Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: John Montague

Theodore Roethke Part 4 The Far Field

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday January 4 2015

Garments of adieu.

stamp

I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.

Roethke in Ireland

In 1960, Richard Murphy, the distinguished Irish poet (whose father was once Mayor of Colombo and who currently lives in Sri Lanka) received warning from another Irish poet, John Montague, of Theodore Roethke’s impending visit to Ireland. In his autobiography, The Kick, Murphy writes: “I decided to try to entice him from the literary pub life of Dublin and invite him across to the west coast.” Murphy thought Roethke, who was at that time famous (in as much as poets can be famous), might help him to find an American publisher if he stayed on Inishbofin and sailed on Murphy’s boat.

Roethke responded positively and said that he and “one wife aged thirty-four, part Irish” would arrive on 25 July 1960. When Murphy first sighted them, he thought he had made a mistake in inviting them: “There they were Ted and Beatrice. A touching sadness seemed to connect her fragile elegance to his hunky dishevelment”. Roethke himself “was like a defeated old prize-fighter, growing bald, groggy and fat, clumsy on his feet, wrapped in silence…”

Once ensconced in Miko’s bar, the previously sullen Roethke became voluble, sipping alternately wine and stout and occasionally taking a naggin of Irish whiskey from his overcoat pocket. When Murphy mentioned Robert Lowell, Roethke banged the table and shouted, “Why are you always praising Lowell? I’m as mad as he is!” He then roared with laughter, making Murphy wonder if “he was deploying madness, which caused him terrible suffering when he plunged from a manic high into a deep depression, as part of a grand strategy to win fame as the greatest poet on earth – America’s answer to William Blake”. Was he licensed to be what Beatrice called “a nut, a drunk and a lecher” because he was a poet?

roethke-jungcurrents

During his visit to Inishbofin, Roethke drank a lot and sometimes seemed on the verge of violence. Eventually Beatrice sent for a doctor who signed a certificate committing Roethke to the County Mental Hospital at Ballinasloe. The law required that he be accompanied to the hospital by police. Beatrice said that when the police were called when he had a manic turn while being presented with his Pulitzer Prize he picked one up under each arm and threw them out of the Waldorf Astoria. The local priest drove Roethke to Ballinasloe in his VW Beetle.

Six weeks later, he returned, chastened, to Inishbofin without Beatrice and Murphy got the job of typing poems for him to send to the New Yorker. Murphy was disappointed that Roethke did not get him useful contacts. Before leaving Galway, Roethke was going to stay at John Huston’s house but managed to engineer matters so that Murphy did not get the chance to meet the director’s wife, who was picking him up at the Great Southern Hotel.

Murphy thought: “Roethke’s ambition seemed deplorable because he displayed it so stridently. Without ambition I might never have written poetry but many years later I came across a sentence by Henri Michaux that left me chastened and subdued: ‘The mere ambition to write a poem is enough to kill it’.”

The Far Field

At the height of his popularity and fame, Roethke balanced his teaching career with reading tours in New York and Europe, supported by a Ford Foundation grant. During his final years he wrote the sixty-one new poems that were published posthumously in The Far Field (1964). This was the first book of Roethke that I bought- I have written on the flyleaf “February 1966”. Its power has never waned for me. The Far Field won the National Book Award. Roethke was found dead in a swimming pool on August 1 1963 on Bainbridge Island, Washington State after a party at the estate of Prentice and Virginia Bloedel. The cause of death was a heart attack although many suspected that alcohol played a part.

The main themes of The Far Field are the individual’s quest for spiritual fulfilment and coming to terms with the inevitability of death:

The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,

The poet’s immersion in nature, his sense of being evolved from primeval organisms is reflected in lines like this:

— Or to lie naked in sand,
In the silted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Thinking:
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar;
Or to sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire;
Or, with skinny knees, to sit astride a wet log,
Believing:
I’ll return again,
As a snake or a raucous bird,
Or, with luck, as a lion.

The poem employs  rhythms which flow like water and move like rustling leaves.

The river turns on itself,
The tree retreats into its own shadow.
I feel a weightless change, a moving forward
As of water quickening before a narrowing channel
When banks converge, and the wide river whitens;
Or when two rivers combine, the blue glacial torrent
And the yellowish-green from the mountainy upland, —
At first a swift rippling between rocks,
Then a long running over flat stones
Before descending to the alluvial plane,
To the clay banks, and the wild grapes hanging from the elmtrees.

Sad to think that when these words were published the poet was already dead:

For to come upon warblers in early May

Was to forget time and death:

How they filled the oriole’s elm, a twittering restless cloud, all one morning,

And I watched and watched till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes, —

Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean, —

Moving, elusive as fish, fearless,

Hanging, bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches,

Still for a moment,

Then pitching away in half-flight,

Lighter than finches…


Influence and Reputation
Roethke remains one of the most distinguished and widely read American poets of the twentieth century. He influenced many subsequent poets including Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and James Dickey. Clive James was not a fan. “It should be obvious by now that the general critical view of Roethke has not a great deal to do with poetry, and everything to do with his efforts (heroic efforts, considering what he went through: but heroism is a term of accentuation, not necessarily of approval) to get established as a poet, to Make It… It seems probable that in Roethke’s case the general critical view has followed the lead of his fellow poets, who simply liked him, just as much as it has followed the lead of industrious scholarship, which finds his work such a luxuriant paradise of exfoliating symbols.” Other critic share James’s view that “Roethke’s incipient individuality as a voice was successively broken down by a series of strong influences – from the close of the thirties these were, roughly in order: Auden, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Yeats and Eliot again.”

