Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Something Emotional

Okay, Everybody! You're back in form and ready to tackle something emotional.

Theodore Roethke suffered from depression -- depression the disease, not just unhappiness -- and said that he used the times when he was hospitalized to examine his own thinking. The result superficially resembles the Angst-y stuff that teenagers write, but differs from it in its clarity and (a word on this afterwards) honesty.

Note his dedication to form:

by Theodore Roethke

My secrets cry aloud.
I have no need for tongue,
My heart keeps open house,
My doors are widely swung.
An epic of the eyes
My love, with no disguise.

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Form first: Rhyme scheme ABABCC. You'll notice that while some of the rhymes are strong and clear (tongue/swung, eyes/disguise), others don't quite rhyme (aloud/house, cry/agony) -- there are various terms for this, but let's not bother learning the jargon. To understand why Roethke did this, we have to look at the substance of the poem.

I'm going to tell nothing but the truth, the poet says. No disguise, no evasion. I'm naked, the doors of my house are open. BUT THEN he says that the anger of the things he's talking about doesn't go away... and that rage silences him and turns his poems into "witless agony" -- expressions of suffering that don't actually offer insight.

To write as he wants, he says, he has to work through and get beyond the anger. Rage sheds heat, but not light.

Roethke suffered a lot. All right, he said, that's what I've got to work with, so I'll make poetry out of it. Even if, as here, the insight offered is how hard it is to do that very thing.

And those off-rhymes? All for truth. Roethke loved the formal aspects of poetry. He sacrificed the rhymes in service of the truth.

Tomorrow: An optimistic poem!

All best,


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