Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems. Edited by Edward Hirsch; The Library of America, American Poets Project, 2005; 158 pages; $20.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: From the recollections of his youth in Michigan to the visionary longings of the poems written just before his death, Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) embarked on a quest to restore wholeness to a self that seemed irreparably broken. In the words of editor Edward Hirsch, "He courted the irrational and embraced what is most vulnerable in life." Hirsch's selection and perceptive introduction illuminate the daring and intensity of a poet who, in poems such as "My Papa's Waltz" and "The Lost Son," reached back into the abyss of childhood in an attempt to wrest self-knowledge out of memory. Roethke's true subject was the unfathomable depths of his own being, but his existential investigations were always shaped and disciplined by an exacting formal stringency, as equally at ease with Yeats's vigorous cadence ("Four for Sir John Davies") as with the spacious Whitmanian idiom on display in the virtuoso efforts of The Far Field. This gathering of Roethke's works also includes several of his poems for children, and a generous sampling from his notebook writings, offering a glimpse of the poet at work with the raw materials of language and ideas.
ABOUT THE EDITOR: Edward Hirsch is the author of several books of poetry and criticism, including Lay Back the Darkness and How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry. His many awards include a National Book Critics Circle award and a MacArthur fellowship. He is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE EDITOR:
How to pronounce Roethke. I am never sure. For years, I've said, "Ret-key," only to be corrected, politely, by a fellow-conversationalist's saying, "Ruth-key" or "Roth-key." I asked Mr. Hirsch, "How do you pronounce the name? "
"Some people say 'Ruth-key.' Maybe it's where you grew up, or how you hear it, I always called it 'Rud-key.' But I know some people call him 'Ruth-key.' I'd better check. Before I go on the road with my show I'd better check to see what the official designation is."
"What," I asked, "is the most anthologized of Roethke's poems?"
" 'My Papa's Waltz' is probably the most famous single poem of Roethke's."
My Papa's Waltz
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
"Among American poets," I said, "no one other than James Schuyler and Roethke are such ardent botanists. Do you agree?"
"I agree with that. Schuyler, though, is not the kind of botanist that Roethke is, but I love Schuyler's poetry, so maybe that's a secondary subject. Roethke grew up in his father's greenhouse; the metaphorical nature of plants was always secondary for him. The first thing was actually how they were. What they were like, what it felt like to touch them, and look at them, and be around them. This sense of the natural world is buried deep within him because it was his childhood world."
"And that world is always what he's trying to get back to."
"Absolutely. Other than 'My Papa's Waltz,' I would say that Roethke is most known for his greenhouse poems -- 'Cuttings,' 'Root Cellar,' 'Forcing House,' and various others."
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.
Mr. Hirsch continued, "I think that these 'greenhouse' poems show Roethke as having the most visceral knowledge of the plant world of any poet. There are other poet gardeners. Schuyler has it, Stanley Kunitz has it. But I think what's really special about Roethke was it was everywhere in his childhood. He really is the florist's son. Because of that, the greenhouse was his entire world. Too, the greenhouse was the source, preconsciously, of everything for him. So when he wrote as an adult about the greenhouse, not only did he know the greenhouse, inside out, but it also evoked the world of his childhood."
"But that childhood world -- the early death of his rather violent and certainly alcoholic father -- also buried Roethke the son and poet."
"Yes, that's true. And painful."
"On another subject, I must admit that I am driven mad when I read poems that get the flowers wrong -- an autumn chrysanthemum, for instance, growing next to a new early-summer-flowering sweet pea."
Mr. Hirsch did not disagree. "This is one of the legacies of Romanticism," he suggested, "that flowers and plants have a metaphorical value and seem to prettify something. John Clare was already complaining about this in the 19th Century. He wrote in his letters that when poets write about nightingales, they don't know how nightingales actually sing. Or look. Clare is presenting a corrective to romanticized versions of the natural world. So in Clare, when you get a badger, you get a real badger running how a badger really runs."
From Clare's "The Badger":
When badgers fight, then every one's a foe.
The dogs are clapt and urged to join the fray;
The badger turns and drives them all away.
Though scarcely half as big, demure and small,
He fights with dogs for hours and beats them all.
"Roethke," Mr. Hirsch said, "exists in this vein. He gets it right. Because he knows it so well."