed roarer.” He had gargantuan emotional needs, disabling insecurities, and insatiable appetites. He sought out mentors and made strong early friendships with Rolfe Humphries and Louise Bogan, with whom he had a tumultuous love affair that metamorphosed into a sweet, lifelong attachment. (His essay “The Poetry of Louise Bogan” is still the best short piece ever written about her work.) He showed up unannounced at Stanley Kunitz’s house in the Delaware Valley, mumbling compliments and clutching a copy of Kunitz’s first book tucked under his left paw. They stayed up all night drinking and talking about poetry. “The image that never left me,” Kunitz later remembered, “was of a blond, smooth, shambling giant, irrevocably Teutonic, with a cold pudding of a face, somehow contradicted by the sullen downturn of the mouth and the pale furious eyes: a countenance ready to be touched by time, waiting to be transfigured, with a few subtle lines, into a tragic mask.”

Roethke had what he wryly called “a full-life complex.” He was unabashedly sensual—at times shy and gentle, at times verbose and aggressive. He had an antic, ribald sense of humor and was outsize in everything he did. He overcompensated for his extreme sensitivity with a masculine notion that “poets are tough.” He railed against the literary establishment, “the tweed-coated cliché masters.” He was a competitive tennis player, surprisingly agile on his feet, with a titanic serve and a thunderous forehand. He started out teaching English to undergraduates, took his duties as a college tennis coach seriously (“Roethke, Penn State Tennis Coach, Author of Book of Verses,” the New York Herald Tribune announced in its “Sports Here and There” column in March 1941), and could never stand to lose at anything.

Over the years Roethke became a famously gifted teacher, who invested a tremendous amount of energy in teaching poetry (he once said it was like “lugging … hunks of pork up the lower slopes of Parnassus”) and worked with great intensity on his own lyrics. He did significant stints at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania State University, Bennington College, and the University of Washington, where he taught for the last fifteen years of his life. He taught his students to revel in the sounds of words, which flooded him with pleasure, and communicated his passion for verse forms of all sorts. He praised verbal immediacy and paid special attention to texture, rhythm, energy (“Energy is the soul of poetry”), the unit of breath, the specific emotion. “Poetry-writing (the craft) can’t be taught,” he noted, “but it can be insinuated.” He also said, “I am overwhelmed by the beautiful disorder of poetry, the eternal virginity of words.” Some of his key early pupils at the University of Washington were Carolyn Kizer, James Wright, and David Wagoner. Among other things, his notebooks demonstrate his passion for teaching (“One teaches out of love”) and testify to how hard he concentrated on making and assembling poems, how seriously he took his own vocation. He fought for recognition and near the end of his life sarcastically referred to himself as “the oldest younger poet in the U.S.A.”

Roethke’s life was characterized by a series of highs and lows, a recurring cycle of manic episodes and severe mental breakdowns. He was periodically hospitalized and occasionally given shock treatments. His suffering was dramatic and intense. An extremist of the imagination, he purposefully seemed to disorder his senses. (He married Beatrice O’Connell late in life and told his young wife that his first psychotic episode had been self-induced “to reach a new level of reality.”) He was forthright about his manic-depression (“What’s madness,” he wrote, “but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance?”) and identified strongly with other joyous and mystical poets of romantic madness. “In heaven, too, / You’d be institutionalized. / But that’s all right,” he declared in “Heard in a Violent Ward.” “If they let you eat and swear / With the likes of Blake, / and Christopher Smart, / And that sweet man, John Clare.”

Roethke’s first book, Open House (1941), took him ten years to write. It is notable for its compact lyricism, its technical resourcefulness, and its witty, neo-metaphysical manner. The hard-working and highly susceptible young poet took his lead from T. S. Eliot’s central essay on metaphysical poetry, and was influenced, perhaps too heavily, by John Donne, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan. He also showed what would turn out to be a characteristically keen eye for marshes and waste places (“Long live the weeds”), for herons and bats. My own favorite poem in the collection, “Night Journey,” captures the feeling of a train ride back to Michigan, the heart of the country, and suggests something of his natural sensitivity to American landscapes.

Roethke himself later criticized the “chilly fastidiousness” and austere vision of his apprentice collection. Undoubtedly, the greatest single moment in his writing life was the breakthrough from the abstract strictures of his early manner into the textured free verse of his second collection, The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948). His first book made a confessional promise—“my secrets cry aloud” and “my heart keeps open house”—that his second book fulfilled. He found his core poetic when he made contact with the loamy soil of his Michigan childhood (“I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing, / In my veins, in my bones I feel it”). The figure of the open house gives way to the discovery, the memory, of the glass enclosure, a hothouse world that he once called “a symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.”

