Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Roethke: On his <i>Selected Letters</i> |
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Two Essays on Theodore Roethke : (2) On his Selected Letters

Ralph J. Mills, Jr., has done a good, solid, scholarly job of selecting and editing Roethke’s letters. He has picked the ones that “illustrate particularly his career as a poet”: not a bad brief for an editor to give himself at this stage. When a biography appears we should get the rest of the picture, including a straight account of Roethke’s psychic upsets — an account which would be welcome, after all these years of innuendo, if it were not that having it available will almost certainly complete the work of elevating Roethke to emblematic status as a casualty of the age.

If this sounds rough, perhaps it is best to get the gloves off early. I don’t like much of Roethke’s poetry, and the little of it I do like I don’t like intensely. I like this book of letters scarcely at all. A biography that spills all the beans could well tip the balance towards active loathing. Very little of such a negative tropism would be solely Roethke’s fault — when we react against a reputation, it is rarely the fault of the reputed — but likewise very little of it would be unfounded. It would be a justifiable contempt directed against a reputation in which the man has got mixed up with the work. For at the centre of Roethke’s reputation is the idea that the man has an artistic status away from his poems; that the weaknesses of the poems are to be attributed to the psychic damage inflicted on him as a consequence of practising his art in a hostile society; that these weaknesses, having such symbolic value, are perhaps strengths. Even if Roethke’s poetry itself were very strong there would be good reasons for attacking such a line of thought, because really it is not a line of thought at all: it is a chain of error.

As it is, Roethke’s poetry is quite weak even at its best — though I do not mean to say that it didn’t cost him great effort, and perhaps his sanity, and perhaps even his life. But what you have here in this amalgam of Roethke the poet and Roethke the Sick Man is an art-surrogate: what is under consideration, indeed adulation, is a Career.

It is evident from these letters that Roethke himself was prone to think in careerist terms, but that much is an accident: it’s probable that Mailer and Lowell and other important Americans do too, and go much further in regarding themselves as children of their time, victims of a culture and that kind of thing. The case would not be altered if Roethke had had no such idea in his head. What matters is the critical view taken. And it should be obvious by now that the general critical view of Roethke has not a great deal to do with poetry, and everything to do with his efforts (heroic efforts, considering what he went through: but heroism is a term of accentuation, not necessarily of approval) to get established as a poet, to Make It.

Roethke proved, like the visitor to Brigadoon who wished the village into existence on a day it was not scheduled to appear, that if you want something deeply enough anything is possible. What he wanted to be was a great artist, and by the end of his career there were one or two really great artists (certainly Auden) willing to concede that Roethke was of their company. But just as often as they are right in such judgements, real artists are wrong. Like anybody else, they tend to admire sincerity, dedication, industry, openness, intellectual generosity, a sense of fun — and like anybody else they have trouble, once they know him, in getting the man who possesses these attributes separated from his work. Which is as far as I want to pontificate along this particular line, except to say that it seems probable that in Roethke’s case the general critical view has followed the lead of his fellow poets, who simply liked him, just as much as it has followed the lead of industrious scholarship, which finds his work such a luxuriant paradise of exfoliating symbols. In both cases what is now needed is some healthy scepticism, even at the cost of seeming harsh. The sceptical mind cannot long be totally impressed by opinions current within the freemasonry of poets: such opinions are often things of comfort. Still less can it be impressed by the academic discovery and canonization of a perfectly representative modernist: here a sharp nose ought to smell pastiche.

A straight read through Roethke’s Collected Poems should convince even the moderately informed reader that Roethke’s incipient individuality as a voice was successively broken down by a series of strong influences — from the close of the 1930s these were, roughly in order: Auden, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Yeats and Eliot again. Estimations of Roethke’s poetry which do not confront this problem can’t really be of much use, since the question of originality, if it arises at all, can never be peripheral: originality is more than a requirement in good poetry, it is a description of it. Most critics dealing with Roethke are ready to admit the question but seem to believe that his tendencies towards pastiche were momentary weaknesses, instantly corrected when a true subject came up. The more perceptive among them might go on to admit that even Roethke’s most admired poems, the ones felt to be uniquely his, are stained at the edges with the tinctures of other men’s gifts. Very few, however, would admit that Roethke is saturated with these tinctures — that a “major” Roethke poem like The Shape of the Fire, for example, is soaked right through with the cadences, and therefore with the sensibility, of Four Quartets. From Open House (1941) through to The Waking (1953) it is almost as though he responded to each new challenge as it came up — or rather that he shadow-boxed in the style of each new champion. In Open House it was Auden. In The Lost Son it was Eliot. In Praise to the End! it was Dylan Thomas. In The Waking it was Yeats (arriving late) and Eliot (who had never been away). In the last two volumes, Words for the Wind and The Far Field, though the influences of Yeats and Eliot never wholly died, he hit a nice line of regret and wrote his best love poems. But all in all it’s a sad story, and one that Mr. Mills (perhaps unintentionally) makes clearer by including a few unpublished poems along with the letters. One of these, “Suburban Lament,” enclosed with a letter to Stanley Kunitz in June 1940, tells you all you need to know about how hard Roethke was hit by Auden.

