Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Straw for the Fire: Theodore Roethke

The other day I was at the used book store, selling off some books I no longer needed. While they looked over my treasures, I browsed their poetry shelves. In the end, they offered me enough store credit for me to take home a treasure to add to my own poetry collection: a collection of late, posthumous, and excerpted writings by poet Theodore Roethke.

Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, 1943-63. When he died in 1963, Roethke had left behind almost 300 spiral notebooks full of aphorisms, poetry fragments, notes about teaching poetry, commentaries, entire poems either unfinished or early versions of published poems, and more. He wrote in these notebooks for twenty years, letting his mind rove freely; there are poems in many stages of completion, including many versions he worked on of poems now well-known, worked over till he finished them. Roethke was very much a re-writer, a reviser, a shaper. This is partly because he was primarily a formalist poet, working in forms both old and invented, and was very careful about his word choices, his craft. At heart, though, Roethke was a poet of inspiration, even of lyrical mysticism. His poems all mean something, The collection is edited by poet David Wagoner, who was first Roethke's student, later his colleague at the University of Washington.

This is a fantastic collection of material that I had not seen before. I have all of Roethke's books of poems, including the final Collected Poems. I have long known his poetry. I have heard it set to music, and brilliantly set, by one of my own professors in music composition, William Bolcom. (Seek out the song cycle "Open House" and you'll be impressed.) The collection shows a poet's mind at work. The fragments and aphorisms about poetry, and also about teaching literature, are worth the price of admission. The first half of the book, though, is poems, both complete and in fragment, many never seen before this publication. A short example, very much typical of Roethke's mature poetic voice, as follows:

She moved, gentle as a waking bird,
Deep from her sleep, dropping the light crumbs,
Almost silurian, into the lap of love. . .
She moved, so she moved, gentle as a waking bird,
The bird in the bush of her bones singing;
Woke, from a deep sleep, the moon on her toes.

I'm not much on metered rhymed poetry, nor on neo-formalism, which is more often reactionary than visionary—but Roethke's voice is unique, always more visionary than not. Roethke has a perfect, light touch for rhyme. It always makes sense, never clumsily chiming on the ear the way lesser formalists often do. It's not all about end-rhyme, for example.

The most interesting part of Straw for the Fire for me, however, is the second half of the book, the prose section. I always like to read poets writing about poetry, about how they work, about how poetry is a way of life. Roethke gives us many sublime insights, over a range of topics. Wagoner has arranged the book into topical sections, with time-ranges based on the notebooks they were excerpted from. This arrangement gives focus to otherwise random thoughts covering much time and many topics. Some of what Roethke writes is very close to my own thinking, and when we diverge he is still worth considering. Roethke is a poet who always needed to deal with transcendence, with things mysterious and beyond the ordinary. He was a constant, skeptical explorer. His internal poems, his psychological poems, are among his best.

Like many poets who are his disciples, he is considered at times to be a philosophical poet; unlike many who imitate him, the philosophical force of his poetry is real, and profound. Roethke can write in the abstract, about Big Ideas, but he compels your attention, your desire to follow in thought where he is leading. He does not dull or become intellectual; he remains sharp and visceral. This is a poet who, even when he writes of the life of the soul, does not bore.

Here's a bit of poem from the book, to bolster this point:

Outside time
Beyond the focus of this dark,
Give me one pulse of that heart,
One push from those lungs,
One touch of his ribs,
And I'd dive into the bright
Heart of the night, I'd take on
With the thin bones of my hands
Every weak weed of my life. Their petals fall
To the ground before his imagined shadow.
I am neither near nor far, nowhere in time,
O now nothing but hasps and needles,
With a young snake's tongue to rise an inch from his face:
Only that air he breathes,
With the flaming heart
Of a heart. . .

Here are a few excerpts that I bounce off, from the Prose half of the book. I will spend some time thinking about them, and they will draw out responses in both thought and poems. There are many more that I could also quote here, but a small sample will suffice for now.


A poet: someone who is never satisfied with saying one thing at a time.

The things that concern you most can't be put in prose. In prose the tendency is to avoid inner responsibility. Poetry is the discovery of the legend of one's youth.

Substituting words for thought.
The sneer is easy to master, and usually the mark of the adolescent.
Beware when you think you have found what you want.

It is hard to be both plain and direct and not appear a fool to contemporaries fed on allusions, sybilline coziness, hints and shadows.

It's the damned almost-language that's hardest to break away from: the skilled words of the literary poet.

A poem that is the shape of the psyche itself; in times of great stress, that's what I tried to write.

The poem that is merely painful revelations: my impulse is to tell you everything—which may destroy everything.

When you roar, make sure it's from a true disquietude of the heart, not a mere temporal pitch. . . In the end, if you aspire to the visionary's toughness, you not only have to chew your own marrow, but then must spit it in your neighbor's eye.

Live in a perpetual great astonishment.

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