2003, Volume Two, Number Two
|More Roethke Poems. . .
From The Shape of
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 a great day for
A bit earlier in the same book, from the poem "Where Knock Is Open Wide":
A kitten can
Sit and play
From the poem, "O Lull Me, Lull Me":
. . .
Tell me, great lords of
. . .
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
and in "The Visitant" an adult sexual tone appears:
Slow, slow as a fish
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 person—lonely, 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,
If I were a young man,
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
. . .
A caged bear rarely
does the same thing twice
. . .
and the last stanza from part 1:
I take this cadence
from a man named Yeats;
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.
. . .
3. The Wraith
When glory failed, we
danced upon a pin.
and the wonderful ending, "4. The Vigil," the fourth and concluding stanza:
The world is for the
living. Who are they?
The last couplet has a Shakespearean ring. If Roethke had written no more than this poem, his reputation would be secure—right 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:
her moving mouth,
and now the wonderful,
How well her
wishes went! She stroked my chin,
. . .
Love likes a
gander, and adores a goose:
bones live to learn her wanton ways:
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
done is yet to come;
. . .
that final thing.
We skip now to:
loved dance in a dying light—
and a few other great lines:
field far ahead, I hear your birds,
. . .
moves, yet remains the same.
and the final three lines of the third stanza of Part 5:
In this last
place of light: he dares to live
Part V. of Words for The Wind is titled "Meditations of an Old Woman" and "The First Meditation" of this long poem begins,
Quickly Roethke establishes the mood and measure of the woman's day, and it is bleak, obscure, violent. She asks,
can I rest in the days of my slowness?
I need an old crone's knowing. . . .
think of myself as riding—
All journeys, I think, are the same. . .
and from Part 4:
I have gone
into the waste lonely places
and concludes with these not entirely convincing lines:
In such times, lacking a god,
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,
. . .
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!
What came to
me vaguely is now clear,
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 Roethke—looser 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!)
At Oyster River
At moments it is almost Whitmanesque; for instance, the opening of Part 3:
would with the fish, the blackening salmon, and the mad lemmings,
unlearn the lingo of exasperation, all the distortions of malice and
Wow! Is this
Roethke? I would have never guessed.
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:
THE FAR FIELD
for birds, for young rabbits caught in the mower,
. . .
not to fear infinity,
. . .
from Part 4
faced with his own immensity
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, too—wonderful 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 poems—short lines, the childlike voice and vision:
and a different kind of nature imagery, in Part 2:
longer a bird dipping a beak into rippling water
in Part 4 he asks:
Do we move
toward God, or merely another condition?
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,
madness but nobility of soul
. . .
A man goes
far to find out what he is—
my light, and darker my desire,
It doesn't get any better than this. Shakespeare and Donne might agree.