Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry
Most of Roethke is now in the book-stores. On the Poet and His Craft came out last year, a volume of Roethke’s essays containing a few good pieces and a lot of folly, rant, and spleen. And now the Collected Poems, the last harvest, I presume, all the poems deemed fit to print. The new book, arranged by Mrs. Roethke with the advice of Stanley Kunitz and Frank Jones, includes seventeen short poems now collected for the first time. But there are still some missing items; like “The Advice,” published in the New Statesman three years ago and certainly a far better poem than many of the reliques now dug up from other magazines. Indeed, the poems collected here are not a revelation. If Roethke had thought them worthwhile he could have included them, presumably, in The Far Field or the earlier collections. Some of them were written thirty years ago and are interesting only as accessories before the fact of real achievement. Other poems were put aside, I imagine, because they were merely trial balloons or variations on a theme already in print. In “The Changeling” Roethke says:
I’ve recovered my tenderness by long looking;
I’m a Socrates of small fury.
This is fine, except that the poem “What Can I Tell My Bones,” from Words for the Wind, already has the line, “I recover my tenderness by long looking,” and the Socratic reference is dangerously close to Stevens’s line in “The Comedian as the Letter C” about man as “the Socrates of snails.” Again the “The Changeling” we have:
The small! The small!
I hear them singing!
but they have already sung in “A Walk in Late Summer”:
The small! the small! I hear them singing clear
On the long banks in the soft summer air.
In “Song,” one of the newly collected poems, there is a line, “The edge is what we have”; and we recall “The edge is what I have,” in the famous “In a Dark Time.” Once or twice the new material offers a valuable gloss upon the old familiar work; a poem called “The Centaur,” for instance, is less engaging in itself than in its bearing upon the first stanza of “The Renewal,” in Words for the Wind. But generally the poems have remained uncollected for good reasons. Indeed, it is unfortunate that they appear in the last pages of the new book and that we come upon them when our minds are full of a much greater music in the fourth part of The Far Field. They would have occupied an Appendix more appropriately. I hope they have not been introduced merely to make the book sound new, like next year’s car.
GOING THROUGH THE TURBULENCE of the poems again as if they were new, one is moved by Roethke’s sense of “the roots that clutch.” The destructive element is aboriginal. Mr. Malkoff tells us some useful things about the poet’s reading…
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