The family greenhouse was for Roethke both sacred and abysmal ground, simultaneously a natural world and an artificial realm, a locale of generation and decay, order and chaos. It was wilderness brought home. The fourteen “greenhouse poems” explore the instinctual sources of life from the dank minimal world of roots in “Root Cellar” (“What a congress of stinks!”) to the open, flowering reality of young plants in “Transplanting” (“The whole flower extending outward, / Stretching and reaching”). He plunged into the dirt and returned to the sunlit realms of “Child on Top of a Greenhouse,” where the daredevil boy is an embryonic artist. What compelled him was “news of the root,” the vigorous green force of plant life.

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?

Roethke was compulsively conscious of the agony of birth, the painful effort of things to emerge out of an underworld swarming with malevolent forces. There is a sense of “tugging all day at perverse life” in “Weed Puller” (“Me down in that fetor of weeds, / Crawling on all fours, / Alive in a slippery grave”), of plants that are like strange reptiles in “Orchids” (“So many devouring infants!”), of tearing the ground and disturbing the natural rhythms of the living planet in “Moss Gathering,” of ferocious adult sexuality in “Big Wind,” of one surviving tulip swaggering “over the dying, the newly dead” in “Flower Dump.” These poems go underground to dark obsessive realms and then chart the struggle back up for light.

The greenhouse was also linked to two other discoveries Roethke made in the 1940s. Largely prompted by his friend Kenneth Burke, who later wrote an insightful essay on his “vegetal radicalism,” Roethke began to explore the poetic possibilities of the unconscious, returning to the realms of childhood and thus commencing “the retrospective course” of his “hallucinatory dream.” He also recognized that the organic process of plants could stand as a metaphor for free verse, each poem taking on its own sensuous form and intrinsic shape. This was an Emersonian notion of poetic form, a fundamental of romantic expressiveness, and it enabled Roethke to become the figure that John Berryman dubbed “The Garden Master.”

Roethke’s central sequence of dramatic interior monologues begins with the title poem of The Lost Son, continues with Praise to the End! (1951), which takes its name from Wordsworth, and concludes with the opening lyric of The Waking (1953). These poems are a kind of spiritual autobiography. “Each poem is complete in itself,” he wrote, “yet each … is a stage in a … struggle out of the slime; part of a slow spiritual progress; an effort to be born, and later, to become something more.” This is an American poet’s eccentric Prelude.

In a revealing “Open Letter,” Roethke asserted:

Some of these pieces, then, begin in the mire; as if man is no more than a shape writhing from the old rock. This may be due, in part, to the Michigan from which I come. Sometimes one gets the feeling that not even the animals have been there before; but the marsh, the mire, the Void, is always there, immediate and terrifying. It is a splendid space for schooling the spirit. It is America.

Roethke was an American poet of the regressive imagination. He looked for guidance to the work of other modern poets who evoked the archaic to give their poems ritual power, such as W. B. Yeats, Robert Graves, D. H. Lawrence (“For Lawrence and I are going the same way: down: / a loosening in the dark”), and Dylan Thomas (“This rare heedless fornicator of language speaks with the voice of angels and ravens, casting us back where the sea leaps and the strudding witch walks by a deep well”).

In this way, Roethke was a key link in the chain to such startlingly regressive poets as Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, both of whom avowed his influence. He anticipated the deep image poetics—the pastoral ecstasy—of Robert Bly and James Wright, and heavily influenced the mythic parables of W. S. Merwin, Charles Simic, and Mark Strand. His goal was to recover the first primordial world of the psyche, indeed to write, as he formulated it, “a poem in the shape of the psyche under great stress.” There was something primal, agitated, and earthy in his quest (“I want the old rage, the lash of primordial milk!”). He sought what ultimately may be unattainable: a direct presentation of the unconscious making itself known. His subject was birth and metamorphosis, the snake shedding its skin, the man struggling to regain, in Yeats’s phrase, “radical innocence.”

Roethke put language under intense pressure and developed a strange, highly kinetic, radically associative method—a sort of projective verse of the unconscious—to chart the struggle to be born, the progress “from I to Otherwise.” He radically fragmented narratives, experimented with collage, and extended the possibilities of free verse. He extolled the irrational (“Reason? That dreary shed, that hutch for grubby schoolboys”), relied heavily on fairy tales and myths, riffed off nursery rhymes and Elizabethan songs, built on Blakean precedents, and mimicked biblical rhythms. His psychological task was to go backward in order to go forward, which is why first Freud and then Jung were such enabling presences for him. “I’ve crawled from the mire, alert as a saint or a dog,” he declared, and, “I was far back, farther than anybody else.”

