"Is that dance slowing in the mind of men/That made him think the universe could hum?" It may have seemed dangerously possible in the early 1950 s when Theodore Roethke wrote these lines. Postwar American society was enjoying an unprecedented prosperity marked by material abundance and a profound desire to face away from the pain of conflict. This timorous climate produced a literature that was conservative, intellectual, "safe." A daring individualistic vision did not find survival an easy task. To revivify one's consciousness, to shift the focus away from the expansion of national powers toward the quiet growth of the human spirit -- these became the central concerns in Roethke's poetry; and in devoting such magnificent concentration to his private awakening, he helped to define some of the major themes in modern American literature.
To revitalize the burdened senses (physical, emotional, and spiritual). Roethke returned in his writing to the landscape and imagery of his youth in Michigan. The poet's most vivid memories focus on an area of virgin forest in the Saginaw Valley where his grandfather settled, and the huge green-houses in town that his father and uncle developed. Like Whitman before him, Roethke felt that to examine one's environment with the ultra-clear eyes of a child was to come to a new understanding of one's own self as well.
At the beginning of his fourth decade, Roethke published a startling collection of poems called The Lost Son.m With these poems, and the collections that followed, the poet came whisper-close to the quiet and tender corners of the worldd greenhouses and root cellars, marshy swamps and winter fields, moments of aloneness and love's first vulnerability. In studying his subjects closely (whether a majestic body like an icebound river or a lowly creature like a snail), Roethke felt himself break with a limiting self-involvement, and experience the "living mystery." As he observed in an essay."It is paradoxical that a very sharp sense of the identity of some other being -- and in some instances, even an inanimate thing -- brings a corresponding heightening and awareness of one's own self, and,m even more mysteriously in some instances, a feeling of oneness of the universe." And this state, the poet declares, involves a special sense of pleasure and wholeness that our "adult" occupations largely banish.In the poem "The Longing" hespeaks of "hands active, eyes cherished; /Happiness left to dogs and children -- /(Matters only a saint mentions!)"
All this, of course, is the territory of the visionary, the mystic. But what is special about Theodore Roethke is the means by which he shared these visual experiences. Moving away from the rhymed and metered lyrics of his earlier work , he began to create long poems comprising several somewhat-narrative stages. The poems create the living biography of a young boy first discovering his own heart. As the perspective of the protagonist matures, the sudden imagery intensifies. Before long, the reader too becomes a boy or girl again, remembering the time when adults were only shadowy figures on the horizon and the surrounding world possessed an intimacy and pure wonder that bordered on the holy. Rhythmically, the poems re-create the "spring and rush" of the child and shift gears as suddenly as a schoolboy at play. Roethke draws freely on diverse meters and styles, perhaps starting out with a hint of Elizabethan drama and then injecting the high-bounce lyrics of Mother Goose.
But the range and texture of his language is th emost surprising element. It takes turns at being childish and naive, dramatic and prophetic, dreamlike and dark -- all spirited with a syntax and a voice that is passionate and constantly surprising. The poems spiral around the subject and propel the character through the chaos toward new understanding. "Dissociation," the poet believed, "often precedes a new state of clarity." Leading us in his jubilant incantations , Roethke leaps and leaps again, from boyhood to manhood, from danger to decision. until we rest together exhilarated and breathless on some higher ground. Such musi in a skin! A bird sings in the bush of your bones. Tufty, the wate's loose. Bring me a finger. This dirt's lone some for grass. Are the rats dancing? The cats are. And you, cat after great milk and vasty fishes, A moon loosened from a stag's eye. Twiced me nicely, -- In the green of my sleep, In the green. (From "Give Way, Ye Gates")
Though Roethke was widely acclaimed for his style and daring innovations (The Waking won a Pulitzer Prize for him, and Words for the Windm was awarded both the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize), he met with a good deal of resistance as well He was a college professor for most of his working life, and academia is rarely hospitable to the uninhibited exuberance and mystical flights of the poet. But his work was as determined as it was sensitive, and he was convinced that the next wave of readers and writers would come to fully share his insights. He did not live long enough to see a new generation of Americans declare cultural war on the institutions that dehumanized society while defending material prosperity. In fact, poetry readers of today probably no longer find Roethke's poems shocking or revolutionary at all. Yet I know of few contemporary poets who have revealed so lovingly or cherished so deeply the turnings of the human mind.
For me, it is this quality of mutuality, of shares wonder, that makes Roethke so unique. His poems are both records of his personal searching and springboards for the reader's own discovery. He writes always with the assumption that this aesthetic and spiritual intensity is everwhere present -- if only you have the yes and the patience to perceive it. Depression andpain are not excluded from the poet's attention, but he confronts the darkness and disorder of our world with a strength and a compassion that both transform and redeem. With poems both humorous and earnest, commonplace and thoroughly marvelous, Roethke replenishes the "wasteland" of American society with new possibilities. His work proclaims the human spirit as the key to this miracle. The poet provided his own best introduction when he wrote: "I think of myself as a poet of love, a poet of praise. And I wish to be read aloud."
Quotations from Roethke's poems are fromm The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (Anchor Press, Doubleday; 1975); quotations from the essays are fromm On the Poet and His Craft, edited by Ralph J. Mills (University of Washington Press: 1965). Reprnted by permission of the publishers.m