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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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,
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,
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
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
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
There were many kinds of cool
Then came steam.


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.


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;
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.

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.


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, 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, 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