the appreciation of poetry, fiction,
2003, Volume Two, Number Two,
Roethke Commemorative Edition
love the world; I want more than the
When July passes into August this summer, Ted Roethke will have been dead exactly forty years. It seems appropriate to introduce him to a generation of people who did not know him, or might not have read his poetry, and to those who may not have kept company with his large body of work, and all his arresting images, these many years.
The best way to do this is not to write passionately about the man and his poetry, as many able scholars and poets have done since his death at the age of 55—not young for a poet, but not old, either—but to let him speak for himself. Thus you will find in this issue of Kingfisher Journal enough of a selection of his poems to send you to, or back to, The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, published and many times reprinted by Doubleday and its paperback affiliate, Anchor. ($10.47, paper, Amazon.com)
Two from Open House (1941)
in crazy figures half the night
he brushes up against a screen,
something is amiss or out of place
And the book's title poem:
truths are all foreknown,
anger will endure.
His second book is The Lost Son (1948). It is important in his development, and in its own right:
until the pans
that held my wrist
time on my head
Its title poem established him as an important poet. "The Lost Son" is a long poem. I quote from "Part 1. The Flight," about half-way through it, followed in context by the start of "Part II. The Pit." These have become famous lines, recognizable wherever poets gather most anywhere in the world.:
shape of a rat?
it soft like a mouse?
the skin of a cat
sleek as an otter
You either like this kind of stuff or you don't. I do, but, I find, not as daily fare. His later poems, however, wear well. You can read them with the same frequency and enjoyment as you can read Yeats. (How Roethke would love to hear people say that!)
A few more lines from The Lost Son:
goodbye, old stones, the time-order is going,
Will The Real Blue Moon Tavern Please Stand Up?
other night, just before bedtime, Seattle’s Channel 9, PBS, broadcast
a half-hour program that kept me from nodding into my white beard. It was “Blue
Moon People,” a thumbnail history of the Blue Moon Tavern, a hangout
for bohemians and college students for nearly seventy years. After
a parade of local luminaries and non-entities come forward, each
advancing (and sometimes quarreling openly with) his shadowy
remembrances and foregone causes, it began to grow on me that hundreds of us
have his or her own experiences of the place that exist for
each of us, in turn, which are oblivious to others, and if anybody
wanted to advance his own version of the tavern's history, it would be
equally true and untrue, representative and unique. So why not come up with
my own? It could be no less phony than the ones I was presently watching
on the small screen. So here it is:
Theodore Roethke: Personal Notes
A man over six feet in height, he seemed to be slightly hunching; and he could easily and quickly squeeze into a crouch in those moods when, with self-critical humor or a challenging earnestness, he liked to fancy himself the prize-fighter. His walk was rather ungainly; it had an uneasy swaying effect, as if he were deliberately putting all his weight first on one foot and then on the other; yet along with this there was a bit of a slouch, a touch of drag, as if the feet were heavy. If he wanted to hurry, his motions reminded me of a person in a dream, making great efforts but held back by some intangible weight or marshy ooze. . . .
He was not a straight away runner, not a track man, but rather a man of lightning foot-work, a short-paced skipper and dodger, a stage or ballroom dancer. At parties, I've heard women say, he was as good a dancer as he chose to be, lightfooted and rhythmic; it depends on whether he wanted to yield to the music or seize stage, be a participant or a dizzying star—or toy with his partner in a jocose or even raucous elephantine amorousness that betrayed more a sense of spotlights than of Don Juan intentness on results. He enjoyed looking like a naughty boy and was inclined to take looking for being; in any little enterprise à deux his eyes registering delight at his deviltry, were as likely to be seeking applause from observers as consent from the women in hand. (some women found him, with his unsubtle hands and mountainous verbal coynesses, bothersome and boring; some found the sparring fun; some dutifully disliked the passes, others hated to be passed over; and veterans of dining-table and parlor skirmishes could always be relieved by new volunteers, half-ready for the purple heart, and always able, if the pressure was too severe, to retire upon reserves of husbandly strength. The reserves had styles ranging from suitable indignation, fired from heavy batteries of propriety, to an insouciant, "You know your way around the course,, dear. Don't lean on me.")
The large head was the more impressive for the thinness of the blondish, light-brown hair that left him close to bald. The blue-grey eyes, rather far apart, were rarely mild; if he was angry, or strongly moved in other ways, his glance took on an intimidating intensity. He had a large mouth that spread far and opened wide for the belly laughs that were the most characteristic expression of his gay moods; there were fewer of these in recent years. An ordinary social smile was difficult for him; the uneasy flash that he managed was a cross between a nervous simper and a grimace, as if he simply did not know how to do it or were fixing the lines of his face like an unimaginative actor responding mechanically to a director. Hence, if he was not roaring and gargantuan, he tended toward a severity of expression which betokened, however, less a we-are-not-pleased stance than a limited capacity for easy and casual amiability. In the face one was less aware of the bony structure than of the ample fleshiness; if he was not well or did not take care of himself, it took on a somewhat sodden cast. Indulgence could make it, at times, flabby and gross. Yet what looked like a heavy sulkiness could be transmuted, as quickly as his lumberingness of body into alert action, in to a variety of different strong and lively expressions: a snarl of contempt, a wide-eyed and even slightly pop-eyed burst of approval for an act or style he admire, an intense high-voiced excitement of a maker of plans, or even a grin and great chuckle of self-irony, with a pleasing medley of sharpness and good nature.
[I omit a couple of thousand words of excellent exposition to skip to the concluding two paragraphs. Ed]
. . .for all of a sometimes peremptory style, there was a kind of helplessness that made the staff helpful [to him]. He was frank, unpretentious, even rather innocent; stratagems and calculations were beyond him. He did not substitute talk for work. In trouble, he won sympathy; when he joked, laughter broke out. He had a wonderful capacity for self-criticism that would undercut all euphoric flights and grandiose dreams. He could jest richly about his own [mental] illness. Once, in wellbeing and good spirits, he looked back on a recent "high" period when he had been hospitalized, and roared gleefully, "Bet-a-million Roethke will ride again." At such moments he was irresistible.
He was always
compelling. It was part of the good luck of my own life to know him
well, for fifteen years, this witty and imaginative man, sometimes
troublesome but more often troubled, sometimes combative but more
often playful, yet always of high earnestness and conscience in his
double vocation of teacher and poet—a
man in whom I felt something that, I came in time to know, was to be
Originally published in Shenandoah, in Autumn 1964, pp. 55-64, this essay was reprinted in 1975 in the initial issue of Mill Mountain Review, which included a discussion of Pacific Northwest Poetry by a number of luminaries and was dedicated to Roethke.
Robert Heilman was department chairman of English and a great champion of his teaching poet, who had myriad personal problems, but was indisputably a great poet and teacher. In fact, at the end of this essay Heilman said Roethke had a quality he sensed as greatness. Heilman's essay is long, so we regret we are able to quote only parts of it.