Everything Roethke wrote has, of course, demanding interest for anyone who cares at all about American poetry. His best poems are such courageous explorations, couched in such authoritative and original language, that even his lesser efforts gather significance from them. His last book, The Far Field, has poems that would make a career for a lesser man; they do not seem to me Roethke’s best. Nonetheless, they are important beyond their considerable creative power, in what they tell of his impending death, and the light they cast back on his earlier poems, revealing that death to have been long implicit there.
These poems reveal anew the conflicting drives in Roethke’s poetry and his life. His long war against form, against shape and size, against the “anguish of concreteness” is in part finally resolved, especially as reflected in his metrical forms. One might expect a further greatness from this; instead, he finds a slackening, in Roethke’s word, a “shrinking.” Perhaps the answer was not to resolve the conflict but to try to endure and expand it. Yet, clearly, the anguish was unspeakably great—indeed, he does not here fully speak it. His language grows imprecise with pain, or with growing numbness and half-sleep as an escape from pain. Perhaps it is foolish to think there was any answer.
Yet one must lament the loss. And that these poems, recording that withdrawal and regression, also suffer from it. They bear less the knowledge of pain, than the knowledge of numbness after pain. They seem less a regression to capture something and create it anew, than a regression for its own sake, to lose something and uncreate it.
The book has four sections: North American Sequence; Love Poems; Mixed Sequence; and Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical. This final section, Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical, has appeared separately in a fine edition with wood engravings by John Roy. I am not capable of judging the engravings; the book as a whole is certainly very beautiful. Anyone who can afford one, however, should order it at once; only 330 copies were made.
Here, then, are all Roethke’s poems since Words for the Wind, his collected verse of 1958. “Meditations of an old Woman,” the last poem of that collection, seemed almost overwhelming in its promise of new powers, further journeys:
All journeys, I think are the same:
The movement is forward, after a few wavers…
I was specially taken by passages like the following, both for the promise in the statement and the vigor of style:
As when silt drifts and sifts down through muddy pond-water,
Settling in small beads around weeds and sunken branches,
And one crab, tentative, hunches himself before moving along the bottom,
Grotesque, awkward, his extended eye looking at nothing in particu- lar,
Only a few bubbles loosening from the ill-matched tentacles,
The tail and smaller legs slipping and sliding slowly backward—
So the spirit tries for another life,
Another way and place in which to continue;
Or a salmon, tired, moving up a shallow stream,
Nudges into a back-eddy, a sandy inlet,
Bumping against sticks and bottom- stones, then swinging
Around, back into the tiny main- current, the rush of brownish- white water,
Still swimming forward—
So, I suppose, the spirit journeys.
“The Longing,” the first poem in The Far Field, apparently harks back to those passages, but with a sense of failure, or failure of desire:
On things asleep, no balms:
A kingdom of stinks and sighs,
Fetor of cockroaches, dead fish, petroleum,…
The great trees no longer shimmer;
Not even the soot dances.
And the spirit fails to move for- ward,
But shrinks into a half-life, less than itself,
Falls back, a slug, a loose worm
Ready for any crevice,
An eyeless starer.
That note is struck repeatedly through the North American Sequence. Although there are assertions of new explorations
I dream of journeys repeatedly:
Old men should be explorers?
I’ll be an Indian.
we come away with an opposed sense:
The self persists like a dying star,
In sleep, afraid,…
I dabble my toes in the brackish foam sliding forward,
Then retire to a rock higher up on the cliff-side.
The river turns on itself,
The tree retreats into its own shadow.
I long for the imperishable quiet
at the heart of form;
The lost self changes,
Turning toward the sea,
A sea-shape turning around,—
An old man with his feet before the fire,
In robes of green, in garments of adieu.
Here, as elsewhere, Roethke accurately predicts his own death, clearly longing for it.
What happened? The section of Love Poems provides a clue. I certainly do not suggest that any specific love turned sour or grew old; I do suggest that love had perhaps been asked to fill an emptiness, effect a transformation, which no love ever could.
Most of Roethke’s best earlier poems record a desperate effort “To be something else, yet still to be!,” to be “somewhere else,” to “find the thing he almost was,” to be “king of another condition.” As he said it earliest, “I hate my epidermal dress,” as he said it last, “How body from spirit slowly does unwind/Until we are pure spirit at the end.” We see his struggle against his own form, shape and size in all those poems about regression into animal shapes—the sloth, the slug, the insect. Or the continual attempt to lose his large human form in an identity with small forms:
Sleepers, numb nudgers in cold di- mensions,
Beetles in caves, newts, stone-deaf fishes,
Lice tethered to long limp subter- ranean weeds,
Squirmers in bogs,
And bacterial creepers…
This struggle against his own form reached what seemed a sort of triumph in those journey-poems where he investigated the landscape as woman, in the earlier love poems, and in the numerous poems where he spoke as a woman. In the love poems, he did affirm a shape, not his own, but the woman’s:
She came toward me in the flowing air,
A shape of change, encircled by its fire.
The shapes a bright container can contain!
This containment must have seemed an answer—to lose one’s shape, to be the woman through sexual entrance:
Is she what I become?
Is this my final Face?
[I]…see and suffer myself
In another being, at last.
This idea was repeated over and over. Yet, ecstatic as these poems were, there were two disturbing elements. The woman was never affirmed as herself, only as a symbol of all being, or as something he might become. And the affirmation was not made in Roethke’s voice, but in Yeats’s.