Even the simple and insentient are unhappy:
Horn-honkers find their neighbours unresponsive;
Mechanical sheep stop bleating at the curbstone:
Hands yank the shade before an unlighted window;
A child bursts into tears before the hard-kneed stranger,
The pure in heart cherish obscene ambition...
Not enough feet have passed in this country,
Stones are still stones, and the eye keeps nothing,
The usurious pay in full with the coin of the gentle,
Follies return on the heads of innocent children,
The evil and silly remain too long in tenure,
And the young, mimetic, fall into the old confusion.

And the not-so-young, too: when he wrote this Roethke was thirty-two years old, which is a bit late to get knocked sideways by another voice. A year later (the editor says “probably”) he enclosed another sub-Auden effort in a letter to Dorothy Gordon.

Though the geography of despair had no limits,
To each was allotted some corner of comfort
Where, secure as a seed, he could sit out confusion.
But this is another regime: the preposterous bailiff
Beats on the door with his impossible summons
And the mad mayor holds nightly sessions of error.

In 1939 he had written to Louise Bogan: “Oh, why am I not smart like Auden?” Too much of his first volume, Open House, revealed his success in getting smart exactly like Auden. In being able to add these unpublished poems to the Auden-influenced poems in Open House, what we have is not an improved case — the case must be made on the evidence of the published volume alone — but a broadened field of study in which to observe something strange and rather terrible going on: something more intimately bound in with Roethke’s neuroses, I suspect, than has yet been realized. Admiration, emulation and, always, aspiration, as the perpetual doppelgänger tries to catch up with the zeitgeist. A career conceived of as staying level with the leaders.

Evidently the Dylan Thomas influence was in the wind as early as 1947, although it shows to full effect only in the volume Praise to the End! which came out in 1951. Writing to John Sargent, his editor at Doubleday, Roethke made a few suggestions about how to flog a batch of poems to Harper’s Bazaar.

As you say, these people are very name-conscious. If Aswell [of Harper’s Bazaar. C.J.] got the idea that Auden, Bogan, Burke, Martha Graham, W. C. Williams, Shapiro, etc., think these are fresh and exciting, she would jump at the scheme, I think. Auden, for instance, liked this last one best; read it over four or five times, kept saying “This is extremely good,” etc. The last part, — the euphoric section, — made him think of Traherne, as I remember: no “influence” but the same kind of heightened tone, I think he meant. I mention this because Aswell is currently on a Dylan Thomas jag: sees that Welshman in everything. If she trots out his name, give her the admirable Bogan’s dictum. Said that eminent poet and critic: “You do what Thomas thinks he does.”

This letter is crucial in several ways. First of all it shows that Roethke was aware, and wary, that an accusation of Thomas-influence might be made. Second it shows that Roethke was beginning to develop defence mechanisms; in this case the common ancestor, the pre-modern poet who perhaps influenced both him and the man he could be accused of copying. A month later he was writing to John Crowe Ransom: “But I am nobody’s Dylan: I never went to school to him. If there’s an ancestor, it’s Traherne (the prose).”

By 1948 the Thomas-Traherne connection is firmly installed as a mental tic, and he writes to Babette Deutsch:

An eminent lady poet said, “You do what Thomas thinks he does.” The remark seems unnecessary: I do what I do; Thomas does what he does. My real ancestors, such as they are, are the bible, Mother Goose, and Traherne.

Unnecessary as it may have been to the field of critical judgement, Bogan’s remark was obviously vitally necessary to Roethke’s estimation of himself. In the letters at least there is no further sign of the common ancestor until 1959, when a letter from Mr. Mills proposing a book on Roethke incidentally triggers off the whole notion again. Mr. Mills regrettably does not include his own letter but says in a footnote that he had mentioned to Roethke that “certain parts of ‘Meditations of an Old Woman’ seemed to contain parodies of Eliot; however, I did not mean to be understood as thinking the individual poems or the group of them constituted mere parodies.” Mr. Mills’s footnote reads with the beautiful sincerity of a collector writing to van Meegeren and mentioning that certain sections of the Vermeer seem to be reacting strangely to X-rays, but let that pass. What counts is Roethke’s reply.

