The Tiara of Theodore Roethke

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My strength is the strength
Of ten young things: I am with you:
In that first moment of delight
When you look from the page, no longer lost
In the maze of youth
Roethke


Just as the Islamic world absorbed the ancient scholarship of its Greek conquests, & just as the European renaissance repeated the assimilations, so too does Poetry have a duty to regurgitate itself from time to time, when the spirit of renewal strips away the evolutions of time, leaving shiny new versions of moments of classical brilliance. It is with this as my leading inclination that I now turn to the writings of Theodore Heubner Roethke; a very fine-minded, Twentieth Century, Pulitzer-prize winning, American, post-modernist poet. Very much respected by his peers, James Dickey once opined that he did not, ‘see anyone else that has the kind of deep, gut vitality that Roethke’s got. Whitman was a great poet, but he’s no competition for Roethke.’ Dickey was surely here analysing the poetry of the poet, but what I want to study here are a curious collection of whispy musings on the art of poetry which Roethke stuff’d his notebooks with in the mid-twentieth century. In this same period he was also an English teacher, & these spontaneous philosophartistical outpourings represent some kind of cross-pollinating hybrid of human thought.

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During the composition of these maxims, Roethke was too rush’d by teaching to collate his thoughts into a more conventional order. ‘I’m teaching well,’ he wrote in 1947, ‘if I can judge by the response – but haven’t done one damned thing on my own. It’s no way to live—to go from exhaustion to exhaustion.’ He seems have snatch’d at those scatter’d moments of focuss’d thought, scribbling them down in the depths of his office, to be discovered by his colleague, David Wagoner, upon the death of Roethke in 1963. Taking on the role of the Litologist (literary archaeologist) Wagoner dived into the 277 spiral notebooks full of fragmenting imagination, distilling them into a collection called Straw for the Fire (1972).

A half century later I intend to further the curation process begun by Wagoner by a secondary process of distillation. My endeavour shall be to select & reorder the most quintessentially poetic of Roethke’s maxims, in order to create some kind of spiritual map of the poetical experience entwined – with some magnitude & immediacy – with the entire universality of the poetic arts. As I do so, I hope to go against, as Roethke himself once said, ‘the academic tendency to rest: that profound impulse to sit down.’ Echoing the ‘garland’ collections of elegiac sayings espoused by the Tamils, I have named the collection’s form the ‘Tiara,’ in which are contained the choicest jewels dug up from the mines of mental ferment, which are polished & set in a smooth & solid structure.

The desire to express certain ideas,’ wrote John Cruikshank, ‘in as brief & memorable a form as possible is a long-standing human impulse.’ The aphorism has had many hey-days; the Kural of the Sangam age; the Roman epigrammical penchant as dictated by Tacitus & Martial; the intellectual epithetical flourishings of the seventeenth century French salon. In such brief capsules of literary exhortation, the qualities of elegance, accuracy & conciseness are held paramount. It is those maxims of Roethke which possess this triad of excellence the most which I have chosen for my materielle. Respecting Roethke’s deal love of teaching, I hope to have assembl’d the maxims in a way that will maximise the effects of the impartation of the poet’s empirical mind upon those who never had the pleasure of sharing a classroom with the man. Instead let us – & by us I mean every waking poet from now until the last gatherings of human time – listen to the everliving word-sage speak as if we were adepts gather’d at the naked feet of the wise Tamil sage; as if we were a young poet receiving Rilke’s letters of advice; as if we were one of the lucky students in the wartime poetry classes of Michigan State.

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BECOMING A POET

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The young artist: there is no other kind of mind but my own

Poetry is the discovery of the legend of one’s youth.

There is an academic precept which says: never listen to the young. The reverse should be true: Listen, I say, & listen close, for from them – if they are real & alive – may we hear, however, faintly & distortedly – the true whispers from the infinite, the beckonings away from the dreadful, the gray life beating itself against the pitted concrete world.

The wisdom the young make holy be their living

We’re not going to split the heart of reality: not until the third semester.

And then there is the more honest & charitable mentor who regards poetry as a kind of emotional & spiritual wild oats of the young, a phase of adolescence to be pass’d thro’ quickly – & anything said to shake him out of this emotional orgy is all to the good.

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THE SPIRIT OF POETRY

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The eye, of course, is not enough. But the outer eye serves the inner, that’s the point.

Basis of poetry is sensation: many poets today deny sensation, or have no sensation: the cult of the torpid.

Hearing poetry starts the psychological mechanism of prayer

The intuitive poet often begins most felicitously, but raptures are hard to sustain.

O keep me perpetual, muse, ears roaring with many things

Good poets wait for the muse, the unconscious to spring something loose, to temper & test the promptings of the intuition with the pressures of craftsmanship: they can think while they sing.

