a Journal of Northwest Art and Literature

roethke.jpg (23805 bytes)
Ted Roethke, c. 1950, outside his office
 on the fourth floor of UW's Parrington Hall

 Spring 2003, Volume Two, Number Two
Copyright 2002-3 Kingfisher Press

page two

More Roethke Poems. . .

From The Shape of The Fire,
What's this? A dish for fat lips.
Who says? A nameless stranger.
Is he a bird or a tree? Not everyone can tell.

Where's the eye?
The eye's in the sty.
The ear's not here
Beneath the hair.
When I took off my clothes
To find a nose,

There was only one shoe
For the waltz of To,
The pinch of Where.

And after many different poems, written in another style or vein, we come to "Praise To The End" (1951), which continues the tone and voice of "The Lost Son":

It's dark in this wood, soft mocker,
For whom have I swelled like a seed?
What a bone-ache I have.
Father of intentions, I'm down to my skin at last.

It's a great day for the mice,
Pickle-me, tickle-me, close stems.
Bumpkin, he can dance alone.
Ooh, ooh, I'm a duke of eels.

A bit earlier in the same book, from the poem "Where Knock Is Open Wide":

A kitten can
Bite with his feet;
Papa and Mamma
Have more teeth.

Sit and play
Under the rocker
Until the cows
All have puppies

From the poem, "O Lull Me, Lull Me":

One sigh stretches heaven.
In this, the diocese of mice,
Who's bishop of breathing?

. . . 

Tell me, great lords of sting,
Is it time to think?
When I say things fond,
I hear singing,
O my love's light as a duck
On a moon-forgotten wave!

. . .

The tone, the style, continue in his next book, "The Waking" (1953), but soon a new voice appears; it is serious, unchildlike, confident, firm:

First, a bit more of the same::

O Thou Opening, O

I'll make it, but it may take me.
The rat's my phase.
My left side's tender.
Read me the stream. . . .

and in "The Visitant" an adult sexual tone           appears:

Slow, slow as a fish she came,
Slow as a fish coming forward,
Swaying in a long wave;
Her skirts not touching a leaf,
Her white arms reaching toward me.

In this book can be found the very fine, "Elegy For Jane, My Student, Thrown by a Horse"a girl from Bennington, but written and read while teaching at Washington, and I remember him somberly laying it on our class.

It is followed by "Old Lady's Winter Words," where we find an early appearance of Roethke's female persona, not a sexual object, but another kind of personlonely, old. It is almost as though his personality has split and he bids this new one to come forward and speak:

. . .Once I was sweet with the light of myself,
A self-delighting creature,
Leaning over a rock,
My hair between me and the sun,
The waves rippling near me.
My feet remember the earth,
The loam heaved me
That way and this.
My looks had a voice;
I was careless in growing.

If I were a young man,
I could roll in the dust of a fine rage.

Now we come to the first of the magnificent late poems, these written in Yeatean stanzas, with rhymed pentameter. "Four for Sir John Davies," and I begin as I should at the beginning:

1. The Dance
Is that dance slowing in the mind of man
That made him think the universe could hum?
The great wheel turns its axle when it can;
I need a place to sing, and dancing-room,
And I have made a promise to my ears
I'll sing and whistle romping with the bears.

. . .

A caged bear rarely does the same thing twice
In the same way: O watch his body sway!

this animal remembering to be gay.

. . .

and the last stanza from part 1:

I take this cadence from a man named Yeats;
I take it, and I give it back again:
For other tunes and other wanton beats
Have tossed my heart and fiddle through my brain,
Yes, I was dancing-mad, and how
That came to be the bears and Yeats would know.

The lines have become longer, the "I" of the poet more detached from the early Joycean self, and now he is a member of the large fraternity of poets (among them Yeats, Blake, and Auden), and in no way in his own mind now inferior to them. He is poetically (and sexually) m ature. It is time to show the world what he can do. Random great lines and pairs of lines from this singular poem follow:

I gave her kisses back, and woke a ghost.
O what lewd music crept into our ears!
The body and the soul know how to play
In that dark world where gods have lost their way.

