"Emily Dickinson got it right."
"Yes, I agree about that. I think she's a clear influence on Roethke also in the way she structured a poem."
Hirsch writes in his introduction that Roethke "loved the catchy, strongly stressed rhythms of children's verse."
"You really hear those rhythms in the poems," Mr. Hirsch said. "You can hear it in his work."
"And in his own life," I said, "he was in many ways a big, chubby child."
"A big bear of a man," Mr. Hirsch added, "with a lot of childish traits."
"Part of Roethke's great contribution to American poetry was his work as a teacher. He was revered by students at the University of Washington, where he taught from 1947 until he died."
"Yes, I agree. He was one of the true master teachers in American poetry. He was devoted to the craft of poetry and to the rhythm and the sound; to the words and to the passion that drives poetry. He instilled the love of poetry in everyone that he taught.
"And he taught craft. He was one of the masterful writing teachers. For Richard Hugo, Carolyn Kizer, James Wright, David Wagoner, Tess Gallagher -- he convinced them that they had it in them to make poems."
I mentioned that years ago I had sat in on some of Richard Hugo's undergraduate poetry-writing classes at the University of Montana. "I was amazed," I said, "at how kind Hugo was to his students. In the worst of poems, he found one line or one word to praise."
"I don't know that Roethke was as generous," said Mr. Hirsch. "I think he was much tougher. I don't think he was so insanely kind."
"Who was Roethke's most important teacher?"
"I don't think he had traditional teachers who were important to him. At the University of Michigan I don't think the teachers were very important to him. I think that he put himself to school on other poets. He apprenticed himself, in a way, to Louise Bogan. His relationship to her and to Auden and to others was important to him. There was an element in his friendships, especially with those who were older than he was, of the student to teacher or apprentice to the master."
We talked a bit about Roethke's social difficulties, among them his tendency, at social gatherings, to get drunk and provoke fights. These fights sometimes became physical. And he seemed most uncomfortable when he "went East" and roistered among the East Coast poetry and academic mandarinate.
Mr. Hirsch offered, "There's a kind of innocence about him and also a kind of outsiderness. I think that his anxiety was such that he often got drunk and acted badly at such parties. I think he never felt comfortable in those circles."
"The East Coast folks," I said, "seemed never to accept and like Roethke in the way, as an instance, they did Robert Lowell."
"I think that's actually right. Except for Auden, who was a great fan of Roethke's. Auden was best man at Roethke's wedding, and he gave him his house in Austria for his honeymoon. And Louise Bogan also, Roethke had a deep relationship with. But mostly I think he felt entirely outside the poetry establishment."
Mr. Hirsch was offered several poets about whom to write for the American Poets Projects series. Why did he choose Roethke?
"I think he's a major romantic American poet who's been neglected. He somehow has fallen off the map. Yet he's of tremendous importance as a poet, also he's had tremendous influence on other poets.
"Poets love his work. Somehow he hasn't been picked up by critical theorists. His work is underappreciated, and it seemed of real importance to try and bring him back into the discussion about poetry."
I asked if the late James Merrill had left money in his estate to pay for the books published by the Library of America's American Poets Project.
"I don't think that's quite the right way to say it. I think that the Merrill Estate has given a tremendous gift to help support them. I don't think the Merrill Estate paid for everything about them. I think they'd need additional support. But I think it's kept afloat primarily from that."