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Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems

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."

Root Cellar

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."

"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."

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