Sunday, January 9, 2011

About Flowers & Trains

Couple of poems to consider. Theodore Roethke is a name that eluded me for a long time, and of course that is my unfortunate loss. He is a prize winning poet with a considerable body of work spread over eleven collections of poetry, two of those written especially for children. His collection, The Waking was winner of the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Roethke had an often difficult life and died of a heart attack in 1963 at the age of 55. For many years before his death he battled severe depression sometimes causing hospitalization. At other times in his life alcohol was a problem, but through these difficulties he continued to write.

He was born in Saginaw, Michigan where he passed his childhood and youth in his uncle’s greenhouse observing the cycles of flowering life all around him, and it is easy to see this background in his work. Perhaps the outstanding characteristic of a Roethke poem is its rhythm and natural imagery.

Here are two of his poems, the first from a 1941 collection, Open House.


Now as the train bears west,
Its rhythm rocks the earth,
And from my Pullman berth
I stare into the night
While others take their rest.
Bridges of iron lace,
A suddenness of trees,
A lap of mountain mist
All cross my line of sight,
Then a bleak wasted place,
And a lake below my knees.
Full on my neck I feel
The straining at a curve;
My muscles move with steel,
I wake in every nerve.
I watch a beacon swing
From dark to blazing bright;
We thunder through ravines
And gullies washed with light.
Beyond the mountain pass
Mist deepens on the pane;
We rush into a rain
That rattles double glass.
Wheels shake the roadbed stone,
The pistons jerk and shove,
I stay up half the night.
To see the land I love.

The second is from his 1964 collection, The Far Field.


When I put her out, once, by the garbage pail,

She looked so limp and bedraggled,

So foolish and trusting, like a sick poodle,

Or a wizened aster in late September,

I brought her back in again

For a new routine—

Vitamins, water, and whatever

Sustenance seemed sensible

At the time: she’d lived

So long on gin, bobbie pins, half-smoked cigars, dead beer,

Her shriveled petals falling

On the faded carpet, the stale

Steak grease stuck to her fuzzy leaves.

(Dried out, she creaked like a tulip.)

The things she endured!—

The dumb dames shrieking half the night

or the two of us, alone, both seedy,

Me breathing booze at her,

She leaning out of her pot toward the window.

Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me—

And that was scary—

So when that snuffling cretin of a maid

Threw her, pot and all, into the trash-can,

I said nothing.

But I sacked the presumptuous hag the next week,

I was that lonely.

Both poems are included in Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting poems, both of which reflect his background that your blog gave us. I liked both of them very much. Beverly


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America