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 in Jung, and we see the mark of this lore in the poems. But there is more work to be done. I would guess that Roethke did a lot of “parallel reading” along the margin of anthropology, to fill out his sense of primitive human patterns, gestures, and figures. It would surprise me to hear that he did not read Robert Graves, Joseph Campbell, as well as Maud Bodkin and Jung. Of course, he might have nudged his words along without this reading. He did not need a book to tell him that sense is a pearl secreted within the brain. Indeed, he had a remarkable feeling for all the things we do not need to learn, the first things first, all those things featured in his poems as “the life of the mouth.” “Fear was my father, Father Fear,” he says in “The Lost Son,” and we know he did not find that in a book.
We think of Roethke in such images: stone, water, fish, dog, slime, lichen, worm, snake, greenhouse, pond, roses. The list is fragmentary. Indeed, now that most of the evidence is here, it is remarkable the extent to which these images call to one another, setting up a network of analogies as they go along. We would do well to take them at their word, as we read Stevens, knitting the web, poem after poem. So the pattern would emerge. Over against the aboriginal poems there are the spiritual poems, aspiring to a condition of inconceivable purity. This is always seen as a deliverance from the impurity of body, time, or thought. “O to be delivered from the rational into the realm of pure song,” as in “What Can I Tell My Bones?” Sometimes it comes as a dance, Yeatsian but bodiless as Yeats’s dance is not. Mr. Malkoff often quotes Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism as a gloss on these poems, these gestures, and it is clear that he has come upon an important source. In “Snake” Roethke speaks of his desire to be “the pure, sensuous form,” and it is the purity he craves. Why he should, we can only speculate. But it is significant that the two definitive “areas” of his sensibility are so far apart. In the scale of being he lives either below the human or far above it; translating human life downward or upward. This is only a way of putting it. But one of Roethke’s gravest limitations is that his feeling for the specifically human dimension is insecure. He has little or no feeling, in his early and middle poems, for life as a dynamic engagement in time, in place, in history. If we think of human life in the idiom of persons, places, occasions, history, society, and so forth, we see that this is not the idiom in which Roethke’s poems live. It is no answer to cite a few poems about his parents or his wife. In “The Lost Son,” we are sometimes told, the flora and fauna represent a human situation translated into vegetable terms for clarity; but the translation relieves the situation from its specifically human burden, all those qualities of the experience that cannot be accounted for in vegetable terms. Hence, in this translation, there is no pressure to take them into the reckoning. Roethke does not imply that all is ease and joy in the vegetable world, despite “the gradual embrace of lichen around stones,” but even a sense of the distress of that world is a release from the particular distress of our own world of human experience. Roethke often sought release in this way. Hence his poems have more to do with the order implicit in folklore, myth, and archetype, than with an anarchy implicit in history, fact, and experience.
PERHAPS WE COULD GET AROUND this disability by speaking of Roethke’s poetry as pastoral, the great poetic device for putting complex things into a simple container. We might point to D. H. Lawrence’s floral and faunal poems for proof. But the difference is that Lawrence’s poems are a grammar school of courtesies, parables of human behavior: they tell us how to live by showing us rival forms of behavior in another idiom. They are poems about fish, for instance, precisely because fish are not men, and modes of life are more clearly discernible in an alien element. So Lawrence’s poems, often magnificent in their own right, are also the ABC of his novels, where human life is explored in human and historical terms. In Roethke’s poems this dimension is missing; the human idiom of time, history, and action, the idiom of Yeats in The Wild Swans at Coole.
But we should not make too much of this. Perhaps we should make nothing of it, recalling that the nobility of Roethke’s last poems, the grave music of “The Marrow,” “In a Dark Time,” “In Evening Air,” and the rest, is the sign of a late movement into a human idiom. The two worlds of his sensibility, just then in those late years, were drawing together. The first proof is that in those poems the haze of abstraction that hung over his earlier poems, even his most avowedly concrete and tactile poems, was clearing off. Kenneth Burke has pointed out that in The Lost Son Roethke’s concretions have a strangely abstract air. Even when he is writing about a particular passion or a particular woman it seems to come out as Passion or Woman. Things become emblems before they have well become themselves. Verbs become proverbs. In the third section of “The Shape of the Fire” intimations of birth are given in short parallel sentences about “the wasp,” “the grape,” and so on for eight lines. But everything is eliminated from these nouns except their emblematic direction: the grape glistens, presumably, in readiness, but the readiness is all, the grape is real only insofar as it embodies this waiting. It is not there for its own sake; therefore it is not allowed to be itself. It is a generic emblem of Birth, cut back to its function in the parable. In the later poems, notably the metaphysical poems in The Far Field, nouns are freed from this emblematic pressure. When Roethke says, in “The Marrow,” “The mist above me sings with its small flies,” the mist is free with its own right to be as it is, as it was. In “I Waited” the feeling is committed to the events, the scene, to the historical dimension, so that the donkey path means precisely and, blessed relief, only that.
WE FEEL THIS in the cadence. Roethke’s aboriginal poems feature a short, cutback line. He was very fond of this, as he was also fond of his monosyllables. I think he felt that, with this line and these syllables, he could keep things under strict control, everything tight. A sequence of these short sentences would take on an apocalyptic note while remaining in the poet’s strict possession. So we have, in “The Lost Son”:
The weeds whined,
The snakes cried,
The cows and briars
Said to me: Die.
The force of this line is not in doubt, and Roethke has shown its possibilities. But it is restrictive, after all. The trouble is that it allows only a limited range of dynamics and, I would argue, only a limited range of feeling. Perhaps this accounts for the impression, in those poems, that the possibilities of life itself have been drastically cut back, as if a complex world of feeling were forced to reduce itself to a new language, a severely abridged vocabulary. Indeed, when Roethke moves beyond parable, allegory, and diagram into modes of being which are indisputably human and historical, he gives up the short line or he uses it only for a contrasting cadence. The short line would not do, for instance, in the “In Memoriam: W. B. Yeats” or the “Meditations of an Old Woman”: here the poet needs the elegiac note, the cantabile line. Roethke was slow in taking command of this idiom. Sometimes, as in the last section of the “First Meditation,” he sounds as if he were imitating Stevens, the lordly note of “Credences of Summer” or “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction.” And the theme, for the moment, is pure Stevens, chanting the inherent excellence of a summer mood. No matter: slow or quick, Roethke moves into the new, ripe idiom. It is wonderful to hear him singing those last songs, sometimes solo, now and again in a duet with Yeats: “What’s madness but nobility of soul/ At odds with circumstance?” The best of these poems are just as severely controlled as the earlier poems, but now Roethke is relying upon his own conscience, his scruple, to do the work once done by translation and exclusion. Thus he asks in “The Sequel”:
Was I too glib about eternal things,
An intimate of air and all its songs?
This is the new, late note. The pity of it is that we have only a handful of these splendid poems and we might have had many more, had he lived an average span. Later in “The Sequel” Roethke asks, thinking of something else: “Was nature kind? The heart’s core tractable?” Hardly kind, hardly tractable. And in the next line: “All waters waver, and all fires fail.”