This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday November 30 2014
The Poet, a larger-than-life-size figure, balanced on the edge of excess. John Montague.
A reader encountering Theodore Roethke’s poetry for the first time might initially be reminded of other poets. Descriptions of animals as in “The Lizard” are reminiscent of DH Lawrence.
He too has eaten well-
I can see that by the distended pulsing middle;
And his world and mine are the same,
The Mediterranean sun shining on us equally.
In “What Can I Tell my Bones”, he reminds me of Whitman:
The wind rocks with my wish; the rain shields me;
I live in light’s extreme; I stretch in all directions;
Sometimes I think I’m several.
There are elements of Blake. “Once More, the Round”:
What’s greater, Pebble or Pond?
What can be known? The Unknown.
My true self runs toward a Hill
More! O More! visible.
Now I adore my life
With the Bird, the abiding Leaf,
With the Fish, the questing Snail,
And the Eye altering All;
And I dance with William Blake
For love, for Love’s sake;
And everything comes to One,
As we dance on, dance on, dance on.
“The Pike” prefigures Ted Hughes, although Roethke’s approach to nature does not succumb to the self-parody that Hughes sometimes achieves.
I lean and love these manifold shapes,
Until, out from a dark cove,
From beyond the end of a mossy log,
With one sinuous ripple, then a rush,
A thrashing up of the whole pool,
The pike strikes.
Unlike John Berryman, Roethke did not fight against the influence of Yeats – he revelled in it. In “The Dying Man”, In memoriam W.B. Yeats, Roethke deliberately adopts the Yeatsian manner and mood to probe the extremes of perception and knowledge that the self may attain.
The edges of the summit still appal
When we brood on the dead or the beloved;
Nor can imagination do it all
In this last place of light: he dares to live
Who stops being a bird, yet beats his wings
Against the immense immeasurable emptiness of things.
I will examine Roethke’s main themes in more detail later but, in brief, Roethke’s work is characterised by its introspective examination of the self, rhythm and natural imagery. His recurring theme is the correspondence between the poet’s inner life and the life of nature, the similarities between his human life – his spiritual evolution and search for psychic identity- and that of plants.
The poet was born Theodore Huebner Roethke in 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of Otto Roethke and Helen Huebner, owners of a 25 acre greenhouse, which his parents ran with his Uncle Charlie. He drew inspiration from his childhood experiences of working in the family business. Roethke wrote of his poetry: “The greenhouse is my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.”
From “The Rose”:
And I think of roses, roses,
White and red, in the wide six-hundred-foot greenhouses,
And my father standing astride the cement benches,
Lifting me high over the four-foot stems, the Mrs. Russells, and his own elaborate hybrids,
And how those flowerheads seemed to flow toward me, to beckon me, only a child, out
What need for heaven, then,
With that man, and those roses?
He also roamed the game sanctuary that the family maintained, “a wild area of cut-over second-growth timber,” as he described it years later in a 1953 BBC interview: “I had several worlds to live in, which I felt were mine. One favorite place was a swampy corner of the game sanctuary where herons always nested”
Roethke’s father died from cancer in 1923 and in the same year, his Uncle Charlie committed suicide. Roethke graduated magna cum laude at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1925. Resisting family pressure to pursue a legal career, he dropped out of law school after one semester and, from 1929 to 1931, took graduate courses at the University of Michigan and the Harvard Graduate School, where he worked closely with the poet Robert Hillyer.
The Depression forced Roethke to leave Harvard and he took up a teaching career at Lafayette College. He was able to meet established poets like Louise Bogan (with whom he had an affair) and Stanley Kunitz.
In 1935, Roethke suffered the first of his recurring bouts of mental illness. He also taught at Pennsylvania State University and published his work in such prestigious journals as Poetry, the New Republic, the Saturday Review, and Sewanee Review. He brought out his first volume of verse, Open House, in 1941.His last teaching position was at the University of Washington, leading to an association with the poets of the American Northwest. His students included James Wright, Carolyn Kizer, Jack Gilbert, Richard Hugo, and David Wagoner. Roethke’s poetry influenced Sylvia Plath so much that when she submitted “Poem for a Birthday” to Poetry magazine, the editors rejected it because it displayed “too imposing a debt to Roethke.”
In 1953, Roethke married Beatrice O’Connell, a former student whom he met while teaching at Bennington . She ensured the posthumous publication of his final volume of poetry, The Far Field, as well as a book of his collected children’s verse, Dirty Dinky and Other Creatures, in 1973.
He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954 for his book, The Waking, and he won the annual National Book Award for Poetry twice, in 1959 for Words for the Wind and posthumously in 1965 for The Far Field. In 1959, he won the Bollingen Prize. In 2012, a US postage stamp pictured him as one of ten great 20th Century American poets.
Open House (1941)
In his first book, Open House, Roethke reflected the battle within his consciousness between his spiritual aspirations and his sensual desires. WH Auden deemed Open House “completely successful.” Elizabeth Drew wrote that “his poems have a controlled grace of movement and his images the utmost precision; while in the expression of a kind of gnomic wisdom which is peculiar to him as he attains an austerity of contemplation and a pared, spare strictness of language very unusual in poets of today.”
My secrets cry aloud.
I have no need for tongue.
My heart keeps open house,
My doors are widely swung.
An epic of the eyes
My love, with no disguise.
My truths are all foreknown,
This anguish self-revealed.
I’m naked to the bone,
With nakedness my shield.
Myself is what I wear:
I keep the spirit spare.
The anger will endure,
The deed will speak the truth
In language strict and pure.
I stop the lying mouth:
Rage warps my clearest cry
To witless agony.
He describes the transition of the seasons in “The Light Comes Brighter”:
The light comes brighter form the east; the caw
Of restive crows is sharper on the ear
A walker at the river’s edge may hear
A cannon crack announce an early thaw.
The sun cuts deep into the heavy drift,
Though still guarded snow is winter-sealed,
At bridgeheads buckled ice begins to shift,
The river overflows the level field.
Once more the trees assume familiar shapes,
As branches loose last vestiges of snow.
The water stored in narrow pools escapes
In rivulets; the cold roots stir below.
Soon field and wood will wear an April look,
The frost be gone, for green is breaking now;
The ovenbird will match the vocal brook,
The young fruit swell upon the pear-tree bough.
And soon a branch, part of a hidden scene.
The leafy mind, that long was tightly furled,
Will turn its private substance into green,
And young shoots spread upon our inner world.
Mind and nature are bound by laws and enjoy a common awakening and nature yields an analogy with human existence.
Roethke knew Schwartz, Berryman and Lowell and his work sometimes has elements of the “confessional”. However, he does not identify with the “urban” themes developed by such contemporaries. In The New Poets (1967), ML Rosenthal wrote:
“For the most part Roethke had no subject apart from the excitements, illnesses, intensities of sensuous response, and inexplicable shiftings of his own sensibility. The greenhouse poems enabled him to objectify it for a time, but then he had nowhere to go but back inside himself. We have no other modern American poet of comparable reputation who has absorbed so little of the concerns of his age into his nerve-ends, in whom there is so little reference direct or remote to the incredible experiences of the age – unless the damaged psyche out of which he spoke be taken as its very embodiment. But that was not quite enough. The confessional mode, reduced to this kind of self-recharging, becomes self- echoing as well and uses itself up after the first wild orgies of feeling.”