Another Look at Theodore Roethke

One of the writers Joan Halifax mentioned in Fruitful Darkness was Theodore Roethke, and since I've wanted to re-read his poetry for a while now, I decided this would be a good time to do so. I decided to buy the Kindle version of his poems which contains a number of poems not found in the various editions of his poetry that I already own.

I didn't remember many of the early poems in the Kindle edition, but I was as impressed by this sequence as I was the first time I read it (so impressed that “Cuttings (later)” was one of the few poems I have ever memorized) .

CUTTINGS

Sticks-in-a-drowse droop over sugary loam,
Their intricate stem-fur dries;
But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
The small cells bulge;
One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Pokes through a musty sheath
Its pale tendrilous horn.

I'm sure when I first read these poems at 18 that I had never identified plant life with human life, much less with my own life, and the fact that I read these poems long before I ever saw time-lapse photography of plants emerging made them seem all the more remarkable. I'd also forgotten over time how simple and descriptive Roethke's early poems were. They remind me in many ways of the haiku poetry that I've come to love so much. Yet, as simple as the poem is, it reminds us how tenuous, how precious, life really is.

Although “Cuttings” could easily refer just to plant life, it’s obvious from “Cuttings(later)

CUTTINGS (later)

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?

I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it,—
The small waters seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.

that Roethke identifies the struggle of the cuttings with man’s struggles, particularly with his own life. At a dark time in his life, Roethke sees the “resurrection of dry sticks” as a sign of possible transcendence, or, at the very least, the ability to go on when calamity befalls us. Cut off from their previous life, cuttings struggle to begin a new life, saint like in their efforts to reemerge. Can man do any less?

Even under the darkest of conditions, a condition that Roethke seemed all too familiar with, life refuses to cease, as shown in a latter poem:

ROOT CELLAR

Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!—
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.

This poem seems to foreshadow the even darker poems in part IV of “The Lost Sons and Other Poems,” particularly “The Lost Son.” Considering that the point of having a root cellar is to to store food for the winter and suppress growth, it’s not surprising that anything grown under those conditions would be distorted. What is most remarkable is that “nothing would give up life.”

2 thoughts on “Another Look at Theodore Roethke

    • I think you’ll find that overall Roethke is quite sympathetic to your viewpoint, Rudi. His later poems extend this sense of sacredness to particular places that he grew to love.

What do you think?