Friday, February 25, 2011 at 07:30AM
National Book Foundation

Words for the Wind 

By Theodore Roethke

Original Publisher: Doubleday  
Current Publisher: Out of Print but available in 
The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. 

Theodore Roethke also won the National Book Award in Poetry in 1965 for The Far Field. 

Scott Challener writes:

Feeling by Thinking

I first read The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (1966) in one gulp one July afternoon in New Lebanon, New York, by a pair of east-facing windows. Poems that have an impact, that remain within us and change us, whether we are their makers or their readers—and more often than not our experience of them is so intimate that the difference becomes a shadow—make their own pasts, their own kind of memories. Since Roethke’s were an early love, they will always be a part of me. Yet re-reading them I often become disappointed or frustrated by those that sound too much like other poets. It seems that Roethke took to heart Eliot’s notion that “the most individual parts of [a poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously”—but not the qualification that follows: “Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged.” Eliot (nicknamed “Tiresome Tom”) and Yeats (a.k.a. “old Willie”) especially are never far from Roethke’s thoughts in his notebooks and letters. His last published piece of prose, “Tirade Turning,” published posthumously under his pseudonym Winterset Rothberg, ends in poetic confession:

I, the loneliest semi-wretch alive, a stricken minor soul,
Weep to you now;
But I’ve an eye to your leaping forth and your fresh ways of wonder;
And I see myself beating back and forth like stale water in a battered pail;
Are not you my final friends, the fair cousins I loathe and love?
That man hammering I adore, though his noise reach the very walls of my inner self;
Behold, I’m a heart set free, for I have taken my hatred and eaten it,
The last acrid sac of my rat-like fury;
I have succumbed, like all fanatics, to my imagined victims;
I embrace what I perceive!
Brothers and sisters, dance ye,
Dance ye all!

At his most manic, most egotistical, Roethke could imagine that he had out-done his final friends, out Yeats-ed Yeats, written a better sequence than Four Quartets. He could also admit, in one notebook entry:

Essay: I Hate Eliot
1st sentence. Why?
Because I love him too much—

By all accounts Roethke was a wreck; a passionate, vituperative crank; a verb-crazy word-drunk wonder-drunk mad poet who could ask “What’s madness but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance?” then promptly exclaim, “The day’s on fire!” He could be mean, vindictive, green-eyed, and monstrous; he could be tender, gentle, loving, and kind. His mind could be on fire; it could smolder; it could be a rubble of cold ash, and at times it overwhelmed him and made him hard to be around and hard on himself. He ends a letter to Louise Bogan, in 1939, “Do write me, Louise. I’m sort of veering about, inside.” (He then characteristically decided to lessen the desperation with a postscript.)

In his notebooks Roethke wrote that he believed that the struggle with language was wonderful, that human communication was sacred, that good poems were holy things, that words themselves were alive, and that all living things—every living thing, from snail to gnu—was holy and could be called upon and dwelt on lovingly; and he taught what he believed. He defined poetry as an “act of mischief,” an approach toward the divine, a comprehensive human act, and wrote more about energy than anything else: the energy of friends and students, of the classroom, of life, of poems: “Energy is the soul of poetry. Explosive, active language.”

No book of Roethke’s better demonstrates this explosiveness than The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), in which Roethke recreates and revives old verb and noun forms, combines unexpected or unlikely words, slips between simple present and simple past, makes transitive verbs act intransitively and vice versa, and enlivens prepositions by removing their objects, verbs by removing their subjects, sentences by removing conjunctions, articles, and grammatical correctness altogether. These strategies in Roethke’s hands make for wild, muscular poems—the language is as alive and fresh and rollicking today as it was in 1948.

The love of the natural world on stage in The Lost Son suggests a spiritual but defensive loneliness, a kind of childlike suspiciousness and wonder. Religious observation of the miniscule, the details of details, provides the generating force and pulse of nearly every poem. Equally significant are the leaps in imagination—beyond the visible—that such a way of seeing provides. Listen to the beginning of the title poem:

At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron;
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding wells.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

The verbs of the first line, “At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry,” place the speaker in the past and the dead in the present. In some sense, the dead cry the rest of the way through the poem. Most of the imagery here, as throughout the book, is generated and filtered through the artificial caul of the greenhouse, its womb-like machinery, its steaming pipes and pots, pits and boilers, gauges and burlap. (The Roethke flower business in Saginaw at one point could advertise itself as “The largest and most complete floral establishment in Michigan”; in one letter, Roethke remembers growing up under “a quarter of a million feet” of glass.) Roethke works through the confusions outside the greenhouse—the suffering of children in newspapers, drunkards, prostitutes, poverty—by returning to its transparent echo chamber. And yet the greenhouse is also a motherless space, an incubator and an incubus.  As “My Papa’s Waltz” declares, the father, that “hump of a man” whom the speaker admires and loves, fears and condescends to, is a dizzying presence in the book: the greenhouse is his primary habitat and workshop.

