Miller’s “Story Problem”

I still have a few poems left to read in Everywhere Was Far but so far this is my favorite:

Story Problem

How far is across when you remember
three bridges out the front window all your life.
How strong is magic that turns checks
into cash when need is collateral.
How distant is away when the Olympics are morning,
the Cascades night. How new is bravery
after the woman learns to walk at fifty-seven,
praises the cool linoleum, then takes her pain
straight up, neat. What’s common about common
when a man dresses in a suit for six months
to leave for a lost job. What stage of grief runs
a flat line of miles across Montana.
What good is addition when an only child
sixty-one years later dies an only child.
What equals one story told six ways.

I just love the poem‘s title. Nearly everyone remembers how hard it was to solve “story problems.” Of course, it turned out that real life problems are a hell of a lot harder to solve than those story problems, like how to make a living, how to be brave in the face of immense pain, or how to deal with the loss of a job.

There’s also a natural progression from “interesting“ problems to “heart-wrenching” problems in the poem, from natural curiosity like “how far is across” to “What stage of grief runs/ A flat line of miles across Montana?” The same kind of natural progression that most of us face in our lives as we age.

Miller may not offer any answers, but simply recognizing the problems may make them more bearable.

9 thoughts on “Miller’s “Story Problem””

  1. I think you’re reaching to salvage something edifying out of this poem. I’m weary of poems that show me misery and pain and grief and then dust their hands and walk away. There are so many poems over the past century that celebrate loss that it’s become a kind of style. I guess we’re expected to honor the intellect of someone who can feel so deeply bad about his life.
    By the way, why do you call this blog in a dark time? I know it’s a Roethke poem, but why that label for your site? Do we really need more messages about how sad we are?

  2. Actually, I always thought that Roethke’s “In a Dark Time” was a very optimistic poem, one that celebrates man’s transcendence over the sorrow in his life.

    It seems to me it’s only when “the eye begins to see” that we can hope to find ourselves and to overcome the sadness that is an inevitable part of life if you’re sensitive to what is happening.

    I sometimes worry that my Polyanna attitude toward the beauty of nature might make me seem irrelevant to many people.

  3. Don’t know that I’ve ever read a poem that celebrates loss, but I haven’t read all there is to read. What I hear is a poet telling stories that he is compelled to tell, stories that the poet can’t walk away from no matter how hard he might try, stories that are searching for witnessses. We all see things from a different angle. What may sound like a celebration of loss to one person may well sound like a prayer to another person. A dialogue of differences is crucial. We are learning from each other. Veterans of sorrow like Roethke are also veterans of joy.

  4. In a dark time is a beautifully written poem about a man losing his mind. A mind that enters itself has crossed a dangerous line. In Amanda’s words, I’d say this was a story Roethke was compelled to tell, and not done to feign sensitivity. Still, it’s a very dark piece.
    You’ve posted many, many beautiful poems on this site, Loren, and I return to it often. It’s just always puzzled me that you chose so gloomy an emblem to hang over your door.

  5. I guess it’s a matter of interpretation, Tom. I see “In a Dark Time” as a positive experience, what’s commonly referred to as The Dark NIght of the Soul that always precedes enlightenment, which is what is implied at the end of the poem.

    I originally thought of calling this site Transcendence because I’ve always thought that the greatest thing a person can do is transcend his personal weaknesses, his frailties.

    I considered my combat experiences in Vietnmam a kind of Crucible, and the month I spend talking to myself through the night afterwards a form of the dark night of the soul. Perhaps it would have been easier to try to go on with my life as I’d planned it before the war, but I couldn’t do that and had to try to put my life on a different track, to become a better person than I was. I suppose some of my Christian would call it being reborn, but I consider it a form of tempering that helps to make you stronger than you were before.

    Hopefully I’ve become a stronger and better person because of that experience, but it’s really impossible to know.

  6. For what it’s worth, I was sort of attracted by Loren’s title. Perhaps it is the surprise behind the title that makes it work.

    On the topic of transcending, I enjoy Martin Levine’s, “Transcending”. I found an online version of it here.

    I am in no way linked with the website nor do I have any other commercial interest there. It’s just one of the links google returned to me when I searched for it.

  7. Very interesting discussion going on here. I think it’s a great thing to debate about, the meaning of a poem. I’ve done a lot of reading about Theodore Roethke over the past year, and I know about his struggles with mental illness. I think on balance Roethke overcame his tribulations and remained a fine teacher and poet, although at times he was certainly terrified. I’ve always thought of “In A Dark Time” as a positive and triumphant expression of the kind of holiness Roethke was striving for. That is, ultimately, the poem is positive, but not happy by any means. I think writing about loss and trauma are important, not only for the writers but also for the readers, for we, as readers, bear witness to the suffering. Of course, anyone is free to disagree or to choose not to read this kind of poetry. I’m just saying that I enjoy it because it essentially makes me feel what it means to be human.

  8. Nice to meet you! I’ve started my blog about Japanese culture arts. I appriciate if you link to my site since I would like many people to know Japanese culture. Thank you!

  9. Loren, thank you for visiting my site. I hope to be talking a lot about the seminar as I continue to plan and then teach it. I hope you’ll stop back by. I highly recommend THE GLASS HOUSE: THE LIFE OF THEODORE ROETHKE. It’s a wonderful biography of Roethke by his friend and colleague Allan Seager. Seager died shortly after finishing the biography and knew he was dying. I think this knowledge elevated the writing, made it more dire, more passionate. We’re often asked what we’d write if we knew that piece of writing would be our last. Seager knew GLASS HOUSE would be his last, and you can tell. Roethke’s own notebooks, STRAW FOR THE FIRE is also an excellent source. I’ve read both with great interest, as well as a remarkable book by Ann T. Foster called Theodore Roethke’s Meditative Sequences: Contemplation and the Creative Process. Foster’s book is fantastic. Unfortunately, the book is quite expensive, but I thought it was worth it. It is one of the best books of literary criticism I have ever read.

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