Thursday, January 5, 2012
Glancing at our shelf of poetry books, a collection of Theodore Roethke’s poems caught my eye. He may not be a household word like Eliot, Williams and Stevens but I believe he ranks among the giants of the last century. He was a bear of a man whose language had a certain gristle to it and zings with physicality like no other.
Roethke was from a family of German immigrants who owned several greenhouses in Michigan. He struggled to reconcile his father’s Teutonic compulsion for order with a chaotic, emergent, sense of Self. It was evidenced throughout his life with periodic bi-polar episodes. His father died when he was 14 but was a constant presence who he had interjected into his psyche. His genius lay in his ability to transform this inner turmoil into a flow of language which had its own musicality.In My Papa's Waltz this loving but fierce braiding of bodies is expressed,
Many poets have immersed themselves in the natural world from Mary Oliver’s sentimentality to Frost’s crusty Yankee farmer to Gary Snyder’s bear-shit-on-the-trail poetry with a Zen twist to W.S. Merwin’s reverence but none so identify with the diminutive subterranean world, fetid and teaming with worm-life, laboring to pierce toward light and life.
Roethke’s language was tactile, uneasily felt. His subject was nothing less than a report from the primordial ooze; the heaven and hell of it, swarming with malevolent forces and fecundity. His ferocity makes most contemporary poets seem pale and tepid. His visceral descriptions articulate the struggle of plant life pushing up through the soil as if tunneling through a womb.
Roethke used himself as the material of his art. He combined a pared, strict and hard-edged language with a certain grace of movement. His poems were never static; he regarded motion as emotion. If the greenhouse was his epicenter and the subject, himself, his poetry had a centrifugal power which touched me in an elemental place and, I suspect, most readers. It grabs me, slaps me around so I can almost remember that first slap which brought me to life.