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:


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 witless 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:


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?

Bush’s Energy Bill

Altlhough holiday plans have cut back on my blogging here, I didn’t renege on my promise to provide Open Source Politics with my weekly article.

My alter ego takes a close look at how the Bush administration promises to look after the environment in their proposed energy bill.

Outside a Small Circle of Friends

As you could probably tell from yesterday’s post, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by what’s happening in our country. Luckily, though, thanks to the wonderful world of the internet I don’t have to spend all my time reading the American press.

I’m taking my time and spending it outside America, quite a bit of it in Canada. Awhile back I linked to Motime Like the Present,and while exploring his site I found a delightful essay entitled, “Enlightened Romantics: The Origins of Liberal-Democratic Faith in America.”. While it feels a little strange having to depend on a Canadian living in Verdun (a working-class suburb of Montreal, Quebec) to show us the wisdom of our own traditons, I find it hard to fault David Fiore’s conclusion that, “Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker (and other Transcendental theorists) made an enduring contribution to American political culture by enthroning dissent as the most important religious duty of the individual.” Too bad Americans like Ashcroft and his minions think it’s their religious duty to stamp out political dissent.

I’ve been spending even more time at Bookninja, a Canadian literary site apparently produced and frequented by a number of young Canadian poets and writers. I got there through my referrer logs, which led me to a Quicktopic page where they referred to one my past entries on T.S. Eliot. Being the big mouth that I am, I couldn’t allow some incorrect speculation about the source of my opinion stand. One thing led to another, and, in short, I wondered out loud how I might participate in the discussion. One of the participants emailed me directions and even volunteered the name of a Canadian poet he was particularly fond of in an exchange of emails.

Coincidentally enough, part of my early fascination with the site was because they were effectively using Steve Yost’s Quicktopics. I found Steve quite awhile through my referrer log, and thought even then that if I started getting enough comments on various entries that I would love to use his site. I especially appreciated the ability to post a comment and then go back and correct obvious errors after you’ve posted them.

I’ve also been spending time in England at Stephen Moran’sZozimus where I’m particularly fond of “Johnny they hardly knew ya.” Turns out Stephen is also responsible for Sloe Wine and the Willesden Herald, two other sites linked to me earlier. Zozimus is definitely my favorite of the three, though, since far too often I feel like an outsider who’s missed out on an insider joke at The Willesden Herald.

That’s not to say that I’ve entirely abandoned America. After all Leslie still nags when I haven’t cooked dinner on my night to cook, and Skye comes and lies his poor sad head on my lap while I’m sitting at the computer if I haven’t taken him out for our daily walk and allowed him to drag me around our five miles of park.

I’ve also been reading over at m759’s Xanga Site a retired software worker who I also found by following my referrer logs. By managing to combine interests in literature and mathematics, he’s created what is often a fascinating combination of materials.

Been Doin’ a Litl Read’n

Been doin’ lots a noth’n here, though I has finished 132 pages of Roethke’s recently re-issued book On Poetry and Craft.

Mostly, tho, I’se been wandering and readn lil bits of everything on weblogs throughout the world. Maybe I’ll have more to say ’bout that later.

Also been playing around with Apple’s iSound. Since I’m a sav’n money,least ’til I start drawing Social Security in February, I’ve been recording my favorite albums onto my computer.

Thing I likes best is bein’ able to’s rank songs from one to five stars, tho’ I’m ginning to think they shoulda allowd haf stars when you get a lot of songs recorded.

Dave Roger’s earlier blog entry about students judgin’ other students by their playlists made me think I should share my limited play list, but only ‘cuz I’m sure that by the time I’m done recording my list’ll be bigger than his list, or yourn, for that matter.

The trouble with uploading all of these songs, though, it’s easy to gets bogged down in nostalgia.

Despite some Paul Revere and the Raiders albums, I’m ‘mazed by what great taste I gots in music. I’se just uploaded two of my Tracy Chapman albums, and I can’t seem to get past listening to ’em, and I still ain’t recorded my favorite album.

Listening to these here songs made me convinced I need to do everything I can to throw out those damned cheap-labor conservatives.

If it weren’t for the RIAA, I’d love to create a page devoted to our Republican friends, you know those right-on Christians, the ones who believe, like our Puritan ancestors, that God rewards his CHOSEN ONES with MOUNTAINS OF THINGS, never quite explaining why His Only Son ended up so POOR. In the background I’d play Tracy’s:


The life I’ve always wanted
Guess I’ll never have
I’ll be working for somebody else
Until I’m in my grave
I’ll be dreaming of a life of ease
And mountains
Oh mountains o’ things

Have a big expensive car
Drag my furs on the ground
Have a maid that I can tell
To bring me anything
Everyone will look at me with envy and with greed
And I’ll revel in their attention
And mountains
Oh mountains o’ things

Sweet lazy life
Champagne and caviar
Hope you’ll come and find me
Cause you know who we are
Those who deserve the best in life
Know what money’s worth
Those whose sole misfortune
Was having mountains o’ nothing at birth

Oh they tell me
Still time to save my soul
They tell me
Renounce all
Renounce all those material things you gained by
Exploiting other human beings

Consume more than you need
This is the dream
Make you pauper
Or make you queen
Won’t die lonely
Have it all prearranged
A grave that’s deep and wide enough
For me and all my mountains o’ things

Oh they tell me
Still time to save my soul
They tell me
Renounce all
Renounce all those material things you gained by
Exploiting other human beings

Mostly I feel lonely
Good good people are
Good people are only
My stepping stones
It’s gonna take all my mountains o’ things
To surround me
Keep all my enemies away
Keep my sadness and loneliness at bay

Life I’ve always wanted
Guess I’ll never have
I’ll be working for somebody else
Until I’m in my grave
I’ll be dreaming of a life of ease
And mountains
Oh mountains o’ things

I’ll be dreaming, dreaming…

Maybe I’d folllow this song up with:


Don’t you know
They’re talkin’ bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper
Don’t you know
They’re talkin’ about a revolution
It sounds like a whisper

While they’re standing in the welfare lines
Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation
Wasting time in the unemployment lines
Sitting around waiting for a promotion

Poor people gonna rise up
And get their share
Poor people gonna rise up
And take what’s theirs

Don’t you know
You better run, run, run…
Oh I said you better
Run, run, run…

Finally the tables are starting to turn
Talkin’ bout a revolution

Then, again, maybe it’d get me on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Sure as Hell wouldn’t wanna get myself on Ashcroft’s Most Wanted List. Bastard. Don’t put me on none of his lists.

Come to think of it, maybe I’m already on that there list. Remember attending an Earth First meeting in Portland, Oregon, and being told there was no sign-in sheet ‘coz they’s afraid FBI were attending that there meeting and would collect our names. Course, I thought they were PARANOID, and, besides, I didn’t like the number of times I heard ANARCHY that night. (Reminded me of a couple of classes I was teaching at the time.) Believe you me, anarchy ain’t necessarily a good thing. It ain’t only the poor people that are going to rise up, ‘specially if you’re trying to teach ’em a little poesy.

Did I tell ya I’d been wanderingm doin a little read’n? Read’n ain’t always a good thing. Ups and gives ya ideas. Me and Tom Joad gots ideas.

Don’t be telling no Ashcroft and his assholes I nos how to read. Don’t wanna be on nobody’s LIST.