(I’m oversimplifying: what I want to say is that early, when it really matters, I read, and really read, Emerson (prose mostly), Thoreau, Whitman, Blake, and Wordsworth; Vaughan and real slugs of dramatic literature — Jacobeans, Congreve, & W.S., of course.) My point is this: I came to some of Eliot’s and Yeats’s ancestors long before I came to them; in fact, for a long time, I rejected both of them... . So what in the looser line may seem in the first old lady poem to be close to Eliot may actually be out of Whitman, who influenced Eliot plenty, technically (See S. Musgrove, T. S. Eliot and Walt Whitman, U. of New Zealand Press — again not the whole truth, but a sensible book.) — and Eliot, as far as I know, has never acknowledged this — oh no, he’s always chi-chi as hell: only Dante, the French, the Jacobeans, etc. My point: for all his great gifts, particularly of the ear, Eliot is not honest, in final terms, even about purely technical matters. It’s here I guess your point about the parody element comes in — though I hate to call such beautiful (to my mind) poems mere parodies.

To get this interchange between novice and guru down to ground level, all we have to do is look at “Meditations of an Old Woman” (Words for the Wind, 1958). Here are some sample fragments, easily flaked off:

All journeys, I think, are the same:

The movement is forward, after a few wavers...
As when silt drifts and sifts down through muddy pond-water
Settling in small beads around weeds and sunken branches,
And one crab, tentative, hunches himself before moving along the bottom,
Grotesque, awkward, his extended eyes looking at nothing in particular...
There are no pursuing forms, faces on walls:
Only the motes of dust in the immaculate hallways,
The darkness of falling hair, the warnings from lint and spiders,
The vines graying to a fine powder...

Roethke’s subject matter is nominally different from Eliot’s, but the forms are the same, with the result that he is using somebody else’s poetry to write with. It’s in this sense that Roethke is a representative modernist — he can write in all the modern styles that matter, at the price of writing very little that matters. To be a fan of Roethke’s it is necessary to have read nothing else. In the same letter to Mr. Mills Roethke goes on to say:

I can take this god damned high style of W.B.Y. or this Whitmanesque meditative thing of T.S.E. and use it for other ends, use it as well or better. Sure, a tough assignment. But while Yeats’ historical lyrics seem beyond me at the moment, I’m damned if I haven’t outdone him in the more personal or love lyric. Why Snodgrass is a damned earless ass when he sees Yeats in those love-poems... . Teckla Bianchini, one of W. H. Auden’s closest friends and a woman of unimpeachable verity, told me on the beach at Ischia that Wystan had said that at one point he was worried that I was getting too close to Yeats, but now he no longer did because I had outdone him, surpassed him, gone beyond him. Well, let’s say this is too much, in its way...

Somewhere between the “god damned high style” and “the Whitmanesque meditative thing” most of Roethke’s later poetry got lost.

Roethke’s difficult life was full of worries about his tenure at each and every one of his many universities, forcing him to seek and circulate testimonials to his teaching abilities: there are enough of these in the book to convince anyone that he must have been a remarkable teacher. Against this must be put his applications (which Mr. Mills unwisely includes) for Guggenheims, Fulbrights, and sojourns under the wing of the Corporation of Yaddo. They make destructive reading. Roethke waited a long time to be accepted as a poet, and when he had been could never accept that it had happened: he was always waiting for the final reassurance — a common trait in people who are uncertain of their work. No amount of Pulitzers, or even Nobels, can satisfy a need like that. In a way the critics who see him as a casualty of the age are right — it’s only the context that they’ve got wrong. He was a casualty of the American age of the Career in the Arts, an age which has even managed to industrialize the traditional rhetoric of the practising artist and so decorate in eternal terms what is really a vulgar struggle for preferment.

(Times Literary Supplement, 1970)


Put together, these two pieces look now like a single dance on a lonely grave. Certainly the vocabulary was too harsh: “condemn,” “contempt,” “loathing” are strong words springing from a weak conception of the critical task, which is not that of a vigilante — the Leavisite odium theologicum must have got into me even when I had publicly dedicated myself to keeping it out. But there was still good reason to question Roethke’s reputation: it had been brought into existence by his ambition, and criticism soon dies if the artistic will is taken for the deed, whereupon the art dies too. It was care for poetry, I like to think, that made me so careless about a poet’s feelings — and just because he was dead was of course no good reason for speaking as if he couldn’t hear. If I would be more tactful now, it might be because the passion is gone. There is also the possibility that although I wanted my own poetry to go a different way, it depended on a parodic element, so I didn’t want to allow an unconscious use of what I proposed to use consciously. Critics who write poetry themselves, on however diffident a scale, always shape their criticism to personal poetic ends as well as universal critical ones, though they do better with the second thing if they acknowledge the first. There is at least one glaring falsity of tone: “It will need to be done by a first-rate man” can only mean “I would do it myself but I haven’t got the time,” so it was not a judicious thing to say. But on the whole I would say all this the same way now. If poetry and the criticism of it had agreed standards there would be less bitchery. As things are and will probably always be, the whole field is as inherently contentious as ice-dancing: the judges can never be popular, especially when they invade the rink.

(The Metropolitan Critic, 1992)