For a poet whose work is a major bridge from prewar Modernism to the martinis-and-visiting-professorships circuit of the Fifties and Sixties, Theodore Roethke does not deserve to have faded from view so much. He has fans here and there, squirreling away used paperbacks, but dude definitely doesn’t have the cultural tonnage of William Carlos Williams or Elizabeth Bishop (two poets in his extended family), and Dame Plath’s estate probably moves more books in a week than Roethke’s does in a year. Until graduate school I pronounced his name Roth-co, like the painter. He lingers in the Norton anthologies, but in actual conversation I hadn’t met anyone to correct me.
It’s a shame. Roethke isn’t a great, but he’s still pretty great, the poetry equivalent of an awesome singles band.
Coming from a line of gardeners and builders, I’m wired to love the greenhouse lyrics that make up the first section of his best book, The Lost Son (1948). Autobiographical resonance aside, I like how these poems form a DMZ between tendencies that sometimes weaken his writing.
On one side of the field, you’ve got his “confessional” impulse, the need to establish versions of one’s wounded self as the ultimate poetic reality, which can easily tip into self-mythologizing frenzy. As “Open House” (lame pun) has it, “My secrets cry aloud,” and thus often “Rage warps my clearest cry / To witless agony” (AWFUL rhyme). You get the sense he might not be the most fun person to hang out with some days.
On the other side of the field is a much more pervasive flaw, Roethke’s persistent desire to be a visionary like Yeats or Blake, with an attendant mimicry of the song-/chant-like prosody they often use. Even the wonderful “Epidermal Macabre” is like a B-side of Yeats’s “A Coat.” Gorgeous. I carry a handwritten copy in my wallet. But still a B-side. In his massive, intermittently luminous Lives of the Poets (1998), the critic Michael Schmidt calls it “partial ventriloquism.”
You get a lot of crap about vision and transcendence in Roethke, and all the time you also get the sense that he would be happier talking about daily activities and relationships. Google “The Geranium.” It is a fantastic friendship poem written by a frazzled loner. It exemplifies what Roethke was capable of when he wasn’t spinning out oracular stuff like the lines in this rogue’s gallery:
A pearl within the brain, / Secretion of the sense; / Around a central grain / New meaning grows immense. (“Genesis”)
The stones sang, / The little ones did, / And flowers jumped / Like small goats.
(“The Waking”—the other one, not the justly famous villanelle)
All’s known, all, all around: / The shape of things to be; / A green thing loves the green / And loves the living ground. / The deep shade gathers night; / She changed with changing light.
Oh, and from the “Love Poems” section of his 1953 volume The Waking, here is “The Dream.” This how it ends:
She held her body steady in the wind;
Our shadows met, and slowly swung around;
She turned the field into a glittering sea;
I played in flame and water like a boy [editorial note: !!!]
And I swayed out beyond the white seafoam;
Like a wet log, I sang within a flame.
In that last while, eternity’s confine,
I came to love, I came into my own.
That’s an attempted bang that ends up being a whimper. In all of these you see Roethke elbowing his way toward the numinous through nature and women and his own psychodrama, forcing the stuff of consciousness into Very Significant existential patterns. This in turn produces some painfully simple-minded rhymes.
A cooler Roethke appears in his notebooks, which David Wagoner has edited for the Copper Canyon Press under the name Straw For the Fire (1974, 2006). “We need more barnyard poets,” Roethke declares on page 12, perhaps after several whiskies, “poets who depart from the patio, the penthouse, the palladium.” Modified roughnecks, of the kind Whitman admired. “What was the greenhouse?” asks a later entry, which then answers itself: “It was a jungle, and it was paradise; it was order and disorder: Was it an escape? No, for it was a reality harsher than reality” (page 145). “I wish I could photosynthesize,” he admits on the following page.
The same earthbound mensch shows up in the greenhouse poems from The Lost Son. Here, horticulture serves as a figuration of the poet act, being a partial re-engineering and attempted management of nature’s fecund otherness. The texts are personally rooted but not sutured to a biographical persona; they are self-oriented but not self-contained. Conversational but not slack, intimate without becoming maudlin, they employ free verse that is cut with patterned rhymes and unobtrusive meters in places.
These poems posit a dialectic between vision and the visual, between the fundamental arrogance of a poet’s imagination and the rank solidity of dirt, watering cans, and chlorophyll. A poet’s gotta dream. But then the real, grubby, frustrating, material universe will push back.
So this weekend’s poem is “Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze.” Roethe’s dad owned some greenhouses in Michigan; and apparently Roethke senior’s pop was an official forester for Kaiser Wilhelm. Roethke worked in the greenhouses some summers, alongside the older women who maintained the sites year-round.
Refusing visionary leaps can be a feminist act. That is, refusing to twist actual humans from one’s past into a mythology that motivates one’s present is a gesture of respect for actual lives that, in this instance, are women’s lives. The three women in this poem are people, not a transcendentalist conduit or visionary metaphor. They chew tobacco, they sweat when they work. They aren’t pretty maidens, fertile mothers, or geriatric saints.
The poem does not pity the fraus for being childless “nurses of no one else.” It avoids the easy edginess of playing up a weird Freudian sexual angle. It likens the women to birds and witches (one detects a reference to Macbeth in there), but it nonetheless views them as earthbound, fascinating, actual Others, not symbols of Mother Nature or bit players in Roethke’s personal archives. Their flesh is working flesh, the stuff of labor: gardening in this case, the work of “Keeping creation at ease.” These three German ex-pats have a permanently reserved table in the poet’s memory, but they aren’t contractually bound to occupy it every night. After an initial feint at mythology (“three ancient ladies”) the text settles into a respect for their autonomy, their lives as material beings. We know them a little bit, through one remarkable, writing person’s fallible memory. This is it. We should all be so lucky.
Enjoy the read. Happy weekends, y’all.
Gone the three ancient ladies
Who creaked on the greenhouse ladders,
Reaching up white strings
To wind, to wind
The sweet-pea tendrils, the smilax,
Nasturtiums, the climbing
Roses, to straighten
Chrysanthemums; the stiff
Stems jointed like corn,
They tied and tucked,—
These nurses of nobody else.
Quicker than birds, they dipped
Up and sifted the dirt;
They sprinkled and shook;
They stood astride pipes,
Their skirts billowing out wide into tents,
Their hands twinkling with wet;
Like witches they flew along rows
Keeping creation at ease;
With a tendril for needle
They sewed up the air with a stem;
They teased out the seed that the cold kept asleep,—
All the coils, loops, and whorls.
They trellised the sun; they plotted for more than themselves.
I remember how they picked me up, a spindly kid,
Pinching and poking my thin ribs
Till I lay in their laps, laughing,
Weak as a whiffet;
Now, when I’m alone and cold in my bed,
They still hover over me,
These ancient leathery crones,
With their bandannas stiffened with sweat,
And their thorn-bitten wrists,
And their snuff-laden breath blowing lightly over me in my first sleep.