What a great way to wing in the New Year! Whip-will of a fish strake strike! Hop skip over simple stones!
With a return to Roethke!
Last February I wrote quite an extensive appreciation of his first two books (sure, close to 60 years after they were published, but still freshly printed to my mind!), and resolved there to read the whole collected over the next few weeks, but eminently distractible as I am, left off that book and delved into other things, and didn’t pick it up again until today.
These are delving times. (Delphic too.)
I think though, the Collected is best to read this way – reading one or three of the books therein every year or so. (Perhaps this is true of all Collected)
Who knows. This evening, though, I read through all the poems of his third book in one sitting, and my mind was left a-wheelin’.
I’ve read (somewhere, somewhere) this stuff is difficult, impenetrable. I think it may be for those who are bent on nut-cracking – whose brains are critically-trained nut-crackers, who need to break through the shell of the poems to extract some Hidden Meaning. Whose minds are primed for a Literature Essay. Essayists be damned.
Here the thing is surface. No great need to penetrate, simply luxuriate in the music and images and dream- like turns of thought. Unlike the first poems, which are portraits and landscapes drawn by a master with a definite subject- thing-the-poem-is-about, these are abstract expressionism; splashed on paint; solid turned to liquid turned to air. All lively; at times childlike, nursery rhyme-like; at times, I swear, ecstatic as anything written.
A favourite passage (of many) -- from the poem Unfold! Unfold!:
By snails, by leaps of frog, I came here, spirit.
Tell me, body without skin, does a fish sweat?
I can’t crawl back through these veins,
I ache for another choice.
The cliffs! The cliffs! They fling me back.
Eternity howls in the last crags,
The field is no longer simple:
It’s a soul’s crossing time.
The dead speak noise.
Fantastic! (What I like, too, is the risk-taking. "Does a fish sweat?") Of course, themes reveal themselves, and at times abstract summations on images that drift like leaves, blow like a gale: theme statements that express the depths the man rides on, that, unlike most such summations in poems, do not distract or deflect, but enhance the reading experience – I think because they are so freshly phrased themselves:
The rings have gone with the pond.
The river’s alone with its water.
Sing, sing you symbols!
Begin with the rock;
End with water.
But for those who need to “interpret”, to paraphrase in prose what is fully alive in the poetry, I’ll leave Roethke with the last word:
Reason? That dreary shed, that hutch for grubby schoolboys!