Theodore Roethke: Gentle Giant

By John Montague in Southern Review, Summer, 1996


SHORTLY AFTER MY FIRST, slim volume, Forms of Exile, appeared in 1958, I got a very friendly note from Theodore Roethke, "with the admiration of an old party." His response was probably prompted by our mutual friend, the painter Morris Graves, but it was pleasant all the same for a novice to receive. I was twenty-nine, but poets grew up more slowly in those thorny days; the garden was wild and difficult.

I already knew and admired Roethke's work, with its strong lyric thrust, so unusual in contemporary American poetry: had Dylan Thomas not asked to meet him on one of his wearing lecture tours? I had begun to read Roethke when I was a teaching assistant at Berkeley, in a department that was academically strong but not awash with enthusiasm for poetry. For nourishment I listened to Kenneth Rexroth fulminating on Sunday mornings on KPFA, the local intellectual radio station, but Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer were on the East Coast, and Ginsberg had not yet slouched toward the Bay Area to be reborn. Even Snyder was away, either in rural Japan, at sea, or in a Zen monastery.

Roethke's plangent music brought me back to the traditional lyric, but with a post-Freudian lilt--Yeats in the speakeasy. As in "My Papa's Waltz":

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

Was I moved by memories of my own father in Rodney Street, Brooklyn? I seemed to see the callused hand of a hard-worked man, hear the scraping of a fiddle, perhaps my Uncle John or Eddie Montague playing as the drunks were tossed down the tenement stairs .and the women wrung their hands:

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

Was a gangster called Garland shot in our kitchen? Had my father really been found, out cold, in the morgue, his forehead creased from a car accident? What I remembered more than anything else, beyond the roar of the El and the confusions of the period, was his caress:

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

And like myself, Roethke had known the spell of childless old women, "[t]hese nurses of nobody else. . . [who] plotted for more than themselves." I could be back in my restoring Garvaghy home with my aunts when I read lingering lines like these from "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze":

. . . they picked me up, a spindly kid,
Pinching and poking my thin ribs
Till I lay in their laps, laughing,
Weak as a whiffet;
Now, when I'm alone and cold in my bed,
They still hover over me,
These ancient leathery crones. . .

But it was not all simple child's-eye memories of growth in a green place; Saginaw, Michigan, or Garvaghy, County Tyrone. I had bought a copy of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Waking (1953), with a brooding portrait of the beetle-browed poet on the cover. Already a beat of madness could be heard in the slow, ominous lines of the title poem, a villanelle, frightening in its fierce control:

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Here was a book by a poet determined to go the whole hog, a book dense with physical memories of the soiling of childhood, full of little comforting cries and invocations against the dark powers, and seeking aid and example from the greatest, from Dante to Wordsworth:

Dante attained the purgatorial hill,
Trembled at hidden virtue without flaw,
Shook with a mighty power beyond his will,-
Did Beatrice deny what Dante saw?

("Four for Sir John Davies")

Seeking indeed that cosmic dance of unity glimpsed by Sir John Davies and celebrated by Yeats as his supreme symbol--was it still possible in our time? "Is that dance slowing in the mind of man/ That made him think the universe could hum?"

By the time his Words for the Wind came out in England in 1958, I was newly married and back working in Dublin. I loved the disgusting little songs for children because, though he never had any, Roethke could enter immediately into their natural naughtiness, unfulfilled by laundered Mother Goose rhymes. Perhaps "The Cow" had special meaning for me because I had tried to learn how to milk in our warm, wood-stalled byre and been slapped across the face for my lack of skill by the tail of an urgent, fecund mother.

There Once was a Cow with a Double Udder.
When I think of it now, I just have to Shudder!
She was too much for One, you can bet your Life:
She had to be Milked by a Man and his Wife.

