Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Theodore Roethke

Randall Jarrell Part One

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday February 8 2015

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The most heartbreaking English poet of his generation. Robert Lowell’s tribute to Randall Jarrell

I have been writing about a group of American poets who knew each other, competed with each other, and supported each other. I had a loose title for this series: The Mad Poets Society. Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke all had problems with alcohol and mental illness which made their lives often shambolic and difficult. At first glance, Randall Jarrell might not seem to fit into this category. He controlled his appetites more successfully than his friends did, avoiding their kind of public dramas; he eschewed alcohol and, most of the time, adultery. He was handsome, charming, witty, got on well with children and generally inspired affection and respect.

Nevertheless, in 1963, the year of Roethke’s death, Jarrell’s behaviour changed, probably because of what he himself called torschlusspanik (door-closing panic) – the metaphor I myself use for this is the realisation that the years left in one’s tank are rapidly diminishing. As he approached his fiftieth birthday, Jarrell started worrying deeply about his age. After JFK’s assassination, he spent days in front of the TV, weeping uncontrollably. Medication made him manic; a change of medication made him depressive. Randall Jarrell was struck by a car and killed at the age of fifty-one on October 14, 1965. It may have been  suicide.

Early Life

Jarrell is sometimes thought of as a “Southern” writer, although he did not think of himself as such. True, he was born in Tennessee, on May 6, 1914, and spent portions of his childhood there. However, the family moved to Los Angeles in 1915 and he preferred California. After his parents separated, Jarrell’s mother took him back in 1924 to Nashville, where she had some prosperous relatives. Jarrell later told his wife Mary that in Nashville he was “covered in relatives”. He spent a lot of time in Nashville Carnegie Library where he said he regularly read “half his weight” in a week. “No matter how little time I had left, there were never enough books to fill it – I lived on the ragged edge of having nothing to read.”  In 1926, he returned to California to live with his father’s parents but went back to Nashville in 1927.

In 1932, Jarrell graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he studied with Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. Although he was influenced by the poetics of this group known as “The Fugitives” or “The Agrarians”, he was not interested in their conservative politics or their ‘Southern’ cultural ideas.

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Early Work

Blood for a Stranger, his first book of poetry was published in the same year that he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, 1942. His early poetry is influenced, as was Berryman’s and Roethke’s, by WH Auden. It is apocalyptic, surreal, and lacks the wit and humour that Jarrell displayed in person. He came into his own with the works he wrote after joining the army. He soon transferred to the army to work as a control tower operator.   His second book of poems, Little Friend, dealt with fears and moral struggles of young soldiers.

Although he did not see active service, the war and military service prompted him to think at an early age about death.

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War Poetry

“Losses”

When we died they said, “Our casualties were low.”
They said, “Here are the maps”; we burned the cities.

It was not dying—no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: “Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?”

 

It wasn’t different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
(But an easy one for anyone to make.)
We read our mail and counted up our missions—
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school—
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals,

When we died they said, ‘Our casualties were low.’

They said, ‘Here are the maps’; we burned the cities.

 

It was not dying –no, not ever dying;

But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,

And the cities said to me: ‘Why are you dying?

We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?’

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War takes inexperienced young men and often kills them. There are shifting viewpoints in the poem but the narrator himself has nothing but high school with which to compare the huge monstrosity of war. He has losses without having had the time to have many gains. He does not have time for heroism and does not understand what sacrifice is or why it is him who is making it. I am reminded of Yossarian in Catch22; when he claims someone is trying to kill him he is categorised as paranoid. But of course someone is trying to kill him – this is war. When you cannot see your enemy, it is a peculiar, seemingly mad, idea that this stranger is trying to shoot down your plane and hurt you when you have never met him. Also in Catch 22, every time a pilot completes his quota of missions the quota is raised. The flyers must be haunted by the knowledge that the more missions they undertake, the greater the possibility of being shot down. Their lives are being used up like commodities. Because of 21st century technology, the bombing attacks on Iraq seemed as unreal as video games. Even in World War II, bombing civilians was impersonal. The cities down below are as artificial as targets in a training exercise. All over the world today, civilians live in fear of death by remote control by terrorist suicide bombers or IEDs.

