by Zach Savich | Contributing Writer
A Field Guide to the Poetry of Theodore Roethke
edited by William Barillas
Ohio University Press, 2021
Several years ago I read a dozen or so critical studies of the poet Theodore Roethke (1908-1963). His work had meant a lot to me in college—not as scholarship but as experience, foremost, and as a model for a protean poetics that, I thought, could help me write for the long haul. A decade or so later, I was going through a hard time, and I wanted to see if his work could, once again, be a guide.
So I read those who had read it closely. Many of them were writing in the 1960s and 1970s, and the times show. They worry over whether his work is Confessional. They advance psychosexual interpretations in which everything is either the phallus or castration. They play the sommelier’s game of identifying notes of Eliot, Whitman, Yeats. They are invested in Greatness, in asking, as Kenneth Koch parodied in “Fresh Air,” “Who are the great poets of our time, and what are their names?”
But the good works of criticism were as radiant as what I had first loved about the poems, reciting them to myself on long walks in Seattle. Jay Parini’s Theodore Roethke: An American Romantic (1980) helped me think about Roethke’s more experimental work in terms of American Romanticism. That changed how I thought about the work of subsequent writers of more exploratory poetry—e.g., Armantrout, Hejinian, Mackey—even those whose poetics, on the surface, might seem very different from Roethke’s. A Necessary Order (1991) by Don Bogen, whose poetry I had long admired, led me to see Roethke’s poetry in terms of compositional dynamics, not individual poems. That made sense to me, as lines from his poems had often occurred to me without my having deliberately memorized them—more as distinct lines than as pieces of poems. In a recent essay in the Hudson Review, Mark Jarman describes a similar experience. Lines from Roethke, he writes, “come to me almost unbidden. There is no other poet I think I can do that with.”
A Field Guide to the Poetry of Theodore Roethke, edited by William Barillas, is another volume for that radiant stack. It includes forty-four essays—mostly brief, most appearing for the first time—on individual poems. The poems are treated in order of publication, from those in Open House (1946) through those from The Far Field, which won a National Book Award in 1965. A narrative of Roethke’s career emerges more clearly than in many works that labor to take up what Barillas calls “one of the main critical debates over Roethke’s work: whether his late poetry continued to develop in quality and insight or weakened and became derivative.” Those “debates” extend from an anxious paradigm, one that measures a poet by whether his (usually his) oeuvre gains him admission to the great table of greatly great poets. It positions critics as maître d’s for the VIP seats.
The entries in those debates often have two other problems. First, they overstate chronology, seeing the sequence of publication as the sequence of development. That ignores the richer possibilities of simultaneity and interchange, in how poets actually write; a poet’s fourth book may have begun, for them, before their first, or it may answer it in ways that should change how we see the earlier book. Second, they ignore how varied Roethke’s work was; overall assessments often subsume points that don’t serve their sweep. The single essay about Roethke’s two books of children’s poetry in A Field Guide, by Joseph T. Thomas, Jr., takes on a common area of neglect. Thomas suggests that “Roethke’s most unassuming and tiny poems, those that he wrote for the ‘young and unspoiled,’ are at the heavy heart of his poetics.” He analyzes how one poem, about the cousin of a turtle named Myrtle, “plays with syntax and line break in disorienting ways,” both fulfilling and deviating from the expectations of a limerick. His method could guide formalist readings of the poet’s more stately work.
In other words, this new anthology’s many critical voices suit Roethke’s multi-faceted work. They range from a rhapsodic homage from William Heyen, an early and influential critic of Roethke, on “that which is of the transpiercing eternal, is instinctual & evanescent & dangerous, which detests the respectable & conservative, that which is fluid & infused & intuitional & as you know even seeks so-called vulgarity,” to Aaron M. Moe’s consideration of Roethke’s poems in terms of “zoopoetics.” Moe writes, “We already know that animals abound in the content of stories and poems. Zoopoetics foregrounds the animal presences in the gestures of a poem, of a making.” He discusses an aphorism by Roethke that begins “with the tantalizing suggestion of a simile” but that “never tells the reader what, exactly, is like the minnow.” Moe suggests that what is like the minnow is the aphorism itself. That offers a way out of interpretations, Freudian or otherwise, that read into Roethke, rather than reading him. I’ve felt the flaws of that, for example, in discussions of the final two stanzas of his “The Lost Son”:
Was it light?
Was it light within?
Was it light within light?
Stillness, becoming alive,
A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
My own initial reading of these lines (at nineteen, on a beach in Oregon, pacing in wind) thrilled at the numinous riddle of “it.” “It” referred, I thought, to the feeling one wants from reading a poem—of being tuned toward intimations that exceed topics. So I was disappointed to read critics suggest that “it” is his father, or an onanistic impulse, or whatever. Moe’s method doesn’t suggest that such moments are merely “about” language or open-ended deconstruction but that they enact types of presence, in connection with the animal world. That’s big. It extends readings that focus on presence in Roethke more generally (“Being, not doing, is my first joy,” he writes in one poem; “Loving, I use the air / Most lovingly: I breathe,” he says in another).