The discoveries of The Lost Son paid the dividends of all the books between it and The Far Field (1964), edited by Roethke’s wife and published posthumously, which was awarded a second National Book Award; the first was for Words for the Wind (1958). In The Far Field, especially in the first section, “North American Sequence,” Roethke again broke new ground. As in The Lost Son, the use of sequence allowed Roethke to relinquish the “I” that is so involved in its own dramas, that gets in its own way. But in “North American Sequence” the language doesn’t cry out or explode: it reverberates with energy of a different kind and order. I think this is because Roethke found stillness—what he calls in “The Rose” “the imperishable quiet at the heart of form.” Out of that stillness surge other, quieter, rhythms, in which he could pursue the “long journey out of the self,” the self that “dreams of journeys repeatedly,” that contemplates, in the title poem, lying “naked in sand,”

In the stilted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar

This is a poignant moment, especially given how much Roethke’s mind troubled him. Roethke publicly and privately resisted (and on more than one occasion pretended to detest) bookishness—though he could and would stay up all night reading, and was bookish enough to seriously question whether Reinhold Niebuhr could “love a worm” and quote Kierkegaard as fluently as Mother Goose: “We must have the courage to think a thought whole.” He routinely found early drafts of poems chockablock with what he called the “thinky-thinky”—material so idea-driven that it had to be reordered, reshaped, or cut. “I have only a few ideas,” he noted, “and some of them are almost dead from overwork.”

In his notebooks Roethke defines maturity as the moment when a poet goes from being “concerned with personal mortality” to being concerned with “whether the language dies.” In “North American Sequence” Roethke jumps the ditch: all of his worry about sounding bookish, about the thinky-thinky, about Tradition—what he once called in a letter to Ralph J. Mills, Jr. “the Pound-Eliot cult and the Yeats cult”—disappears. When he discovered a living language to think and linger in, when thinking became the central drama, the ancestors’ immortality asserted itself thrillingly. Listen:

And I think of roses, roses,
White and red, in the wide six-hundred-foot greenhouses,
And my father standing astride the cement benches,
Lifting me high over the four-foot stems, the Mrs. Russells, and his own elaborate hybrids,
And how those flowerheads seemed to flow toward me, to beckon me, only a child, out of myself.

The next stanza of “The Rose” asks: “What need for heaven, then, / With that man, and those roses?” We’re back in the greenhouses, but these are not the greenhouses of The Lost Son, which Roethke remembered as “heaven and hell, a kind of tropics created in the savage climate of Michigan, where austere German Americans turned their love of order and their terrifying efficiency into something truly beautiful…a universe, several worlds, which, even as a child, one worried about, and struggled to keep alive…” In “The Rose” Roethke, whirling high and secure above the flowers, belongs not to a universe that dramatizes a child’s struggle to keep a world alive, but one which enacts the letting go of that struggle; he comes, as he writes later, “upon the true ease” of himself.

In the last stanza of “The Kitty-Cat Bird,” a nonsense poem in I Am! Says the Lamb, Roethke advises, “be sure that whatever you are is you.” In “North American Sequence” I feel Roethke at his surest. This authority comes not from knowing, but from the grand permission not to have to know, not to have to be sure. In these poems he doesn’t think only “by feeling” (as he writes in “The Waking”): he feels by thinking. He discovers the courage to think the thoughts whole, and so, to do the amazing thing, to become the happy poet who woke the happy words, the poet of love and praise he so passionately thought he always was.

Scott Challener teaches writing in Boston University’s Writing Program and Metropolitan College and Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies, and he volunteers for PEN New England’s Prison Writing Program and 826 Boston. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers. His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Narrative Magazine, The Rumpus, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. (Photo credit: Thomas Gearty)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

Poetry Judges that Year: Babette Deutsch, Daniel G. Hoffman, John Holmes,
Randall Jarrrell, Robert Penn Warren

The Year in Literature:

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