. . .

3. The Wraith
Did each become the other in that play?
She laughed me out, and then she laughed me in;
In the deep middle of ourselves we lay;

When glory failed, we danced upon a pin.
The valley rocked beneath the granite hill;
Our souls looked forth, and the great day stood still.

and the wonderful ending, "4. The Vigil," the fourth and concluding stanza:

The world is for the living. Who are they?
We dared the dark to reach the white and warm.
She was the wind when wind was in my way;
Alive at noon, I perished in her form.
Who rise from flesh to spirit know the fall:
The word outleaps the world, and love is all.

The last couplet has a Shakespearean ring. If Roethke had written no more than this poem, his reputation would be secureright up there with the Metaphysical Poets he increasingly came to admire, resemble, and compete with (at least in his own mind). Ah, but he wrote more.

Words for The Wind (1958) begins with an odd mix of old-seeming poems and barroom rhymes that come close to doggerel. Part II is titled "Love Poems." In a way, all love poems are the same. They are written by an accomplished poet (often young) to an anonymous lover, usually a woman. They are timeless. And there is always the possibility they are mere exercises in set forms, the love object manufactured or highly abstracted.

It is tempting to find biographical parallels and to say, for instance, these were written to his Beatrice, whom he married. Best not make this assumption, I think. Whatever, whomever, they are wonderful and meant to be enjoyed. Often they are lewd, a bit obscene. Well, love poems ought to be, or else they are something else.

from the title poem, its last stanza:

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.

and now the wonderful,

"I Knew a Woman"
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them.
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin. . . .

. . .

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

. . . 

These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

Pornography? Sure. But not by today's standards. "The Sensualist" is another such poem, metrically quite good, but I won't quote it. (Go seek it out!)

Here's a taste of "The Dying Man. In Memoriam: W. B. Yeats,"

l. His Words

I heard a dying man
Say to his gathered kin,
"My soul's hung out to dry,
Like a fresh-salted skin;
I doubt I'll use it again.

"What's done is yet to come;
The flesh deserts the bone,
But a kiss widens the rose;
I know, as the dying know,
Eternity is now.

. . .

["]I am that final thing.
A man learning to sing."

We skip now to:

5. They Sing, They Sing

All women loved dance in a dying light
The moon's my mother; how I love the moon!

and a few other great lines:

O sweet field far ahead, I hear your birds,
They wing, they sing, but still in minor thirds.

. . . 

The vision moves, yet remains the same.
In heaven's praise, I dread the thing I am.

and the final three lines of the third stanza of Part 5:

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.

Part V. of Words for The Wind is titled "Meditations of an Old Woman" and "The First Meditation" of this long poem begins, 

On love's worst ugly day,
The weeds hiss at the edge of the field,
The small winds make their chilly indictments.
Elsewhere, in houses, even pails can be sad;
While stones loosen on the obscure hillside,
And a tree tilts from its roots,
Toppling down an embankment. . . .

Quickly Roethke establishes the mood and measure of the woman's day, and it is bleak, obscure, violent. She asks,

"How can I rest in the days of my slowness? 
I've become a strange piece of flesh. . . .

I need an old crone's knowing. . . .

Often I think of myself as riding
Alone, on a bus through western country.
I sit above the back wheels, where the jolts are hardest. . . .

All journeys, I think, are the same. . .






and from Part 4

I have gone into the waste lonely places
Behind the eye; the lost acres at the edge of smoky cities. . . .

and concludes with these not entirely convincing lines:

    In such times, lacking a god,
    I am still happy.

Words for the Wind ends with the very fine poem, very Roethkean in its title, "What Can I Tell My Bones?"

In a world always late afternoon,
In the circular smells of a slow wind,
I listen to the weeds' vesperal whine,
Longing for absolutes that never come.

