I have a habit of reading poetry before I go to bed at night. It takes me a long time to get through a collection of poetry, since I read poems slowly (and sometimes aloud) and generally only read one or two a night. I am generally a lover of modern poetry — a few of my favorites are Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell, and Raymond Carver. I have often seen Theodore Roethke’s poetry anthologized with other poets I love, and I’m sure most of you have read some of his most famous poems: “The Waking” (“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow./ I learn by going where I have to go.”), “Elegy for Jane,” “I Knew a Woman,” and “My Papa’s Waltz.” Since I had read all of these, and found them beautiful and complex, I decided to tackle a collection of Roethke’s verse: Words for the Wind.
In my previous experience with the collected verse of a single author, it’s often been possible to see a great deal of consistency in subject matter, tone, and style, or else it’s been possible to see a sort of arc: the poet changes and (one hopes) improves over time, often according to a school of thought or because of people he or she encountered and associated with.
In Roethke’s poetry, however, I didn’t see either a consistent style or an arc of poetic growth. Instead, the poems seemed to be a kind of working out of Roethke’s way of looking at the world, his own personal fight against the death and imprisonment of the self. His verse falls into several categories: love poetry (like “I Knew a Woman”), humorous verse, poetry of the natural world, autobiographical verse, and more. A lot of his poetry is very difficult to read and to unwind. While it may not actually be nonsense, some of it certainly has that appearance at first sight:
Mips and ma the mooly moo,
The likes of him is biting who,
A cow’s a care, and who’s a coo? —
What footie does is final. (excerpt from “Praise to the End!”)
This isn’t perhaps quite fair, because some of the rest of this poem eventually made more sense upon repeated readings, but in fact a lot of Roethke’s poetry is like this: apparently childish nonsense verse in the middle of something a great deal more painful and difficult. Some of it reminded me of Hilaire Belloc:
I had a Donkey, that was all right,
But he always wanted to fly my Kite;
Every time I let him, the String would bust.
Your Donkey is better behaved, I trust. (excerpt from I Am! Said the Lamb.)
Now, even assuming that the Donkey is a metaphor for the body (St. Francis of Assisi’s “brother ass”), this is light verse. But poems like these are accompanied by raw, difficult poems like “Journey Into the Interior”:
In the long journey out of the self,
There are many detours, washed-out interrupted raw places
Where the shale slides dangerously
And the back wheels hang almost over the edge
At the sudden veering, the moment of turning.
Better to hug close, wary of rubble and falling stones.
The arroyo cracking the road, the wind-bitten buttes, the canyons,
Creeks swollen in midsummer from the flash-flood roaring into the narrow valley.
Reeds beaten flat by wind and rain,
Grey from the long winter, burnt at the base in late summer.
— Or the path narrowing,
Winding upward toward the stream with its sharp stones,
The upland of alder and birchtrees,
Through the swamp alive with quicksand,
The way blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree,
The thickets darkening,
The ravines ugly.
This is the poem of someone who believes that neither the body nor the mind is to be trusted. The self is a dangerous place, and escape is difficult. But escape to what? If there is neither body nor mind, what is left? Roethke’s poems of the natural world offer a possible solution:
I saw a young snake glide
Out of the mottled shade
And hang, limp on a stone:
A thin mouth, and a tongue
Stayed, in the still air.
It turned; it drew away;
Its shadow bent in half;
It quickened and was gone
I felt my slow blood warm.
I longed to be that thing.
The pure, sensuous form.
And I may be, some time. (“Snake”)
This is an escape from both the ponderous donkey-body and the dangerous mind: the sleek, sensuous form of the animal world. (It might be interesting to compare Emily Dickinson’s snake poem here. Zero at the bone, indeed.)
And finally, tenderly and beautifully, Roethke also finds escape through love. He sees the inherent absurdity in it (“Love likes a gander, and adores a goose,”) but nevertheless, his love poems are truly tender: they are sensual, self-aware, and selfless, a final unity of body, mind and spirit.
These poems were not easy. I was sometimes tempted to skim. But my careful, slow reading was more than rewarded. I learned about the rough places of mind and body, and was deeply moved, and entered into love. In the spirit of which, I leave you with a love poem, that union of body and mind, past and present, life and death that Roethke finally found satisfying.
I think the dead are tender. Shall we kiss? –
My lady laughs, delighting in what is.
If she but sighs, a bird puts out its tongue.
She makes space lonely with a lovely song.
She lilts a low soft language, and I hear
Down long sea-chambers of the inner ear.
We sing together; we sing mouth to mouth.
The garden is a river flowing south.
She cries out loud the soul’s own secret joy;
She dances, and the ground bears her away.
She knows the speech of light, and makes it plain
A lively thing can come to life again.
I feel her presence in the common day,
In that slow dark that widens every eye.
She moves as water moves, and comes to me,
Stayed by what was, and pulled by what would be.