Theodore Roethke Part 3

by padraigcolman

This article appeared in The Nation newspaper on Sunday December 28 2014.

 

His voice rang out with such an overwhelming roll of noble anguish that many in the audience wept.

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Roethke always maintained that poems were better heard than silently read on the page. He himself was a rambunctious performer of his own work on the stage. Fellow poet Stanley Kunitz described one such performance. “He had a high fever, and backstage he was jittery, sweating copiously from every pore as he guzzled champagne by the bottle. On stage, for the first portion of his program he clowned and hammed incorrigibly, weaving, gyrating, dancing, shrugging his shoulders, muttering to himself intermittently, and now and then making curiously flipper-like or foetal gestures with his hands. But gradually, as the evening wore on, he settled into a straight dramatic style that was enormously effective and moving. When he came to the new ‘mad’ sequence, particularly the poem that begins, ‘In a dark time the eye begins to see,’ his voice rang out with such an overwhelming roll of noble anguish that many in the audience wept.”

The Waking

Another performer, jazz singer Kurt Elling, has set Roethke’s poem “The Waking “ to music and has often included it in his live performances. Another performing Kurt, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, quotes from the poem in his novel Slaughterhouse 5.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcuUAxinEUs

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 poem lends itself to music because it is a villanelle, a fixed form of five tercets and a quatrain. There is a blending of sound, tone, movement, and recurring motifs. Use of the villanelle heightens the overall impression of confusion as the speaker wavers, drowsily disorientated, between night and day. Key phrases are repeated in a circular motion and the echoing rhyme scheme lends itself to song.

 

Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim is a time traveller. In this poem, Roethke shuffles through layers of experience and consciousness, through hyper-alert sleep to musing on the nature of awareness and being. The poet recognises the limits of human logic. We think by feeling. What role does fate play in what you feel and where you will go? Are you awake or sleeping? It is an in-between world where opposites meet and merge to create new entities.

 

A Muse Called Beatrice.

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The collection named The Waking was published in 1953 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.In 1953, Roethke married one of his former Bennington students, Beatrice O’Connell, and he wrote many love poems to her. “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones.” As I wrote last week, these love poems are not just evocations of feelings about his wife. The loved one is at the centre of the physical universe and the poet communes with the elements and the natural universe through her. Through her, his vision is transformed. Like Dante’s Beatrice, her guidance brings the poet to a revelation of the Divine. He never denies the physical nature of the love relationship but sees it also as the occasion for a breakthrough in the spiritual order. His love for her sharpens his sense of participation in the life of all creation as she merges with all natural things.

 

“Words for the Wind” was written during their honeymoon at WH Auden’s villa in Ischia.

 

Love, love, a lily’s my care,

She’s sweeter than a tree.

Loving, I use the air

Most lovingly: I breathe;

Mad in the wind I wear

Myself as I should be,

All’s even with the odd,

My brother the vine is glad.

 

There is an echo of St Francis of Assisi in that “brother”. His love for Beatrice brings him in harmony with the cosmos and also establishes an internal equilibrium. His previously divided self is made whole through a woman who is a creature of spiritual and mythological significance as well as being physical and sexual.

 

Being myself, I sing

The soul’s immediate joy.

Light, light, where’s my repose?

A wind wreathes round a tree.

A thing is done: a thing

Body and spirit know

When I do what she does:

Creaturely creature, she!—

I kiss her moving mouth,

Her swart hilarious skin;

She breaks my breath in half;

She frolicks like a beast;

And I dance round and round,

A fond and foolish man,

And see and suffer myself

In another being, at last.

 

A Fond and Foolish Man

 

Unfortunately, Beatrice could not completely make Roethke whole or exorcise his demons. It is not easy to make a living as a poet and Roethke had to depend on teaching jobs to make ends meet. His students testified that he was a brilliant teacher of poetry but he did not get any assurance of academic tenure until he took up a post at the University of Washington in 1947. It would be wise to keep his mental problems quiet but he was a loud gregarious bear of a man.

 

My working title for this series of articles on a generation of American poets was “Mad Poets Society”. Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and Roethke knew each other well and had similar problems. Jarrell to a lesser extent perhaps, but they all had problems with mental health and alcohol. They all knew Dylan Thomas also who succumbed at an early age.

 

In his biography of Berryman, Paul Mariani paints a harrowing picture of his subject’s abuse of alcohol and his mental breakdowns. Mariani is perhaps a little partisan when he states: “if Berryman’s behaviour was unsteady, it was stolid compared Roethke’s”. He does describe a Christmas party held by Edmund Wilson. Roethke arrive “aggressively sober” with several friends. When Wilson introduced him to Berryman, he pretended he had never heard of him. Roethke flirted with the female guests and then insisted that Wilson leave the party and come and read his poems. When Wilson demurred, Roethke grabbed Wilson’s jowls and said he was all “blubber”. Wilson called Roethke a half-baked Bacchus and asked him to leave. As he was being propelled to the door someone tried to introduce him to a psychiatrist who was just arriving. The man reached out to shake his hand. Roethke thought he was about to be restrained and committed and punched the man.

 

As a young man, he was humiliated by breakdowns that continued to afflict him throughout his life. It might have been some consolation to him that he was a member of fellowship of mad poets and lost children that included Kit Smart, John Clare and William Blake, with each of whom he was able to identify and echo.

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More about Roethke’s health, death and posthumous reputation next week

 

 

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