Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Roethke: On his <i>Collected Poems</i> |
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Two Essays on Theodore Roethke : (1) On his Collected Poems

When Theodore Roethke died five years ago his obituaries, very sympathetically written, tended to reveal by implication that the men who wrote them had doubts about the purity and weight of his achievement in poetry. Now that his collected poems have come out, the reviews, on this side of the water at least, strike the attentive reader as the same obituaries rewritten. Roethke was one of those men for whom poetic significance is claimed not only on the level of creativity but also on the level of being: if it is objected that the poems do not seem very individual, the objection can be headed off by saying that the man was a poet apart from his poems, embodying all the problems of writing poetry “in our time.” It is a shaky way to argue, and praise degenerates quickly to a kind of complicity when what is being praised is really only a man’s ability to hold up against the pressures of his career. Criticism is not about careers.

From the small amount of information which has been let out publicly, and the large amount which circulates privately, it seems probable that Roethke had a difficult life, the difficulties being mainly of a psychic kind that intellectuals find it easy to identify with and perhaps understand too quickly. Roethke earned his bread by teaching in colleges and was rarely without a job in one. It is true that combining the creative and the academic lives sets up pressures, but really these pressures have been exaggerated, to the point where one would think that teaching a course in freshman English was as perilous to the creative faculties as sucking up to titled nobodies, running errands for Roman governors, cutting purses, grinding lenses, or getting shot at. If Roethke was in mental trouble, this should be either brought out into the open and diagnosed as well as it can be or else abandoned as a point: it is impermissible to murmur vaguely about the problems of being a poet in our time. Being a poet has always been a problem. If the point is kept up, the uninformed, unprejudiced reader will begin to wonder if perhaps Roethke lacked steel. The widening scope and increasing hospitality of academic life in this century, particularly in the United States, has lured many people into creativity who really have small business with it, since they need too much recognition and too many meals. Plainly Roethke was several cuts above this, but the words now being written in his praise are doing much to reduce him to it.

This collection is an important document in showing that originality is not a requirement in good poetry — merely a description of it. All the longer poems in the volume and most of the short ones are ruined by Roethke’s inability to disguise his influences. In the few short poems where he succeeded in shutting them out, he achieved a firm, though blurred, originality of utterance: the real Roethke collection, when it appears, will be a ruthlessly chosen and quite slim volume some two hundred pages shorter than the one we now have, but it will stand a good chance of lasting, since its voice will be unique. In this respect, history is very kind: the poet may write only a few good poems in a thousand negligible ones, but those few poems, if they are picked out and properly stored, will be remembered as characteristic. The essential scholarly task with Roethke is to make this selection and defend it. It will need to be done by a first-rate man capable of seeing that the real Roethke wrote very seldom.

Of his first book, Open House (1941), a few poems which are not too much reminiscent of Frost will perhaps last. Poems like “Lull” (marked “November, 1939”) have little chance.

Intricate phobias grow
From each malignant wish
To spoil collective life

It is not assimilating tradition to so take over the rhythms of poetry recently written by another man, especially a man as famous as Auden. It is not even constructive plagiarism, just helpless mimicry. To a greater or lesser degree, from one model to the next, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Yeats and Eliot, Roethke displayed throughout his creative life a desperate unsureness of his own gift. In his second book, The Lost Son, published in 1948, the influence of Eliot, an influence which dogged him to the end, shows its first signs with savage clarity.

Where’s the eye?
The eye’s in the sty.
The ear’s not here
Beneath the hair.

There are no eyes here, in this valley of dying stars. In his five-part poem The Shape of the Fire he shows that he has been reading Four Quartets, giving the game away by his trick — again characteristic — of reproducing his subject poet’s most marked syntactical effects.

To see cyclamen veins become clearer in early sunlight,
And mist lifting out of the brown cat-tails;
To stare into the after-light, the glitter left on the lake’s surface,
When the sun has fallen behind a wooded island;
To follow the drops sliding from a lifted oar,
Held up, while the rower breathes, and the small boat drifts quietly shoreward;

The content of this passage shows the pinpoint specificity of the references to nature which are everywhere in Roethke’s poetry. But in nearly all cases it amounts to nature for the sake of nature: the general context meant to give all this detail spiritual force usually has an air of being thought up, and is too often just borrowed. In the volume Praise to the End!, which came out in 1951, a certain curly-haired Welsh voice rings loud and clear. It is easy to smile at this, but it should be remembered that a poet who can lapse into such mimicry is in the very worst kind of trouble.

Once I fished from the banks, leaf-light and happy:
On the rocks south of quiet, in the close regions of kissing,
I romped, lithe as a child, down the summery streets of my veins.

In the next volume, The Waking (1953), his drive towards introspective significance — and a drive towards is not necessarily the same thing as possessing — tempts him into borrowing those effects of Eliot’s which would be close to self-parody if it were not for the solidly intricate structuring of their context.

I have listened close
For the thin sound in the windy chimney,
The fall of the last ash
From the dying ember.

There it stands, like a stolen car hastily resprayed and dangerously retaining its original number-plates. His fascination with Yeats begins in this volume —

Though everything’s astonishment at last,

— and it, too, continues to the end. But whereas with Yeats his borrowings were mainly confined to syntactical sequences, with Eliot he took the disastrous step of appropriating major symbolism, symbolism which Eliot had himself appropriated from other centuries, other languages and other cultures. The results are distressingly weak, assertively unconvincing, and would serve just by themselves to demonstrate that a talent which has not learnt how to forget is bound to fragment.

I remember a stone breaking the edifying current,
Neither white nor red, in the dead middle way,
Where impulse no longer dictates, nor the darkening shadow,
A vulnerable place,
Surrounded by sand, broken shells, the wreckage of water.

Roethke’s good poems are mostly love poems, and of those, most are to be found in the two volumes of 1958 and 1964, Words for the Wind and The Far Field. Some of his children’s poems from I Am! Says the Lamb are also included, and there is a section of previously uncollected poems at the very end of the book including a healthy thunderbolt of loathing aimed at critics. Roethke achieved recognition late but when it came the critics treated him pretty well. Now that his troubled life is over, it is essential that critics who care for what is good in his work should condemn the rest before the whole lot disappears under an avalanche of kindly meant, but effectively cruel, interpretative scholarship.

(The Review, 1968)