We Dance On: On Reading Roethke

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It’s hot outside. Now that the heavy machinery of late-spring squall lines and swirling, tornadic motion produced by cold fronts sliding down from the Rockies to the northwest of us and roaring over the sky above the plains of Oklahoma has given way to the massive bulk of Hurricane Bill coming up out of the gulf, lumbering his way up over Texas — and though the Cimarron River near where I live is, here in late June, still fat from the record-setting rainfall of this past May — the air is humming with the lethargy of the moment before creation, waiting. The air is saying: comes this way a big storm. The air is saying: comes this way the remnants of a hurricane from the sea to the south.

As the first explorative raindrops fall scattershot on my back porch, as the hurricane begins crashing against the coast of Texas, its strength building, the barometric pressure here in central Oklahoma climbing so high I can barely think, barely breathe — Theodore Roethke and all he’s meant to me comes back to mind.

The sky has been boiling for days without event. We’ve had no tornadoes for more than three weeks, which, in central Oklahoma in early summer, is a long time. As the first fat raindrops fall from the newly tropical sky, I read Roethke:
Snail, snail, glister me forward, / Bird, soft-sigh me home, / Worm, be with me. / This is my hard time.
At the time of Roethke’s death in 1963 from a heart attack in a swimming pool on Bainbridge Island, which lies directly across Puget Sound from Seattle, he was regarded as one the preeminent living American poets, rivaled only in his generation by Robert Lowell. If you take a look at his place on the shelf of any large university library, you’ll find a hefty swath of scholarship on him dating from the late-’50s well into the early-’70s. In the early-’80s, though, scholarly work on Roethke dried up. Though his poetry was much lauded during the final decade of his life — he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for The Waking, and received both the Bollingen and the National Book Award for 1959’s Words for the Wind — he regarded himself principally as a failure. In comparison to other of his contemporaries whose places in literary history have for the most part solidified, Elizabeth Bishop being but one example, his star has fallen. This despite winning another National Book Award posthumously for The Far Field, released two years after his death, despite nearly winning another for his Collected Poems the next year, and though his work was a tremendous influence on both Sylvia Plath and, as poet August Kleinzahler pointed out recently in the London Review of Books, John Berryman. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1976, at what was probably the peak of Roethke’s posthumous fame, the poet James Dickey referred to him as “the greatest American poet,” even going so far as to say Walt Whitman was “no competition” for him. Yet in the years since, Roethke’s work has rusted into oblivion, largely unread and unremarked-upon.

The reasons for this are twofold. The first and easiest to elucidate is the criticism he suffered most from in his own lifetime: that his lesser work was too derivative of other poets, namely W.B. Yeats. It’s a criticism that he to some degree openly courted. For Roethke, influence was something to be transcended by reveling in it. The poem of another could not be known, could not be truly inhabited, unless he had written it in his own hand. And, in the notebooks in the archives at the University of Washington where his papers are stored, one can find poem after poem by a multitude of writers that he felt compelled to write out, longhand. Like the novelist Jonathan Lethem, Roethke regarded influence not as an anxiety but an ecstasy. It is true that, in his lesser works, his poetry suffers from being too dependent on that of his predecessors, but what poet’s work, even a great poet’s, fails to show some influence of other poets at some time or another? On the other hand, in Roethke’s best work, using what is arguably the most rhythmic, musical poetic line of his generation, he reaches for a oneness with nature and an apocalypse of spirit that few American poets of any era have reached.

Which leads me to the next, more ethereal reason for Roethke’s decline in prominence. It’s one that I can’t emphasize enough: there has, for some time, been no place in the American literary mainstream for the religious, God-addled, apocalyptic consciousness of someone like Roethke.

It’s as if the entire critical apparatus used to deal with a writer whose work grapples explicitly, aggressively with the Eternal has disappeared. Aside from Annie Dillard, whose work (both creative and critical) certainly soars with a transcendentalist, eternity-haunted uplift, there have been few recent writers willing to wade out into the mouth of the river and seek the God-who-dwells-in-the-depths.

