Note: Each year RHINO has a four month “down” period (last year from January to April) during which we do not read submissions, focusing instead on getting the issue to press, as well as various administrative and business matters. In order to stay more closely connected to poetry during the “down time”, in 2011 we used part of each meeting to hone our skills as an editorial board, as well as to make ourselves more conscious of the assumptions and criteria we apply in assessing poems. One aspect of this was to compile a list of “most frequently made comments” at the editorial board table. More significantly, each editor was asked to choose a poet/poem from “Groundbreaking Books” listed on the American Academy of Poets’ website, and to present that poem for discussion as if it had been submitted. Editors were encouraged to choose work with which they were not familiar. This post is a retrospective by Helen Degan Cohen from her discussion of Theodore Roethke.
On Breaking Out of Boxes: Rediscovering a poet — Theodore Roethke
I had an interesting conversation with another poet recently––interesting, because it had to do with the current box we seem to be in, as we both agreed. While driving leisurely to a reading, we, rather spontaneously, arrived at the same conclusion: that we tend to “no longer trust” what we once trusted ––the gut, the expansiveness, the experiment, the emotion, the very length or density a poem wants to be. We’re careful. Often we don’t trust authors we once trusted, or ourselves, really.
Recently, Rhino editors began to do brief presentations at our bi-weekly meetings, each of us focusing on a poet from a prescribed list. I found myself choosing Roethke, a poet from one of my past lives, thinking that, since I was already so familiar with him, it wouldn’t be a challenge or take much time. I was wrong.
I chose Roethke because a poem once again popped into my head whose first stanza I still remembered from years back when Roethke had come like a storm and then passed us right by:
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain.
That poem lilts, though it’s quite worked. It is unspecific, and interpretable––by critics but also by people unfamiliar with poetry (as is evident even on line). Behind its craft and cleverness is longing. It is fun, poignant and lasting. I remembered it because it had been pleasurable to recite it in my mind. I enjoyed dancing the rhythm, accents of the line, I knew a woman, lovely in her bones.
I have also always remembered these two lines of Roethke’s from In a Dark Time, which, perhaps because I thought myself a little mad as well, I found comforting:
What’s madness but nobility of soul
at odds with circumstance?
They still make me smile. And so I chose to present I Knew a Woman and In a Dark Time, along with my notes — two of Roethke’s most famous poems. And in the process I remembered, and in part discovered, what it is that we may no longer do: not allowed, not cool.
Aside from the obvious unspoken taboos –– among them: we must not rhyme, we must not get too emotional, or serious or wordy or––I realized that we must also not use direct statement, we must not rhapsodize or grieve, or long for, or philosophize –– too much –– or indulge in too many musical rhythms, or in too much pleasure. All of which Roethke did, and was loved for doing, once.
Of course Roethke too was in a way stuck in his time and what was acceptable. But he experimented continually, learned from his predecessors, found his own style/s, and did something brand new more than twice. (Check out I AM, SAYS THE LAMB.) The latter is most difficult. Doing something new takes not only courage, but a great deal of trust in going your own way. It may also take a recognition, at times, of the boxes we’ve been in, are in, even as we think ourselves “now” and “cool”. (Which is the first sign of being––passe? As soon as you can say “new”, it’s old. Who was it who said There is no such thing as the avant garde?) This is all subconscious, of course. It’s impossible to see the nose on your face when you keep wanting to be all the other noses in your mirror. Which may all be clones, too.
Roethke grew up in a plant nursery, and he made use of his obsession with nature, and wanted to crawl into a slug and be the glorious, insufferable slug, down to the slug-mush––instead of talking about a slug. He was ripping out his being. He let himself sink into his excess, which is also not cool to some of us. And––as we sometimes hate to realize––might not be so easy.
But it’s his book, Words for the Wind, that first drew me in, years ago, along with Plath, who was influenced by Roethke, who was influenced by Stevens, who was influenced by Whitman –– so I hear.
These poems are blatantly adoring. (My lizard, my lively writher/May your limbs never wither… from “Wish for a Young Wife”). This from a man of height and heft. Who gave him the nerve to be this delicate? The freedom that poets are supposed to have so much of, takes a hell of a lot of permission.
“When you read him, you realize with a great surge of astonishment and joy that, truly, you are not yet dead”, said Harold Bloom of Roethke. But who dares to live? I mean, talk about trust.
Or, who can stay alive? “”Only a few years ago he could refer to himself sardonically as “the oldest younger poet in the U.S.A.” America wants to wither its artists with neglect or kill them with success.”"–– Stanley Kunitz.
Roethke allowed himself to do everything: form, rhyme, free verse, direct statement, imitation, humor, children’s poems, angst, longing, adoration, despair. He didn’t write about nature, he lived it:
I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it,–
The small water seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.
“In a dark time,” he said, “the eye begins to see.” Well, yes––if you trust the eye.
As always, when I become immersed in another poet, I learn about my own work. Which I did, in doing this private little Roethke retrospective––for which there’s no space here. Of course I’ve been influenced by dozens or hundreds of poets since Roethke, but sometimes we have to return, with all that’s happened to us since, and begin to suddenly see how we’ve been seeing things now. That is, who we are as poets, at this moment. And the variety of ways in which we get ourselves boxed in, and forget the sheer chutzpah we once had. Very creative of us.
Let me finish on an optimistic note. There are indeed poets who dare to trust, amongst us. And it’s delicious to be made to ponder or feel. For instance, I just heard Roger Reeves (at Rhino Reads) busting through, with lines like these:
(the ending to Parable of a Blade of Grass)
Watch them eat fire.
Watch the children grow
legs below the knees, watch
the old men kiss the old women
behind the house walls.
Love is when you can hear the flood coming.
I told Roger afterwords, “I’m so glad passion is back.” Perhaps it wasn’t really gone––we just had it well under control beneath layers of craft and wit and the thin air above disillusionment and pure fatigue––the recent death of the 20th Century. But where can you go but up––or out–– from there? You can’t go beneath what the box sits on, when you open the door. But there’s every other direction, and a past chock full of poets who went there––like Roethke––and can start some fire under you, and allow you to do whatever the hell you please.
~ Helen Degen Cohen