July 12, 2012

Advice for Poets: Theodore Roethke

The first poem that I remember:

My Papa's Waltz
by Theodore Roethke

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

For this poem and more information about these poems by Roethke, click on this link:

When I read it now, I see so much more than that dizzying waltz.  In these few lines, a full narrative emerges with conflict, characters, desire, and suspense.  It is told in second person--the pronoun you addresses the father.  There is great contrast: the poem has death suspended within the waltzing.

It speaks so clearly of a relationship with a father, a retrospective: the speaker "hung on like death" and on the last note, was "Still clinging to your shirt."  The action becomes symbolic, metaphoric and it is a traditional, "formal" poem, made with regular meter and end rhyme.  It's brilliant.

Later on, in college, I came across another of his famous poems, "I Knew a Woman."  The first lines:

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!

His language pleases so much-- it is as if he was able to bring the waltzing into this sweet homage.  This rhythm and movement is characteristic of his poetic voice.  It is also in the poem, "In a Dark Time."

A man goes far to find out what he is—
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

This excerpt reflects the same movement and even things.  Notice in "I Knew a Woman" he spoke of a bright container, and here "All natural shapes."  It is as if he notices the profile, and the same darkness of "My Papa's Waltz" has grown here to a solitary, grown-up dark night of the soul.   This poem has similar word repetitions, effective use of meter, alliteration and rhyme.  So today, when I happened upon this poem (available as a broadside from Copper Canyon Press), I was delighted:

On Poetry and Craft
by Theodore Roethke

In poetry, there are no casual readers.
Nothing seen, nothing said.
The lyric is almost forgotten in this time of sawing and snoring and scraping.
Energy is the soul of poetry. Explosive active language.
Live in a perpetual great astonishment.
Rhythm depends on expecting.
The literal—that grave of all the dull.
I need the botanist’s leaf more than the poet’s flower.
Put it this way: I detest dogs, but adore wolves.
Eternal apprenticeship is the life of the true poet.
That intense profound sharp longing to make a true poem.
Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries.
Art is our defense against hysteria and death.
If we muddle and thump through a paraphrase, with side comments, however brilliant, we still do not have the poem.
Talent talks; genius does.
Poetry is an act of mischief.
A poetry of longing: not for escape, but for a greater reality.
The greatest assassin of life is haste.
Make ready for your gifts. Prepare. Prepare.