What’s a contemporary critic to do with a writer who pleads, Hopkins-like, near the end of his final book of poems:
Lord, hear me out, and hear me out this day: / From me to Thee’s a long and terrible way?
The chronology of what follows is confusing but unimportant. Follow if you can: So far, at age 21, I had had only one relationship that could really be called mutual, and which was abruptly ended when the sarcastic, funny girl from Texas I was dating suddenly saw me as the gaping pit of need that I was, and was willing to tell me so. I was a sinkhole. Immediately before her, and immediately after her, followed two relationships with women who seemed as damaged as I thought I was, and their rejections — in both cases exceedingly gentle, and all the more confusing as a result — left me, one cool, still night that year thinking seriously that my best plan of action might be to smuggle a cement block onto the Bainbridge Ferry under the cover of darkness and, my arms wrapped around it, leap off into the depths of Puget Sound. Fortunately, a friend found me that night — no fatal ferry ride would be forthcoming. I was a sad sack with an iron conviction that I was totally fucked. And then Roethke came into my hands the next December.

A library copy of the The Far Field lay open in my lap as I took a bus to Sea-Tac at sunrise. I was about to fly home for winter break. In the blue light of dawn, as the bus shook beneath me, for the first time I read: “Dreams drain the spirit if we dream too long,” and felt a shiver go through my whole being:
In a bleak time, when a week of rain is a year,
The slag-heaps fume at the edge of the raw cities:
The gulls wheel over their singular garbage;
The great trees no longer shimmer;
Not even the soot dances.

And the spirit fails to move forward,
But shrinks into a half-life, less than itself
and it was a revelation for me. For the first time in the entire two years I’d been living in Seattle, I felt like I could breathe. Suddenly each breath brought its proper draught of air into my lungs — and this, from a pair of stanzas about the spirit’s failure to move! I was raw, and could see those raw cities, could feel those gulls wheeling, screeching over the singular wreckage of my young and aching heart.

A tornado had reached down into the grinding tropical depression my life had become: I knew I’d found someone who could help me through my hard time.

I was exhilarated.

Here’s how I saw it:

He was born in Saginaw, Mich,, nowhere-place. I was born in Talihina, Okla., an even more nowhere-place. His father was proud, demanding, and Germanically rigid in his habits and beliefs; so was mine. My father was far removed, 2,000 miles away in Oklahoma, fierce in his religious beliefs, and displeased with the thoughtless — or so he thought — pattern of my life. On a misbegotten visit in the spring of my first year in Seattle, sitting in the sun outside a steel-and-grease hamburger joint near the Fremont Bridge that I’d thought might cheer us both up, through a voice choked by anger and sadness, my father let me know just how disappointed he was at what he viewed as my losing my faith — his faith. For weeks afterward, I walked the streets of Seattle in a haze, lost in the fog of my father’s wrath, and God’s distance, the both of which felt inextricably linked. Roethke had moved to Seattle from his part of the middle of the country, in Michigan. I had moved there from mine, in Oklahoma. Roethke’s father died when he was 15; he spent the last part of his life elegizing his longing for both his long-dead earthly father and for oneness with his supernatural one. With my own father far removed and a perpetual image of his saddened, outraged, grimacing mouth in my mind, I sought surrogate fathers elsewhere, everywhere I could. My undergraduate advisor became a father to me; my therapist, a mountainous man named Bil, became another.

These men were not always willing to play the role I’d given them, and who could blame them? They hadn’t signed up to play daddy for a gaping young man barely in his 20s, too often drunk and drowning under the weight of his own sadness, not for this youth made of need, so hungry for guidance, for a warm hand to settle on his shoulder and tell him he was acceptable. Remembering the version of myself who sat in those chairs in those offices across from those men, under the fading gray light of so many Seattle afternoons, it’s almost too embarrassing to contemplate.

Love me! I was saying. Tell me I am a man.

The sky here in Oklahoma, on this cloud-washed afternoon, could be a Seattle sky, if it weren’t for the stifling humidity beneath it, here on the ground. Up above, gray fades into gray, white to off-white, cirrus strands interrupted by cumulus clouds stretched out like clumps of torn, dirty cotton. The slow, convoluted motions of the front coming up from the gulf. These clouds bring no wind, none of the thunderous clatter of the fronts that rip down over the plains to the north — this storm is a sleepy monster, fascinated with its own languor. Here’s the real difference between tornadoes and hurricanes: the latter are infatuated with themselves, and take their sweet, destructive time, while the former reach down from the firmament with all the suddenness, anger, and fury of the Old Testament Yahweh, and may, if they feel like it — though they tear down all four walls of a house and rip apart every cowering, pleading-to-God inhabitant within — leave a glass of milk untouched, unshuddering, on a table with three legs.

