Friday Pick: Theodore Roethke’s Dark Time

Theodore Roethke is alive and well.

Not in the literal sense of course, as the Pulitzer prize-winning poet died of a heart attack in 1963 after diving into a pool. But Roethke’s reputation has grown most steadily, if most quietly, of all the poets in his formidable generation, not unlike the subject of “Root Cellar,” one of his most famous poems:

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.

Since his death, Roethke has been honored with a posthumous National Book Award, a stamp, and the conversion of his childhood home in Saginaw, Michigan into a literary museum.

For readers interested in seeing and hearing more of Roethke’s work, In a Dark Time is a fantastic place to start.

Do they still make poetry videos like this? Rich shots of foliage and landscapes are coupled with footage of Roethke, who was also a famous teacher of poetry, reading some of his poems, and lecturing students.

One of the best moments from the film is Roethke reading his colossal poem “The Sloth.” For Roethke’s range is one of his greatest strengths. This poem, which was published in “Lighter Pieces and Poems for Children,” a section of Roethke’s collection Words for the Wind (1958), shows a lighter side of Roethke that is no less darkly insightful for its playful lope. It ends this way:

A most Ex-as-per-at-ing Lug.
But should you call his manner Smug,
He’ll sigh and give his Branch a Hug;

Then off again to Sleep he goes,
Still swaying gently by his Toes,
And you just
know he knows he knows.

Roethke was also the subject of work by other poets. He shared a famous friendship with Stanley Kunitz, who took over his teaching position at Bennington College when Roethke, suffering from a bout of manic depression, locked himself in his office and demanded that Kunitz be given his position. The fifth section of Kunitz’s poem “Journal for My Daughter” depicts a visit from Roethke:

There was a big blond uncle-bear
wounded, smoke-eyed, wild,
who shambled from the west
with his bags full of havoc.
He spoke the bears’ grunt-language,
waving his paws
and rocking on his legs.
Both of us were drunk,
slapping each other on the back,
sweaty with genius.
He spouted his nonsense-rhymes,
roaring like a behemoth.
You crawled under the sofa.

Roethke’s poetry contains that same pure fury that he seems to have embodied in person. His insistence on form, on regularity (which he explains in the above video), has allowed his best poems to weather the shifting winds of style. And yet, within that regularity, there is always a reaching out into the darkness, a profound yearning for the unattainable, be it true love, purity, or immortality. Ultimately, Roethke has achieved the latter through a precise, imaginitive and intellectual conception of his very humanity. This is the spirit that animates his poem “Last Words.”

Kiss me, kiss me quick, mistress of lost wisdom,
Come out of a cloud, angel with several faces,
Bring me my hat, my umbrella and rubbers,
Enshroud me with Light! O Whirling! O Terrible Love!

–Stephan Delbos