There is a dimension of nonsense poetry as well as an element of shamanism in all this, as when the speaker suddenly calls out:

Voice, come out of the silence.
Say something.
Appear in the form of a spider
Or a moth beating the curtain.

And the voice comes back to him:

Dark hollows said, lee to the wind,
The moon said, back of an eel,
The salt said, look by the sea,
Your tears are not enough praise,
You will find no comfort here,
In the kingdom of bang and blab.

Grief is not praise and, strikingly, the sea refuses to comfort the human protagonist. And yet Roethke’s psychological regression, like John Keats’s negative capability, instills the natural world with soul. The poet would be a vehicle for the oracular language of nature. Roethke’s special gift was palpable whenever he welcomed visceral spirits into his work (“The Depth calls to the Height”), or proclaimed a condition of pure joy, or channeled his madness by struggling “to catch the movement of the mind itself.”

Roethke moved with unusual fluency between metrical and free verse, and he returned to traditional forms with great enthusiasm in The Waking (1953) and Words for the Wind (1958). He was at times overwhelmed by Yeats’s power—he called it “daring to compete with papa” (“I take this cadence from a man named Yeats; / I take, and I give it back again”)—but mostly fused the Irish master with the Elizabethan plain stylists to create a unique, end-stopped musical style. In his sensuous love poems, he uses poetry for the direct, as opposed to the abstract, apprehension of things. In “Words for the Wind” (“I bear, but not alone / The burden of this joy”), one of his own favorite poems, and “I Knew a Woman,” he celebrated his young wife, the beloved, and expressed terrific joy at going beyond the self and living in the dynamic presence and light of another. Love becomes a way of triumphing over nonbeing and nothingness (“I measure time by how a body sways”), of transcending isolation and mystically uniting body and spirit.

Roethke loved to be carried away and transported by passion. Dance is thus one of the reigning metaphors of his work.

Is that dance slowing in the mind of man
That made him think the universe could hum?
The great wheel turns its axle when it can;
I need a place to sing, and dancing-room,
And I have made a promise to my ears
I’ll sing and whistle romping with the bears.

He was happiest as a comic rhapsodist, as a metaphysical poet of “pure being,” as James Dickey put it, who thought with his body. “There is no poetry anywhere,” Dickey insisted, “that is so valuably conscious of the human body as Roethke’s; no poetry that can place the body in an environment—wind, seascape, greenhouse, forest, desert, mountainside, among animals, or insects, or stones.” “We think by feeling,” Roethke declared in his villanelle “The Waking.” “What is there to know?” He could feel his very being “dance from ear to ear.”

The Far Field, published posthumously in 1964, has the feeling—the deep finality—of a last book. It has a couple of shocking poems about predators and victims, such as “The Thing” and “The Meadow Mouse,” in which he identifies with “all things innocent, helpless, forsaken.” I especially love the “North American Sequence,” a group of six poems that have a deep meditative openness and fresh discursive energy. They have spiritual resolution.

Here Roethke consciously responds to Eliot’s Four Quartets. He quotes “East Coker”—“Old men should be explorers?”—and offers an idea of the American poet as a wise primitive. “I’ll be an Indian. / Ogalala? / Iroquois.” Whereas Eliot moves eastward from the Midwest to New England and back to England itself, Roethke purposefully reverses direction and heads westward, driving from Michigan to the Dakotas to the Rockies to the Pacific Northwest. He puts himself under Whitman’s shadow, his presiding spirit, and presents a passionate free-verse catalogue of the American continent. He ponders “how to transcend this sensual emptiness,” even as he refuses to desert the natural world for a higher plane. “Beautiful is my desire,” he asserts, “and the place of my desire.” He becomes a writer of place (“There are those to whom place is unimportant, / But this place, where sea and fresh water meet, / Is important”) and establishes himself as a poet of the egotistical sublime.

There are many stalled moments in the journey westward, a natural allegory, but there are also moments of radiant plenitude and visionary affirmation:

As a blind man, lifting a curtain, knows it is morning,
I know this change:
On one side of silence there is no smile;
But when I breathe with the birds,
The spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of blessing,
And the dead begin from their dark to sing in my sleep.

At such moments one feels the emotional truth of Roethke’s claim that “in spite of all the muck and welter, the dark, the dreck, of these poems, I count myself among the happy poets.” In the end, after so much suffering, Roethke embraced a spirit of blessing and achieved a final transformation, a consoling self-acceptance, solace of being, “the true ease of myself.” He trusted joy. “I learned not to fear infinity, / The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,” he declared. “And I rejoiced in being what I was.”


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