There are two kinds of reading. The first involves sucking up a writer’s body of work vacuum-style, like a construction worker eats his lunch, quickly and efficiently. This style of reading is not without its merits, being that there is more out there to read than one could ever hope to finish, and to have a solid breadth of reading is essential for any writer. Yet the dark side of this kind of reading is that while one may scoop up the general concepts, subject matter, and style of any particular author, as one blazes through their collected poems, one runs the risk of missing the real depth of the author in question (if there is any). The second kind of reading is exactly the opposite of the first. It’s the kind of reading proceeds solely — and, typically, slowly — for nourishment’s sake, and it’s the kind of reading I gave to Roethke’s final book of poems, The Far Field. For months I went nowhere without my library copy of it. When I finally, reluctantly, had to turn the copy back in I bought my own. I read and reread the massive, expansive poems of the “North American Sequence,” and the apocalyptic, God-beyond-God obsessed “Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical,” sometimes lingering with those poems the way one lingers in bed on a Saturday morning, sometimes shaking in the dark, repeating:
The right thing happens to the happy man.
I hoped Roethke was right. But how to be happy? I wondered. Did the wrong thing, then, happen to the unhappy man? I was anything but happy. I felt crushed, spiritually homeless, geographically fenced off: a strand of barbed wire stretched between myself and the home I longed for.

My first effort at writing about Roethke was an abortive one. My undergraduate advisor, a literature professor who’d first taught Roethke’s work as a graduate student at the University of Washington in the mid-’70s, back when Roethke’s poetry was still required reading, wanted me to deeply engage with the poems themselves, word-by-word, image-by-image, line-by-line. What I wanted to write about was the part of my self that reading Roethke had brought screaming onto the center stage of my inner life. And that, I thought somewhat petulantly, wasn’t to be found in between images, or by marking the stresses in the long, rhythmic free verse lines of Roethke’s “North American Sequence.” It’s not that I didn’t care about the language — in some ways I cared about little else, or at least thought I did. But couldn’t the poetry speak for itself? What was the point of analysis, I wondered, when I was dreaming of cement blocks on ferry rides, lonely as a lone cottonwood on a rise in a wheat field, trembling before the flashing teeth of an F5 twister reaching down out of a viper-green sky? I thought any analysis of Roethke’s poetry, the sounds of which I could hear more clearly than anything else in the storm that was my life at the time, would be murder to dissect.

Roethke, fortunately, was not so put off by my eagerness, or by my need, or by misplaced desire for a new father. If anything, he and I were on the same wavelength — although his was the more expansive. Reading him, I found the world vaster than I had previously thought possible.

Sitting at the mouth of the Oyster River, which is located on Vancouver Island, in the coming of the first dark of evening, he returns in memory to his first home, in Michigan: “In this hour, / In the first heaven of knowing, / The flesh takes on the pure poise of the spirit,” he writes,
I shift on my rock, and I think:
Of the first trembling of a Michigan brook in April,
Over the lip of stone, the tiny rivulet;
And that wrist-thick cascade tumbling from a cleft rock
and thus, he embodies one river, a river near his home, while sitting beside another, in the Pacific Northwest, which was something I badly needed to do as I sat reading in the sand of a Puget Sound beach, wanting to go home again, to the river where I grew up in southeastern Oklahoma, but being unable to. Reading Roethke was a way for me to go home again.

Earlier I said it’s me taken me six years to write this essay. A long time for a mere 4,000 words to present themselves. I’ve given up time and time again, and it’s beyond me why or how I woke up a few days ago with my long-planned, longer-abandoned “Roethke essay” on my brain. For years I’ve wanted to write about Roethke; for years I’ve felt like I wasn’t ready yet.

So why didn’t I just do it?

There’s a curious thing that happens when you truly subsume a writer’s work, when his or her work becomes a necessary sacrament, a part of the spiritual fabric of your life. It’s strange. Of course, no one can write well about an author she hasn’t deeply read. On the other hand, the more time I spent with his work the less I could actually say. This is the central crux of trying to write creatively about any author who means much to you, whose work has become an integral piece of the architecture of your inner world, because the work of a writer truly absorbed becomes slippery in the mind, like God. The more time you spend with the writer, the more mysterious he or she becomes to you. You approach the work; at the same moment the work both approaches you and recedes into the distance. The more time I spent with Roethke’s poems the less I could say about them. As the work became less and less external to me, and more and more part of my inner self, there was no way I could bring to bear on it the detached eye my professor seemed to want. When something becomes one with the inner self it loses its ability to be explained — and this makes sense, because the self is the great occluding mystery of human existence. It’s a fundamentally religious attitude: the more we know, the better we know how little we can say.

