A Poet of Love, A Poet of Praise

A Field Guide to the Poetry of Theodore Roethke
edited by William Barillas
foreword by Edward Hirsch
Swallow Press 2020  $27.99

by Alexander Long 

Some assumptions: first, those who have come across the work of Theodore Roethke have done so, most likely, after high school. Second, the majority of those who have read Roethke have read, maybe, one or two of his poems, nothing more. And third, those who have read “My Papa’s Waltz” or “The Waking” come away from that reading experience with a couple of their own assumptions that confirm their preconceived biases: poetry must rhyme, poetry must bound across the page like nursery rhymes, and poetry is still written by all those dead white guys.

All of this says more about me, of course, than these vague, conjured, though not-entirely fictional assumptions. To some degree, I shared them until graduate school (late 1990s-early 2000s) helped cure me of some of my ignorance. Back then, I sought out Roethke because I was, and still am, enamored with, inspired by, and in awe of two of his best-known and accomplished students, James Wright and Richard Hugo. Since then, I have worked with literature and creative writing students with wide-ranging backgrounds, abilities, experiences, interests, and talent at an equally wide range of universities and colleges for twenty-five years; I ask each class whether they have heard of or, better still, have read any of the poets on the syllabus. I am still waiting for one student—just one—to raise a hand and say something like, “yeah, Roth-kee…I don’t know how to say his name right, he had this poem…something about a drunk dad abusing his kid or something while some old-timey music is playing. Weird.” Or, “oooh, yeah. He’s the guy who wrote that one about not wanting to wake up or get out of bed. I can relate.”

Even generationally, Roethke does not seem to fit. Born (1908) too late to be lumped into The Lost Generation and born too early to be tossed in with The New Critics, The Beats, or Post-Modernists, his place and space in anthologies often appears if not out of place, then accommodated for. His generation has been bestowed the exceptionally mediocre title “The Middle Generation,” a title whose connotations suggest a resounding blah and belies the power of the work by those placed within it (Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, Jarrell, et al). With each passing edition of anthologies, the space given to Roethke shrinks and, in some cases, ceases to exist. Erasure is not a trend. It is, however, a fact of living too often predicated on trends and the ignorance and cultural amnesia that, as if on command, flank them. 

We should, therefore, give our thanks to William Barillas for editing the excellent A Field Guide to the Poetry of Theodore Roethke (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press 2021). Barillas’s thoroughly diverse and democratic reassessment of Roethke’s radically diverse oeuvre resituates Roethke’s high and proper place in American poetry. The assemblage of essays here exhibits an ambitious and accurate range from myriad critical and cultural angles: topical, aesthetical, literary-critical, biographical, psychoanalytical, ecopoetical, prosodical, among others. Whereas the essays’ critical lenses are distinct, at times even in contention with each other, Barillas has done something rather remarkable: he has curated a representative accounting of Roethke, one of America’s rangiest poets, bested, perhaps, only by Whitman. 

One could argue, as I sometimes try to do, that Roethke is among America’s rangiest poets, rangier than even Whitman. It is a losing argument, of course, but I overreach to make a point if only to myself. Consider, momentarily, that formally Whitman is a one-trick pony. Granted, it is one hell of a trick to invent an American prosody. It cannot be overstated for its importance. But it is, after all, so relentlessly Whitman. Whitman, unlike Roethke, never mastered received forms (and never published any but for the middling-to-weak, embarrassingly populist effort “O Captain! My Captain!”). As one reads through the essays Barillas has arranged in Field Guide, one may be tempted to say out loud if only to oneself: is Roethke actually wilder than Whitman? Gasp. True. 