But the volume's new note was a sequence of love poems, lyrical with delight but again with a Yeatsian undertow. Trying to live through similar experiences myself, I was troubled by these poems' heavily literary references going all the way back to Tudor times, the lovesick pursuits of Thomas Wyatt and Philip Sidney, so closely woven that though the lines extolled love, I could not catch sight of a flesh-and-blood beloved through the thicket of words. I did not believe, any more than Joyce Kilmer, that my love was "sweeter than a tree," but I could recognize the obsession, and the need to fulfill oneself with another, the greatest adventure possible to us in this life:

I kiss her moving mouth,
Her swart hilarious skin;
She breaks my breath in half;
She frolicks like a beast;
And I dance round and round,
A fond and foolish man,
And see and suffer myself
In another being, at last.

("Words for the Wind!')

From Morris Graves and his friend Richard, I learned that Roethke had married a beautiful young woman called Beatrice O'Connell, of Irish background, presumably, although she was a Bennington girl from Virginia. For Morris and Richard, he was.the Poet, a larger-than-life-size figure, balanced on the edge of excess. So I was not surprised when I received a wild piece, "The Old Florist's Lament," a Yeatsian ballad about Roethke's Prussian father, sent from some nursing home on February 19, 1959. With neighbors like Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh, I was ready for anything in the line of eccentricity, but I was taken aback by the vehemence of this "Slight Song in Dubious Taste":

Who but a Prussian hog could know,
Or a sleek Polish ham,
Stettin's a place so cold and wet,
Pork keeps in good supply.
A cold-eyed, drunken Prussian man
Taught Jews new ways to die.

In the summer of 1960 I had a further note from Roethke, announcing his arrival in Ireland with his beloved, Beatrice. He was not staying at Morris Graves's lordly Woodtown Manor but in a small private hotel, which boded well for his Dublin visit because it placed him in the center of a Dublin just beginning to come alive again, with architects, poets, and painters-a circle of gaiety into which he was quickly drawn. Michael Scott, our leading architect, who redesigned the Abbey Theatre, threw a big party for him, where Roethke distinguished himself by approaching a lady from both ends of her dress, a vigorous salutation not altogether common in Ireland. She took it in good part, since her husband was engaged in a less dramatic version of the same approach across the room. But there was another side to Roethke than these antics of a roaring boy.

It was a red-letter day when he came round to see me in our basement flat in Herbert Street. Released from Bord Failte, the Irish Tourist Board, I was working on my second book, Poisoned Lands, and copies of many of the poems were spread across our only table. He had brought some of the beautiful nature meditations that would form part of his North American Sequence, lamentations leavened suddenly by exultation, the long, moddy line of Whitman a movement more natural to his ebullient American self, taking over from Yeats:

On the Bullhead, in the Dakotas, where the eagles eat well,
In the country of few lakes, in the tall buffalo grass at the base
of the clay buttes,
In the summer heat, I can smell the dead buffalo,
The stench of their damp fur drying in the sun,
The buffalo chips drying.

Old men should be explorers?
I'll be an Indian.

It was heady stuff, of a kind I was not really used to in Ireland: a young and a veteran poet exchanging verses across a table. Though I had many friendly acquaintances among Irish writers, writing itself, like lovemaking, was a private occupation, and craft was rarely discussed in the way Roethke did, praising the four-beat lines in some of my newer poems, and my attempted use of a refrain. I remember also that quite a few adverbs went to the wall. It was my first experience since the Iowa workshop of this workmanlike approach to the process of poetry. . . yet in Iowa I had not been lucky enough to be taught by a master. I was so pleased that I suggested we should go together to visit Mrs. Yeats.