Simple & profound: how little there is

Say to yourself: I will learn & treasure every good turn of speech ever made.

The intense profound sharp longing to make a true poem.

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THE ART OF POETRY

 

Perhaps no person can be a poet, or even can enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.

The nobility of my imagination is my theme: I have to let things shimmer.

The essence of poetry is to perish – that is to say be ‘understood.’

A ‘movement’ is a dead fashion.

The artist has several levels of life always available. If he falls to the ground with a theme or gets a ‘block,’ he can always return to life – a routine task.

This is the lazy man’s out often: I haven’t read it, therefore it does not exist.

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 POETICAL TECHNIQUE

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Poetry is not just a mere shuffling of dead words or even a corralling of live ones.

A musical ear is a gift from nature: but like all gifts it can be develop’d
Rhythm: creates a pattern into which our mental faculties fall; this cycle of expectancy calls for surprises. The poet, at least the good poet, provides them.

My design in short poems: to create the situation, & the mood as quickly as possible: etch it in & have done; but is that enough? No. There must be symbolical force, weight, or a gravity of tone.

Play with it – The language has its cusses & fusses just like us.

Diction: one of the problems of diction, in certain kinds of poems, is to get all the words within a certain range of feeling; all elemental, all household, etc. etc. Often a very good figure from another level or range will jar.

The decasyllabic line is fine for someone who wants to meditate – or maunder. Me, I need something to jump in: hence the spins, & shifts, the songs, the rants, the howls. The shorter line can still serve us: it did when English was young, & when we were children.

To make it so good that there will be no actors will ever act it right: but none can be so bad, in any windy barn, to foul it up entirely.
It’s the damned almost-language that’s hardest to break away from: the skill’d words of the literary poet

Did I beat the poem to death? Did I worry the material like a mad dog?

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THE POET

 

We can love ourselves & literature with equal intensity – that’s our contribution

A poet is judg’d, in part, by the influences he resists

Puts his thoughts in motion – the poet

A poet: someone who is never satisfied with saying one thing at a time

The poet must have a sense not only of what words were & are, but also what they are going to be?

A poet must be a good reporter; but he must be something a good deal more.

Poet must first control, then dominate his medium

Maturity in a poet: when he no longer is concern’d with personal mortality… but whether the language dies.

There comes a time in the poet’s life when one personality, even with several sides, is not enough. Then he can go mad or become a dramatist.

There are so many ways of going to pot as a poet; so many pitfalls, so many snares & delusions.

The most bitter of intellectuals: he who was once a poet.

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FORM IN POETRY

 

Remember: our deepest perceptions are a waste if we have no sense of form.

We must have the courage, as Kierkegaard says, to think a thought whole

Transcend that vision. What is first or early is easy to believe. But… it may enchain you.

The artist (not the would-be): you may have deep insights – but you also need the sense of form. Sometimes the possession of the first without the second may be tragic.

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CRITICISM

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English poetry: mostly by ninnies, capable of fits & starts of ravishing feeling

The Victorians – they didn’t let enough go in or go out. They lived in ponds.

Some of these Limeys write as if they were falling over chairs

The ‘other’ poem in Yeats… had to set the stage for his best work. If he had not written at such length, he might not have been heard.

The lyric is almost forgotten in this time of sawing & snoring & scraping

One of the problems of the lyric poet is what to do with his spare time; & sometimes it becomes the community’s problems too. It worries people.

A bewildering bardling: no real feeling except a thin intense hatred of his contemporary superiors

A culture in which it is easier to publish a book about poetry than a book of poems

One of the subtlest tasks is the sifting from time. Some poems have that special sheen of contemporaneousness, the immediate glitter of fashion – & still survive.

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BAD POETRY

 

One of the virtues of good poetry is the fact that it irritates the mediocre

Not the stuff, but merely the stuffing, of real poetry. An anthology of abstractions from one of the less sure metaphysicians: a nowadays nausea.

Much to be learnt from bad poems

A wrenching of rhythms, verbal snorting; tootling on the raucous tin-ear, mechanized fancies: his poems have movement, sometimes they slide away from the subject.
Embroidering a few metaphors on his pale convictions

These fancy dandlers of mild epithets, graceless wittols hanging on the coattails of their betters. I can forget what they do until they forget to steal & start being themselves.

Those dreary language-arrangers. Don’t be ashamed if you belch when you try to sing

So many writers are an immense disappointment: they’re neurotic, grubby, cozy, frighten’d, eaten by their wits.

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WORLDLY ADVICE

 

Think with the wise, talk like the common man

When you begin to get good, you’ll arouse the haters of life

May my silences become more accurate

Live in a perpetual great astonishment

I can’t die now. There’s too much to do.

He was the master of the remark that insults everybody – including himself.

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