Regions of the Self: Theodore Roethke's North American Sequence
Frank J. Kearful
Born in 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan, Theodore Roethke during the course of his writing life wrote a number of poems which might safely be placed in an anthology of "Midwestern Poetry" or "Michigan Poetry." Poems like "Mid-Country Blow," "In Praise of Prairie," "Highway: Michigan," suggestively evoke the Midwest and Michigan which Roethke knew as a child. His light-verse "Saginaw Song," however, a coarsely funny satiric tribute to his Michigan hometown, doubtless would have more difficulty securing a place in a local anthology. Roethke, to be sure, cannot be called a "regionalist" poet in any customary sense of the word. He was no local-color versifier but, as I intend to show in this essay, "rootedness" was for Theodore Roethke more than a shopworn cliché or a dead metaphor.
Roethke's grandfather, Wilhelm, and along with him his wife and three sons, had moved to Saginaw from Germany in 1872. There he built up what in Roethke's childhood had become a domain extending to some twenty-five acres with a quarter of a million feet under glass. When in his poetry Roethke returned to his roots it was above all to this greenhouse world of his father, Otto a world and a region unto itself, along with the game preserve, the field and the woods beyond it containing, as Roethke later recounted, "the largest stand of virgin timber in the Saginaw Valley." Poems like "Cuttings," "Cuttings (later)," "Root Cellar," "Weed Puller," "Transplanting," and "Flower Dump" reveal a knowledge of "Nature" and of "roots" utterly unique in American poetry. In Roethke's second volume of poetry, The Lost Son and Other Poems, published in 1948, that world becomes a region of the self.
But Roethke, who taught at the University of Washington, in Seattle, from 1948 to his death in 1963, also became closely associated with another geographical region, the Pacific Northwest. The flowering that was to become known as "Pacific Northwest Poetry" was largely due to Roethke's remarkable influence as a poet and impact as a teacher. Yet Roethke himself was as little a Pacific Northwest regionalist poet, in any customary sense, as he was a Midwest or Michigan regionalist poet, or, for that matter, an academic poet.
In North American Sequence, published posthumously in The Far Field, in 1964, a year after his death, Roethke returns once again, for the last time, to the greenhouse world of childhood. He does so now, however, within the expansive context of the entire North American continent. The sequence of six long poems, each a sequence in itself, is filled with journeys journeys within and across the continent and, simultaneously, journeys of and within the self. In its larger movement the North American Sequence is a journey westward, to the Pacific Northwest, and to the ultimate place of the self, Puget Sound, the place where salt and fresh waters meet.
The condition of the self at the outset, in the initial poem of the sequence, "The Longing," is one of spiritual lassitude and sensual emptiness. If the biblical kingdom of God is within you, the kingdom within the self has now become "a kingdom of stinks and sighs" (l. 2). The plight of the self, debilitated, loathing itself and mocking its own lamentations, is projected in an image in which both "raw cities" and "the great trees" are polluted:
In a bleak time, when a week of rain is a year,
The slag-heaps fume at the edge of the raw cities:
The gulls wheel over their singular garbage;
The great trees no longer shimmer;
Not even the soot dances. (ll. 13-17)
"In a bleak time, when a week of rain is a year" will strike a melancholy chord in the breast of anyone who has lived in Seattle. While "the great trees" are perhaps also suggestive of the Pacific Northwest, Roethke's is an ectype of a generic American image suggesting the man-made destruction of the garden in which the American Adam has been placed the famous descriptive passage of industrial pollution in Chapter 2 of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, for example, comes readily to mind in association with Roethke's activation of the generic image.
The source of such pollution is, characteristically, within the self, the kingdom of God within having become a fetid "kingdom of stinks and sighs." Even the voicing of one's own misery becomes, in the self-mocking words of an alcoholic poet, "Saliva dripping from warm microphones, / Agony of crucifixion on barstools" (ll. 5-6). The speaker's gradual, shaky recovery from his own wretchedness commences in Section 2 of the poem, in which the distraught speaker's blank verse rhetoric, echoing the declamatory monologue of the Elizabethan stage, begins with a couplet expressing his awareness that his spiritual malaise ("wretchedness") is a possession of the wretched person, which he in a perversely paradoxical sense "needs."
A wretch needs his wretchedness. Yes.
O pride, thou art a plume upon whose head? (ll. 24-25)
Displaying an Elizabethan fondness for proverbs "A wretch needs his wretchedness" is in the rhetorical mode of the biblical Book of Proverbs the couplet draws upon the traditional moral commonplace that pride, paradoxically, is the source of despair, and thus of the sinner's wretchedness. The remainder of section 2 of "The Longing," to which the couplet is prologue, highly charged with paradox and classical rhetorical figures, concludes in that most Roethkean profession of faith:
Out of these nothings
All beginnings come. (ll. 37-38)
Section 3 (ll. 39-60) breaks into Whitmanlike long-lined free verse to express the speaker's longing for release from his wretchedness, a release from the dankness within the self, which will enable him to discover "the imperishable quiet at the heart of form" (l. 45). This internal longed-for discovery is hymned in graduated parison: I would unlearn, I would believe, I would delight, until, finally, I would be, and, I would love.
