A Last Look at Roethke’s Poetry

I’ve finally finished The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, at least for this go-around; I don’t think I’ve found any poems that I preferred to the ones, like “In a Dark Time,” I discovered many years ago, but I did discover some poems that had new meaning for me, probably not surprising since it’s been nearly 13 years since I last re-read his works and I’ve continued to change in that time. That’s why I think it’s rewarding to re-read authors, particularly poets, you’ve enjoyed in the past.

Of course, whenever you’re inspired to read something for a particular reason you are more apt to discover what you went looking for, particularly when it’s as ambiguous as poetry. Even when you’re reading something that you liked before, like “The Abyss,” you can find something that you missed on initial readings.


Is the stair here?
Where’s the stair?
‘The stair’s right there,
But it goes nowhere.’

And the abyss? the abyss?
‘The abyss you can’t miss:
It’s right where you are—
A step down the stair.’        

Each time ever
There always is
Noon of failure,
Part of a house.

In the middle of,
Around a cloud,
On top a thistle
The wind’s slowing.

The first section of the poem begins as many of Roethke’s poems do, with the narrator despairing, a condition most of us can identify with since despair always seems just a half-thought away.

Roethke, though, has a remarkable ability to bring that sense of despair to life, to make it seem more immediate to us, as he does in section 3 of the poem:


Too much reality can be a dazzle, a surfeit;
Too close immediacy an exhaustion:
As when the door swings open in a florist’s storeroom—
The rush of smells strikes like a cold fire, the throat freezes,
And we turn back to the heat of August,

So the abyss—
The slippery cold heights,
After the blinding misery,
The climbing, the endless turning,
Strike like a fire,
A terrible violence of creation,
A flash into the burning heart of the abominable;
Yet if we wait, unafraid, beyond the fearful instant,
The burning lake turns into a forest pool,
The fire subsides into rings of water,
A sunlit silence.

“Too much of a good thing” is a cliche,′ of course, but something surprising, like the opening of a door of a florist’s storeroom, reminds us it really is true. I’ve had exactly the same feeling when walking into a greenhouse on a very hot day. What’s normally a treat suddenly becomes oppressive.

The surprising part of the 3rd section is the transformation at the end where the “burning lake turns into a forest pool,” a transformation that only takes place if “we wait, unafraid, beyond the fearful instant,” a suggestion that the “blinding misery,” the abyss, is more a state of mind than a physical crisis.

The last section, as is often the case in Roethke’s poems, transcends the horror of the earlier sections:


I thirst by day.
I watch by night. I receive! I have been received!
I hear the flowers drinking in their light,
I have taken counsel of the crab and the sea-urchin,
I recall the falling of small waters,
The stream slipping beneath the mossy logs,
Winding down to the stretch of irregular sand,
The great logs piled like matchsticks.
I am most immoderately married:
The Lord God has taken my heaviness away;
I have merged, like the bird, with the bright air,
And my thought flies to the place by the bo-tree.

Being, not doing, is my first joy.

I wasn’t surprised by the resolution of the crisis, though I was surprised to find a mention of “The Lord God” in the poem. I was even more surprised by the reference to “the bo-tree” of Buddha even though the phrase “the bright air” and “my first joy” suggests enlightenment. I can’t remember any other reference to Buddha or Buddhism in Roethke’s poetry. Of course, if I hadn’t just read Halifax’s book I doubt I would have even noticed this reference.

Although I doubt Roethke had many Buddhist leanings, his portrayal of his intense suffering, his ultimate understanding of the reasons for that suffering , and his ability to transcend it almost seems Buddhist to me. At the very least, he does a better job of portraying the suffering the Buddha sought to overcome than almost any other poet I’ve read.

And although I don’t think the term “deep ecology” was even around while Roethke was writing, it would be hard to find any poet who advocates that idea any better than Roethke did throughout his poetry as evidenced by:


Many arrivals make us live: the tree becoming
Green, a bird tipping the topmost bough,
A seed pushing itself beyond itself,
The mole making its way through darkest ground,
The worm, intrepid scholar of the soil—
Do these analogies perplex? A sky with clouds,
The motion of the moon, and waves at play,
A sea-wind pausing in a summer tree.

What does what it should do needs nothing more.
The body moves, though slowly, toward desire.
We come to something without knowing why.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a poet that identifies with every aspect of nature as clearly as Roethke does. We saw that in early poems where he compares cuttings to saints, we see it in later poems like “The Geranium” and “The Meadow Mouse” just as we see it in the line “What does what is should do needs nothing more.” It seems significant that Roethke uses “What,” not “Who.”

I’m not sure how many Buddhist ideas Roethke held, but it’s pretty clear that he shared an awful lot of beliefs with the Transcendentalists (who, in turn, seemed to owe quite a bit to Eastern philosophies).

4 thoughts on “A Last Look at Roethke’s Poetry”

  1. I read Roethke in one of my mother’s books, long since left behind, when my parents divorced, and she chose to take not one single thing. I memorized many, having read so much, and this I must have read just once, when I was maybe fourteen or so. I remembered the lines about the abyss and these lines came to me, floating up in moments of darkness. “Is the stair there? Where is the stair?” “The stair is right there, but it goes nowhere.”” “And the abyss, the abyss?” “The abyss you can’t miss. It’s right where you are, a step down the stair.”…I looked up the lines by typing in a few and yours was the blog that arose from the pages referencing books by the author – so many years and I did not know his name. I don’t know why I did not look it up before, but no one I mentioned it to seemed to know the reference. I, too missed on my first reading so much,

    “I watch by night. I receive! I have been received!
    I hear the flowers drinking in their light,’ … ‘Being, not doing is my first joy’ … ‘I have merged, like the bird, with the bright air,
    And my thought flies to the place by the bo-tree’.

    These references and more. Thank you for bringing them back to me, when they are no longer lost on me.

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