I can tell you a few things about Theodore Roethke, but you’ll need to wake up. After all, that is what his most anthologised poem, ‘The Waking,’ demands of its narrator and, by extension, its readers:
I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.
Theodore Roethke, the American poet– the manic, alcoholic, unflinching, tendril-sensitive, blunderbuss of a man who died in a swimming pool in 1963–tells us so much about sadness and boredom and mundane hurts in this one line that we have to take notice of him. More than that, with lines like this, so insidiously beautiful, we have to take him in and know him. It’s imperative.
Here in this one line we have that sensation of the daily pain that we repress every time we get out of bed and face whatever it is we have to face. Shut off from ourselves we sleep our way through it all. Here, as elsewhere in his poems, Roethke makes us think of Caliban in his slavery: ‘I cried to dream again.’ He warns us to be hesitant: caution, he tells us, see all as if you were dreaming. But that isn’t all he is telling us. That line also implies a great deal about our existence: the dream life alone is real, he seems to assert, suggesting a need to reject what we would normally call ‘waking’. So the line is both descriptive and instructive; it describes what we are and what we could or should be. As always, with Roethke, it leaves us seeing double: dream and day-to-day are held up to the light like two overlaid photographic negatives.
So we wonder, then, is it artistic virtue that makes him slow to wake, or necessity? Sensibility or affliction? We can’t tell. But this is Roethke. He keeps us on a blade of consciousness, and he cuts. He’s especially good at doing this when he writes about nature:
When I stand, I’m almost a tree.
Leaves, do you like me any?
A swan needs a pond.
The worm and the rose
(from ‘I Need’)
Why so sharp? Because in the adult the child is always talking, and the child that was in Roethke burns him with a darting velvet flame. It’s as if he hasn’t heard the grown-ups say ‘you can’t know the rose; you can’t be the trees themselves.’ He disdains the mature self in favour of the vulnerable, ecstatic seed-self. Seed is alpha and omega; seed is minute, mostly. Seed is also dream and blueprint and memory of all cycles and seasons since the first beat of time. Roethke’s poems are minute like seeds–in their focus but not necessarily their length–and the words are plain (rose, worm, sea, mouth, birds, world, afraid) but every word feels vast and cyclic: a vanishing dream, a blueprint of experience, a quintessence of memory. Dizzy molecular lightness courses through his lines; they are forever slipping away. Everything, every object is personified and his compassion is relentless, insatiable. No experience sleeps for Roethke. All’s alive.
And yet, everything’s impersonal– despite the fact that the emotion is so intimate and autobiographical (see ‘My Papa’s Waltz’) –the detail is given away like a gift to the reader, almost carelessly (‘of those so close beside me, which are you?’ he asks in ‘The Waking’) and so he always gives the impression that his personal experience isn’t his. All transubstantiates into the universal with Roethke; the universal– tended.
(Apologies for the rather unsettling animation…but at least you have the sound of the poem.)