This guy ain’t bad. I had no prior knowledge of him or his work, but I enjoyed the five poems we had to read for the exam. I can see why he was placed with Sylvia Plath in the list as they are both considered Confessional poets (a genre I will go ahead and assign to his poetry in general), and they both also suffered from depression. As we will see, Roethke enjoyed making use of natural imagery, and his later work slowly moved more and more towards bigger themes such as man and God, the universe, and the like.
I believe this poem is considered to be one of Roethke’s “greenhouse” poems. There is so much detail and natural imagery of this root cellar. Roethke managed to give a kind of unnatural life to things that don’t necessarily “sleep” or “breath.” The root cellar appears to be nothing special – in fact, I imagine it to be pretty disgusting – but Roethke manages to make even the dirt come to life by saying that even it “kept breathing a small breath.” And the leaf-mold, which is just “piled against slippery planks,” seems to take on a life of its own. I felt like I could not only see, but also feel and smell how dank and disgusting this root cellar is.
My Papa’s Waltz
This is one that makes me sad and a little bit scared…and I am probably getting that sense of fear from the child in the story who is dealing with his own fear. I could compare this one to Plath’s “Daddy” as it tells the story of a little boy being dragged away by his seemingly drunk father to be dealt with physically (not necessarily abused as the poem isn’t that specific) and then put to bed. The narrator, who seems to be the little boy, refers to this event as a “waltz.” Another word that is used is “romped,” while the pans slid from the shelves in the kitchen and mom watches on frowning. The poem is only four stanzas long with each having the rhyme scheme “abab.” Also, each line has the same rhythm, which gives the poem kind of a sing-song quality that goes with the waltzing theme.
Yea! A happy poem…I think. Well, it makes me happy anyway. Probably another one of Roethke’s greenhouse poems as it describes a stroll across a field full of flowers and animals, through the woods, and to the river where the speaker’s ears find “an early joy.” Throughout the poem, heat is happy, blossoms sing, stones sing, daisies wave, and streams sing in the speaker’s veins. I can’t help but imagine some of my happiest moments that happened outside (and since I don’t much care for “fun in the sun,” they are pretty few and far between), and that feeling of being able to breath out there in a way that isn’t possible inside.
I Knew a Woman
This is the only one of Roethke’s love poems to make the list. Made up of only four stanzas the rhyme scheme of each is more or less ababccc, which I find interesting but I couldn’t tell you why. Because the speaker talks about what the woman in the poem “taught” him, I got the sense that this may have even been an older woman, but I could be wrong about that. There is a great deal of focus on the woman’s movements (“when she moved, she moved more ways than one;” “She moved in circles, and those circles moved”), and Roethke managed to include his usual nature imagery as well. And even though the title of the poem is “I Knew a Woman,” I get the sense that the woman isn’t dead, they just aren’t lovers anymore.
In a Dark Time
There is much talk of darkness and light in this poem and may be a picture of Roethke’s struggle with depression and with the bigger themes of God and eternity and the universe. I am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s “Much madness is divinest sense” because of the first line of the second stanza, “What’s madness but nobility of soul.” Maybe this isn’t so much a sad poem as it is a poem of Roethke confronting his depression and attempting to make the best of it. By the end, the speaker concludes that “A fallen man, I climb out of my fear. /The mind enters itself, and God the mind, /And one is One, free in the tearing wind.” That actually sounds fairly hopeful to me.
A Little More History
Much of Roethke’s childhood was spent in a large greenhouse owned by his dad and his uncle, which probably accounts for the nature imagery found in a good portion of his work. However, when Roethke was only 15, his uncle committed suicide and his father also died, all in the same year. In addition to his depression, he was also a heavy drinker (which I am sure didn’t help the depression), but despite both of these things, his wife stuck by him and even published a last volume of poetry after his death. Roethke died of a heart attack in his friend’s swimming pool at the age of 55.
So that was surprisingly painless. Next time, I will start the first of my last three posts on specific items on the list with Gloria Anzaldua before moving on to general posts regarding a timeline, term definitions, etc.