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?

3 thoughts on “Roethke’s “Open House””

  1. Hi,

    I came across your blog via a link from Household Opera, which I found as a recommendation on the Grey Notebook. I read JB’s Grey Notebook on a regular basis and enjoy the reading about the aspects of his life that he shares, and most of the blogs that he suggests checking out.

    I’m not familiar with Roethke but after reading the two poems that you posted, I think I’ll have a look-see for myself.

    Great blog – very personable and informative.


  2. Open House is one of the few life-altering poems that are woven into my consciousness. I first encountered this poem in adolescence. Two lines (I’m naked to the bone, With nakedness my shield”) taught me that openness, transparency and vulnerability were sufficient “armor” to protect my soul when standing alone against furious verbal assaults by dozens of strangers during public meetings to advance housing for homeless chronic alcoholics. Just a quick note, however, the final line is “To WITLESS agony.”

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