When I made the suggestion, I was ignoring some storm signals. After our session in Herbert Street, Roethke produced a hip flask from his back pocket, the contents of which cascaded down his throat after he anxiously warned me not to tell Beatrice. I had nothing against drink, in fact was in favor of it, at the right time, as relaxation in good company. But Ted's application to it had begun to seem reckless and lacking in ceremony. I suggested that we should repair to a pub and have a few celebratory and companionable pints, but he was afraid Beatrice would not like that, though I proposed we ask her to join us in, let's say, Phil Ryan's in Baggot Street, where Liam Miller might drop in on his way home from the Dolmen Press. Roethke had already met the bearded Miller, and they had taken to each other mightily, but he seemed still afraid of the easy exposure of a pub; serious talking with glasses in hand and maybe a song in the background (that attitude would change, however, when he got to Inishbofin Island).

Meanwhile he was distracted by my wife's return from work, and that good Frenchwoman was politely startled by the way in which, with little ado, Roethke managed to pay manual homage to her bottom; in other words, to grab her ass. I hustled him up the stairs and pointed him home, toward Leeson Street and his waiting Beatrice.

We met next afternoon at the top of Dawson Street, outside a florist's. The idea, of course, was Ted's, since even the writing Irish were not literate in the language of flowers. But for Mrs. Yeats only the best would do, and when the shopgirl produced a conventional bouquet, her offering was greeted with not-so-friendly roars of disparagement.

"When I say flowers," Roethke growled, "I mean real flowers, not limp, dead stalks ready for the garbage. Christ Jesus, I was reared in a greenhouse!"

The assistant cowered, and I cowered with her.

"I'm going to see a lady, a great lady, a specialist in spooks! Have you ever heard of the poet Yeats and his wife, George?"

The poor girl was clearly not a great scholar of poetry, so I interposed on her behalf. "We are going to see an old friend of mine, the poet's widow. Perhaps we could see some roses?"

"Yeah! Roses! Let's see some roses!" roared Roethke from behind me. "Real roses, not these dying, crumpled things! Bring me your best! I know everything there is to know about roses."

Indeed he did, and would celebrate them in that wonderful poem, "The Rose":

And I think of roses, roses,
White and red, in the wide six-hundred-foot greenhouses,
And my father standing astride the cement benches,
Lifting me high over the four-foot stems, the Mrs. Russells, and
his own elaborate hybrids,
And how those flowerheads seemed to flow toward me, to beckon me,
only a child, out of myself.

The manager was called, and the matter was settled only when he and Roethke descended into the bowels of the shop to choose a basket of flowers, mainly roses. Ted seemed mollified, but he was still fussing as we hovered on the pavement outside.

"Do you think we got it right, John? Is there anything else she might like, besides flowers?" And then the leading question, "Does Mrs. Yeats drink?"

He swayed anxiously on the footpath like an outsize Red Riding Hood, swinging his basket of flowers. He was nervous as a kitten, or a swain on a first date, and badly in need of fortification, which I thought it better not to seek out; Mrs. Yeats had said she wasn't feeling her best, and the idea of the two of us turning up late and bombed on her doorstep did not appeal to me. When I assured him that she did take a drop, he was relieved, but he was less happy when I directed him to a fashionable shop, Smiths of the Green, to buy a bottle of Bristol Cream.

"Sherry! Good God, she drinks sherry! I don't know anyone that drinks stuff like that! That's for old ladies!" (Which, of course, she was.)

We hailed a taxi by the Traitors' Arch and left for Rathmines, the basket between us with the nozzle of the bottle protruding among the flowers like a gangster's gat. But when we reached the gate and steps to her late-Georgian house, Roethke was still in a tizzy; all those years of studying Yeats were fizzing in him like champagne.

"Is this her house? Did Yeats ever live here himself?"

As the bell rang and rang in the depths of the house, Ted became more agitated, taking out the bottle to swing in his left hand while he held the flowers in the right. Finally I heard Mrs. Yeats shuffling toward the door, which opened slowly, all the more because the carpet had got curled into it.

"Hello, John," said George Yeats, bending to smooth the rug with her left hand. The wait was too much for the tense Roethke, who now shot out his right hand in greeting.