It is a testament to the strengths of A Field Guide to Theodore Roethke that I gasp at my own silly question. The fact that I ask the question matters more than any of its possible answers. A Field Guide to Theodore Roethke has altered and deepened my thinking, not just about Roethke but Poetry itself. To a large extent, Barillas manages to do this because he collects essays that use the proverbial telescope and others that use the axiomatic microscope. Essays that address more ethereal and metaphysical concerns of alienation, grief, and the phenomenon of place coexist with their more visceral counterparts of meter, rhyme, syntax, diction, and imagery. When viewed in their totality, these essays spark for some a newfound admiration for Roethke’s work. For others, these essays serve as reliable reminders of the quiet magnitude and masterful execution of most of Roethke’s work.

Substantial in scope and size with seven sections, forty-four chapters, and three-hundred-and-fifty-two pages, Barillas’s A Field Guide to Theodore Roethke makes a convincing case for having Roethke mentioned alongside canonical mainstays like Yeats, Crane, and Stevens. Edward Hirsch does just that in the foreword. Sections, arranged chronologically, focus on each of Roethke’s books including his Children’s Poetry. Despite its depth and breadth, Field Guide is easy to navigate. A reader with a specific Roethke book in mind, say 1951’s Praise to the End!, can turn to page 143 and not be deprived of having skipped 142 pages. (I would advise reading all the pages.) Within each section, chapters focus on specific poems. So, anyone interested in Roethke’s “Where Knock is Open Wide”, for example, can find David Wojahn’s piece “Homegrown Cosmologies: Animism and Elegy in ‘Where Knock is Open Wide,’” one of the Field Guide’s strongest essays by one of America’s finest poets and critics. Other well-known poets and critics appear as well, including the aforementioned Hirsch, a lyric epistle to Roethke by William Heyen, a concise but incisive explication of Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman” by Jay Parini, Peter Balakian’s convincing assertions on Roethke’s cycle sequence Praise to the End!, as well as Lyn Coffin’s “Locating the Poet in ‘Weed Puller’,” Katherine Bubel’s “ ‘The Longing’: Alienation, Place and the Desire for Home,”  Camille Paglia’s “‘The Visitant,’” and Don Bogen’s “‘First Meditation’ and Roethke’s Career.” Perhaps my favorite piece is Joseph T. Thomas, Jr.’s “A Few Thousand Words on Theodore Roethke, Children’s Poetry, and Three Poems Concerning Two Turtles (One of Whom Is Named Myrtle).” Thomas reveals the inextricable relationship between Roethke’s “adult” poetry and his Children’s Poetry, citing Roethke’s invaluable essay collection on teaching, On Poetry and Craft. Thomas, Jr.’s analysis sheds light on, among other things, some of Roethke’s core motivations, machinations, and obsessions as a poet; unsurprisingly, they all stress playing with sound and all of its implications and ramifications, or what Thomas, Jr. economically and shrewdly calls “the work of play” poets immerse themselves in. Thomas, Jr. provides clear insights into Roethke’s writing process and pedagogical philosophy, a veritable peek behind the curtain while Roethke is, at once, writing, revising, and teaching. Some thirty-five other pieces consider Roethke from myriad perspectives, which is the only way to faithfully examine and appreciate his wide-ranging and unified body of work.  

Barillas has offered a labor of love. Many share Barillas’s love for Roethke’s work, including his student James Wright. In a letter written in 1964, shortly after Roethke’s death, Wright praises his teacher with prescient foresight: 

I believe that, as time passes, and as factions perish and seas move and all the rest that dies and dies forever is forgotten, some of Roethke’s poems will remain among our priceless things. And it is only the true criticism, the honorable effort of our very best intellectual attention, that can clarify for us what there is of immortal and mountainously enduring in Roethke’s art.      

Barillas places this as an epigraph for the collection. It sets high expectations for what follows. Those expectations are exceeded, and whatever assumptions some may make about Roethke, poets in general, or Poetry-writ-large are, thankfully, erased. A Field Guide to the Poetry of Theodore Roethke, like Roethke’s oeuvre itself, exemplifies what he hoped readers would find in his work: “…a poet of love, a poet of praise.”

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