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 …