Monday, May 19, 2008

Theodore Roethke 100th Birthday

My Papa’s Waltz

by Theodore Roethke

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
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.

This is one of the most anthologized of Roethke's poems. As an adult, Roethke mined his childhood memories for material. This one features Roethke as a child speaking the poem directly. His father actually died when Ted was a young (13 or 14 year old) teenager. This poem features a recognizable rhythm and rhyme which suits well the notion of waltzing which is a formal dance with clear expectations. The second stanza seems to me most closely associated with childlike thinking. I like the sense of abandon in 'We romped until the pans/Slid from the kitchen shelf,' and romping is something children do more than adults. The notion that 'mother's countenance/Could not unfrown itself' takes away the idea that mother could, if she wanted to, smile. A child would think this, not an adult because an adult knows smiles can be forced.

Another much-anthologized poem of Roethke's is 'The Waking.'

The Waking

by Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

I've never tried to write a sestina, but I've heard it's one of the more difficult forms to satisfy. Roethke makes it look easy, and not only in this poem. John Ashberry has a humorous/serious one that features Popeye, Olive Oyl, etc. 'The Waking' is one of the better sestinas we have in the English language. It seems a bit abstract to me though. Is sleep here a metaphor for death? Could be. In the last stanza, what is the shaking that keeps the speaker steady? How could any shaking keep anything steady? He hears his being dance from ear to ear? What does that mean? This poem seems to me to have a philosophical aspect to it, and I can say the same for Roethke's poem 'In a Dark Time.'

In a Dark Time

by Theodore Roethke

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.

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goesfar to find out what he is—
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

As the Good Book says, 'Blessed are those who have not seen but believe.' (John 20:29) Perhaps the speaker is secretly grateful for the darkness that trains his eye to see. But what is the darkness? It could be something within himself. It could be a portion of history. In much of his poetry, it's hard for me to see whether Roethke is entirely within his own consciousness or if he is going outside himself when he talks about nature etc. The last two lines of this poem smack of Transcendentalism; they remind me of Emerson's line 'We are part or parcel of God.'

The Poetry Foundation ( has a nice selection of Roethke poems online.

We'll be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Roethke's birth this Sunday, May 25th, 2008 in Saginaw (where Roethke was born and raised). Be sure to stop by the Court Street Bridge and the Andersen Enrichment Center early in the afternoon to see what's going on with that celebration.

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