. . . 

The poem is very complex, bringing together dissimilar images from the poet's long past. His unique form of compression resists paraphrase. The poem makes a major statement, and I quote a single lyrical stanza that forms a kind of epiphany for the old woman, the poet, and their collective long suffering.

It deserves to be read slowly in its entirety::

The sun! The sun! And all we can become!
And the time ripe for running to the moon!
In the long fields, I leave my father's eye;
And shake the secrets from my deepest bones;
My spirit rises with the rising wind;
I'm thick with leaves and tender as a dove,
I take the liberties a short life permits

I seek my own meekness;
I recover my tenderness by long looking.
By midnight I love everything alive.
Who took the darkness from the air?
I'm wet with another life.
Yea, I have gone and stayed.

What came to me vaguely is now clear,
As if released by a spirit,
Or agency outside me.
Unprayed for,
And final.

In 1961 Roethke published I Am! Says The Lamb. It is a book of light poems aimed not entirely at children and their mothers, a precursor some might say to Dr. Seuss, who no doubt knew of Roethke's work and was influenced by it. The thin volume is not important in terms of the poet's progression and accomplishments, and serves almost as a diversion and respite from the wide mood swings he was suffering from, around this time. Perhaps these poems represent a exuberant return from the dark personal depths.

Whatever, they in no way foreshadow the high seriousness of his final volume, The Far Field (1963), published the same year as his death. He  had seen the first draft to his publisher and was planning on making some changes. We will never know what those would be.

It is a major work, a work right up there with Yeats,  Stevens, andhis friend, Thomas all those poets he admired. He loved thinking of himself as playing in the Big Leagues, and by now he assuredly was.

The Far Field begins with "North American Sequence," and immediately we note the longer poetic line, the lack of exclamation marks, all those semi-colons with which he was ending his unemjambed lines The poetic first-person is still present, but that presence enters the poem late and seems subdued, suppressed. He identifies with natural objects still, but less passionately and with more philosophical and personal distance; this makes for better poetry, I think, or poetry that gives up much of its seeming spontaneity for a mood of philosophical detachment and repose.

The new long line becomes a natural form of expression for Roethkelooser but still disciplined as only a practiced poet can handle it. And he has come to grips with himself and the Pacific Northwest, his home for so many years, where he has sometimes felt a stranger. He can embrace all that is found in the countryside and be as one with it, or as nearly so as it is possible to become without succumbing to the pathetic fallacy in a pathetic way. (Not he!)

Meditation At Oyster River

Over the low barnacled, elephant-colored rocks,
Come the first tide-ripples, moving, almost without  sound, toward me,
Running along the narrow furrows of the shore, the rows of dead clam shells,
Then a runnel behind me, creeping closer,
Alive with tiny striped fish, and young crabs climbing in and out of the water.

At moments it is almost Whitmanesque; for instance, the opening of Part 3:

I would with the fish, the blackening salmon, and the mad lemmings,
The children dancing, the flowers widening.
Who sighs from far away?

I would unlearn the lingo of exasperation, all the distortions of malice and hatred;
I would believe my pain: and the eye quiet on the growing rose;
I would delight in my hands, the branch singing, altering the excessive birds;
I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form;

Wow! Is this Roethke? I would have never guessed.

The homage to Whitman is made explicit in a pair of lines from "
A Mixed Sequence," a little bit later in this volume, when he says, "Be with me, Whitman, maker of catalogues;/For the world invades me again,/And once more the tongues begin babbling./And the terrible hunger for objects quails me:"

Two pretty good poems later, we come to the title poem, "The Far Field," which, in the light of the poet's recent death, probably takes on an elegiac tone it might not otherwise have. And note the return of the bat image, first encountered in the first line of his first book of poems, quoted above. We have in a way come round, or, rather, Roethke has, but how he has grown:


I dream of journeys repeatedly:
Of flying like a bat deep into a burrowing tunnel,
Of driving alone, without luggage, out a long peninsula,
The road lined with snow-laden second growth,
A fine dry snow ticking the windshield,
Alternate snow and sleet, no on-coming traffic,
And no lights behind, in the blurred side-mirror,
The road changing from glazed tarface to a rubble of stone,
Ending at last in a hopeless sand-rut,
Where the car stalls,
Churning in a snowdrift
Until the  headlights darken.