There are other revelations in the anthology. Edward Morin connects “Roethke’s version of panpsychism”—his belief that “every living thing has a soul”—to scientists and philosophers who offer “an alternative to empiricism’s mechanistic worldview.” That “contextualizes his thinking as an up-to-date postmodern poet,” a conclusion that pulls Roethke from narrow affiliation with one cohort of the Middle Generation of American Modernism; I’d rather put Roethke on a syllabus that includes Larry Eigner, Fanny Howe, Michael Palmer, and Gustaf Sobin, not just John Berryman and Robert Lowell. Bernard Quetchenbach’s ecocritical reading of Roethke, similarly, suggests that in Roethke’s work “the soul’s potential is reached not by overcoming the limitations of the physical world but by discovering the depths of its own entanglement; the self’s goal is to come into the presence of the multifarious beings and rhythms of its necessary context.” How refreshing, compared to readings that treat Roethke’s investigation of psychic “entanglement” as proof of a programmatic monomyth. Walter Kalaidjian’s consideration of the “critical silence surrounding Roethke and race” is also overdue.
I especially admire the pieces that emphasize the pleasures of reading Roethke. They could excite readers who are not already familiar with his work. Lyn Coffin’s discussion of “Weed Puller” sits alongside such a reader, beginning in delight:
I like it first as a wash of sounds. I like that it uses a whole bunch of negative words: “concrete,” “hacking,” “black hairy roots,” “lewd monkey-tails.” Clearly something is going on, but it is not ugliness for the sake of ugliness. The ugliness serves something that is not quite a “meaning.”
Coffin’s inspired reading stands out, along with pieces by Brooke Horvath (“Is it possible for a poem to release meaning as a hothouse orchid its scent—that is, hardly at all?”), Michael Hinds (“They are subversive poems that barely contain the revolutionary violence they discover”), and many others, including new pieces by Parini and Bogen. Other essays perform more dutiful close readings, sometimes unconvincingly. “The divergences from Yeats in rhyme and meter in ‘The Dance’ reveal that Roethke was skeptical of the racial bent to Yeats’s late politics,” one author writes, and I think—maybe. Or the poems might be different because they are different poems. Others do that formalist move of claiming that assonance, alliteration, and so on are mimetic of whatever effect supports the critic’s interpretation. That said, many of the close readings are significant. For example, Andrew David King’s discussion of two lines (“I cherish what I have / Had of the temporal”) could change how one thinks of “have had”: “This use of the present perfect tense causes the possession that seemed present to revert instantly to the past.”
It’s notable, however, that there are so few references to more contemporary writers and thinkers within the essays gathered here. Roethke and his biographer are the most steady sources, and despite a couple mentions of Barthes and Bachelard, and pieces such as those by Moe and Quetchenbach, many of the pieces focus on critics—and critical contexts—that would have been familiar to Roethke and his first reviewers. And despite how apparent the connections feel, to me, between Roethke’s most engaging work and some of my favorite contemporary poetry, there are few mentions of poets more recent than James Wright, Gary Snyder, and Richard Hugo. The poem-by-poem format may also prevent wider and wilder connections, though I hope the volume’s depth suggests that such work will be forthcoming. Where is the essay that considers Roethke’s radiant sing-song alongside the nursery rhyme-inflected poems of Lorine Niedecker, his contemporary of the Upper Midwest, perhaps then discussing related contemporary work (the poems of Adrienne Raphel come to mind)? Where’s the piece that considers his slapstick mysticism next to Jack Spicer’s, perhaps in connection with his admiration of the poetry of René Char and Henri Michaux? How about a piece on his lasting influence on poetry of the Pacific Northwest, especially in connection with the MFA program at the University of Washington?
A good book of scholarship suggests where scholarship could go next. And with Roethke, what comes next is often return. For me, as I’m guessing is true for many who read Roethke more than they read about him, what he returns me to is very personal: a time twenty years ago, when I was often illuminated by a late adolescent literary mania that literature sometimes couldn’t satisfy. But Roethke got it (“What book, O learned man, will set me right? / Once I read nothing through a fearful night, / For every meaning had grown meaningless”), and his poetry worked in those nights of “That appetite for life so ravenous / A man’s a beast prowling in his own house.” This is my critical experience: I could read his poems a few lines at a time, memorize, recite, walk, read some more, say them to trees—and then come upon a section of that poem, “The Pure Fury,” that ended up in a place that resembled where I was: “And the trees come closer with a denser shade.” And I’d stand closer to those trees, and feel “stillness, becoming alive, / Yet still.” It read me my life. A Field Guide should bring new readers closer to the liveliness of Roethke’s poems, which will become their own.
Zach Savich is the author of six books of poetry, including Daybed, and two books of prose, including Diving Makes the Water Deep. He teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Art and co-edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series.