All writing is ultimately writing about the self, and that’s the tough part: Roethke eludes me inasmuch as I elude myself. Long ago, he became another ineffable symbol in the inner chamber of my heart where the things I least comprehend — yet most want to — are kept, as inexpressible as my continued belief in God, as mysterious as my inability to let my obscure faith go. He, too, had trouble with God, was frightened by God and about God: “I’m aware that…to approach God without benefit of clergy is grievous lapse in taste, if not a mortal sin. But in crawling out of a swamp, or up what small rock-faces I try to essay, I don’t need a system on my back,” he wrote. He valued disorder, because disorder was the world in which he lived. Disorder, rather than order, was where he found beauty and was where beauty found him. It affected the form his poems took: “some of us out in the provinces operated under difficulties: we’ve had our disorganized lives and consequently our intractable material: we’ve had to use free verse, on occasion.” Yet what he wanted, really, was joy. He didn’t seek suffering, as many of the poets of his generation seemed to. Suffering was simply what he found, what he experienced in the world. Yet: “I think we could do with more style,” he wrote, thinking about the writing of poetry, “more assonance, more élan, more verve, more animal spirits, more fun. These are not solemn matters.” He understood that the most serious of matters — and for Roethke, poetry was the most serious, most all consuming of matters — are where comedy, where joy most richly resides. He was no Rainer Maria Rilke, no Robert Lowell, or, to use a more recent example, no Jonathan Franzen, drenched in self-seriousness. He was a great teacher of poetry, but he did not view himself as a distiller of poetic wisdom: “All the time you’re in here [in my class] something is supposed to be going on: you’re not just sitting there,” he wrote, “you’re not receptacles, little vessels into which I pour something: our insights are mutual.” He loved beginners, knowing they see things the more experienced — and therefore cynical, or self-satisfied — don’t, and that what the young see they often see more fiercely. Elsewhere, in what can only be presumed were notes for a first-day-of-class lecture, he wrote: “To find out something about your life: that will be the purpose…Faith. That’s it. This course is an act of faith. In what? In the imagination of us all, in a creative capacity — that most sacred thing — that lies dormant, never dead, in everyone.”Yet this was no self-esteem inducing nicety: “My amiability lasts only through the opening day,” he wrote. “From now on, it’s blood, sweat, and jeers.” [1]

Bill’s fury has gone: the clouds have lifted, and yesterday, the summer solstice left the sun hanging in the western sky until long after nine o’clock. Summer’s here, the season of hot wind blowing dirty trash through the streets of downtown Stillwater, a wild yet elegant dance that perhaps Roethke, with his slag-heaps fuming “at the edge of raw cities” could appreciate, trash waltzing with trash, abandoned water bottles with grease-stained, dried out McDonald’s hamburger sacks in the wind, dusty cigarette butts glancing off beer cans scudding down the sidewalk, under a 96-degree sun. For the first time in a week, I feel truly at peace. The twisted caps of empty ink pens are chasing chewed up drinking straws in roughly concentric circles along the alleyway: all is right with the world.

Ultimately, I realized I could find no father except my own. Something changed: the long depression gradually lifted. Part of this was because I fell in love with a woman who loved me despite my laughable melodrama, despite my real sense of worthlessness. Part of it was because I realized that I didn’t have to understand it all, or unpack it — and that was the most important part. I reconciled with my father, who found he could embrace who I was despite our fundamental disconnect on who God was; I was able to embrace who he was because, with the help of my therapist, I realized that my father was not God. Just because Roethke seemed to conflate the two in his poetry didn’t mean I had to in my life. I let my dad come down off the pedestal, and he was more than willing to return to the earth. We both felt pretty relieved by this.

Suddenly I was stronger than I thought. I could leave suffering behind, no longer in need of heavy weather, and step out into the sun.

All this has been a remembering, a remembering that’s been six years coming. I read Roethke during a rough time, in a dark time, during a disorder I couldn’t quite comprehend. I read Roethke when I doubted whether going on living was worthwhile. I read him when it seemed like my life could blink out, to no purpose. I read Roethke on the edge, and though he didn’t exactly help bring me back off it, he did comfort me there, in part by his example — despite the darkness of his life, his manic depression, and his alcoholism, he ultimately embraced a light he could not himself see. The last words of the last poem of his last book of published poetry: “We dance on.”

[1] All of the quotes in the above section I’ve gleaned from Straw for the Fire, a collection of excerpts from Roethke’s notebooks, which was edited by the poet David Wagoner, Roethke’s student and, later, colleague.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Nikolas Noonan.