Stanley Kunitz on Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke author photo

The poet of my generation who meant most to me, in his person and in his art, was Theodore Roethke. Immediately after Frost and Eliot and Pound and Cummings and Hart Crane and Stevens and William Carlos Williams, it was difficult to be taken seriously as a new American poet; for the title to "the new poetry" was in the possession of a dynasty of extraordinary gifts and powers, not the least of which was a stubborn capacity for survival. When Roethke was a schoolboy in Michigan in the twenties, these poets had already "arrived." For a long time, in the general view, they remained the rebels and inventors.

Roethke took his own work seriously indeed. Lashed by his competitive and compulsive temper, he committed himself fully to the exhausting struggle for achievement and recognition—a desperately intimate struggle that left its mark on him. Only a few years before his death, he could refer to himself sardonically as "the oldest younger poet in the U.S.A."

Some seven decades have passed since he blew into my life like the "big wind" of one of his poems. In the mid-thirties, I was living in an old stone country house in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He came unannounced, downriver from Lafayette College, where he was instructor in English and—more satisfying to his pride—tennis coach. Only a few of his poems had yet appeared in print. My recollection is of a traditionally battered jalopy from which a perfectly tremendous raccoon coat emerged, with my first book of poems, Intellectual Things, tucked under its left paw. The introductory mumble that followed could be construed as a compliment. Then he stood, embarrassed and inarticulate, in my doorway, waiting to gauge the extent of my hospitality. The image that never left me was of a blond, smooth, shambling giant, irrevocably Teutonic, whose even-featured countenance seemed ready to be touched by time, waiting to be transfigured, with a few subtle lines, into a tragic mask. He had come to talk about poetry, and talk we did, over a jug, grandly and vehemently all through the night. There were occasions in the years that followed when I could swear that I hadn't been to bed since we first met.

Our evenings seemed to move inexorably toward a moment of trial for both of us when he would fumble for the crinkled manuscript in his pocket and present it for approval. During the reading of his poem he waited in an attitude of excruciating tension and suspicion. If the response failed to meet his expectation, he would lurch into a corner, ask for another drink, and put his head down, breathing heavily. Nevertheless, he was by no means impervious to criticism or to suggestions. When I proposed Open House as the title for his first book of poems (1941), he not only adopted it gratefully but proceeded to write the title-poem that still stands at the head of his collected verse:

My secrets cry aloud.
I have no need for tongue.
My heart keeps open house,
My doors are widely swung.
An epic of the eyes
My love, with no disguise.

On another country visit, in the following decade, he asked me long after midnight to read something choice to him. I picked up Sir John Davies' neglected Elizabethan masterpiece, "Orchestra," a poem that he had somehow never chanced on despite his omnivorous appetite for verse, and I can still recall the excitement with which he responded to the clear-voiced music.

From that encounter, combined with his deep attachment to the poetry of Yeats—it was beat, above all, that enchanted him—he composed the eloquent sequence, "Four for Sir John Davies," which was to set the cadence for a whole new cycle of later poems:

Is that dance slowing in the mind of man
That made him think the universe could hum?
The great wheel turns its axle when it can;
I need a place to sing, and dancing-room,
And I have made a promise to my ears
I'll sing and whistle romping with the bears.

A game that Ted and I invented was designed to test how much we really knew about the poetry of the past. We would try to stump each other by reading aloud the most obscure poem from another century that we could find. If the identity of the author escaped us, the alternative requirement was to guess the date. We became so adept at the game that we were scarcely ever more than ten years off. Indeed, style and prosody are such sensitive variables that every poet, without realizing it, stamps a dateline on his work.

Roethke was not easy on his friends, but neither was he easy on himself. In the proper season, when conversation slowed down, we would fight it out on the courts for what we liked to boast, with a bow to Joyce, was the lawn Tennyson championship of the poetic world. For all his six-foot-three, two-hundred-plus pound build and his lumbering gait, he was amazingly nimble on his feet and ruthless at the kill, with a smashing service and a thunderous forehand drive. The daemon in him played the game just as it wrote the poems. Whatever he did was an aspect of the same insatiable will to conquer self and art and others. He could not bear to lose. If you managed to beat him by cunning and luck, you could not expect to be congratulated; he was more likely to smash his racket across his knees. After the steady deterioration of his body had forced him to abandon the game—his knees in particular gave out—he retreated into croquet and badminton, which he played with the same rapture and schrecklichkeit.

As a young man he felt humiliated and disgraced by the periodic mental breakdowns that were to afflict him all his life. There were outbreaks and absences and silences that he had to cover up, partly because he realized what a threat they offered to his survival in the academic world. He was one of the supreme teachers of poetry, but not until he came—after Bennington—to the University of Washington in 1947 did he have any assurance of tenure.

By the time of his arrival in Seattle, Roethke had come to believe that the springs of his disorder, his manic-depressive cycles, were inseparable from the sources of his art, and he could brag of belonging to the brotherhood of mad poets that includes William Blake, John Clare, and Christopher Smart, with whom he identified himself as "lost." His affection for Dylan Thomas had much the same base; but on the other hand, some of his longer friendships, including those with Louise Bogan and W.H. Auden, signified his unswerving admiration for those who stood in his mind as representatives of a sacred discipline.

