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  • Writer's pictureKristina Andersson Bicher

Returning to Roethke...

I recently shared some thoughts about Roethke with readers of Plume Poetry

August, 2017

Readers: Welcome to Plume, Issue 73

August: and a bit of news to follow, but, first, our “secret poem,” a splendid appreciation of Theodore Roethke’s “Root Cellar” by recent Plume contributor Kristina Bicher (How to Get Divorced): Returning to Roethke I don’t know why the summer’s got me thinking of Theodore Roethke’s poems. Maybe it’s all this digging in the garden with bare hands (I hate gloves). Or maybe some life-stuff I’ve been chewing over of late. But some days, slick brainy poems just don’t satisfy. Some days, I murmur, as if in prayer: Snail, snail, glister me forward, Bird, soft-sigh me home. Worm, be with me. This is my hard time. I can’t say whether or not Roethke’s been forgotten; for me, he never left. Poet James Dickey once called Roethke “the greatest poet this country has yet produced.” Auden acclaimed the success of Roethke’s first book Open House in 1941. A celebrated teacher, his students included James Wright, Carolyn Kizer, Jack Gilbert, David Wagoner and Richard Hugo. His book The Waking won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 and two later poetry collections garnered National Book Awards. So here, to dirty your hands, is Root Cellar, from Roethke’s second collection published in 1948. This poem is stuffed to the gills, brimming with vegetal rot, pulsing with latency. Textured with sight, sound and smell (“what a congress of stinks!”), this poem enacts the visceral repulsion and terror a child might experience upon finding their parents naked having sex. In a mere 11 lines, Roethke gives us the Garden of Eden, the forest primeval. Fear, loathing, death, rebirth, and even post-coital onions (“lolling obscenely…hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes”)! “Nothing would sleep,” the poem begins. No, indeed. Root Cellar is both tangible and mysterious, with intriguing negations, personifications and imagery. The poem succeeds because of the ways language and music are put in service of the territory it explores. This poem is fed by diction, beat and sound— stocked with nouns and adjectives and comprised of mostly monosyllabic words. It’s rich in alliteration and assonance, rife with both internal and end-rhyme and plastered with hard consonants. Overall, the poem begs to be read slowly, with lines like “pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich” and “roots ripe as old bait.” These words stick in the mouth. Yet after all its trudging, the poem ends on a delicate note: “Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.” What finesse, to truncate breathing into breath, exchange the long ‘e’ for a short. One can’t help but say breath with a slight exhale. And what rapture to think of the dirt, which is to say the whole of the earth, taking a wee sip of air. Roethke emerged as a poet right after modernism rocked the poetry world; but he forsook its cool mumbo-jumbo. Open House cleared a path to confessionalism with the first line from the title poem: “My secrets cry aloud.” And though William Carlos Williams had recently declared the rose to be obsolete, Roethke waded right back into the natural world seeking images and objects that could embody his central dramas. Stanley Kunitz, a friend and admirer, called him a “shambling giant.” But despite his stature, his gaze was not into the ether but downward, inward. Excavation was his method. Primarily concerned with childhood, family history and the human psyche, what better metaphor than the root: the elemental will to “be,” urgent, hell-bent on life. “Root” carries other meanings, such as the foundation or genesis of an idea or culture. In music, it’s the fundamental note of a chord. As a verb, it is to rummage, ransack, delve, dig, grope. Wrote Roethke in his poem Cuttings (later): I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing, in my veins, in my bones I feel it,— And so can we.

Root Cellar Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch, Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark, Shoots dangled and drooped, Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates, Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes. And what a congress of stinks!— Roots ripe as old bait, Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich, Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks. Nothing would give up life: Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath. Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) was born in Saginaw, Michigan to German immigrants who owned and operated a plant nursery business there. He wrote six volumes of acclaimed poetry and three books of verse oriented toward children. He was a highly-regarded teacher and two books featuring his prose and thoughts on craft have been published. Roethke won a Pulitzer Prize (for The Waking), two National Book Awards (for Words for the Wind and The Far Field) and was awarded the Bollingen Prize. Roethke taught at Michigan State College, (present-day Michigan State University) and at colleges in Pennsylvania and Vermont, before joining the faculty of the University of Washington at Seattle in 1947.

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