This Old Poem #112:
Theodore Roethke’s Journey Into The Interior
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/17/06
Theodore Roethke is a poet who is often cited by other poets as being a major influence. In a sense he’s a nature poet, yet there are no great landscapes that leap out at a reader like in the best of Robinson Jeffers. He is lauded as a formalist but no rhythms nor images retain themselves in the memory like a Robert Frost poem.
Still, there is something appealing to most of his poetry. The problem is none of it retains itself. There’s a distinctly drowsy quality to his poetry- not because they are so boring in terms of construction, but because they are so bland in subject matter. Yet, unlike an Emily Dickinson, 1 never gets a sense that Roethke has transported you somewhere new, nor made you see things in ways unthought of before.
The obligatory online bio:
Theodore Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1908. As a child, he spent much time in the greenhouse owned by his father and uncle. His impressions of the natural world contained there would later profoundly influence the subjects and imagery of his verse. Roethke attended the University of Michigan and took a few classes at Harvard, but was unhappy in school. His first book, Open House (1941), took ten years to write and was critically acclaimed upon its publication. He went on to publish sparingly but his reputation grew with each new collection, including The Waking which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.
He admired the writing of such poets as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Blake, and Wordsworth, as well as Yeats and Dylan Thomas. Stylistically his work ranged from witty poems in strict meter and regular stanzas to free verse poems full of mystical and surrealistic imagery. At all times, however, the natural world in all its mystery, beauty, fierceness, and sensuality, is close by, and the poems are possessed of an intense lyricism. Roethke had close literary friendships with fellow poets W. H. Auden, Louise Bogan, Stanley Kunitz, and William Carlos Williams. He taught at various colleges and universities, including Lafayette, Pennsylvania State, and Bennington, and worked last at the University of Washington, where he was mentor to a generation of Northwest poets that included David Wagoner, Carolyn Kizer, and Richard Hugo. Theodore Roethke died in 1963.
Roethke is almost all description, not about events. Here is the start of his poem The Storm:
Against the stone breakwater,
Only an ominous lapping,
While the wind whines overhead,
Coming down from the mountain,
Whistling between the arbors, the winding terraces;
A thin whine of wires, a rattling and flapping of leaves,
And the small street-lamp swinging and slamming against the lamp pole.
Here is a snippet from later on:
Along the sea-wall, a steady sloshing of the swell,
The waves not yet high, but even,
Coming closer and closer upon each other;
A fine fume of rain driving in from the sea,
Riddling the sand, like a wide spray of buckshot,
The wind from the sea and the wind from the mountain contending,
Flicking the foam from the whitecaps straight upward into the darkness.
While the descriptions may be accurate, is there anything particularly engaging? Poetic? Anything that makes these simple descriptions more than just a painting from an amateur’s palette?
When he’s not overslogging with description he tends to fall into cliché, such as this opening stanza from a famous poem, In A Dark Time (eew, on just the title):
In a dark time, the
eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood--
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
Ok, you say, but surely he subverts this dreck in the rest of
the poem? Nope. The next 2 lines:
madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
To be fair the last stanza is the best in the poem, although it still starts off very trite. On to the main poem to be threshed. It’s fairly self-explanatory:
In the long journey out of the self,
There are many detours, washed-out interrupted raw places
Where the shale slides dangerously
And the back wheels hang almost over the edge
At the sudden veering, the moment of turning.
Better to hug close, wary of rubble and falling stones.
The arroyo cracking the road, the wind-bitten buttes, the canyons,
Creeks swollen in midsummer from the flash-flood roaring into the narrow valley.
Reeds beaten flat by wind and rain,
Grey from the long winter, burnt at the base in late summer.
-- Or the path narrowing,
Winding upward toward the stream with its sharp stones,
The upland of alder and birchtrees,
Through the swamp alive with quicksand,
The way blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree,
The thickets darkening,
The ravines ugly.
Ok, nothing new nor creative in the description of the interior landscape, & the execution, well- just blasé. Aside from a stale metaphor is TR trying to tell us he has run out of self?
Here’s the opening from a poem of mine called The Black Ruins, which
deals with a similar situation, but note the more up tempo pace of the wording,
the heightened music, & nightmarish realm:
how shall I render?
through the stygian morn I ventured here,
to unearth a some-different sun
that which filters this forgotten stage, this trace
shade cutting this cobble path, standing in wait
a thing to happen, unknown and sinking; in the thatch
this nature, time is the empty monster, darkened
its fidelity to its self- it whispers softly,
rebuke, the lost ultra-green of a yesterday
an iron industry would not lessen its indifferent grip,
without surcease, like the rust-bite of a city, dying
infect its wide-eyed spawn....
Compare its ending to Roethke:
the chamber of trees which dwarf, in noir, my demon
and in its fade the ebon wood resists the politesse,
now, extended- but then, really, is it up to them?-
who would whisper and tease of a different nature,
miracle of blindness, drop down my shadow-world;
swarm with love as dark as now….
Roethke’s is the slow leak of rectal gas, mine is an impending fear. The only interesting trope in the poem is the tension caused between the dissonance between the title & the 1st line. Let’s try to build off that:
In the long journey out of the self,
Where the shale slides dangerously,
Better to hug close, wary of rubble and falling stones,
from the flash-flood roaring into the narrow valley.
-- Or the path narrowing,
Winding upward toward the sharp stones,
alder and birchtrees, the swamp alive,
blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree.
Some of the failed melodrama is gone in this trim. What we get is a choros-antichoros of 2 possible venues- both, upon a closer read, seeming to be pointing in different directions- stanza 1 outward to go in, & stanza 2 inward to go in. Just by that we’ve folded the original’s tension back on itself. We also get rid of unneeded modifiers & are left with a simple predicament.
While I would add a bit to this poem, that is not the point of this essay. I am simply demonstrating that by taking what is available from Roethke’s original we can craft more. I did. What is most needed is a give & play with words. Too much modern poetry is set in its original intent. Damn that- go with where the poem takes you. You can always return to an idea & try again, but you may not be able to replivate a given moment’s insight. Trees sometimes block ideas.
Final Score: (1-100):
Roethke’s Journey Into The Interior:
TOP’s Journey Into The Interior: 72
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