Roethke’s “The Rose”

To me, Roethke’s “North American Sequence" is one of the one of the greatest sequences of poems ever written, though I’ll have to admit to a certain bias since much of it is set in the Pacific Northwest, and I first read it while at Fort Knox, longing for home.

Here is the opening section from

There are those to whom place is unimportant,
But this place, where sea and fresh water meet,
Is important
Where the hawks sway out into the wind,
Without a single wingbeat,
And the eagles sail low over the fir trees,
And the gulls cry against the crows
In the curved harbors,
And the tide rises up against the grass
Nibbled by sheep and rabbits.

A time for watching the tide,
For the heron's hieratic fishing,
For the sleepy cries of the towhee,
The morning birds gone, the twittering finches,
But still the flash of the kingfisher, the wingbeat of the scoter,
The sun a ball of fire coming down over the water,
The last geese crossing against the reflected afterlight,
The moon retreating into a vague cloud-shape
To the cries of the owl, the eerie whooper.
The old log subsides with the lessening waves,
And there is silence.

I sway outside myself
Into the darkening currents,
Into the small spillage of driftwood,
The waters swirling past the tiny headlands.
Was it here I wore a crown of birds for a moment
While on a far point of the rocks
The light heightened,
And below, in a mist out of nowhere,
The first rain gathered?

It is here that the poet claims to find his true self,

And I stood outside myself,
Beyond becoming and perishing,
A something wholly other,
As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,
And yet was still.

I probably didn’t understand this poem at the age of 22, but it left an impression that has stayed with me since first reading it, and it rings truer today than it ever has.

Judging from the photographs I’ve posted here this year, some might even believe that I’ve been trying to illustrate this poem the last year. I haven’t, but I have. I suspect I understand the poem much better having spent the last year at Nisqually and at Pt. Defiance.

In a Dark Time

While I like the photos, the gentle side trips with grandchildren, I am drawn most to the original spirit of your blog, partly because I have personal history with Roethke. When he spoke with us in the 60s about his affliction, he never talked much about how he managed it, or about other poets who shared his dilemma. But there are plenty. I offer this comment in that spirit.

Roethke was not travelling solo when he wrote In a Dark Time.

He was mining a field where he found the footsteps of other poets and philosophers, from mystics like Boehme and Blake to more contemporary poets Yeats and Matthew Arnold and Wordsworth.

Written after several episodes of the manic-depressive illness that dogged him, and reflecting the influence of Freudian theory on the arts in America in the 40s & 50s, his poem celebrates the triumph of the spirit in a quest for wholeness.

Other poets walked that walk and talked that talk, too. Roethke knew a few, including Robert Lowell and John Berryman. He knew the powerful poems of Kunitz, and knew about the troubled lives of others like Delmore Schwartz and Hart Crane. He was also a mentor to James Wright and Richard Hugo, who had their own turn dancing with the devil (see esp. Hugo's late "letters" to friends).

But here's a Sexton piece:

Her Kind

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

and another by John Berryman:


The high ones die, die. They die. You look up and who's there?
Easy, easy, Mr Bones. I is on your side.
I smell your grief.
I sent my grief away. I cannot care
forever. With them all align & again I died and cried, and I have to live.
Now there you exaggerate, Sah. We hafta die. That is our 'pointed task. Love & die.
Yes; that makes sense.
But what makes sense between, then? What if I
roiling & babbling & braining, brood on why and
just sat on the fence?
I doubts you did or do. De choice is lost.
"It's fool's gold. But I go in for that. The boy & the bear
looked at each other. Man all is tossed
& lost with groin-wounds by the grand bulls, cat.
William Faulkner's where?
(Frost being still around.)

Here's a slapdash list of some poets/poems about dealing with dark times:

Hopkins (No Worst There Is None; I Wake & Feel the Fell of Dark Not Day; Thou Art Indeed Just, O Lord);
WB Yeats (A Coat; Under Ben Bulben; Crazy Jane poems)
Pablo Neruda (Sometimes I Get Tired of Being a ManWalking Around);
Stanley Kunitz (The Changes; > Portrait; King Salmon; Father & Son);
Robert Frost (Acquainted with the > Night; The Most of It);
Adrienne Rich (Diving into the Wreck);
Richard Eberhardt (I Wish I Could Live at the Pitch that is Near Madness)
Robert Lowell ( Man and Wife ; Memories of West Street and Lepke; other poems in Life Studies).
Richard Hugo (Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg)

Mike Robinson

Roethke’s “The Geranium”

Here's a poem I promised Jonathon, one I've loved since first reading it in college even though I was still living at home and had never tried raising plants on my own:

The Geranium

When I put her out, once, by the garbage pail,
She looked so limp and bedraggled,
So foolish and trusting, like a sick poodle,
Or a wizened aster in late September,
I brought her back in again
For a new routine--
Vitamins, water, and whatever
Sustenance seemed sensible
At the time: she'd lived
So long on gin, bobbie pins, half-smoked cigars, dead beer,
Her shriveled petals falling
On the faded carpet, the stale
Steak grease stuck to her fuzzy leaves.
(Dried-out, she creaked like a tulip.)

The things she endured!--
The dumb dames shrieking half the night
Or the two of us, alone, both seedy,
Me breathing booze at her,
She leaning out of her pot toward the window.

Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me--
And that was scary--
So when that snuffling cretin of a maid
Threw her, pot and all, into the trash-can,
I said nothing.

But I sacked the presumptuous hag the next week,
I was that lonely.

Turns out I'm no better raising houseplants than Roethke was, particularly as a bachelor. I wonder if that says more about my personal relationships or my habits?

Perhaps it says more about how lonely I was as a bachelor.

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:


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."