Although my favorite poems in Roethke’s “from The Lost Son and Other Poems” are probably “Cuttings, later,” “Moss-Gathering,” or “Last Words,” the most influential poem for me is “Dolor.” “Dolor” was one of the first poems I ever memorized, perhaps ironically, because then it somehow symbolized to me my experiences at The University of Washington, at the time the largest institution I had ever been exposed to.
In retrospect, of course, the U wasn’t nearly as repressive and demeaning as the Army was, for, despite the fact that I had the relative freedom of being an officer, I found the army as a whole to be a crushing experience, one that demanded mindless conformity, crushing individual personality in an attempt to build a perfect, if mindless, fighting machine.
My brief episode working with the welfare system, as bureaucratic a nightmare as Kafka could ever have imagined, was an even more eye-opening experience. There I was forced to ask old folks whether they had received any cash as Christmas presents, and, if so, to reduce their future grants by that amount. Working in a system that seemed determined to further punish those who dared to fail to conform to society’s expectations quickly convinced me that I, at least, was unwilling to be crushed by a system that tried to crush everyone it came in contact with, whether it was those who needed help or those who wanted to help those who needed help.
Though still convinced that the educational system offers the best hope of creating a better society, as a high school teacher too often I had to enforce rules I never quite believed in and to penalize students who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, conform to those “rules.” In the end it was probably the time-consuming homework that drove me to early retirement, but while I was working it was the meaningless meetings, the constantly-changing attendance procedures to ensure that we had duly noted those students who had long ago given up on the system, and the time-consuming progress reports to reassure parents of good kids that they still had good kids and to once again remind the losers that their children were, like them, still losers with little hope of beating the system that really wore me out and made me long to finally be free of such mindless systems.
“Dolor,” then, has turned out to be more meaningful in my life than I could ever have imagined when I first memorized it as an idealistic 19-year old poetry major:
I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper weight,
All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.
In the recently published On Poetry and Craft, Roethke says, “This poem is an exposition of one of the modern hells: the institution that overwhelms the individual man. The “order,’ the trivia of the institution, is, in human terms, a disorder, and as such, must be resisted. It’s truly a sign of psychic health that the young are already aware of this. How far-reaching all this is, how subtle in its ramifications, how disastrous to the human psyche ” to worship bigness, the firm, the university; numbers even, let me say, the organizational effort.”
As a teacher the objects in this poem particularly appealed to me because they were symbols of much of what I disliked about teaching, as I imagine they were for Roethke. This “inexorable sadness” of institutional repetition does more to crush creativity than anything I can imagine. How ironic that most high school English teachers become teachers because they love literature, only to find themselves so overwhelmed by endless grading of papers and endless correction of simple mechanical errors or infinitely repeated errors in thinking that they end up with little or no time to actually read what they do love. No wonder they find it so difficult to share their joy in literature with students or, even worse, to react to students as individuals and not as mere cogs in the machine.
In retrospect, my short exposure to the business world since I semi-retired has made me realize just how free I was as a teacher and to thank-the-lord that I didn’t spend my life in the grey-flannel world of the business world.