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Theodore Roethke

The poet of my generation who meant most to me, in his person and in his art, was Theodore Roethke. To say, in fact, “poet of my generation” is to name him, Immediately after Eliot and Pound and Hart Crane and Stevens and William Carlos Williams, to mention only a handful, it was difficult to be taken seriously as a new American poet; for the title to “the new poetry” was in the possession of a dynasty of extraordinary gifts and powers, not the least of which was its capacity for literary survival. When Roethke was a schoolboy in Michigan in the twenties, these poets born late in the nineteenth century had already “arrived.” Today, in the general view, they are still the rebels and inventors beyond whom even a college course in contemporary literature scarcely dares to venture.

Roethke took his own work seriously indeed, as he had every reason to do. Lashed by his competitive and compulsive temper, he committed himself fully to the exhausting struggle for recognition—a desperately intimate struggle that left its mark on him. Only a few years ago he could refer to himself sardonically as “the oldest younger poet in the U.S.A.” America wants to wither its artists with neglect or kill them with success. When recognition came, it came in full measure, except for the seductive blessing of a mass-audience, Roethke won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for The Waking; in 1959, after the publication of Words for the Wind, his collected verse, he received eight awards in all, including some prizes, grants, and honors that nobody had even heard of before. The flattery that meant most of all came in the form of imitation by dozens of even “younger” poets, including some with gray hair. Ted would occasionally make a fuss about these pretenders who were “stealing (his) stuff,” but one did not take the complaints at face value.

More than twenty-five years have passed since he blew into my life like the “big wind” of one of his poems. I was living in the Delaware Valley then. He came, unannounced, down-river from Lafayette College, where he was instructor in English and—more satisfying to his pride—tennis coach. My recollection is of a traditionally battered jalopy from which a perfectly tremendous raccoon coat emerged, with my first book of poems tucked under its left paw. The introductory mumble that followed could be construed as a compliment. Then he stood, embarassed and inarticulate, in my doorway, waiting to gauge the extent of my hospitality. The image that never left me was of a blond, smooth, shambling giant, irrevocably Teutonic, with a cold pudding of a face, somehow contradicted by the sullen downturn of the mouth and the pale furious eyes. He had come to talk about poetry, and we did talk vehemently all through the night. There were times, in the years that followed, when I could swear that I hadn’t been to bed since.

All those evenings seemed to move inexorably towards a moment of trial for both of us when he would fumble for the crinkled manuscript in his pocket and present it for approval. During the reading of his poem he waited in an attitude of excruciating tension and suspicion. If the praise failed to meet his expectation, he would grow violently defensive or lapse into a hostile silence. Nevertheless, despite these instant manifestations, he was by no means impervious to criticism or to suggestions. When I proposed “Open House” as the title for his first book of poems (1941), he not only adopted it gratefully but proceeded to write the title-poem that still stands at the head of his collected verse:

My secrets cry aloud.
I have no need for tongue.
My heart keeps open house,
My doors are widely swung.
An epic of the eyes
My love, with no disguise.

On another country visit perhaps a decade later, he asked me long after midnight to read something choice to him. I picked up Sir John Davies’ neglected Elizabethan masterpiece Orchestra, a Poem of Dancing, which he had somehow never chanced on despite hisomniverous appetite for verse, and I can still recall the excitement and the joy with which he greeted the clear-voiced music.

From that encounter, combined with his deep attachment to the beat of Yeats—it was beat, above all, that enchanted him—he composed the memorable sequence Four for Sir John Davies, which was to set the cadence for a whole new cycle of later poems:

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.

Ted was not easy on his friends, but neither was he easy on himself. For a while, when our dialogue arrived at an impasse, we could always fight it out on the courts. For all his six-foot-three, two-hundred-plus-pound bulk and his lumbering walk, he was amazingly nimble on his feet and—less amazingly—ruthless at the kill, with a smashing service and a blistering forehand drive. The daemon in him played the game just as it wrote the poems. Whatever he did was an aspect of the same insatiable will to conquer self and art and others. He could not bear to lose. If you managed to beat him by cunning and by luck, you could not expect to be congratulated by him: he was more likely to smash his racket across his knees. It was typical of him that after the progressive wear and tear of his body had forced him to give up the game, he displayed no further interest in it.

As a young man he felt humiliated and disgraced by the periodic mental breakdowns that were to afflict him all his life. There were outbreaks and absences and silences that he had to cover up, partly because he realized what a threat they offered to his survival in the academic world. He was one of the supreme teachers of poetry, as his students will surely testify, but not until he came—after Bennington—to the University of Washington in 1947 did he have any assurance of tenure. There he found a staunch advocate in the person of Robert Heilman, chairman of the English department, who remained loyal to him through the worst of weathers.