Roethke himself was not ashamed of echoing other poets and indeed revelled in it. He gave a piece of advice regarding influence: ”don’t fret too much about being ‘influenced’ but make sure you chew up your old boy with a vengeance, blood, guts and all.” In 1959, he wrote an essay in the Yale Review called, “How to Write Like Somebody Else”. In that, he described his relation to WB Yeats in terms of “daring to compete with papa.” He boldly quotes his own poems and prompts criticism by blatantly saying who influenced them. He even points out his own “blunders”. James calls some of Roethke’s work “sub-Auden” but Roethke describes Auden’s own “pillaging”, describing him as “a real magpie with a cormorant’s rapacity and the long memory of the elephant”. Roethke’s drive to master his precursors led him to literary innovations that were his own.

“There is no poetry anywhere,” James Dickey wrote in the Atlantic (Nov. 1968), “that is so valuably conscious of the human body as Roethke’s; no poetry that can place the body in an environment.”

John Berryman shared Roethke’s problems with manic depression and alcohol. They did not always get on but there was mutual respect as well as rivalry. Berryman outlived Roethke but eventually gave in and jumped off a bridge. In the New York Review of Books dated October 17 1963, Berryman published a moving tribute entitled “A Strut for Roethke”.

Westward, hit a low note, for a roarer lost
across the Sound but north from Bremerton,
hit a way down note.
And never cadenza again of flowers, or cost.
Him who could really do that cleared his throat
and staggered on.

The bluebells, pool-shallows, saluted his over-needs,
while the clouds growled, heh-heh, & snapped & crashed.

needing a lower into friendlier ground
to bug among worms no more
around our jungles where us blurt ‘What for?’
Weeds, too, he favoured as most men don’t favour men.

 

gravestone

Theodore Roethke Part 1

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday November 30 2014

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Life

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
of myself.

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.

Bogan_Louise460

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.

beatrice

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.”

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John Berryman Part Three:Berryman’s Irish Sojourn

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday August 24 2014.

ashtray

In the 1960s, Berryman started receiving a great deal of national attention from the press, from arts organizations, and even from the White House, which sent him an invitation to dine with President Lyndon B Johnson at a dinner in honour of General and Mrs Ne Win of Burma.

Berryman wrote to tell LBJ that he had not boycotted the event. The invitation arrived after the event and he could not have gone because he was living in Ireland on a Guggenheim Fellowship. With his wife Kate, who was of Irish origin, Berryman arrived at Cobh, my father’s birthplace, on September 1, 1966. He quickly adapted to Dublin life and pub culture. Ronnie Drew (whose singing voice has been described as sounding like coke being pushed under a door) of the Dubliners folk group became one of Berryman’s drinking buddies.

Dream Song 366


Chilled in this Irish pub I wish my loves

well, well to strangers, well to all his friends,

seven or so in number,

I forgive my enemies, especially two,

races his heart, as so much magnanimity,

can it all be true?

Mr Bones, you on a trip outside yourself.

Has you seen a medicine man? You sound will-like,

a testament & such.

Is you going? —Oh, I suffer from a strike

& a strike & three balls: I stand up for much,

Wordsworth & that sort of thing.

The pitcher dreamed. He threw a hazy curve,

I took it in my stride & out I struck,

lonesome Henry.

These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand

They are only meant to terrify & comfort

Lilac was found in his hand.

 John Berryman

Berryman wrote many Dream Songs during his Irish sojourn. He also managed to upset some Irishmen with his condescending manner and boorishness when drunk, which he often was. The Irish poet John Montague remembers Berryman in his book of essays The Figure in the Cave and describes a comic scene at a Dublin reading by Berryman when Patrick Kavanagh took offence at Berryman and went off in a huff.

Montague-Collected-Poems-cloth

Montague had met Berryman in 1954 when the Irish poet enrolled in Berryman’s workshop at the University of Iowa. Montague remembered seeing Berryman eating alone at the Jefferson Hotel, a copy of The Caine Mutiny open before him, “nervous, taut, arrogant, uneasy.” Berryman was offended at Montague mentioning Iowa, which he regarded as a territory of limbo.

kavanagh

Kavanagh was offended when Berryman mentioned Liam Miller of the Dolmen Press, whom he considered an enemy.

ronnie drew

Ronnie Drew objected to a member of the audience expressing his admiration too loudly and kept saying, “Shut up, John”. This confused John Berryman and John Montague.

