Saturday, July 12, 2008

An Unfortunate Afflatus

Dear All:

A quick one today, from Theodore Roethke, who filled the role of modern Twentieth Century poet neatly: tormented, eaten away by the need for fame, suffering from depression, an alcoholic, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1954. Back then, it was thought a poet had to be seriously screwed up, if he was to be any good at all.

From the Web:

Although no one should wish a mental disorder on anyone, Roethke seemed to find inspiration in his depression, using the time to search his psyche for the meaning of his existence. Roethke said himself that within his bouts of mental breakdowns for which he was hospitalized, he would explore his thinking, analyzing his condition and using his insight as material for his poetry. His poetry is, therefore, very personal and introspective, expressed in themes of the tortured soul, searching for the self, connecting with the smallest of creatures, a vision of a dance, swirling with partners.

And here's one of his poems, which we have reason to believe is autobiographical:

by Theodore Roethke

The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,

My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,

The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,

[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.]

I've got two comments here. Imprimis, the first line of the poem is terrible! Dreadful! A godawful miscalculation on Roethke's part. I'm sure it's carefully observed. Back when he was a kid, they wore huge loose trousers, yes, and doubtless when he climbed atop the greenhouse the wind went up the legs and ballooned out the seat. But on first glance, it's hard not to read that line as indicating that the kid has truly heroic flatulence. And the rest of the poem has to overcome the corrosive power of that image.

What right do I have to say such terrible things about a famous poet? Same right you have. I'm a reader. And in the long run, our opinion is what matters.

Secundus, note the poem's ending. After some gritty, involving detail (the feel of shards and dried putty underfoot, the glare of the glass, the trees plunging in the wind) that really puts you there in the kid's place, he ends with the people below pointing up and shouting. There's a wild exultation in that line, and the brilliance of it is that you read it two ways: From the adults' point of view, fearing the kid will fall through the glass and suffer terrible injury or even die. And from the boy's point of view, thinking everyone is shouting and pointing from astonishment and admiration.

From this point, you can go on to sermonize for hours about adults and children, differences of perception (a friend told me of the time her three-year-old climbed out on the porch roof and how, when she asked her five-year-old why he didn't run to tell her, he said, "But Mom! Spider-Man was going to swoop down and rescue him!"), the fragility of the world, etc., etc. But none of it is necessary. It's all contained within those seven lines, waiting to be unpacked.

A pity about the flatulence, though.

All best,


No comments: