Roethke’s The Far Field

In my biased opinion Roethke's The Far Field rivals Walt Whitman's original Song of Myself as one of the greatest books of American poetry ever published, and the sequence entitled "North American Sequence" is as inspiring as any of Whitman's poetry. If you love modern poetry, this is still a must-read book.

I love so many poems in this book it's nearly impossible for me to choose a favorite poem. Needless to say, "In a Dark Time," a poem I've previously analyzed, would probably rank as my favorite. But poems like "The Meadow Mouse," "The Far Field," "The Rose," and, particularly, "The Abyss" seem equally great.

However, when I was depressed after my divorce and returned to this book for a source of inspiration, I discovered:

THE RIGHT THING

Let others probe the mystery if they can.
Time-harried prisoners of Shall and Will-
The right thing happens to the happy man.

The bird flies out, the bird flies back again;
The hill becomes the valley, and is still;
Let others delve that mystery if they can.

God bless the roots! -Body and soul are one
The small become the great, the great the small;
The right thing happens to the happy man.

Child of the dark, he can out leap the sun,
His being single, and that being all:
The right thing happens to the happy man.

Or he sits still, a solid figure when
The self-destructive shake the common wall;
Takes to himself what mystery he can,

And, praising change as the slow night comes on,
Wills what he would, surrendering his will
Till mystery is no more: No more he can.
The right thing happens to the happy man.

Surprisingly, according to the notes I took when I first read the book during Armor training at Ft Knox in 1965, this poem was not a favorite. In the middle of my divorce twenty years later, though, it stood out as strangely comforting, offering a wisdom that I desperately needed to right myself.

Caught in the middle of an impossible situation, it's not hard to become Hamlet. Thinking of all the things you "should have done" and you "should do" or "shouldn't do" causes paralysis. As Roethke says in "His Foreboding," "Thought upon thought can be/ A burden to the soul./ Who knows the end of it all?"

All that really helps is to somehow rediscover your own happiness by doing those things like hiking or cross country skiing that bring you happiness. Once you find your own center, rediscover your own happiness, it's amazing how everything around you seems to fall in place.

Of course, the same can be said in times of "national disaster." It's far easier to be caught up in the hysteria, point to the other and cry "enemy" than to sit still untill things become clear. Demonizing the enemy may make it easier to assuage your pain and outrage, but remaining true to those ideals that made your country great is more apt to bring success in the future.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the poem's final stanza also reminds me of the ending of Yeats' great poem "A Dialogue Of Self And Soul:"

I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch,
A blind man battering blind men;
Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action, or in thought;
Measure the lot to forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

Perhaps it is Roethke's repetition of the line "The right thing happens to the happy man," like Dylan's famous repetition of "Do not go gentle into that good night," that makes this such a memorable poem. It's certainly a line I hope to keep with me "as the slow night comes on."

Roethke’s “The Pure Fury”

Obviously the best poem in the section entitled "Love Poems" of Words for the Wind is "Words for the Wind," and "The Sensualists" is probably still my favorite poem, a hangover from my college days when I found the poem insightful, and shocking. But then, I hadn't read any of the beat poets yet, either. I sometimes fear my fondness for particular poems depends more on what I read in a significant time in my life than on any inherent value of the poem. I mean, after all, I still love Elvis's "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel" even though my taste in music today runs more toward Tracy Chapman or R.E.M than country western. Fortunately, you'll have to buy the book or run to the library to read those poems.

That said, the poem I found most fascinating in this section when I re-read it was "The Pure Fury," perhaps because this is not a typical "love" poem:

THE PURE FURY

Stupor of knowledge lacking inwardness--
What book, O learned man, will set me right?
Once I read nothing through a fearful night,
For every meaning had grown meaningless.
Morning, I saw the world with second sight,
As if all things had died, and rose again.
I touched the stones, and they had my own skin.

The pure admire the pure, and live alone;
I love a woman with an empty face.
Parmenides put Nothingness in place;
She tries to think, and it flies loose again.
How slow the changes of a golden mean:
Great Boehme rooted all in Yes and No;
At times my darling squeaks in pure Plato.

How terrible the need for solitude:
That appetite for life so ravenous
A man's a beast prowling in his own house,
A beast with fangs, and out for his own blood
Until he finds the thing he almost was
When the pure fury first raged in his head
And trees came closer with a denser shade.

Dream of a woman, and a dream of death:
The light air takes my being's breath away;
I look on white, and it turns into gray--
When will that creature give me back my breath?
I live near the abyss. I hope to stay
Until my eyes look at a brighter sun
As the thick shade of the long night comes on.

The ironical, if not paradoxical, tone of this poem is set in the first stanza when this man-of-letters argues that a "stupor of knowledge lacking inwardness" cannot bring one happiness. In fact, too much of such knowledge seems to make the world appear meaningless. Sometimes only experiencing things directly can lead to "second sight" and put us back in touch with our world.

The second stanza attacks the premise that monastic life is the true way to attain enlightenment in the same way the first stanza attacks the premise that books are the true source of wisdom. Though there's a disturbing tinge of disdain in phrases like an "empty face" and "my darling squeaks in pure Plato," the stanza as a whole seems to suggest that it is, indeed, this woman that leads him to enlightenment.

A true introvert would certainly identify with the third stanza. Roethke's tying of solitude to "appetite for life" might seem strange to an extrovert, but makes perfect sense to those of us who find the truest life in our "own blood." When you're an introvert, even passionate love cannot completely replace the need for solitude and the inner life.

The last stanza is even more disturbing, tying together the loved one and death, suggesting that somehow this love takes his "being's breath away." It's almost as if his love has tainted the loved one, turning white into gray. And underlying the whole poem is still Roethke's feeling that he lives "near the abyss," near death. In the end though, the lines "I hope to stay/ Until my eyes look at a brighter sun" seem to suggest that it is precisely this love that brings him joy even "as the thick shade of the long night comes on."

Roethke’s “The Lost Son”

I'll have to admit that in the past whenever professors have said that we would be studying poems from "Praise to the End," I've been apprehensive. And, despite the fact that my copy of Words for the Wind has multiple notations from the various grad courses I've taken, I'm not at all assured that I truly understand any of these poems. Despite Roethke's, "But believe me: you will have no trouble if you approach these poems as a child would, na"vely, with your whole being awake, your faculties loose and alert. (A large order, I daresay!)," I find them nearly as difficult to understand as Pound's Cantos, though for very different reasons. Where Pound seems to be using literary allusions, Roethke seems to be making allusions to his own life and to his inner feelings.

Not surprisingly Roethke's comments in On Poetry and Craft offers the best clues I've found to begin understanding this sequence of poems:

"the method is cyclic. I believe that to go forward as a spiritual man it is necessary first to go back. Any history of the psyche (or allegorical journey) is bound to be a succession of experiences, similar yet dissimilar. There is a perpetual slipping-back, then a going-forward; but there is some "progress." Are not some experiences so powerful and so profound (I am not speaking of the merely compulsive) that they repeat themselves, thrust themselves upon us, again and again, with variation and change, each time bringing us closer to our own most particular (and thus most universal) reality? We go, as Yeats said, from exhaustion to exhaustion. To begin from the depths and come out- that is difficult; for few know where the depths are or can recognize them; or, if they do, are afraid.

Recognition of that cycle plus the realization that, as Roethke notes, "Much of the action is implied or, particularly in the case of erotic experience, rendered obliquely. The revelation of the identity of the speaker may itself be a part of the drama; or, in some instances, in a dream sequence, his identity may merge with someone else's, or be deliberately blurred. This struggle for spiritual identity is, of course, one of the perpetual recurrences," makes it possible for the reader to make some sense out of this sequence of poems

"The Lost Son" is probably the best known of these poems and the easiest to follow:

THE LOST SON, 1948

1. The Flight

At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron,
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding wells.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Saying,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

Fished in an old wound,
The soft pond of repose;
Nothing nibbled my line,
Not even the minnows came.

Sat in an empty house
Watching shadows crawl,
Scratching.
There was one fly.

Voice, come out of the silence.
Say something.

Appear in the form of a spider
Or a moth beating the curtain.

Tell me:
Which is the way I take;
Out of what door do I go,
Where and to whom?

Dark hollows said, lee to the wind,
The moon said, back of an eel,
The salt said, look by the sea,
Your tears are not enough praise,
You will find no comfort here,
In the kingdom of bang and blab.

Running lightly over spongy ground,
Past the pasture of flat stones,
The three elms,
The sheep strewn on a field,
Over a rickety bridge
Toward the quick-water, wrinkling and rippling.

Hunting along the river,
Down among the rubbish, the bug-riddled foliage,
By the muddy pond-edge, by the bog-holes,
By the shrunken lake, hunting, in the heat of summer.

The shape of a rat?
It's bigger than that.
It's less than a leg
And more than a nose,
Just under the water
It usually goes.

Is it soft like a mouse?
Can it wrinkle its nose?
Could it come in the house
On the tips of its toes?

Take the skin of a cat
And the back of an eel,
Then roll them in grease,--
That's the way it would feel.

It's sleek as an otter
With wide webby toes
Just under the water
It usually goes.

2. The Pit

Where do the roots go?
Look down under the leaves.
Who put the moss there?
These stones have been here too long.
Who stunned the dirt into noise?
Ask the mole, he knows.
I feel the slime of a wet nest.
Beware Mother Mildew.
Nibble again, fish nerves.

3. The Gibber

At the wood's mouth,
By the cave's door,
I listened to something
I had heard before.

Dogs of the groin
Barked and howled,
The sun was against me,
The moon would not have me.

The weeds whined,
The snakes cried,
The cows and briars
Said to me: Die.

What a small song. What slow clouds. What dark water.
Hath the raine a father? All the caves are ice. Only the snow's
here.
I'm cold. I'm cold all over. Rub me in father and mother.
Fear was my father, Father Fear.
His look drained the stones.

What gliding shape
Beckoning through halls,
Stood poised on the stair,
Fell dreamily down?

From the mouths of jugs
Perched on many shelves,
I saw substance flowing
That cold morning.
Like a slither of eels
That watery cheek
As my own tongue kissed
My lips awake.

Is this the storm's heart? The ground is unsmiling itself.
My veins are running nowhere. Do the bones cast out their
fire?
Is the seed leaving the old bed? These buds are live as birds.
Where, where are the tears of the world?
Let the kisses resound, flat like a butcher's palm;
Let the gestures freeze; our doom is already decided.
All the windows are burning! What's left of my life?
I want the old rage, the lash of primordial milk!
Goodbye, goodbye, old stones, the time-order is going,
I have married my hands to perpetual agitation,
I run, I run to the whistle of money.

Money money money
Water water water

How cool the grass is.
Has the bird left?
The stalk still sways.
Has the worm a shadow?
What do the clouds say?

These sweeps of light undo me.
Look, look, the ditch is running white!
I've more veins than a tree!
Kiss me, ashes, I'm falling through a dark swirl.

4. The Return

The way to the boiler was dark,
Dark all the way,
Over slippery cinders
Through the long greenhouse.

The roses kept breathing in the dark.
They had many mouths to breathe with.
My knees made little winds underneath
Where the weeds slept.

There was always a single light
Swinging by the fire-pit,
Where the fireman pulled out roses,
The big roses, the big bloody clinkers.

Once I stayed all night.
The light in the morning came slowly over the white
Snow.
There were many kinds of cool
Air.
Then came steam.

Pipe-knock.

Scurry of warm over small plants.
Ordnung! ordnung!
Papa is coming!

A fine haze moved off the leaves;
Frost melted on far panes;
The rose, the chrysanthemum turned toward the light.
Even the hushed forms, the bent yellowy weeds
Moved in a slow up-sway.

5

It was beginning winter,
An in-between time,
The landscape still partly brown:
The bones of weeds kept swinging in the wind,
Above the blue snow.

It was beginning winter,
The light moved slowly over the frozen field,
Over the dry seed-crowns,
The beautiful surviving bones
Swinging in the wind.

Light traveled over the wide field;
Stayed.
The weeds stopped swinging.
The mind moved, not alone,
Through the clear air, in the silence.

Was it light?
Was it light within?
Was it light within light?
Stillness becoming alive,
Yet still?
A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
Be still.
Wait.


Somehow it's easiest for me to simply follow the poem as a black-and-white rendition of a Grimm's fairy tale, perhaps as directed by Tim Burton. When you realize that the snail seems to symbolize Roethke's idea of the spiral progress of the soul, then lines like Snail, snail, glister me forward" show the main thrust of the poem. Most of us have "fished in an old wound" and have ended up finding very little comfort "In the kingdom of bang and blab."

Of course, the poem is even easier to follow if you happen to have read this advice from Roethke:

"The Lost Son" " follows a narrative line indicated by the titles of the first four sections: "The Flight," "The Pit," "The Gibber," "The Return." "The Flight" is just what it says it is: a terrified running away-with alternate periods of hallucinatory waiting (the voices, etc.); the protagonist so geared-up, so over-alive that he is hunting, like a primitive, for some animistic suggestion, some clue to existence from the subhuman. These he sees and yet does not see: they are almost tail-flicks, from another world, seen out of the corner of the eye. In a sense he goes in and out of rationality; he hangs in the balance between the human and the animal.

"The Pit" is a slowed-down section; a period of physical and psychic exhaustion. And other obsessions begin to appear (symbolized by mole, nest, fish). In "The Gibber" these obsessions begin to take hold; again there is a frenetic activity, then a lapsing back into almost a crooning serenity ("What a small song," etc.). The line, "Hath the rain a father?" is from Job-the only quotation in the piece. (A third of a line, notice-not a third of a poem

Section IV is a return, a return to a memory of childhood that comes back almost as in a dream, after the agitation and exhaustion of the earlier actions. The experience, again, is at once literal and symbolical. The "roses" are still breathing in the dark; and the fireman can pull them out, even from the fire. After the dark night, the morning brings with it the suggestion of a renewing light: a coming of "Papa." Buried in the text are many little ambiguities, not all of which are absolutely essential to the central meaning of the poem

In the final untitled section, the illumination, the coming of light suggested at the end of the last passage occurs again, this time to the nearly grown man. But the illumination is still only partly apprehended; he is still "waiting."

In the end, I don't think it's really necessary (unless, of course, your teacher thinks it is) or realistic to believe that you can logically analyze or understand these poems because they are at the very least dream sequences and childhood remembrances. Since few of us are able to understand our own subconscious feelings, it's doubtful we're going to be able to fully understand someone else's, no matter how good of a poet they are.

What we can do is identify with the despair of these moments and the longing for spiritual enlightenment that accompanies them.

Perhaps for a few moments we can even understand why some manic-depressives become great artists dramatizing the spiritual quest most of us ploddingly pursue.

Roethke’s “Dolor”

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:

DOLOR

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.

Roethke’s “Open House”

Anyone who has immersed himself in reading and discussing poetry as I have the last two years, must inevitably ask himself what he seeks from poetry, particularly when confronted by the diverse styles today that present themselves as "poetry."

Originally I told a friend that for me the best poetry had to have a "spiritual element" to it. Bored and frustrated by much of what passes for religion today, I have increasingly turned to the arts for spiritual nourishment, particularly to poetry. Increasingly I've found myself turning to Zen poets, but sometimes too much exposure to the machinations of the Bush administration or a near-fatal overdose of daily "news" drives me straight to Whitman's Leaves of Grass for temporary sustenance.

Unfortunately, careful examination revealed that many of my favorite poems lacked a spiritual element, at least spiritual in the everyday sense. Apparently there is something more basic that I seek from poetry. In a recent email I ventured, "I think what I really want is to feel like I've actually touched someone else, that I've made contact with a real human being, touched them in a way you seldom touch people in real life. It's the immediacy of poetry that appeals to me." My friend's reply suggested that this ties in with Martin Buber's idea that " the fullness of our being lies in our open-ness to the other, because that connection extends our boundary." In other words, truly connecting with others is a form of spirituality.

It may not be entirely coincidental (though Diane and I did agree to read Roethke several months ago) that re-reading Roethke raised these questions. I chose to major literature at the University of Washington because I had been profoundly moved by my reading of several of Thomas Hardy's novels, not by any love of poetry. In fact, I had never been exposed to "modern" poetry and still had residual feelings of resentment at having been forced to memorize Longfellow's "The Village Blacksmith," an inane assignment for a grade school student whose only exposure to a blacksmith had been in John Wayne movies.

Somehow, though, I managed to major in "poetry," mostly "modern poetry" in the four years I was at the U. The first modern poetry book I bought was Roethke's Words for the Wind, the same one I'm presently reading. Most of my teachers had been drawn to the university by Roethke, and undoubtedly what they taught must have been influenced by his presence.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that two poems in the opening section of Roethke's book go a long ways toward defining what I expect from poetry. The poem "Open House," appropriately, opens the collection:

OPEN HOUSE

My secrets cry aloud.
I have no need for tongue.
My heart keeps open house,
My doors are widely swung.
An epic of the eyes
My love, with no disguise.

My truths are all foreknown,
This anguish self-revealed.
I'm naked to the bone,
With nakedness my shield.
Myself is what I wear:
I keep the spirit spare.

The anger will endure,
The deed will speak the truth
In language strict and pure.
I stop the lying mouth;
Rage warps my dearest cry
To witness agony.

Although those who read Roethke's poetry may rightfully question whether his secrets "cry aloud," there is no doubt that his poetry comes from the "heart," not the mind. You cannot read his poems and doubt that you are looking at his very soul through his own eyes. He attempts to reveal the "naked" truth about himself, and anguish is an essential part of that truth. Perhaps, for me at least, what makes it truly poetic is that he tells this truth "In language strict and pure." He not only keeps his "spirit spare," he keeps his language spare.

Another poem in this section adds to, and refines, what I'm looking for in poetry:

THE ADAMANT

Thought does not crush to stone.
The great sledge drops in vain.
Truth is never undone;
It's shafts remain.

The teeth of knitted gears
Turn slowly through the night,
But the true substance bears
The hammer's weight.

Compression cannot break
A center so congealed;
The tool can chip no flake;
The core lies sealed.

I suspect that I could love this poem merely for the line "Truth is never undone," because I apparently have a fondness for aphorisms and gnomic phrases. How else can I explain my inordinate fondness of Emerson and Thoreau?

Often, though, we can only see "truth" in a certain slant of light. What "shafts" remain? Do these shafts somehow explain my inordinate love for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"? Do such stories stay with us because they reveal essential truths, essential beliefs, about ourselves?

Does poetry, at its best, reveal the same truths, the same "core" that "lies sealed" in each of us? Is poetry more than mere decoration, indeed, an essential part of living fully?

A Poet’s Journey toward Knowledge of the Self

Six feet two inches tall, weighing well over 200 pounds, American poet Theodore Roethke (1908-63), was a man tormented, frantic for fame, succumbing to depression, suffering from alcoholism. He also became a college professor and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1954. A teaching poet, Roethke began his life in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of a local greenhouse owner, and ended his life as a professor at the University of Washington. He died on Bainbridge Island.

His early work suggests the influence of an alcoholic father who died when Theodore was 15. Certainly his father's greenhouse business inspired his sensitivity to the smallest detail of nature. Throughout most of his work is also evidence of a desire for self-knowledge and relief from the agony of depression.

During his writing life Roethke modeled the poets who influenced him: John Donne, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and Stanley Kunitz. He formed a continuum beginning with a traditional style moving to a stream of conscious writing which searched for the depth of his psyche. He then became a teacher who influenced other poets: Robert Bly, James Dickey, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, William Stafford, and David Wagoner.

Roethke's poetry can be divided into three distinct periods: his early work reflects the influence of the poets who wrote before him, often using the imagery of the greenhouse of his father, moving on to a searching of the psyche often explored during serious bouts of depression, finally culminating in a return to more traditional poetry which echoes the style of T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and W.B. Yeats.

Roethke's major poetic themes are the use of the dance and a regression toward unity with the smallest of nature's creatures.

Although no one should wish a mental disorder on anyone, Roethke seemed to find inspiration in his depression, using the time to search his psyche for the meaning of his existence. Roethke said himself that within his bouts of mental breakdowns for which he was hospitalized, he would explore his thinking, analyzing his condition and using his insight as material for his poetry. His poetry is, therefore, very personal and introspective, expressed in themes of the tortured soul, searching for the self, connecting with the smallest of creatures, a vision of a dance, swirling with partners.

Examples of Roethke's poetry tell the story of his journey, beginning with a commitment to honesty in "Open House," 1941, winding through a precarious childhood related in "Child on Top of a Greenhouse," 1948, the expression of adolescent yearning in "Double Feature," 1948, the love of nature in "The Minimal," 1948, conflict with the father in "My Papa's Waltz," 1948, the maturing insight into the self in "The Lost Son," 1948, and the resolution in "The Waking," 1953, "I Knew a Woman," 1958, and "In a Dark Time," 1964.

The title poem "Open House" is from Open House, 1941, the first book of Roethke's poems.

Look for the voice of the naked self, an open house, for all to explore. The lying mouth is stopped. In this poem is a concern with the honest statement of his truth, a desire that Roethke fulfilled throughout his writing life, stating he would sacrifice form, if necessary, for the expression of his true self.

OPEN HOUSE, 1941
My secrets cry aloud.
I have no need for tongue,
My heart keeps open house,
My doors are widely swung.
An epic of the eyes
My love, with no disguise.

My truths are all foreknown,
This anguish self-revealed.
I'm naked to the bone,
With nakedness my shield.
Myself is what I wear:
I keep the spirit spare.

The anger will endure,
The deed will speak the truth
In language strict and pure.
I stop the lying mouth:
Rage warps my clearest cry
To witless agony.

Rage from fear colors his voice and leads to agony over the desire to express his true self. Psychotherapists spend years with clients, attempting to clear the rage which leads to true self-understanding.

The following poems are taken from Roethke's second collection of poems, The Lost Son and Other Poems, 1948, which is a demonstration of his early work, moving on to his more personal search for self-understanding.

Here is a sample of his "greenhouse" poems. Picture a child who has climbed onto the glass roof of greenhouse and the consternation the act causes for the watching adults.

CHILD ON TOP OF A GREENHOUSE, 1948
The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!

There is fear the child will fall into the plants below, covered with splinters of glass. His family, (himself?), fears such exposure may undo him. They warn against the descent. Nature, the flowers, are his accusers; the elms plunge like horses. All are shouting at him. What a precarious position the child has chosen for himself. A metaphor for how precarious our positions may be, unaware of impending harm.

Another example:

If you are old enough, you may remember watching the latest serial playing at the neighborhood theatre. This next poem refreshes that memory.

DOUBLE FEATURE, 1948

With Buck still tied to the log, on comes the light.
Lovers disengage, move sheepishly toward the aisle
With mothers, sleep-heavy children, stale perfume,
past the manager's smile
Out through the velvety chains to the cool air of night.

I dawdle with groups near the rickety pop-corn stand;
Dally at shop windows, still reluctant to go;
I teeter, heels hooked on the curb, scrape a toe;
Or send off a car with vague lifts of a hand.

A wave of Time hangs motionless on this particular shore.
I notice a tree, arsenical grey in the light, or the slow
Wheel of the stars, the Great Bear glittering colder than snow,
And remember there was something else I was hoping for.

The speaker searches for fulfillment, an understanding of one's place among other human beings and nature. Yet he waves off with a vague lift of the hand a connection with others.

Perhaps the answer is found not in the knowledge of civilization but in the understanding of the most minute creatures existing on earth.

THE MINIMAL , 1948

I study the lives on a leaf; the little
Sleepers, numb nudgers in cold dimensions,
Beetles in caves, newts, stone-deaf fishes,
Lice tethered to long limp subterranean weeds,
Squirmers in bogs,
And bacterial creepers
Wriggling through wounds
Like elvers in ponds,
Their wan mouths kissing the warm sutures,
Cleaning and caressing,
Creeping and healing.

The serenity he seeks may be found in the creatures that clean and caress, creep and heal.

In the next poem there is apparent conflict with the father who disappoints his son, who is hurtful instead of nurturing. Follow the image of the dance, a crazy scene of twists and turns, changing rhythm and tempo. The dance with his father is not easy, yet he hangs on like death.

MY PAPA'S WALTZ, 1948
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

One of Roethke's most personal poems follows, an example of mixed forms, some stream of consciousness, some ballad, some free verse, some rhymed, ever the search for an honest expression of his truth. Pay attention to the reliance upon the small creatures, "the minimals," to succor the speaker. Notice the images of cold, loneliness, silence, conflict, spiraling descent, finally the approach toward level ground.

I picture the poem set at a cemetery. Perhaps the speaker remembers burying his father.

THE LOST SON, 1948

1. The Flight

At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron,
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding wells.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Saying,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

Fished in an old wound,
The soft pond of repose;
Nothing nibbled my line,
Not even the minnows came.

Sat in an empty house
Watching shadows crawl,
Scratching.
There was one fly.

Voice, come out of the silence.
Say something.

Appear in the form of a spider
Or a moth beating the curtain.

Tell me:
Which is the way I take;
Out of what door do I go,
Where and to whom?

Dark hollows said, lee to the wind,
The moon said, back of an eel,
The salt said, look by the sea,
Your tears are not enough praise,
You will find no comfort here,
In the kingdom of bang and blab.

Running lightly over spongy ground,
Past the pasture of flat stones,
The three elms,
The sheep strewn on a field,
Over a rickety bridge
Toward the quick-water, wrinkling and rippling.

Hunting along the river,
Down among the rubbish, the bug-riddled foliage,
By the muddy pond-edge, by the bog-holes,
By the shrunken lake, hunting, in the heat of summer.

The shape of a rat?
It's bigger than that.
It's less than a leg
And more than a nose,
Just under the water
It usually goes.

Is it soft like a mouse?
Can it wrinkle its nose?
Could it come in the house
On the tips of its toes?

Take the skin of a cat
And the back of an eel,
Then roll them in grease,--
That's the way it would feel.

It's sleek as an otter
With wide webby toes
Just under the water
It usually goes.

2. The Pit

Where do the roots go?
Look down under the leaves.
Who put the moss there?
These stones have been here too long.
Who stunned the dirt into noise?
Ask the mole, he knows.
I feel the slime of a wet nest.
Beware Mother Mildew.
Nibble again, fish nerves.

3. The Gibber

At the wood's mouth,
By the cave's door,
I listened to something
I had heard before.

Dogs of the groin
Barked and howled,
The sun was against me,
The moon would not have me.

The weeds whined,
The snakes cried,
The cows and briars
Said to me: Die.

What a small song. What slow clouds. What dark water.
Hath the raine a father? All the caves are ice. Only the snow's
here.
I'm cold. I'm cold all over. Rub me in father and mother.
Fear was my father, Father Fear.
His look drained the stones.

What gliding shape
Beckoning through halls,
Stood poised on the stair,
Fell dreamily down?

From the mouths of jugs
Perched on many shelves,
I saw substance flowing
That cold morning.
Like a slither of eels
That watery cheek
As my own tongue kissed
My lips awake.

Is this the storm's heart? The ground is unsmiling itself.
My veins are running nowhere. Do the bones cast out their
fire?
Is the seed leaving the old bed? These buds are live as birds.
Where, where are the tears of the world?
Let the kisses resound, flat like a butcher's palm;
Let the gestures freeze; our doom is already decided.
All the windows are burning! What's left of my life?
I want the old rage, the lash of primordial milk!
Goodbye, goodbye, old stones, the time-order is going,
I have married my hands to perpetual agitation,
I run, I run to the whistle of money.

Money money money
Water water water

How cool the grass is.
Has the bird left?
The stalk still sways.
Has the worm a shadow?
What do the clouds say?

These sweeps of light undo me.
Look, look, the ditch is running white!
I've more veins than a tree!
Kiss me, ashes, I'm falling through a dark swirl.

4. The Return

The way to the boiler was dark,
Dark all the way,
Over slippery cinders
Through the long greenhouse.

The roses kept breathing in the dark.
They had many mouths to breathe with.
My knees made little winds underneath
Where the weeds slept.

There was always a single light
Swinging by the fire-pit,
Where the fireman pulled out roses,
The big roses, the big bloody clinkers.

Once I stayed all night.
The light in the morning came slowly over the white
Snow.
There were many kinds of cool
Air.
Then came steam.

Pipe-knock.

Scurry of warm over small plants.
Ordnung! ordnung!
Papa is coming!

A fine haze moved off the leaves;
Frost melted on far panes;
The rose, the chrysanthemum turned toward the light.
Even the hushed forms, the bent yellowy weeds
Moved in a slow up-sway.

5

It was beginning winter,
An in-between time,
The landscape still partly brown:
The bones of weeds kept swinging in the wind,
Above the blue snow.

It was beginning winter,
The light moved slowly over the frozen field,
Over the dry seed-crowns,
The beautiful surviving bones
Swinging in the wind.

Light traveled over the wide field;
Stayed.
The weeds stopped swinging.
The mind moved, not alone,
Through the clear air, in the silence.

