Friday, November 20, 2009

Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke wrote pleasant, fairly conventional verse. That sounds slighting, and I suppose it is, but his poetry is really a pleasure. Like his lover Louise Bogan, he never much strove to escape his preferred idiom. Most of his corpus is traditional, metrical, rhyming verse.

Unlike Bogan, Roethke did not eschew emotion. His poetry contains anger and scorn; it expresses a slavish adoration toward nature, balanced with the odd acknowledgement of nature’s inherent darkness; it can be wistful and regretful. Most often, however, Roethke is a poet of earnestness, tenderness, and uplift. He is the U2 of the poetry world.

I’ve read conflicting things on Bogan’s feelings toward his work. I have a hunch she was fairly lukewarm toward it, regardless of published commentary. If he were any good in the sack, concealing a lackluster attitude would be a wise strategy indeed. At any rate, they seem to have retained warm feelings for one another after the end of the affair.

Roethke taught at the University of Washington for many years and married a former student late in life, which was the sort of thing you could get away with back in the day.

The following lyric love poem is more expansive and accomplished than anything I’ve read by Bogan, so I’m pretty much in Roethke’s corner. I read somewhere that the “Lovely in her Bones” of the first line is a sly reference to her initials.

I think the corniness ends there; you might differ if you have a lower tolerance for love poetry than I.

I Knew a Woman

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in a chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant notes to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).

Theodoe Roethke on Wikipedia

Theodore Roethke on


  1. I've always liked this poem. I think my favorite of his, though, has always been Open House. Do you know it? It starts with these lines . . .

    My secrets cry aloud.
    I have no need for tongue.
    My heart keeps open house,
    My doors are widely swung.

    Anyway, I love the list of poets you've talked about thus far in your blog. What are your thoughts, by the way, on Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath? Also, Stanley Kunitz? Just wondering.


  2. I don't know that one ... time to go back to my Roethke anthology.

    I love all of the poets you mention except for Kunitz, who is okay but not one of my great favorites -- though I haven't read him as much or as thoroughly as the others. I know he's a favorite of my brother-in-law, who's another poetry nerd/MFA recipient.

    More comprehensive thoughts will probably be the subjects of future blog posts! ;)