Some modern American poets have published novels (Robert Penn Warren, James Dickey, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath). Others have worked hard on novels but never saw them published (Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Clampitt). And still others simply can’t be imagined as novelists. Theodore Roethke, who once declared, “I can become a bird but I can’t write a story,” belongs in this last company.
The recent re-release of Straw for the Fire, a selection from his notebooks first published in 1972, reflects the purity of his devotion. The book contains whole poems, failed poems, promising poem fragments, and comments about poetry. Its editor, David Wagoner, culled the contents from the 277 spiral notebooks Roethke left behind at his sudden death from coronary occlusion in 1963, at the age of fifty-five. A friend and former student of Roethke’s, as well as a notable poet himself, Wagoner may well have made his selections primarily to illuminate Roethke’s poetry, possibly at the expense of other literary concerns. Even so, Straw for the Fire is remarkable for the degree to which the stock-in-trade of the novelist (anecdote, characterization, dialogue) is absent, as are the usual concerns of the cultural critic: politics, social trends, the fine arts broadly. Or as W.H. Auden, who greatly admired Roethke’s poetry, once observed: “Ted had hardly any general ideas at all.” Like his poems, the notebooks brim with turbulent emotion—despair, rage, fear—and yet always with a sense that poetry alone provides the medium for sorting out one’s profoundest feelings. He was a writer secure in his sense of calling.
The details of Roethke’s life are laid out in Allan Seager’s old but serviceable biography, The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke (1968). He was born in 1908 in Michigan’s Saginaw Valley, not a particularly literary environment. As Seager notes: “There were few bookstores in Saginaw then and there are few now.” Roethke’s father, who built and ran a greenhouse, apparently read little beyond a daily newspaper and horticultural journals. His mother did not have much education, though she was fond of novels. Roethke attended public schools, where he did well but did not excel. As Seager, who often displays a likably opinionated tone, observes, “Out of this prosperous region no poet, no painter or sculptor, no composer had ever emerged.”
Yet the poet Roethke not only sprang from such a childhood but turned his childhood—his parents, his friends, and, especially, the family greenhouse—into what was arguably the great theme of his poetry. Though he was destined to spend much of his life among spectacular scenery (he spent more than a dozen years in the Pacific Northwest, teaching at the University of Washington), all the natural landscapes of his adult life seem variations on the greenhouse that served him as a sort of Noah’s ark, sailing across the flat, fertile soil of Michigan’s Saginaw Valley, “carrying her full cargo of roses.”
It was a peculiar microcosm—this thriving family business that advertised itself as “the largest and most complete floral establishment in Michigan.” Nature is perhaps the only unifying thread in Roethke’s poetry; he spent his entire life looking to the natural world for indications of meaning, signals of divine design. In Straw for the Fire Roethke observed, “If God does not exist, neither do we.” Yet his writing showed little interest in science, and his conception of nature often seems pre-Darwinian in its detachment from biological revelation and deducible law. (Roethke offers an illuminating contrast to Frost, who, though born a third of a century earlier, took modern biology to heart. A sonnet like Frost’s “On a Bird Singing in Its Sleep,” which beautifully seeks to reconcile the timeless symbol of the poet with modern evolutionary thinking, originated from impulses alien to Roethke’s sensibility.)
The greenhouse was a midway place, as much infernal as paradisiacal; in Straw for the Fire, Roethke recalls it as “a reality harsher than reality.” His childhood chores (pulling weeds, gathering moss, transporting pots) instilled a deep understanding of just how (in Tennyson’s phrase) “red in tooth and claw” even a garden can be. If his father’s prize roses, of which Roethke later wrote so proudly, in both his poems (“Old Florist,” “Weed Puller,” “Big Wind”) and his scattered prose reminiscences, were one of the true blessings of the universe—a spectacular incarnation of loving husbandry, of poetic romance, of trial-and-error perfectibility in a chaotic environment—Roethke never forgot the ground war constantly being waged underneath their velvety petals. He was particularly drawn to worms, slugs, ants, flies—all those miniature denizens of the soil locked in a combat for which there can be no armistice. He once mockingly, but shrewdly, described himself as “the leading under-the-stone poet of our time.”
Seager speculates that young Roethke might never have grown up to become a poet had his father not died of cancer when the boy was only fourteen; the everyday order of his life was smashed and various new possibilities presented themselves. Yet for all the fierceness of his later commitment to verse writing, Roethke came slowly to the idea of himself as a poet. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he took many literature courses and aspired to write what he called a “‘chiseled’ prose,” but no one in his family had ever made a career in the arts, and pressures were strong on him to find a conventional career. He seems to have written a few poems in college, though he later claimed he began to write in a period of “struggle and unhappiness” during the disastrous semester he spent at the University of Michigan law school.
