Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Reading Roethke

review by Mike Doyle

Straw for the Fire: from the notebooks of Theodore Roethke. Copper Canyon Press, 2006.

Roethke, an American poet of the first half of the twentieth-century, was a teacher, but first and foremost a poet and a fine one. Back in the 60s and 70s especially, I admired his work, rejoicing in poems such as “Big Wind,” “My Papa’s Waltz,” “The Shape of the Fire,” “Elegy for Jane,” “The Waking,” “Words for the Wind” and “I Knew a Woman.” Now an opportunity to look at workbooks, specifically from the last twenty years before his early death at 55. Edited by David Wagoner, a good fellow poet, these notebooks, first published thirty-five years ago, reissued under the aegis of the Lannan Foundation, are culled from 277 notebooks, mostly spiral, filled with fragments of poetry, aphorisms, jokes, memos, random phrases, bits of dialogue, comments on writing and life, poem drafts, quotes, and so on - in other words, extrapolations of the poet’s mind, insights into working methods and views of life, “seizing whatever he might from the language, but mulling over and taking soundings of every syllable.”

The editor presents this material in 43 sections, arranged “dramatically” (not necessarily chronologically), nothing added, with properly indicated elisions. Roethke himself roamed back and forth among his notebooks, looking for material to stitch a poem together (Eliot did somewhat the same thing). The titles of various sections in this book are supplied by the editor. For instance, he titles a fragmentary “poem” “My Instant of Forever” then, following Roethke’s working methods, puts it together from fragments surviving from 1959-1963. Thus, editorial intervention, but throughout the selection the themes are Roethke’s: a love-hate sense of woman; his thrashing-about attempts to escape a despised self; evocations of the greenhouse Eden of childhood; the ecstasy of glimpsing the One, and his “wars on God”; the final grappling with the approach of his own death.

The chosen material is divided between poetry and prose, with the former slightly more than half. Selection begins with 27 versions,orconglomerations, of poems, composed from material covering several years, often two years, sometimes as much as eight or nine. Take, for example, “She Took My Eyes,” dated here 1954-1958, which represents on the one hand Roethke’s celebratory sense of women, on the other his attachment, where this area of experience is concerned, to formalist poetry, notably the “Cavalier poets.”. It begins:

Who’d change the motion in her thighs?
They give such pleasure to old eyes,
I’d have her walk around
All day where ancients gather to
Exchange the news of me and you
And all whose limbs are sound.

The first of two stanzas, this serves to show why Roethke left it in a notebook. As transcribed here, his next move is one line: “She looks as if she had been basted lightly in butter.” The material goes on for three more pages, in groups of lines, generally direct, rhyming, pertinent in the same tone, the two most interesting interpolations one-liners out of key with the rest: “The fullness of that pulsing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever”; and: “Men see their Beatrice with a luminous shimmer, a numinous haze, a close and yet far quality: but what do woman see?” In counterpoint to the rest, these two quotes might have sprung an incandescent poem. The best that Roethke did in this line of formalist celebration is the much-anthologized, “I Knew a Woman Lovely in Her Bones.” He developed two modes of writing, for his erotic poems (as here), a formal lyricism, for the other, chiefly nature poems, loose, open rythms, close observation, not unlike the free’ aspect of D.H.lawrence’s poetry:

It’s true enough I come from an ape, and at least twice a day return,
Chasing my tail, dizzy with intuition....

A quatrain from “Straw from the Fire” (1953 -1962) is instructive fun:

O Mother Mary, and what do I mean,
That poet’s fallen into the latrine -
And no amount of grace or art
Can change what happens after that.

First, and tongue in cheek (I guess that’s where it was!) the obvious culminant rhyme is avoided, although ‘flat’ would begin to do it. Second, we are reminded how much Roethke was influenced by nursery rhymes and traditional jingles which throughout his work are put neatly, often humourously, into service. Third, Roethke is one of those poets who can with aplomb combine reverence with humour. At times too he can rise to a Jacobean sense of the world’s raggedness:

It’s a day for a wild dog. Don’t speak of it.
This light leaves me behind.


Fish mouths nudging against walls.
Moths hanging on harsh light.

Sometimes he brings together his themes of woman and nature:

She moved, gentle as a waking bird,
Deep from her sleep, dropping the light crumbs,
Almost Silurian, into the lap of love....

The prose selected here bears little relation to On the Poet and His Craft (1965), a volume of the poet’s prose edited by Ralph Mills Jr not long after Roethke’s death. Some of what’s here seems to express “a sacramental view of nature,” some of it (as recorded) is indistinguishable from poetry, some alludes to Roethke’s sense of Oneness or, alternatively, “that there are many worlds from which we are separated only by a film.” Some of it is reflective on teaching: “Teacher: a capacity for enthusiam about the obvious,” or (very much in “the real world”): “Teaching goes on in spite of the administrator.” Teaching for him was a way of seeing people, but not seeing too much of them! On poetry: “Basis of poetry is sensation; many poets today deny sensation, or some have no sensation: the cult of the torpid.” (Rather than the torpedo?); “To mean what you say - and that’s more than sincerity.”

It’s good to have this book available again. There’s much in it of craft, some wisdom, soul-searching, the sense of a mind (and soul) at work, on its craft, on itself, on coping with the world, and digging into the soil of its sensations, the sensations of its soil.

Mike Doyle’s first poetry collection A Splinter of Glass (1956) was published in New Zealand. He has lived in Victoria, BC since 1968.