Monday, January 25, 2016

Meeting Roethke (or Your Frustrated Introspection Seems very Familiar)

I had met this "scuttling" creature before...
I just chose it off the shelf. Hurriedly. And there wasn't too much to choose from in Corpus Christi's Half-Price Books' poetry section that day anyway.
Roethke's name was familiar, and I had been reading and listening to lectures on 20th century American poetry, so I'm sure he was mentioned many times during my years of study, but I had never read him for myself.
While cooking one evening, a couple of weeks ago, I read through some of his poetry in The Far Field's "Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical" collection.
The poetry was eerily recognizable, like running into someone I knew very well once and reacquainting myself with their personality quirks instantly.
Had I read this before? Why does this all seem so fresh in my mind?
I moved on to the "Love Poems" section, and the same déjà vu feeling was evoked.
Finally, a couple of nights ago, I dove into the "Mixed Sequence" section, and read The Abyss over and over.
Then it hit me. It was T.S. Eliot.
I searched Roethke's biography online, and found a thoroughly painful account.
His life was beautifully inspiring, as he was not just a poet, but a passionate teacher as well, beloved by his students. But Roethke was also full of tragic doubts and insecurity that perpetually plagued him à la Prufrock and was most noticeable for me in "The Abyss".
Here are some of the stand-out verses from "The Abyss" (italics) juxtaposed with "Prufrock" (bold):

"Is the stair here?
Where's the stair?
The stair's right there, 
But it goes nowhere."
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,



"The sill trembles.
And there on the blind
A furred caterpillar crawls down a string."

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,        
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?        
  And how should I presume?

"Can I outleap the sea-
The edge of all the land, the final sea?"


We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown        
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

"I have taken counsel of the crab and the sea-urchin, 
I recall the falling of small waters,
The stream slipping beneath the mossy logs,
Winding down to the stretch of irregular sand"


I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

"I am most immodestly married:
The Lord God has taken my heaviness away; 
I have merged, like the bird, with the bright air,
And my thought flies to the place by the bo-tree"

 A side note: many of Roethke's poems are quite lyrical, in the style of Yeats, and to no surprise he regarded the great Irish bard as his "spiritual father".
I guess there is a great deal to say about imitation.
I adored this first experience with Roethke, perhaps because it didn't feel like the first time we met.

Works Cited
Eliot, T.S. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Bartelby. Web.
Roethke, Theodore. "The Abyss". The Far Field. Garden City: Doubleday, 1971. 51-54.  Print. 

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