A chain of fortunate circumstances has led to a very brief essay of mine being published in a new guide to the work of Theodore Roethke, among august company like Jay Parini, Frank Kearful and Camille Paglia. You can find the book here, and, one assumes, at your favorite online retailer.
Roethke, Theodore (2006), Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, Copper Canyon Press
Edited by David Wagoner
Before I started to write this down, I spent quite a while thinking about how to describe this book. What is it? On the surface of it, a few things are clear. The edition I own and review here is the 2006 reprint of a book that has actually been published first in 1972. The reprint has been published in the commendable “Lannan Literary Selection”, to which I also owe my copy of Rexroth’s stunning Complete Poems and Geoffrey Brock’s rendition of Pavese’s poetry (Disaffections). Apparently, Straw for the Fire is a selection “From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke”. Roethke is one of the best American postwar poets; the editor of the volume, David Wagoner is a good poet in his own right, all in all, this sounds interesting. Leafing through it, the book appears to contain a few poems and selections of prose, as well as a handful of facsimile reproductions of pages from those notebooks. This is the premise that made me buy the book. I have long adored Roethke’s poetry, poems like “The Waking” and “In a Dark Time” have constantly haunted my life as a writer and reader of poetry, however much other writers dropped in and out of favor. Here’s the second stanza of “In a Dark Time”:
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks–is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
So. I was overwhelmed to discover that there was more work of Roethke’s around. But, though the book is indeed „from the Notebooks“ of Roethke, to a large extent, it’s also from the brain of David Wagoner. According to Wagoner’s introduction, what happened was the following: as a former student and friend of the poet, he knew about the wealth of material buried in these notebooks. So he chose almost at random 12 out of the 277 notebooks saved by Roethke’s widow. After that, he chose passages that he considered publishable. Then he did what irritates me most of all. He sorted the pieces he extracted from the notebooks into ‘poetry’, by looking for coherence and arranged them in accordance with the ‘typical’ structure of Roethke’s poems. In the introduction Wagoner spends considerable time explaining to his audience what that structure looks like. I admit that this is frequently insightful but that does not vindicate his project. Indeed, there is so much wrong with the assumptions behind Wagoner’s project that I don’t even know where to begin. What struck me most, however, was the disrespect towards Roethke the poet that this method shows, since it suggests that Roethke, as a poet, is little more than an algorithm of sorts: string together a few ideas, slap on a title and presto! a poem! I can’t begin to tell you as how strange an enterprise this strikes me.
As a poet, Roethke has developed a very distinct style, sounding the drums of tradition yet couching all of this in a language that seems hewed from a very strange and unique tree. In the slim but really indispensable book that is his Collected Poems, not everything is a success, not everything works as well as it should, Roethke never makes it look easy. Roethke is almost always dry, a very earnest poet, who can be witty, but it’s a scholarly wittiness, a learned, dour, bookish wittiness. His writing explores a limited range of themes, but within that range, he has written some of the best poems to deal with those themes. Madness, sadness and spirituality, one could describe them; he’s one of the better modern writers to put religious experience, doubt and ecstasy into poetry. For my money, he’s also one of the best postwar poets to write about love and desire. And, in his masterpiece, the amazing “North American Sequence”, he has proven himself to be one of the best landscape poets of his generation. That sequence of poems, which everyone interested in modern poetry is herewith encouraged, no, urged to read, charts a spiritual journey, but at the same time also an actual journey through the US, through different landscapes and weather conditions, all of them committed to paper by a writer with an eye for the strange and miraculous in nature.
In his best poems he is heads and shoulders above writers like Ammons when they work on similar themes. One major difference to a writer like Ammons is economy. All of Roethke’s poems are studiously worked into shape; although he is a moving, beautiful writer, he is never sentimental in a way that is not contained by artifice and learning. Roethke is careful, he prunes his poetical language with great circumspection. I have always been drawn to him because he suffered from depression and in his poetry I recognized the temptation to look for easy shortcuts, cheap connections that can present a quick, effective rendering of the blackness that can choke one’s soul. And Roethke, in contrast to many other writers, managed to get this under control and make it work for him. And he never, as I said, makes it look easy. Exactly how difficult this was is showcased by Straw for the Fire, which contains little that Roethke would consider publishable, I’d wager; most of it has rolled straight off his tongue onto the page. To publish it the way Wagoner did I find unbelievable. Like Elizabeth Bishop’s Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke Box, this book nowhere near meets the poet’s own standards. The probability is high that both would be deeply uncomfortable, dismissive, even, with the results. Neither editor (in Bishop’s case, that’s Alice Quinn) does right by the poet whose material they use. That does not, however, mean the book is not readable. In fact, I recommend it.
Why do we read and write poetry? In Straw for the Fire we are witness to someone’s exhibition of the sheer joy in writing, putting words together to make sense of things. Wagoner’s selection, reprehensible though I think it, does have its advantages at times, especially in that it helps us see how Roethke ruminated, obsessed even, about certain subjects, it helps us see how certain phrases and ideas bounced back and forth in his mind; some of them turned up later in published poems, some didn’t, but, overall, the relationship with the published poems is rather subdued. Wagoner refrains from offering us multiple drafts of finished poems (assuming such were to be found in the mysterious notebooks), the texts in this book are exclusively short ideas, frequently just one or two lines of verse or prose (and it’s an indicator of Roethke’s abilities to shape the rhythm of a line that this division is both possible and plausible), so any repetition is more an iteration of a certain idea than a revision of something already written. There are personal and spiritual elements battling in these fragments. Fear on the one side and certaintly, hope on the other. I said that the book demonstrates the joy in writing. But that’s misleading, in a way. It rather shows us the necessity of writing.
One passage proclaims that, “[b]y singing we defend ourselves from what we are.” Poetry as a defense mechanism from our darker selves, from our bad instincts, our depressions. In one of his most memorable poems, “Dolphin”, The Bostonian Robert Lowell called his poetry “an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting“. The slippery nature of what Roethke wants to contain isn’t lost on him either, so he makes numerous attempts, hence the motivation, the necessity. Many writers have talked of this, of the urge to write, the need to put pen to paper, to give vent to a voice or a song that blooms within yourself. In Straw for the Fire you have Roethke’s urges, his poetical needs preserved. The things, tiny ideas and phrases that you jot down to get something off your chest, to preserve a fragment of song before it flutters away, pin down a thought, fix an image. Looking at the facsimiles, I wish someone would publish them as they are, jumbled together, unsorted, full of a strange energy. There are thing written down and left like that, and then there are passages that were worked on, with crossed out words and boxed-in sentences, which is very fascinating to see, but all that is lost in the final book. Yes this is something to lament, but on the other hand the fact remains that what we have in Straw for the Fire is still moving, beautiful, inspiring. It’s less like a collection of poetry and more like a journal but that’s not too shabby now is it.
In “The Longing”, the second poem of the “North American Sequence”, Roethke wrote: “Out of these nothings / – All beginnings come.” The texts in Straw for the Fire are the beginnings, the wellsprings of Roethke’s wonderful poet’s mind. They are warm, tender objects, fragments, “flowering out of the dark”, to borrow a phrase from the last poem in the sequence. This book is as much Wagoner’s as its Roethke’s, but it’s Wagoner’s part that drags the book down and Roethke’s part of the book that makes it worth reading. So, while the whole enterprise is shadowy at best, we would not have been able to read these fragments at all if not for Wagoner’s meddling. Sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. And in this case the good is really good.