"Mrs. Yeats, I brought you some flowers!" he bellowed, whereupon she straightened her back, scattering most of them across the floor.

"Hmph!" she said, a cross between a hoot of dismay and a cry of astonishment, and turned to disappear in the direction of the kitchen.

"What's wrong? What's happened?" cried Ted, as we gathered the scattered flowers. "Is she coming back? Did we upset her?"

When she returned she was carrying a vase, and she began to beam with pleasure as Roethke tidied the flowers into it.

"Roses! How nice of you. Poor Willy's favorite flower, the only ones he could recognize. He was nearly color-blind, you know."

As we helped her select a spot for them in the sitting room, she explained that she was not feeling well and could not guide us through the library. Sensing a companion in misery, Roethke detailed his own health problems, and soon they were discussing cures for arthritis and the relationship between rheumatism and climate, the Pacific Northwest being nearly as rainy as Ireland. He offered to rub her back as she stretched on a couch, but she accepted a glass of sherry instead. Soon they were at ease, gossiping about critics and poetic contemporaries. One English poet-critic who had bored her got short shrift.

"He keeps sending me his absurd books. As a critic he may have some place in a university, but as a poet he is intolerable!"

Her vehemence delighted Roethke. "I've been thinking of the right word for that fella for years. And intolerable hits the nail right on the head. He's dry as a bone in the desert."

It was clear they had taken to each other, and I left to wander into the library. In due course I was joined there by a (for once) totally contented Roethke. I showed him some of the mystical notebooks with designs elaborate as geometry or higher algebra, and he was boyishly impressed. He had simmered down to a thoughtful quietness, his best mood, as when we were looking together at the poems. We said good-bye to Mrs. Yeats, who was nearly asleep; Ted tucked the rug around her with great tenderness.

Instead of going home, I brought him to a large, comfortable public house in Rathmines that I sometimes frequented on my way to and from the library. I ordered a fine, slowly drawn pint of Guinness, but before it had arrived with its priestlike collar of froth, Roethke had already sunk two large whiskeys and called for a third. It seemed a good time to be serious. I asked why he drank in the haphazard way he did and said I found it hard to reconcile the two Roethkes, the sensitive poet and the other, the roaring boy whose heart somehow did not seem in it. He hunched his large shoulders, and his domed head glistened with nervous sweat.

"I drink like this," he said, "because I'm afraid of death. It's all I seem to think about."

The dark mood eventually passed, and by the time I brought him back to his hotel he was ready to berate Beatrice for not being a medium. In a few days they would leave to see Richard Murphy on Inishbofin Island, where I planned to catch up with them; but by the time I got there, Roethke was in Ballinasloe Hospital. On Inishbofin he had discovered the company of drinkers and pub singers; there was little else to do on the island for long periods. But something about that Ireland was dangerous for the euphoric side of his temperament; songs like "Gob Music" were nearly in as bad taste as "The Old Florist's Lament":

Indeed I saw a shimmering lake
Of slime and shining spit,
And I kneeled down and did partake
A bit of the likes of it.
And it reminded me--But Oh!
I'll keep my big mouth shut.

In three years Roethke would be dead; the marvelous poems he showed me would be published posthumously. The travail of that generation of American poets is now well documented. The loneliness of the poetic vocation is a constant, exacerbated by the indifference of that vast country, but there is always some context in Ireland, however rough and residual. That is perhaps what Roethke glimpsed in Dublin and Inishbofin; Ireland may be the last place in the English-speaking world where the title "poet" has some authority, and Ted would have loved to participate in such a community. His melancholy "Saginaw Song" describes the constricting gentility of his midwestern background:

In Saginaw, in Saginaw,
There's never a household fart,
For if it did occur,
It would blow the place apart,-

whereas he dreamt himself a beloved bard, performing before an admiring audience:

O, I'm the genius of the world,-- Of that you can be sure, But alas, alack, and me achin' back, I'm often a drunken boor; But when I die-and that won't be soon-- I'll sing with dear Tom Moore, With that lovely man, Tom Moore.

