Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) admired Yeats, Eliot, Auden but drew more on personal experience than they ever would have dared. Many of his poems derive from childhood memories of his father, who died when Roethke was young, and of his family's horticultural business. Their greenhouse became a private archetype, a fecund universe in miniature.

Roethke’s bouts of severe depression led him into the murky abyss of depth psychology. The result was a series of poems that adopt the persona of regression, of the suck and muck of primal states. These poems can be difficult, to be sure, but they astonish with their vivid imagery and terse indicatives. (Sylvia Plath would co-opt the technique for her own purposes in poems such as “Poem for a Birthday” and “Berck Plage.”) He also wrote some charming love poems inspired, it is said, by his affair with Louise Bogan, featured previously here on Lectio.

Still, one cannot neatly categorize Roethke as a confessional poet or an experimental poet or a formal poet; he was all these things. His tonal range embraces the ecstatic, the elegiac, the comic, the sardonic, the erotic—oh, just about any “ic” you can think of. He’s a real original who deserves to be bumped up a few notches in the American canon.

He died in his mid-50’s, after a dignified and fruitful life of writing and teaching.


To loosen with all ten fingers held wide and limber
And lift up a patch, dark-green, the kind for lining cemetery baskets,
Thick and cushiony, like an old-fashioned doormat,
The crumbling small hollow sticks on the underside mixed with roots,
And wintergreen berries and leaves still stuck to the top,—
That was moss-gathering.
But something always went out of me when I dug loose those carpets
Of green, or plunged to my elbows in the spongy yellowish moss of the marshes:
And afterwards I always felt mean, jogging back over the logging road,
As if I had broken the natural order of things in that swampland;
Disturbed some rhythm, old and of vast importance,
By pulling off flesh from the living planet;
As if I had committed, against the whole scheme of life, a desecration.


I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper-weight,
All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.

The Sensualists

There is no place to turn,” she said,
   ”You have me pinned so close;
My hair’s all tangled on your head,
    My back is just one bruise;
I feel we’re breathing with the dead;
    O angel, let me loose!”

And she was right, for there beside
    The gin and cigarettes,
A woman stood, pure as a bride,
    Affrighted from her wits,
And breathing hard, as that man rode
    Between those lovely tits.

“My shoulder’s bitten from your teeth;
    What’s that peculiar smell?
No matter which one is beneath,
    Each is an animal,”—
The ghostly figure sucked its breath,
    And shuddered toward the wall;
Wrapped in the tattered robe of death,
    It tiptoed down the hall.

“The bed itself begins to quake,
    I hate this sensual pen;
My neck, if not my heart, will break
    If we do this again,”—
Then each fell back, limp as a sack,
    Into the world of men.

From The Shape of the Fire

       What’s this? A dish for fat lips.
       Who says? A nameless stranger.
       Is he a bird or a tree? Not everyone can tell.

Water recedes to the crying of spiders.
An old scow bumps over black rocks.
A cracked pod calls.

       Mother me out of here. What more will the bones allow?
       Will the sea give the wind suck? A toad folds into a stone.
       These flowers are all fangs. Comfort me, fury.
       Wake me, witch, we’ll do the dance of rotten sticks.

Shale loosens. Marl reaches into the field. Small birds pass over water.
Spirit, come near. This is only the edge of whiteness.
I can’t laugh at a procession of dogs.

       In the hour of ripeness the tree is barren.
       The she-bear mopes under the hill.
       Mother, mother, stir from your cave of sorrow.

A low mouth laps water. Weeds. weeds. How I love you.
The arbor is cooler. Farewell, farewell, fond worm.
The warm comes without sound.

From The Abyss

Too much reality can be a dazzle, a surfeit;
Too close immediacy an exhaustion:
As when the door swings open in a florist’s storeroom—
The rush of smells strikes like a cold fire, the throat freezes,
And we turn back to the heat of August,

So the abyss—
The slippery cold heights,
After the blinding misery,
The climbing, the endless turning,
Strike like a fire,
A terrible violence of creation,
A flash into the burning heart of the abominable;
Yet if we wait, unafraid, beyond the fearful instant,
The burning lake turns into a forest pool,
The fire subsides into rings of water,
A sunlit silence.

The Manifestation

Many arrivals make us live: the tree becoming
Green, a bird tipping the topmost bough,
A seed pushing itself beyond itself,
The mole making its way through darkest ground,
The worm, intrepid scholar of the soil—
Do these analogies perplex? A sky with clouds,
The motion of the moon, and waves at play,
A sea-wind pausing in a summer tree.

What does what it should do needs nothing more.
The body moves, though slowly, toward desire.
We come to something without knowing why.

The Right Thing

Let others probe the mystery if they can.
Time-harried prisoners of Shall and Will
The right thing happens to the happy man.

The bird flies out, the bird flies back again;
The hill becomes the valley, and is still;
Let others delve that mystery if they can.

God bless the roots!—Body and soul are one!
The small become the great, the great the small;
The right thing happens to the happy man.

Child of the dark, he can out leap the sun,
His being single, and that being all:
The right thing happens to the happy man.

Or he sits still, a solid figure when
The self-destructive shake the common wall;
Takes to himself what mystery he can,

And, praising change as the slow night comes on,
Wills what he would, surrendering his will
Till mystery is no more: No more he can.
The right thing happens to the happy man.

The Harsh Country

There was a hardness of stone,
An uncertain glory,
glitter of basalt and mica,
And the sheen of ravens.

Between cliffs of light
We strayed like children,
Not feeling the coarse shale
That cut like razors,

For a blond hill beckoned
Like an enormous beacon,
Shifting in sea change,
Not ever farther.

Yet for this we travelled
With hope, and not alone,
In the country of ourselves,
In a country of bright stone.

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