I would with the fish, the blackening salmon, and the mad lemmings,
The children dancing, the flowers widening.
Who sighs from far away?
I would unlearn the lingo of exasperation, all the distortions of malice and hatred;
I would believe my pain: and the eye quiet on the growing rose;
I would delight in my hands, the branch singing, altering the excessive bird;
I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form;
I would be a stream, winding between great striated rocks in late summer;
A leaf, I would love the leaves, delighting in the redolent disorder of this mortal life,
This ambush, this silence,
Where shadow can change into flame,
And the dark be forgotten.
I have left the body of the whale, but the mouth of the night is still wide;
On the Bullhead, in the Dakotas, where the eagles eat well,
In the country of few lakes, in the tall buffalo grass at the base of the clay buttes,
In the summer heat, I can smell the dead buffalo,
The stench of their damp fur drying in the sun,
The buffalo chips drying. (ll. 39-56)
A Jonah now cast upon land, the speaker tempers newly-acquired self-assurance with an awareness that his night journey is only beginning, "the mouth of the night is still wide." The dark cannot yet "be forgotten."
With this realization comes a transposition "On the Bullhead, in the Dakotas, where the eagles eat well" to the first of the sequence's many North American regions, symbolic landscapes in which the self seeks to fulfill its longings. In this initial finding of self within the North American landscape, "in the country of few lakes," the emphasis is more on death than on life, on earth rather than water. However polluted, however perverse, even as expressed in the saliva dripping from warm microphones, there had been in section 1 something of an emphasis on water, on liquid, indirectly even in the smell of the "dead fish" or the "gulls" wheeling over their "singular garbage." The initial line of section 3 also indirectly evoked associations with water: "I would with the fish, the blackening salmon, and the mad lemmings." The fish is no longer "dead," and "the blackening salmon" carries associations of both fresh and salt water, and of life as well as death. The line concludes, however, rushing to its end, with a death-wish longing to be with "the mad lemmings." Immobile at the beginning of the poem, undergoing "agony of crucifixion on barstools," the speaker, if still afflicted with his own wretchedness, has now begun to figure himself in movement. In the lines following, his longings gather momentum to culminate in a deep central longing: "I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form." The twin longings, for movement vivifying if death-shadowed, and for an ultimate quiet composing movement, are beautifully expressed in the complex image of the self's yearning, "I would be a stream, winding between great striated rocks in late summer" (l. 46). The subsequent release from the body of the whale "On the Bullhead, in the Dakotas, where the eagles eat well" no shortage of carrion presumably is for the self-pitying drinker of section 1, the rhetorical declaimer of section 2, and the lyrically longing if still incapacitated self of the first portion of section 3 a necessary drying out in the North American landscape of the Dakotas. The sojourn of the self in the wilderness ends with the smell of death, and in cadenced ploce on "drying" "In the summer heat, I can smell the dead buffalo, / The stench of their damp fur drying in the sun, / The buffalo chips drying" (ll. 54-56).
As if in preparation for his North American journeys of the self now before him, in the brief quatrain with which the poem concludes Roethke allies himself with the Native American:
Old men should be explorers?
I'll be an Indian.
Iroquois. (ll. 57-60)
Roethke is also echoing curtly the concluding lines of "East Coker," the second poem in T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets:
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In the end is my beginning.
One can read Roethke's North American Sequence as, among other things, a poetic reply to Eliot's explorations of the self in Four Quartets. Roethke's explorations take him from his Midwest origins of the self as child to the farthest edge of the Pacific Northwest and the mature self, from the paternally nurtured roses of the Michigan greenhouse to a single wild rose rooted in stone facing the sea wind. Eliot's journey is a journey eastward, also away from the Midwest but toward Europe and the England in which Tom Eliot, born and bred in Saint Louis, Missouri, finds a spiritual self. Furthermore, Eliot's journey of the self into a condition of spirit is ultimately a journey of transcendence, into "another intensity" in which "here or there" does not matter. In Roethke it does.
In responding to the concluding passage in East Coker Roethke not only spurns Eliot's portentous rhetoric and rarefied mysticism, he deliberately associates himself with the continent's "primitive" inhabitants. It is not so much a donning of Indian costume Roethke does not in fact play Indian in the North American Sequence that the speaker announces at the end of "The Longing" as it is a longed-for spiritual identification with the North American continent which might heal the malaise of the self he finds himself in at the outset of the sequence. Roethke is also, at the same time, associating himself with a long tradition in American literature in which a would-be American Adam seeks to recover a true self through a return to an unspoiled North American continent.
