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).

Roethke’s Delerium of Birds

I’m sometimes convinced that college is wasted on young people; they’re simply not ready to appreciate much of the literature they’re exposed to in college classes. Perhaps a better alternative would be to require adults to attend a year of classes after they’ve had kids and worked for 20 years or so. By then they might be ready to appreciate ideas they would have totally missed when younger.

I do remember reading “The Waking” while in college, probably because I was raised in the Pacific Northwest and have always been excited when the “sun was out.”


I strolled across
An open field;
The sun was out;
Heat was happy.

This way! This way!
The wren’s throat shimmered,
Either to other,
The blossoms sang.

The stones sang,
The little ones did,
And flowers jumped
Like small goats.

A ragged fringe
Of daisies waved;
I wasn’t alone
In a grove of apples.

Far in the wood
A nestling sighed;
The dew loosened
Its morning smells.

I came where the river
Ran over stones:
My ears knew
An early joy.

And all the waters
Of all the streams
Sang in my veins
That summer day.

I’ve always been in tune with nature as far back as I can remember, but I’m pretty sure I would have missed the shimmering of the wren’s throat, the sigh of the nestling, and the singing of the blossoms. Of course, as a sophisticated college student I would probably have been too embarrassed to admit that these kinds of things “sang in my veins” on a sunny summer day.

I would have totally missed the point of this poem, though.


Here in our aging district the wood pigeon lives with us,
His deep-throated cooing part of the early morning,
Far away, close-at-hand, his call floating over the on-coming traffic,
The lugubriously beautiful plaint uttered at regular intervals,
A protest from the past, a reminder.

They sit, three or four, high in the fir-trees back of the house,
Flapping away heavily when a car blasts too close,
And one drops down to the garden, the high rhododendron,
Only to fly over to his favorite perch, the cross-bar of a telephone pole;
Grave, hieratic, a piece of Assyrian sculpture,
A thing carved of stone or wood, with the dull iridescence of long-polished wood,
Looking at you without turning his small head,
With a round vireo’s eye, quiet and contained,
Part of the landscape.

And the Steller jay, raucous, sooty headed, lives with us,
Conducting his long wars with the neighborhood cats,
All during mating season,
Making a racket to wake the dead,
To distract attention from the short-tailed ridiculous young ones
Hiding deep in the blackberry bushes—
What a scuttling and rapping along the drainpipes,
A fury of jays, diving and squawking,
When our spayed female cat yawns and stretches out in the sunshine—
And the wrens scold, and the chickadees frisk and frolic,
Pitching lightly over the high hedgerows, dee-deeing,
And the ducks near Lake Washington waddle down the highway after a rain,
Stopping traffic, indignant as addled old ladies,
Pecking at crusts and peanuts, their green necks glittering;
And the hummingbird dips in and around the quince tree,
Veering close to my head,
Then whirring off sideways to the top of the hawthorn,
Its almost-invisible wings, buzzing, hitting the loose leaves intermittently—

A delirium of birds!
Peripheral dippers come to rest on the short grass,
Their heads jod-jodding like pigeons;
The gulls, the gulls far from their waves
Rising, wheeling away with harsh cries,
Coming down on a patch of lawn:

It is neither spring nor summer: it is Always,
With towhees, finches, chickadees, California quail, wood doves,
With wrens, sparrows, juncos, cedar waxwings, flickers,
With Baltimore orioles, Michigan bobolinks,
And those birds forever dead,
The passenger pigeon, the great auk, the Carolina paraquet,
All birds remembered, O never forgotten!
All in my yard, of a perpetual Sunday,
All morning! All morning!

Heck, I probably wouldn’t have been ready for this poem even if I’d gone back to college after 20 years of teaching, though perhaps it would have turned me on to birding many years before I actually started doing so.

It makes perfect sense to me, now, though. My yard isn’t large enough or remote enough to attract all the birds Roethke lists here, but I feel blessed when I’m walking in a place where this happens. I’m attracted to bird sanctuaries for precisely this reason. Nothing delights me quite as much as a “delerium of birds.” There are special moments in my life when I’ve been out walking for awhile surrounded by the chatter of birds underfoot and overhead and I lose myself entirely in the moment, when that moment feels like “Always,” and I feel like I’m in perfect harmony with nature — I’m one with Nature.

Another Look at Theodore Roethke

One of the writers Joan Halifax mentioned in Fruitful Darkness was Theodore Roethke, and since I’ve wanted to re-read his poetry for a while now, I decided this would be a good time to do so. I decided to buy the Kindle version of his poems which contains a number of poems not found in the various editions of his poetry that I already own.

I didn’t remember many of the early poems in the Kindle edition, but I was as impressed by this sequence as I was the first time I read it (so impressed that “Cuttings (later)” was one of the few poems I have ever memorized) .


Sticks-in-a-drowse droop over sugary loam,
Their intricate stem-fur dries;
But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
The small cells bulge;
One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Pokes through a musty sheath
Its pale tendrilous horn.

I’m sure when I first read these poems at 18 that I had never identified plant life with human life, much less with my own life, and the fact that I read these poems long before I ever saw time-lapse photography of plants emerging made them seem all the more remarkable. I’d also forgotten over time how simple and descriptive Roethke’s early poems were. They remind me in many ways of the haiku poetry that I’ve come to love so much. Yet, as simple as the poem is, it reminds us how tenuous, how precious, life really is.

Although “Cuttings” could easily refer just to plant life, it’s obvious from “Cuttings(later)

CUTTINGS (later)

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?

I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it,—
The small waters seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.

that Roethke identifies the struggle of the cuttings with man’s struggles, particularly with his own life. At a dark time in his life, Roethke sees the “resurrection of dry sticks” as a sign of possible transcendence, or, at the very least, the ability to go on when calamity befalls us. Cut off from their previous life, cuttings struggle to begin a new life, saint like in their efforts to reemerge. Can man do any less?

Even under the darkest of conditions, a condition that Roethke seemed all too familiar with, life refuses to cease, as shown in a latter poem:


Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!—
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.

This poem seems to foreshadow the even darker poems in part IV of “The Lost Sons and Other Poems,” particularly “The Lost Son.” Considering that the point of having a root cellar is to to store food for the winter and suppress growth, it’s not surprising that anything grown under those conditions would be distorted. What is most remarkable is that “nothing would give up life.”

“Long Live the Weeds”

About this time of year I always remember this poem by Theodore Roethke:


Long live the weeds that overwhelm
My narrow vegetable realm! –
The bitter rock, the barren soil
That force the son of man to toil;
All things unholy, marked by curse,
The ugly of the universe.
The rough, the wicked, and the wild
That keep the spirit undefiled.
With these I match my little wit
And earn the right to stand or sit,
Hope, look, create, or drink and die:
These shape the creature that is I.

I’ll have to admit, though, that at times I’ve wondered if Roethke wrote this poem in the middle of winter, when real weeds had long since gone dormant.

It’s hard to feel quite this upbeat about weeds the next morning when you wonder if you’re going to be able to get out of bed, much less attack the weeds for a second day in a row.