By the time of his arrival in Seattle, Roethke had found the means of transforming his ordeal into language, notably in the wild and masterful sequence of longer poems initiated by The Lost Son. A more recent formal suite on the ordeal and the ecstasy seems, like Hopkins’ terrible sonnets, to be “written in blood.” Eventually he more than half-believed that the springs of his disorder were inseparable from the sources of his art, and he could brag of belonging to the brotherhood of mad poets that includes William Blake, John Clare, and Christopher Smart, with each of whom he was able to identify himself as “lost.” His affection for Dylan Thomas had much the same base; but on the other hand some of his longest friendships, including those with Louise Bogan and W. H. Auden, signified his unswerving admiration for those who stood in his mind as representatives of a sacred discipline.

What I wrote in Poetry about The Lost Son on its publication in 1948—this is the book of his that I continue to think of as the great one—still sounds pertinent to me: “The ferocity of Roethke’s imagination makes most contemporary poetry seem pale and tepid in contrast. Even the wit is murderous…. What Roethke brings us is news of the root, of the minimal, of the primordial. The sub-human is given tongue, and the tongue proclaims the agony of coming alive, the painful miracle of growth.” Let me add now that one of Roethke’s remarkable powers, particularly evident in the later productions, is that of the compassionate flow of self into the things of his experience. His poems become what they love; and mostly he loves a creature-world smaller and purer than his own.

I study the lives on a leaf: the little
Sleepers, numb nudgers in cold di- mensions,
Beetles in caves, newts, stone-deaf fishes,
Lice tethered to long limp subterran- ean weeds,
Squirmers in bogs, And bacterial creepers….

No other modern poet seems so directly tuned to the natural universe: his disturbance was in being human. The soul trapped in his ursine frame yearned less for the infinite than for the infinitesimal. This florist’s son never really departed from the moist, fecund world of his father’s greenhouse in Saginaw. In “Cuttings,” one of a bouquet of greenhouse poems, he gives a clue to his root-image:

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?

I can hear, underground, that suck- ing and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it,—
The small waters seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath- wet.

In 1953 Roethke married one of his former Bennington students, Beatrice O’Connell, who justified in a number of ways, not the least of which were beauty, devotion, and courage, the love poems that he addressed to her, including the dazzling one that begins, “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones.” During the weekend visit after their wedding I prodded him to write an autobiographical sketch for the First Supplement to Twentieth Century Authors, of which I was editor. The resulting document in longhand, still in my possession, provides an invaluable insight into his sense of himself. One passage reads: “I have tried to transmute and purify my ‘life,’ the sense of being defiled by it, in both small and formal and somewhat blunt short poems, and, latterly, in longer poems which try in their rhythm to catch the very movement of the mind itself, to trace the spiritual history of a protagonist (not ‘I,’ personally), of all haunted and harried men; to make in this series (now probably finished) a true and not arbitrary order which will permit many ranges of feelings, including humor.”

Roethke’s humor, of which he gave due warning, was no gentle, prattling thing. After all, one does not go to the axe to learn about politeness. He was convinced, nevertheless, that his humor, much of it ribald, was side-splitting when it was not devastating, and that nobody since Edward Lear had composed such hilarious verses for children. It was during the wedding visit that he proposed to demonstrate his comic genius by entertaining my three-year-old daughter with a recitation of his nonsense verse. His first selection was a quatrain entitled “The Cow.” Dancing around her, thumping out the beat, illustrating the action with appropriate gestures, he roared the lines:

There Once was a Cow with a Double Udder.
When I think of it now, I just have to Shudder!
She was too much for One, you can bet your Life:
She had to be Milked by a Man and his Wife.

The result might have been anticipated. Gretchen burst into tears and tried to hide under the sofa.

I was to think of that incident seven years later, in the spring of 1960, when Roethke read at The Poetry Center in New York, where I introduced him. He had a high fever, and backstage he was jittery, sweating copiously from every pore as he guzzled champagne by the bottle. On stage, for the first portion of his program he clowned and hammed incorrigibly, weaving, gyrating, dancing, shrugging his shoulders, muttering to himself intermittently, and now and then making curiously flipper-like or foetal gestures with his hands. But gradually, as the evening wore on, he settled into a straight dramatic style that was enormously effective and moving. When he came to the new “mad” sequence, particularly the poem that begins, “In a dark time the eye begins to see,” his voice rang out with such an overwhelming roll of noble anguish that many in the audience wept.

As we filed out of the hall, a painter-friend remarked on Roethke’s strange affinity to that other lost and violent spirit, Jackson Pollock. “How true!” I thought, though the resemblance was not obvious. And I heard myself repeating a rather enigmatic phrase that I had picked up from Franz Kline when he was reminiscing once about his old companion: “He divined himself.”

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