In her book The Body in Pain, literary critic and philosopher Elaine Scarry wrote: ““It has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’. This accurate observation acknowledges that the act  of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation. ..He undoes the learning in his body as radically as he would if he were suddenly required to abandon the  upright posture and move on four limbs as in his pre-civilized infancy. .. Because his act of killing  does not itself contain civilization in its interior, the fact that it is being done for a particular civilization, the referent for his act, is re-established and carried by the appended  assertion (either verbalized or materialized as in the uniform), ‘for my country’.”

In Jarrell’s poem, as the point of view becomes blurred, the pilot’s own death becomes as unreal as the deaths of those foreigners (and pets and ants/aunts) down below.

“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”

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Another war poem appeared in so many anthologies that Jarrell grew to fear that his fame might rest on it alone. “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is a mere five lines about the dangerous occupation of a B-17 gunner whose job entailed hanging upside down in a plexiglass sphere to engage enemies attacking the plane.

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The distinguished American critic Helen Vendler wrote about this: “The secret of his war poems is that in the soldiers he found children; what is the ball turret gunner but a baby who has lost his mother?” The gunner wakes at birth, a cowering damp animal whose only purpose in living is to die for the state while sent out to  kill for the state. His  inconsequential life is compressed into five lines by skilful manipulation of time. The state shows its gratitude by impersonally hosing his bloody remains from the turret.

Jarrell’s people wake with a dark knowledge of their own death and an awareness of being helplessly trapped  by mighty forces. This kind of helpless frustration is  symbolized by  the separation of mother from child, or in the depiction of the  mother as the killer of the child. The murderous mother is identified with the state.

I will explore later the common theme running through Jarrell’s work of the fate of individuals oppressed by  institutions.

 

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?

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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.

 

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Theodore Roethke Part 3

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

 

 

Theodore Roethke Part 2

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday December 7 2014

R
Tail flicks from another world.

In the Balance between the Animal and the Human

Roethke views man in the framework of nature, taking from nature metaphors of increase and communion. He sees the realm of spiritual beginnings in nature. Even his love poems are not just evocations of the loved one or his feelings about her. The loved one is at the centre of the physical universe and the poet communes with the elements and the natural universe through her.

Throughout his poetic career, Roethke used the idea of evolution to show forth the childhood fears buried in his subconscious and his developing self. The poems often have creatures emerging from the primeval slime and there are worms feeding on the dead. He developed a lithe structure and rhythm, which was well suited to his project of inspecting his psychological and emotional growth.

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The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948)

In The Lost Son, Roethke tries to come to terms with his ambivalent feelings for his father, who died when the poet was only fourteen. Louise Bogan (Roethke’s one time lover) reviewed this collection in the New Yorker on May 15 1948. She wrote: “He plunges into his subconscious as into a pond and brings up all sorts of clammy amorphous material…Where Jarrell frequently only describes, Roethke relives.” She recommended that Randall Jarrell and Roethke be read together. I intend to write about Jarrell in a future article in these pages.

The title poem of the collection has five parts in which the poet examines the various stages of his feelings of sorrow and desolation to reach a conclusion that provides hope for the future.

Roethke himself wrote of the poem:

It “follows a narrative line indicated by the titles of the first four sections: ‘The Flight’, ’The Pit’, ‘The Gibber’, ’The Return’.’The Flight’ is just what it says it is: a terrified running away – with alternate periods of hallucinatory waiting (the voices, etc.); the protagonist so geared-up, so over-alive that he is hunting, like a primitive, for some animistic suggestion, some clue to existence from the subhuman. These he sees and yet does not see: they are almost tail-flicks, from another world, seen out of the corner of the eye. In a sense he goes in and out of rationality; he hangs in the balance between the human and the animal.”

Although the first section is a recollection of childhood feelings, he is already thinking of death – there is a reference to a cemetery in the first line:

At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron,
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding wells.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Saying,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

His hard time is coping with the death of his father. His flight is from this cemetery and from the fact of death. He prays not to God but to the creatures of nature to give him a sign. They only answer him in riddles – The moon said, back of an eel – and in negatives: You will find no comfort here,/ In the kingdom of bang and blab. As if in response to this comment, the section ends with a riddle posed by the poet, which describes a strange creature, part which some readers suggest is an unborn child.

