Posts Tagged ‘conscious


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.



On Ingrid Swanberg’s Ariadne & Other Poems

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in the future issue of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose issue 17, due out in fall 2013.//

Ingrid Swanberg – Ariadne & Other PoemsIn today’s poetry that is often self-conscious, ironic, clever, ambivalent about its self while trying to be serious about its self, and/or closed off, it’s a pleasure to find poems, “within their greeting song,” the honest and clear experiences of image and language. In Ingrid Swanberg’s Ariadne & Other Poems (Bottom Dog Press, 2013), there are many images. There are images with substance that satisfy the mind and the belly, images moving between intellect and intuition or existing in between, and complex images that stir emotion and thought.

The poem “the body of Dionysos” is an example of images moving between intellect and intuition.

   nowhere have I
   been so shaded

   than bearing your weight

   hidden from the world

The first line indicates the speaker is lost or homeless or without purpose, but in the next line this gets taken away, as the speaker is some place, and it may be a comfortable place as it has shade. The first two lines also move from a possessive and passive construct of being nowhere to a passive construct with the implication that the speaker is somewhere, but the place is the shade, which has no weight or substance. In line three’s active voice, we receive the “weight” with the implication of substance, but that substance is taken away in the concluding line. The experience is moving from things that don’t exist to things that do exist and in between. Additionally, in the last line the reader also realizes another movement. A movement of meaning.  The word “shaded,” the reader will realize, may also come to mean something like “deceived.” She lives under his (Dionysos’) shadow in both protective and deceptive realms. There’s also the movement between myth and today’s world. I personally like to read these poems with a deliberate ignorance of Greek mythology to ensure the poems speak to me today in my now experience, and they do. But with a knowledge of the myths, more meanings are had, new perspectives of the myths are created, and more movement is created.

In the poem “the river is rising,” the reader can experience this bridging of two worlds and experience the complicated image building I mentioned above, as well. The second stanza provides a good starting place to observe this complication:

   the white orchards
   of your city
   where you dream me

What’s blooming here is “the white orchards.” Or that’s what at first seems to be blooming. When I leave that stanza, however, I feel overwhelmed because it feels like there’s more that’s blooming. In fact, the city blooms and the “me” blooms. It’s all blooming, which is why “bloom” is on its own line yoking the previous three lines into it. This complication continues into stanza three, which begins: “inside my heart”. Here, “inside my heart” acts as a pivot. It concludes the previous stanza – white orchards, city, and the speaker bloom inside the speaker’s heart – and it begins the third stanza:

   inside my heart
   rain pours neon calligraphy
   onto the night street

Inside the speaker’s heart, rain pours. Inside the speaker’s heart there is city imagery with neon lights and a street at night.  In fact, this poem keeps building like this. It’s able to build because there are only two instances of punctuation (both commas) after the opening line that ends with a period: “I have looked everywhere.” If this were a conventional poem, there would be more punctuation, but the poem limits the use to two commas to indicate time shifts or shifts in thoughts, like leaps. For instance:

   I have searched everywhere
   the syllables and unyielding ciphers of riverbanks,
   your name pressed into the bitter clay
   inside my heart

Here, the speaker’s searching turns directly inward because, perhaps, of the conscious leap into language: “the syllables and unyielding ciphers.” Here the image mixes abstract and concrete. And in the next stanza, the speaker finds the person with another woman:

   o leave her
   turning in her black dress
   where you lie adrift in her arms
   and you dream my

Where one might expect hostility or resentment to follow after this discovery, the poem stays in its passionate tone because, as we soon realize, both the speaker and the other person are in the dream world. They were both looking for each other in their dreams, or at least the speaker was searching for the other person. We then realize the period in the opening line was the end-stop to consciousness. The poem turned inward after that, and at the end it blooms outward from the dreaming world into the conscious world:

   we will ride into the city
   of white blossoming trees
   under the night

This poem is also a modern-day re-rendering of Ariadne’s dream involving Theseus and Dionysos.  The reader should keep the Ariadne and Dionysos myths under consideration when they read many of these poems, especially the “Ariadne’s tomb” section, but the poems are written so well that they speak to two worlds: our world, especially those with limited knowledge of the myths; and the mythic world. The poems in this section exist in both those worlds, and I was caught in the middle like waking from a dream I didn’t want to wake from, but I did wake. When I did wake, there were more poems where I did not need the knowledge of myth but where “the door between worlds / swings open.” And that door is swinging between poem and reader and swinging between poet and poet creating the myth of a self. I enjoyed going in and out of all the worlds in Swanberg’s Ariadne & Other Poems, which often felt like contemporized deep image poems.//




Swanberg, Ingrid. Ariadne & Other Poems. Huron, OH: Bottom Dog Press, 2013.//

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