In any event, struggle and unhappiness seem indissolubly intertwined with Roethke’s career, and one might modify Seager to conjecture that Roethke might never have become a poet had he not been so overwhelmingly beset by psychological turmoil. Throughout much of his adult life he was affected by mental illness, which he treated very much like a companion, arguing with it, bargaining with it, raging against it. In the 1930s, while he was still in his twenties, Roethke suffered a breakdown. Others followed. He was diagnosed as manic-depressive, had long stays, some lasting for months, in mental hospitals, and underwent extensive hydrotherapy as well as shock treatments. In October 1957, as he was about to turn fifty, he suffered a mortifying collapse on the campus of the University of Washington, where he’d become a beloved teacher. Arriving late to class, sweating heavily, raging, muttering incoherently, he was eventually hauled away in handcuffs while his students looked on.
The notebook entries in Straw for the Fire reflect from the inside some of these disturbances:
I can’t go on flying apart just for those who want the benefit of a few verbal kicks. My God, do you know what poems like that cost? They’re not written vicariously: they come out of actual suffering, real madness.
As it happens, I was carrying the book recently while standing beside an airport luggage carousel where a ruptured, overspilling suitcase was going around and around. The symbolism seemed unavoidable. Here was a sight to inspire both sympathy and an uncomfortable curiosity (who would step forward to claim the bag?), much the way reading Straw for the Fire inspires dual feelings as Roethke shambles forward time and again to gather his scattered things together. A noble and a battered soul, he was maladapted for his life’s journey, and he pushed on.
Roethke’s first book, Open House, published by Knopf in 1941, when he was thirty-three, offered few inklings of what a striking and singular career lay ahead. Most of its poems are well turned; few are memorable. He was already in possession of a number of craftsmanly virtues (a feeling for poetic form, a careful attention to linear sonorities within and between lines, a willingness to risk understatement), but his liabilities, too, were striking. He seemed temperamentally unfit for close observation (the book is all but devoid of arresting imagery), and all too ready to settle for tame epigrams and conventional conclusions.
His second book, The Lost Son (1948), was a radical venture. The poet who in Open House had been writing quatrains like this:
Now I am out of element
And far from anything my own,
My sources drained of all content,
The pieces of my spirit strewn
now began writing differently:
Take the skin of a cat
And the back of an eel,
Then roll them in grease,—
That’s the way it would feel.
Much of The Lost Son springs from the irregular, riddled edges of intelligibility—from earliest childhood and from madness, and from madness’s attempts to rehabilitate itself. The “son” of the title is a small child, at times an infant who inhabits a squishy zone of wet diapers, nonsense words, elemental confusions about cause and effect. No other American poet’s work has been more enriched by nursery rhymes than Roethke’s, which twisted and teased out their cadences, catching both their singsong whimsies:
Even steven all is less:
I haven’t time for sugar
Put your finger in your face,
And there will be a booger
and their abrupt terrors:
Kisses come back,
I said to Papa;
He was all whitey bones
And skin like paper.
The title poem of The Lost Son belongs in my mind in any anthology of classic American poetry. In its five sections and six pages, it presents a kind of spiritual and poetic autobiography: it may be the Roethke poem par excellence. It undertakes a meta-phorical journey, beginning in panic in a cemetery (“At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry”) and ending in a tranquil moment in a wintry Michigan landscape (“The light moved slowly over the frozen field”). The composition is formally eclectic—everything from nursery rhymes to spare free verse to slowed-down long lines verging on prose (“Goodbye, goodbye, old stones, the time-order is going”). Its concluding lines are quiet and almost monosyllabically simple, with one startling exception:
A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
The beauty of understandable is that ultimately it isn’t understandable: it speaks to the mysteries of the soul’s communion with a spirit beyond itself.
Inconsistency may be a poet’s prerogative, as Whitman so felicitously claimed: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.” Even among poets, however, Roethke seems strikingly bifurcated. His notebooks veer dizzily between self-disgust and self-preening, between laments over his ignorance and delight in his genius. He writes: “My great truth: it is possible to love the human race.” And on the same page, he comments: “The only time I feel a sense of kinship with people is at the movies or in the bus on the last ride.” An astute reader of his poems and journals might come up with the same diagnosis of manic depression that his doctors eventually arrived at after extensive interviews. Roethke certainly didn’t make things easy for his critics. True, they can probably find, somewhere in his voluminous papers, a corroboration for almost any assertion they would make. And yet, some counterassertion is doubtless waiting somewhere in ambush.