Was it light?
Was it light within?
Was it light within light?
Stillness becoming alive,
Yet still?
A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
Be still.
Wait.


That for which Roethke searches, "a lively understandable spirit," emerges. This is something he once had, and it will return if he waits in stillness. The healing has begun.

Here is the title poem from The Waking, poems for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1954. Accepting reality seems to be the theme of the poem. "I learn by going where I have to go." The waking is slow.

THE WAKING 1953


I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.


Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair,
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

In the next poem pay attention to the use of the metaphor of the dance once again. This time the dance is sensual, intimate.

I KNEW A WOMAN, 1958

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked by chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make.)

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone;
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).

Finally the poem published posthumously from which Loren has titled this blog:

IN A DARK TIME, 1964

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood--
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstances? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks--is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is--
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.


The reader senses Roethke has found some solace, the self-knowledge he sought.

Diane McCormick November, 2003

In a Dark Time

Here's the poem this journal takes its title from:

IN A DARK TIME
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks-is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened. summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

Theodore Roethke's "In a Dark Time" seems even more powerful today than when I first read it in 1965. It stands as a masterpiece in itself but takes on added depth when read within the context of Roethke's entire body of works. When one understands the dark nature of many of Roethke’s earlier poems, poems like “Epidermal Macabre,” “Weed Puller, or longer poems like “The Lost Son,” the transcendence suggested in the phrase “and one is One” is amazing. In another sense, though, it is a “typical” Roethke poem because many of his poems attempt to move from despair to hope.

The first line of the poem suggests the essence of the poem, the idea that in a dark time, a time of despair, one begins to find oneself. Too often we lose ourselves in our despair and give up all hope, but the loss of the most important things in life can also help us gain insights that enrich our future life. Indeed, perhaps it is only in such moments of despair that we can find our true selves because they test who we are and what we truly believe.

When the poet sees his “shadow” he sees his alter ego, perhaps even the dark side of his soul, in this increasing darkness. The “echo,” though it may seem merely to reflect the idea of the shadow, instead seems to indicate a different idea, the idea that he finds himself reflected in nature, which is usually a source of insight and power in Roethke’s poetry. This idea of highs and lows is mirrored in the closing lines where he uses images of “the wren,” high, and, “serpents of the den.” low.

The line “What’s madness but nobility of soul/ At odds with circumstance” seems particularly poignant considering the number of times Roethke was committed to a mental institution for treatment. Certainly if anyone could understand the “purity of despair” he could. “That place among the rocks-is it a cave,/Or winding path?” forces us to wonder how many times in the midst of this tormenting “fire” he felt he saw a way out, like Yeats’ spiral path, only to discover that was a source of greater despair, the cave of the “serpents of the den.” In these moments of despair, he seems to be constantly walking on the edge of the abyss.

In this “dark night of the soul” he receives many “messages,” literal or symbolic. It is a night when the birds, often used to represent the soul, fly away, as if suddenly disturbed by some force or as if leaving the body behind. The complex symbol of the “ragged moon” suggests “lunacy” or loss of imagination, while the eclipse suggests that the dark side is prevailing and that all hope is lost. The “unnatural light” reinforces the idea that the forces of darkness are at work here. Worst of all, there are no tears, as if no one really cares what is happening, even the poet himself.

The poet, a “heat-maddened” fly desperately buzzing at death’s door, simply wants to die. And miraculously, at this very moment of the “death of the self,” the poet finds himself and God, becoming one with One, and he is suddenly “free in the tearing wind,” free in spirit, no longer held by the flesh. It’s almost Zen-like, or perhaps the kind of merging with God that Christian Saints felt in mystical moments.

This final transcendence seems more convincing because of the powerful images of despair that precede it. This is no easy victory, no easy transformation promised in a book. This is the record of a hard-won victory by this man at this moment.

And, if Roethke can win his victory over the forces of darkness and despair, there is hope that I can too.

Here's a number of Roethke resources on the web.

A Scott Ruescher essay on Roethke’s collected poems.

A Roethke page at the Academy of American Poets

This site is a touching dedication to Roethke

Eleven of Roethke’s poems are included here if you want some background. “The Far Field” and a “Journey to the Interior” might shine the most light on “In a Dark Time.”