Much seems changed in the last book. Some ecstasy survives:
Who’d look when he could feel?
She’d more sides than a seal.
but even this poem suggests a parting or failure:
The deep shade gathers night;
She changed with changing light.
We met to leave again
The time we broke from time;
A cold air brought its rain,
The singing of a stem.
She sang a final song;
Light listened when she sang.
Here, and elsewhere—“The Long Waters” and “The Sequel” among others—there seems to be a farewell to that ecstasy, a turning away, or turning inward from the discovery that this could not satisfy the hunger.
What now appears dominant is a desire to escape all form and shape, to lose all awareness of otherness, not through entrance to woman as lover, but rather through re-entrance into eternity conceived as womb, into water as woman, into earth as goddess-mother. This is the burden of “The Long Waters”:
A single wave comes in like the neck of a great swan
Swimming slowly, its back ruffled by the light cross-winds,
To a tree lying flat, its crown half broken.
I, who came back from the depths laughing too loudly,
Become another thing;
My eyes extend beyond the farthest bloom of the waves;
I lose and find myself in the long water;
I am gathered together once more;
I embrace the world.
and of the “Meditation at Oyster Bay”:
Now in this waning of light,
I rock with the motion of morning;
In the cradle of all that is,
I’m lulled into half-sleep
By the lapping of water,
Cries of the sandpiper.
Water’s my will, and my way,
And the spirit runs, intermittently,
In and out of the small waves…
His new visitant is the child:
I see in the advancing and retreat- ing waters
The shape that came from my sleep, weeping:
The eternal one, the child, the swaying vine branch,
The numinous ring around the op- ening flower,
The friend that runs before me on the windy headlands,
Neither voice nor vision.
Now Roethke identifies with an animal only as it tends to represent the child, the baby or the foetus. So he speaks of “The Lizard”:
He too has eaten well—
I can see that by the distended pulsing middle;
And his world and mine are the same,
The Mediterranean sun shining on us, equally,…
or even more, “The Meadow Mouse” which he keeps and treats as, by sympathetic magic, he would be treated:
Now he’s eaten his three kinds of cheese and drunk from his bottle- cap watering-trough—
So much he just lies in one corner,
His tail curled under him, his belly big
As his head;…
and when the mouse grows up enough to run away, Roethke sees again his approaching death:
I think of the nestling fallen into the deep grass,
The turtle gasping in the dusty rubble of the highway,
The paralytic stunned in the tub, and the water rising,—
All things innocent, hapless, for- saken.
In poem after poem, he sees the water rising, the water “moving forward,” himself “at a standstill.”
All this helps account for Roethke’s desire to find pure space as an escape from time (much related to Rilke’s similar desire). That has been strong in the poems for some time, but now it is easier to see why he identifies space with pure Being:
Space struggled with time;
The gong of midnight struck
The naked absolute.
Sound, silence sang as one.
Our only experience of identity with all space is in the womb; our first experience of time brings the mother’s breast which may be withdrawn and so force one to recognize external objects, to give up the sense of omnipresence and omnipotence, that unity with all objects which Roethke constantly seeks:
…the terrible hunger for objects quails me.
This, in turn, helps explain both Roethke’s praise of madness (since reason forces the acceptance of external forms and objects) and the increasing religiosity and mysticism. For instance, in his New World Writing remarks on “In a Dark Time,” he correctly describes the following as an androgynous act:
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
but also insists that this is a search for God and, moreover, a “dictated” poem.
Roethke’s war with form had also, of course, a technical side. Few poets have done so much to break down metrical forms, syntactical forms, ideational forms. Yet he constantly returned to the very forms he had dissolved. Here, too, a change now occurs. Where his free verse poems were nearly always pure explorations, they now try more and more to incorporate a fixed religious and irrational certainty:
Do we move toward God or merely another condition?
The shade speaks slowly:
“Adore and draw near.
Who knows this—
This brings a certain slackness, an expectability, into these poems—which draw heavily on both the language and ideas of Eliot.
In his formal poems, which tended to express some lyrical certainty, but not always so much of Yeats’s voice, a different weakening occurs. Eliot’s ideas and Yeats’s verse-forms rush in to fill the vacuum of the father-model which he could never find or never accept. In some ways, Yeats and Eliot provide too much form. As the metrical shapes become firmer, the language becomes strangely decayed. The words all become counters in a pseudo-religious rite meant to make a person one with all things—i.e., to dissolve all matter. As a result, the words all come to mean about the same thing, no matter which words are used.
The result is somehow obsessive, like a fantasy. Roethke was, perhaps, too successful. The voice says the same things over and over, always reaching the same predetermined meaning with slightly different words each time. But the result is a shrinking; the voice gets smaller and smaller, like
The phoebe’s slow retreating from its song,
or like an unhappy child chanting small charms to itself, talking itself into sleep.
When angered by his loss, I feel he’s a little like his sloth:
…And then before he says a Word
There, upside down (unlike a bird),
He will assume that you have Heard—
A most Ex-as-per-ating Lug.
But should you call his manner Smug,
He’ll sigh and give his Branch a Hug;
Then off again to Sleep he goes,
Still swaying gently by his Toes,
And you just know he knows he knows.
But I am sure he would say he is more like his Meadow Mouse, fed full, asleep, curled up in some meadow corner, some “far field of eternity.” How do I know he’s not? Only it’s lonelier here now.
October 8, 1964