Quick Notes on Theodore Roethke

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Theodore Roethke in a GreenhouseTheodore Roethke (1908 – 1963) is an American poet. The Waking (1953) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954, Words for the Wind: Collected Verse of Theodore Roethke (1958) won the National Book Award in (1959), and The Far Field (1963) won the National Book Award in 1965.

Roethke’s first collection of poems is Open House (1941). These poems are metrical and rhyme and are filled with abstraction. Some of Roethke’s important themes also first appear in here, such as his interest with the “vegetable realm” (“‘Long Live the Weeds” 17) (which we will see as he turn towards nature and his greenhouse), death, falling and the abyss, “the waking is slow” in “The Gentle” (27) which will be revised in “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow” in “The Waking,” from  his 1953 collection of poems The Waking. “The Reminder” is the one poem that sticks out from the others in Open House in that this poem is grounded in images and hints at his later greenhouse poems, and the poem that follows it, “The Gentle,” while returning to abstractions, hints at the psychology of his later poems. Overall, these poems seem to run against the Modernist grain, as they try to be personal but are too abstract to succeed at that, some of the poems are humorous, there is little to no allusions, and he writes of nature and not of the city.

His next book of poems is The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), and it is very different than Open House, as the poems are grounded in images, and Roethke seems more intimately involved in the poems. The reader feels him more in the poems, even though the poems feel like Imagism poems, as there are a lot of images presented objectively without commentary, especially in the earlier poems, but eventually, Roethke inserts himself into the poems, especially by section II, which opens with “My Papa’s Waltz,” where the speaker and the speaker’s emotions clearly are presented by way of the images and the accumulation of images. When Roethke uses the “I,” the reader is certain that it represents the speaker. The poems also introduce Roethke inhabiting conscious and unconscious realms and often “vegetable realms,” (which at times feel like the unconscious world. This unconscious realm makes itself very apparent in the opening poem to section III, “Night Crow.” The title itself black on black or a double darkness. When he sees the crow, he enters the unconscious dream world – “A shape in the mind rose up: / Over the gulfs of dream / [. . .] / Deep in the brain, far back”). In the following poem, “River Incident,” he enters the vegetable realm and goes through a type of psychic evolution via the ancient cellular memories that inhabit him when he realizes he once before was “In that cold, granitic slime, / In the dark, in the rolling water” (47). Roethke is situating himself in a primordial realm, both psychically and physically. This sets up section 4’s long poems, especially the first long poem “The Lost Son,” which is a poem in a form Roethke invented, and allows for a monologue, or dialogue between his conscious and unconscious selves. For instance, in section “1. The Flight” there are stanzas that are flush with the left margin and indented stanzas. The left-aligned stanzas are where the speaker consciously speaks and eventually tries to invoke the unconscious, “Voice, come out of the silence / Say something” (51), and that voice does in the indented stanzas, where the voice sounds mythic, like it’s trying to describe a mythic or fabled map. The language is laced with psychic content in its dream-like imagery and language, and at times it is cryptic like an oracle, such as in the response it gives in section “2. The Pit.” The important thing to note is there are images and often surreal images used to present psychic and emotional states of the speaker as he moves from a youthful consciousness in part one of the book to a self-examining adult in the last section. The whole while, Roethke is attempting to obtain some spiritual state, and he kind of arrives there like a Deep Image poet would. He immerses himself in the physical world which overwhelms into an epiphanic state or with a better self-conscious understanding, such as the last section of “A Field of Light”:

     The dirt left my hand, visitor.
     I could feel the mare’s nose.
     A path went walking.
     The sun glittered on a small rapids.
     Some morning thing came, beating its wings.
     The great elm filled with bird.

          Listen, love,
          The fat lark sand in the field;
          I touched the ground, the ground warmed by the killdeer,
          The salt laughed and the stones;
          The ferns had their ways, and the pulsing lizards,
          And the new plants, still awkward in their soil,
          The lovely diminutives.
          I could watch! I could watch!
          I saw the separateness of all things!
          My heart lifted up with the great grasses;
          The weeds believed me, and the nesting birds.
          There were clouds making a rout of shapes crossing a windbreak of cedars,
          And a bee shaking drops from a rain-soaked honeysuckle.
          The worms were delighted as wrens.
          And I walked, I walked through the light air;
          I moved with the morning.

In Praise to the End! (1950), Roethke shifts again, as the poems have a more playful feel about the them and incorporate surreal imagery, at least in part I. In part II, the tone shifts as he tries to inhabit the natural world to understand and hear the songs of “symbols! All simple creatures, / All small shapes, willow shy, / In the obscure haze, sing!” (“Unfold! Unfold!” 86). It’s a kind of mystical undertaking. In Words for the Wind (1958), the poems again start with a playful feel, but then turn into a more serious feel as he and nature, in a sense, become one, as indicated in places like section 4 of “Renewal”

     I see the rubblestones begin to stretch
     As if reality had split apart
     And the whole motion of the soul lay bare:
     I find that love, and I am everywhere.   (130)

Works Cited

Roethke, Theodore. The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. New York: Anchor Books, 1975. Print.


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