He hopes to find solace in nature:

Nothing nibbled my line,

Not even the minnows came.

The second section, “The Pit” describes a period of physical and psychic exhaustion, involving a strong death wish or an unwillingness to face further hardships in the quest for human completion.

Where do the roots go?

Look down under the leaves.

Who put the moss there?

These stones have been here too long.

Who stunned the dirt into noise?

Ask the mole, he knows.

I feel the slime of a wet nest.

Beware Mother Mildew.

Nibble again, fish nerves.


In “The Gibber”, there is a frenetic activity, then a lapsing back into peace.
At the wood’s mouth,

By the cave’s door,

I listened to something

I had heard before.

Dogs of the groin

Barked and howled,

The sun was against me,

The moon would not have me.

The weeds whined,

The snakes cried,

The cows and briars

Said to me: Die.

 

After this, he finds himself at a calm centre, on the threshold of transformation and rebirth.

 

Do the bones cast out their fire?

Is the seed leaving the old bed?

These buds are live as birds.
Section IV returns to childhood memories, which, although dreamlike, are physically literal as well as symbolic.

A fine haze moved off the leaves;

Frost melted on far panes;

The rose, the chrysanthemum turned towards the light.

Even the hushed forms, the bent yellowy weeds

Moved in a slow up-sway.

 

The roses are real and breathing. – the family greenhouse business   provided much vegetative imagery. The morning emerges from the dark night bringing a sense of renewal, a resurrection of “Papa.”

 

In the final untitled section, the illumination, the coming of light suggested at the end of the last passage occurs again, this time to the nearly grown man. The illumination is still only partly understood; he is still “waiting.” Like the flowers in the greenhouse, he finds himself in a fragile state as he slowly climbs out of an abyss of inner tensions:

 

The bones of weeds kept swinging in the wind,

Above the blue snow.

It was beginning winter,

The light moved slowly over the frozen field,

Over the dry seed-crowns,

The beautiful surviving bones

Swinging in the wind.

 

There is a deliberate echo of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Both works explore the self, its history and development. Both seek realisation in a spiritual order, although Roethke avoids orthodox religion. Roethke probably intended the echo as a statement of difference. For Roethke, the moment of light lacks any theological resonance, as it would have in Eliot. The illumination for Roethke is natural and based firmly on personal knowledge and evidence, on the individual’s understanding of the transcendent. The visitation at the end of “The Lost Son” displays the progress of the spirit over the difficult stages of evolution.

 

Praise to the End! (1951)

Praise to the End!, published in 1951, combines several long poems from The Lost Son with new poems that continuing the same themes. Bogan described Roethke’s subject as, “the journey from the child’s primordial subconscious world, through the regions of adult terror, guilt, and despair, toward final release into the freedom of conscious being.”

Roethke himself wrote: “the method is cyclic. I believe that to go forward as a spiritual man it is necessary first to go back. Any history of the psyche (or allegorical journey) is bound to be a succession of experiences, similar yet dissimilar. There is a perpetual slipping-back, then a going-forward; but there is some ‘progress’. Are not some experiences so powerful and so profound (I am not speaking of the merely compulsive) that they repeat themselves, thrust themselves upon us, again and again, with variation and change, each time bringing us closer to our own most particular (and thus most universal) reality? We go, as Yeats said, from exhaustion to exhaustion. To begin from the depths and come out- that is difficult; for few know where the depths are or can recognize them; or, if they do, are afraid.”

Roethke offered these suggestions on how to read the new book: “You will have no trouble if you approach these poems as a child would, naively, with your whole being awake, your faculties loose and alert. (A large order, I daresay!) Listen to them, for they are written to be heard, with the themes often coming alternately, as in music, and usually a partial resolution at the end. Each poem … is complete in itself; yet each in a sense is a stage in a kind of struggle out of the slime; part of a slow spiritual progress; an effort to be born, and later, to become something more.”

 

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Next week, I will discuss Roethke’s 1953 collection The Waking.

 

Theodore Roethke Part 1

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday November 30 2014

 

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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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