There was, too, a pattern of drinking during that period. Few from Ireland can afford to cast a stone, but there was a madness to the martini mystique. In its way it was as primitive a ritual as proving masculinity through the consumption of pints in the student pubs of Dublin. But it was more dangerous because less passive: the object was to stimulate the brain cells, dissolve the inhibitions rather than ease them. And there were the fantasies hard liquor feeds: Roethke's father was a strict German, not a wild drunk, and his son probably had not run with gangsters: "A place I surely did like to go/Was the underbelly of Cicero. . . " ("Song for the Squeeze-Box").

American poets have found shelter in the academy, but there is something artificial in this arrangement, like seeking sanctuary during the medieval plagues: what about real life, as they say. French poets like Andre Frenaud and Eugene Guillevic earned their livings as civil servants, and there is a long tradition of poets in the diplomatic service, such as Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz from Latin America, Paul Claudel and Saint-John Perse from France, and Denis Devlin from Ireland. Besides, English departments are often hostile and uncomprehending; however scholarly a poetic interloper may be, they find it hard to take him or her seriously unless the poet bears and wears the insignia of serious scholarship, as T. S. Eliot did. Creative writing classes have eased this artificial division between creator and explicator, but Roethke was a pioneer in those early days of the poetry workshop, and he still believed in being a scholar of the poetic tradition.

Both Robert Lowell and Roethke had massive personal problems into which it would be presumptuous to pry. Ted was a large but gentle man who lived at the extremes of existence, his anguish and ecstasy fused only in the furnace of the lyric. He tried to play the athlete as well as the poet, a two-fisted drinker who identified with the minute and the helpless, as in his delicate poem "The Meadow Mouse":

But this morning the shoe-box house on the back porch is empty.
Where has he gone, my meadow mouse,
My thumb of a child that nuzzled in my palm?-
To run under the hawk's wing,
Under the eye of the great owl watching from the elm-tree,
To live by courtesy of the shrike, the snake, the tom-cat.

I think of the nestling fallen into the deep grass,
The turtle gasping in the dusty rubble of the highway,
The paralytic stunned in the tub, and the water rising,
All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.

Above all there was that fierce competitiveness, the need to be number one, that raged throughout that generation like a virus, as if poetry were a form of prize fighting and they were all vying to be heavyweight champion. Fame is the spur, indeed, but one should not rowel Pegasus. Lowell was among the chief culprits, with his power mania: when Berry-man was completing (I almost wrote competing) the Dream Songs in Dublin, Lowell wrote to him, saying that his Irish poems--which are not his best--made Berryman "the best Irish poet since Yeats." Willful lines he was later to use about Heaney, though there is no evidence that he had ever bothered to read Austin 'Clarke, Kavanagh, even Thomas Kin-sella and myself, or indeed any contemporary Irish poetry in either language, before he put the skunk among the pigeons.

Meanwhile Roethke, on the far Pacific coast, had done his homework. His notes to me were garnished with generous postscripts: "Say hello to Kavanagh"; or, more surprisingly (because he had published so little), "Give my best to [Padraic] Fallon." His class notes showed that he had introduced his students to contemporary Irish poetry, and according to his biographer, Allan Seager, "Even in London, Ted had not fallen into a literary circle he liked better." I believe he glimpsed in Ireland a community where he might have prospered, but it was too late, and it only drove him mad again. Later in the decade, John Berry-man would arrive to live and work for a longer period against the same backdrop. My last communication from Roethke was a sad, small, Blakeian lyric of travail wrought into a healing sweetness. It was on a small card, surprisingly tinseled with stars:

In a hand like a bowl
Danced my own soul,
Small as an elf,
All by itself.



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Source: Southern Review, Summer96, Vol. 32 Issue 3, p561, 11p.