Ballsbridge

During his Irish sojourn, Berryman was introduced to the actor John Hurt and was star-struck. Hurt, in turn was impressed by Berryman’s bravura recitations of his poems. Hurt commented: “That man has genius and it’s burning him up”.

withKate

Berryman was not impressed with the local poetic talent and some have accused Montague of inflating his own relationship with him.

All these poets!  Holy God!

Many are drunk & some are odd.  

What am I myself here doing

when I could be off & doing?

 

My near namesake, Philip Coleman, is a lecturer in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he is also Director of the MPhil in Literatures of the Americas programme His book John Berryman’s Public Vision: Re-locating the ‘scene of disorder will be published in 2014.

 dream songs

In Dream Song 312 Berryman claimed he went to Ireland “have it out” with Yeats:

I have moved to Dublin to have it out with you,

majestic Shade.

Whatever about the impression Berryman made on Dublin, or the impression Dublin made on him, Berryman will be celebrated in Ireland on the centenary of his birth. A John Berryman Centenary Symposium is being organised by the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies in October 2014 at the Mater Dei Institute, Clonliffe Road, Drumcondra. Academics from all over the world will speak on topics such as The Metabolization of Tradition, Berryman, Boredom and Identity, Berryman’s Schwartz, Satanic pride: Berryman, Schwartz, and the Genesis of Love & Fame, The Pornography of Grief: John Berryman and the Language of Suffering. There will be a walk to Berryman’s lodgings in Ballsbridge. A symposium was held at Trinity College Dublin, in January 2002, to mark the 30th anniversary of Berryman’s death. The event was marked by the publication of a book of essays titled After Thirty Falls.

Perhaps he did want to exorcise the influence of Yeats. Despite the immense influence of Yeats on Berryman’s early work, he now believed that Yeats’s overweening ego had made him turn everything he came in contact with into a symbol and he understood “nothing about life”. He made a pilgrimage to Yeats’s grave in Sligo.

Yeats on Cemetery Ridge

Would not have been scared, like you& me,

He would have been, before the bullet that was his,

Studying the movements of the birds

 

However, he wrote in his diary Dublin was “CHEAP; English spoken, [and it was] n[ea]r London & [the] continent”.

 

On New Year’s Day 1967, Berryman resolved to go through, at a rate of five a day, the 300 Dream Songs he had collected. Unfortunately, he fell and hurt his back so badly that Kate thought he had broken his spine. He denied that alcohol was the cause of the fall but he was particularly accident-prone, which must have been related to his drinking. He stuck to his schedule and hoped to finish the project by March. At the end of January, Kate had him committed to Grange Gorman, a gothic mental hospital. After a week, he begged her to get him out.

 

He placed his alter ego, Henry, in the hospital for some Dream Songs.

 

I love my doctor, I love too my nurse,

But I am glad to leave them, as now I do.

Too long it’s been

out of the world, away fr. whisk’, the curse

of Henry’s particular life, who has pulled thro’

too & again makes the scene…

 

At one point, he had nearly set fire to the place:

Henry walked the corridor in dark, drug-drunk, smoking

And dropt it & near-sighted cannot find.

Nurses will deal hell if the ward wakes, croaking

To smoke antic with flame…

 

A Alvarez (Berryman’s biographer Paul Mariani repeatedly calls him “Tony Alvarez” even though most people know the poet and critic as Al Alvarez) came to Dublin to film Berryman reading his Songs and talking at the Ballsbridge house and Ryan’s pub. The BBC broadcast the programme on March 11 and Berryman was back in New York on April 24 when Sonnets was published.

Although he had become bored with Ireland, he told a friend that the Irish had received him “like Sam Johnson at the court of the Dauphin”. Ireland was a place, he said, “right on the edge of Europe…crawling with delicious people who all speak English and are blazing with self-respect”.

Critic Kenneth Connelly saw in the Dream Songs the influence of two celebrated Dubliners: “Henry, the catalytic character of his poem—as well as the way his story is told—are greatly beholden to James Joyce, probably by way of Samuel Beckett…. [However] diluted, the presiding concepts and techniques of Joyce and Beckett structure his entire vision and method.” Like Joyce, Berryman mingles high verbal sonority and childish humor, literary high style with dialect and colloquialisms.

The use of dialect can go horribly wrong.

Nothin very bad happen to me lately.

How you explain that? —I explain that, Mr Bones,

terms o’ your bafflin odd sobriety.

Sober as a man can get, no girls, no telephones,

what could happen bad to Mr Bones?

—If life is a handkerchief sandwich,

in a modesty of death I join my father

who dared so long agone leave me.

 

Kevin Young is a Black American poet who has produced an edition of John Berryman’s verse for the Library of America’s American Poets Project. Young wrote that Berryman’s “use of ‘black dialect’ is frustrating and even offensive at times, as many have noted, and deserves examination at length. Nonetheless, the poems are, in part, about an American light that is not as pure as we may wish; or whose purity may rely not just on success (the dream) but on failure (the song). Berryman allows us to admit our obsessions, both as writers and as Americans.“

Next week a summation of Berryman’s life and achievements.

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