The book of Roethke's that I continue to think of as the great one is The Lost Son, published in 1948. Reviewing it for Poetry, I commented on one of his remarkable gifts, that of the compassionate flow of self into the things of his experience. His poems become what they love. No other modern poet seems so directly tuned to the natural universe; his disturbance was in being human. The life in his poems emerges out of stones and swamps, tries on leaves and wings, struggles toward the divine. "Brooding on God," he wrote near the end, "I may become a man." The soul trapped in his ursine frame gathered to itself a host of "lovely diminutives." This florist's son never really departed from the moist, fecund world of his father's Saginaw greenhouses, reputed to be the grandest in the state of Michigan.

In "Big Wind," one of his characteristically metamorphic poems, Roethke recalls, from his boyhood, the night of a raging storm, when he was one of the crew who fought desperately to save their ship of roses from breaking apart.

But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She hove into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm....
She sailed until the calm morning,
Carrying her full cargo of roses.

As for the flowers themselves, what absorbs his attention is not the intricate tracery of a leaf or the blazonry of the completed flower, but the stretching and reaching of a plant, its green force, its invincible Becoming.

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?

Roethke's greenhouse world, swarming with malevolent forces, is a testing ground for saints and heroes. It is a place of scums, mildews, and smuts; of slug-soft stems; of obscenely lolling forms; a place moist and rank ("what a congress of stinks!"), engulfing, horribly fecund. The delicate slips keep coaxing up water; the sprouts break out, slippery as fish. Suddenly we are under ground, under water, in a grave, in a womb, in the deep ponds of the unconscious; plunged like Caliban into our creature-self, enduring the foetal throes.

As Roethke, with an almost nightmarish compulsiveness, makes his descent into the mythic regions of Father Fear and Mother Mildew, a furious energy activates his language; his metaphors whirl alive, sucking epithets into their centers of disturbance from the periphery of the phrase; his rhythms wrench themselves free and become protean, incantatory; what will not submit itself to him he takes by storm, if he cannot take it by magic. The child encountered "under the concrete benches, hacking at black hairy roots,—those lewd monkey-tails hanging from drainholes," might serve as an image of the poet himself in the throes of his labor, contending with the wilderness alive inside him that he knows will never be wholly domesticated, never tamed.

In 1953 Roethke married one of his former Bennington students, Beatrice O'Connell, in celebration of whose beauty he produced a spate of love poems, including the wild and sportive one that begins, "I knew a woman, lovely in her bones." During the weekend visit after their wedding, when he was in a manic phase, he wrote for me in longhand an account of himself that I still cherish. One passage reads:

I have tried to transmute and purify my 'life,' the sense of being defiled by it, in both small and formal and somewhat blunt short poems and latterly, in longer poems which try in their rhythm to catch the very movement of the mind itself, to trace the spiritual history of a protagonist (not 'I,' personally), of all haunted and harried men; to make in this series (now probably finished) a true and not arbitrary order which will permit many ranges of feelings, including humor.

Roethke's humor was no gentle, prattling thing. After all, one does not go to the axe to learn about politeness. He found his own ribaldry side-splitting and was convinced that nobody since Edward Lear had composed such hilarious rhymes for children.

It was during the wedding visit that he proposed to demonstrate his comic genius by entertaining my three-year-old daughter with a recitation of his nonsense verse. His first selection was a quatrain entitled "The Cow." Dancing around her, thumping out the beat, illustrating the action with appropriate gestures, he roared the lines:

There Once was a Cow with a Double Udder.
When I think of it now, I just have to Shudder!
She was too much for One, you can bet your Life:
She had to be Milked by a Man and His Wife.

The result might have been anticipated. Gretchen burst into tears and tried to hide under the sofa—an episode that made its way, years later, into one of my poems, "Journal for My Daughter."

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.

He found it possible, increasingly, to incorporate a wild sort of laughter into his flights. "In spite of all the muck and welter, the dark, the dreck of these poems, I count myself among the happy poets," he would say, knowing that the laughter and the fierceness and the terror were indivisible. In "this matter of making noise that rhymes" —his phrase—he dared to seek a combination of vulgarity and nobility, and he put his stamp on the mixture.

In the spring of 1960, three years before his death, Roethke gave his last reading in New York at the YMHA Poetry Center, where I introduced him. He had a high fever, and backstage he was jittery, sweating copiously as he guzzled champagne—"bubbly," he called it. On stage, for the first portion of his program he clowned and hammed incorrigibly, weaving, gyrating, dancing, shrugging his shoulders, muttering to himself intermittently, and now and then making curiously flipper-like or foetal gestures with his hands. But gradually, as the evening wore on, he settled into a straight dramatic style that was enormously effective and moving. When he came to his new "mad" sequence, headed by the poem that begins, "In a dark time the eye begins to see," his voice rang out with such an overwhelming roll of noble anguish that many in the audience wept.

As we filed out of the hall, a friend remarked on Roethke's strange affinity to that other lost and violent spirit, Jackson Pollock.

"How true!" I thought. And I heard myself repeating a tender and rather enigmatic phrase that the painter Franz Kline had suggested for Pollock's epitaph: "He divined himself."

—Originally published in Crossroads, Spring 2002.

More Tributes