Friday, February 25, 2005


Here in Montreal, English is of course a minority language, and English books - particularly poetry books -- are not all that readily available. If you don't have a library card with one of the two English language universities - Concordia or McGill (and if you're not student or faculty, that can run you about $140 a year, at McGill at least), you're left with a piss-poor public library system, and a very limited assortment of bookstores. So of course I find myself ordering a lot more books that when I lived in Toronto. Balance that against the high rents in Toronto, though, and I'm still ahead of the game, financially at least.

Among the many books I ordered from Amazon last December, the one that I've been reading a lot lately has been Theodore Roethke's Collected Poems. In fact I'm enjoying it so much that over the next few weeks I intend to read it from cover to cover - perhaps the first Collected I've read that way in a long time, since perhaps T.S. Eliot's, which I read shortly after graduating from university (over 20 years ago now…). Like Eliot's, Roethke's Collected is not particularly long, running some two hundred and sixty pages. It reads more like a selected. Minor poems, major linked works, but not a weak poem to be found, so far at least. (At this point, I've almost finished the second of seven collections in the book, The Lost Son and Other Poems, first published in 1948.)

What is remarkable about Roethke is that he constructs a far-reaching and resonant dialogue from a limited - obsessively limited -- set of themes and images, practically all pastoral. I find that kind of singularity amazing in an age when we are bombarded by so many different influences from so many different directions. In times of hyper-abundance, such narrowness of focus could almost be taken as dishonest. Where Roethke is honest, where he takes risks, is in his fidelity to his subject matter (I'm sure I'm being tautological here, but being true to ones subject matter always entails great risk), his sensitivity, his vulnerability, his expression of his very real throes of manic-depressive illness, his adventurous thrust into a world of wholly subjective language. The pastoral provided a refuge and mooring place -- the beauty and archetypal qualities of plants, winds, soil, greenhouses, as well as the structured rhythms and rhyme schemes which no matter how committed he was to free verse he always returned to. Whatever Silliman may say (I honestly don't know what Silliman thinks of Roethke), no Poetry of Quietude this. Too much edginess and anxiety here; too much flight into the unknown.

In his first book, Open House (1941) Roethke establishes himself on very solid if conservative ground. Aside from a few starchy, highly compressed constructions where he tries to sum up Reality in a few words (I'm thinking of "The Adament", in particular, and a couple of others), these short poems - and those that begin his second collection -- are among his most successful and highly anthologized. I'm thinking of the title poem, "Cuttings 1 & 2", "My Papa's Waltz", & others. (For a link containing a Roethke bio and many of these, click here.)

With the longer poems that end his second collection, he departs in a forcefully subjective direction - prime referents practically being the words themselves, the language becomes suffused with subjectivity. Roethke shatters Ruskin's strictures against pathetic fallacy with abounding personifications that are never pathetic in any pitiful sense of the word, but constitute ecstatic (if arguably disturbed) mystical communions with nature.

The salt laughed and the stones;
The ferns had their ways, and the pulsing lizards,
And the new plants, still awkward in their soil,
The lovely diminutives.
I could watch! I could watch!
I saw the separateness of all things!
My heart lifted up with the great grasses;
The weeds believed me, and the nesting birds.
There were clouds making a rout of shapes crossing a
windbreak of cedars,
And a bee shaking drops from a rain-soaked honeysuckle.
The worms were delighted as wrens.
And I walked, I walked through the light air;
I moved with the morning.

-- "A Field of Light"

Any poet worth his salt will write the odd schizophrenic poem or three - poems where the images and referents are so personal, the rhythms and devices so idiosyncratic that they defy interpretation by any but the author himself (and may even be somewhat indecipherable to him... or her).
At times Roethke risks skating on his own private pond.

My meat eats me. Who waits at the gate?
Mother of quartz, your words writhe into my ear.
Renew the light, lewd whisper…

The wasp waits.
The edge cannot eat the center.
The grape glistens.
The path tells little to the serpent.
The eye comes out of the wave.
The journey from the flesh is longest.
A rose sways least.
The redeemer comes a dark way.

-- "The Shape of Fire"

While on certain levels I feel that poems like "The Shape of the Fire" may not be as
"successful" as his earlier, more accessible work, the language is tremendously evocative, the rhythms lovely, and at least impressionistically it's pretty clear what Roethke's up to. Reading and rereading these poems even for this blog, I find clarity is gained… the prevailing mystery
remains an essential part of the pleasure.

One of the great pleasures of reading a collected is coming across fine "minor" poems that don't make it into the anthologies, and seeing how they relate in the development of the poets internal dialectic and contribute to his oeuvre as a whole. Here, though, are a couple of superb ones
from the earlier period, obviously linked in theme - not minor at all to my view -- but that
I haven't yet come across in any anthology.


Where were the greenhouses going,
Lunging into the lashing
Wind driving water
So far down the river
All the faucets stopped? -
So we drained the manure-machine
For the steam plant,
Pumping the stale mixture
Into the rusty boilers,
Watching the pressure gauge
Waver over to red,
As the seams hissed
And the live steam
Drove to the far
End of the rose-house,
Where the worst wind was,
Creaking the cypress window-frames,
Cracking so much thin glass
We stayed all night,
Stuffing the holes with burlap;
But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She hove into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm,
Plowing with her stiff prow,
Bucking into the wind-waves
That broke over the hole of her,
Flailing her sides with spray,
Flinging long strings of wet across the rooftop,
Finally veering, wearing themselves out, merely
Whistling thinly under the wind-vents;
She sailed until the calm morning,
Carrying her full cargo of roses.

The greenhouse becomes an ark, a womb, a wild horse to be broken in, transport of
romance & mystical symbol… all at once! Fantastic!


The wind billowing out of the seat of my britches,
My feet cracking 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!

Regardless of what goes on, it's still gotta be a wonderful world that contains such poems…

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