At the field's end, in the corner missed by the mower,
Where the turf drops off into a grass-hidden culvert,
Haunt of the cat-bird, nesting-place of the field-mouse,

. . .

I suffered for birds, for young rabbits caught in the mower,
My grief was not excessive.
For to come upon warblers in early May
Was to forget time and death:

. . .

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.

. . .

from Part 4

A man faced with his own immensity
Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire.
The murmur of the absolute, the why
Of being born fails on his naked ears.
His spirit moves like monumental wind
That gentles on a sunny blue plateau.
He is the end of things, the final man.

It is tempting to read into this posthumously published poem some final personal resolution and acceptance of death, but I won't, and caution against such an interpretation, satisfying as it might be, along with a kind of resurgent pantheism to accompany his seeming Pacific Northwest acceptance of regional flora and fauna. These may all be poetic devices, used in the same way the Metaphysical Poets of yore did in their poems of both earthly and heavenly aspirations.

Similarly, the love poems that appear in bunches in his late books may indeed be inspired by real women, particularly, his younger wife, Beatrice, but again they may be trumped-up cases required for the writing of important poems. He was, after all, a teacher of the craft of writing of poetry, and cognizant of the practical benefits of such exercises and the fine poetry they can produce.

It is an odd but important collection, bringing together more of what we've happily read before, in earlier books, but new stuff, toowonderful new poems from a major poet. Perhaps some have been drawn from the reservoir of his copious notebooks, where many poems germinated over the years. 

But, enough; back to the poems themselves.

There are more love poems, but the ones seemingly directed at  Beatrice are strangely contrite and the sexuality is muted. True, he can still call her, "my lively writher," but he is more concerned that she "live out your life/Without hate, without grief," when he is "undone,/When I am no one."  This seems more to be a clear presage of what is in store for them than a resigned recognition of their great age differences. ("Wish For a Young Wife.)

This is followed by Section III, and its lead poem, "The Abyss." It begins with echoes from the early poemsshort lines, the childlike voice and vision:

Is the stair here?
Where's the stair?
'The stair's right there,
But it goes nowhere.

and  a different kind of nature imagery, in Part 2:

I'm no longer a bird dipping a beak into rippling water
But a mole winding through the earth,
A night-fishing otter.

in Part 4 he asks:

Do we move toward God, or merely another condition?
By the salt waves I hear a river's undersong,
In a place of mottled clouds, a thin morning mist and evening.
I rock between dark and dark, My soul nearly my own. . . .

and back in the greenhouse of his Michigan boyhood, amid stems and white roots, he hears "A luminous stillness." We needn't ask what it is.

The next poem is "Otto," whom we know to be his father; if there is any doubt, Roethke identifies him quickly as "a Prussian who learned early to be rude." The poet is "a sleepless child/Watching the waking of my father's world.O world so far away! O my lost world?" The lines make me think of D. H. Lawrence's poem "Piano" and Thomas Wolfe's long fiction, but they are distinctly Ted Roethke.

Though there are several fine, mature poems at the end of this last book, all deserving to be read, the one that most people remark about is in "Section IV, Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical." It is the first poem there, not a long one, titled, "In a Dark Time." Roethke had many dark times, but this one stands out. As with the Sir John Davies poems, it is in rhymed iambic pentameter, which in a way says it is delivered to the ages. It is metaphysical in nature, clearly. (I can quote only part of it here.)

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood--
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beast of the hill and serpents of the den.

What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.

. . .

A man goes far to find out what he is
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire,
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

It doesn't get any better than this. Shakespeare and Donne might agree.