In allying himself with the Iroquois of the lakes over the Ogalala of the plains Roethke also allies himself with a fundamental movement of the sequence, toward water. As Hugh B. Staples suggested in a seminal essay, North American Sequence is structured as a sequence of alternating opposites, earth and water being the most fundamental. "The Longing," the thematic overture in, as Staples puts it, Roethke's tone poem, sounds the earth/water antithesis in its juxtaposition of the Ogalala and the Iroquois. If one places "The Longing" in its immediate historical context it was first published, as a separate poem, in the Times Literary Supplement of November 6, 1959 one need not, however, read Roethke's identification with the Iroquois as simply an identification with the continent's aboriginal "primitive" inhabitants nor as a preferred term in a schematic water/earth dialectic at the expense of the Ogalala. A kind of nationalist movement under the leadership of Mad Bear, a Tuscarora Indian, had begun among the Iroquois, who were becoming vocal about their land claims in the face of the U.S. government's plans to go ahead with water projects in New York State, among them the implementation of a flood-control dam, the Kinzua Dam, on the Allegheny River. In 1959, in another kind of "regionalist" movement of sorts, the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario declared its independence from Canada. Given the North American political climate in 1959 and the role the Iroquois were playing, Roethke's allying himself with the Iroquois may be read as a consciously defiant gesture. Rather than contradicting his putative solipsism, such a gesture would affirm his tendency to "interiorize" whatever is in the outside world into images of and for the self.
Such a "political" reading of "Iroquois" at once the final word and the final line in "The Longing" need not, of course, disrupt an alternating water/earth pulsation in North American Sequence. The titles of the following four poems alternatingly proclaim a primary identification either with water or with earth. Thus the reader journeys from "Meditation at Oyster River" to a "Journey to the Interior," from "The Long Waters" to "The Far Field." In "The Rose" there occurs a reconciliation of opposites, including water and earth. But such a schematic view of the sequence does not sufficiently take into account the movement toward water in each of the six poems. Ultimately the most fundamental, and most potent, of all apparent opposites, which coalesce in the concluding poem, "The Rose," is that of fresh water and salt water.
"Meditation at Oyster River"
The potency of water as a spiritual element within the self longing for recovery is powerfully suggested in the second poem in North American Sequence, "Meditation at Oyster River." The external place of meditation, named in the title, a place where fresh and salt waters meet, a Pacific Northwesterner will identify as Oyster River on Vancouver Island. At 49° 52' 00" North and 125° 07' 00'' West, the river, whose mouth is twenty-five kilometers south of the Campbell River, flows from the east coast of Vancouver Island into the Georgia Strait. This Canadian Pacific Northwest setting, in an area known both for its fresh and saltwater fishing, extends the North American Sequence beyond the continent's US borders Washington State can boast of an Oysterville but no Oyster River. Vancouver Island lies to the north, however, of waterways and smaller islands extending northwards from Seattle and Puget Sound, and the setting as rendered in the poem adumbrates that of "The Rose."
In section 3 of the "Meditation at Oyster River," the speaker returns in memory to the interior of the North American continent and to the fresh waters of his Michigan childhood.
In this hour,
In the first heaven of knowing,
The flesh takes on the pure poise of the spirit,
Acquires, for a time, the sandpiper's insouciance,
The hummingbird's surety, the kingfisher's cunning
I shift on my rock and I think:
Of the first trembling of a Michigan brook in April,
Over a lip of stone, the tiny rivulet;
And that wrist-thick cascade tumbling from a cleft rock,
Its spray holding a double rain-bow in early morning,
Small enough to be taken in, embraced, by two arms,
Or the Tittebawasee, in the time between winter and spring,
When the ice melts along the edges in early afternoon.
And the midchannel begins cracking and heaving from the pressure beneath,
The ice piling high against the iron-bound spiles,
Gleaming, freezing hard again, cracking at midnight
And I long for the blast of dynamite,
The sudden sucking roar as the culvert loosens its debris of branches and sticks,
Welter of tin cans, pails, old bird nests, a child's shoe riding a log,
As the piled ice breaks away from the battered spiles,
And the whole river begins to move forward, its bridges shaking. (ll. 36-56)
Roethke's wishful transformation of himself in "The Longing" into "a stream, winding between great striated rocks in late summer" acceded to a preparatory initial "drying out" process undergone in the Dakotas, "in the country of few lakes." Now, in "Meditation at Oyster River," in the first of the speaker's extended journeys backward in time, to Roethke's Michigan childhood, his meditation begins with "the first tremblings of a Michigan brook in April" (line 42) finally to culminate in the Tittebawasee's energies released as "the whole river begins to move forward, its bridges shaking." In Roethke's symbolic enactment of the psychic rebirth of self, of spirit working, debris carried along by the quickening water, the emphasis, as so often in his poetry, is on beginnings, beginnings in which fear is assimilated in and by movement, beginning with a "first trembling." In the present passage initial "trembling" culminates in bridges "shaking," reaffirming another Roethkean paradox in the self's encounters with its own fear and trembling: "this shaking keeps me steady" as he declares in his villanelle "The Waking."
The Tittebewassee, which flows through Roethke's childhood hometown, Saginaw, is, then, one of two rivers in "Meditation at Oyster River." It is, in geographical and psychic senses, an "interior river," the river of childhood to which the meditating speaker now at the northwest edge of the continent, but facing east, meditating on last things, finds access. Within himself a kind of confluence of waters occurs given Roethke's mystical bent and reading in the mystics the four waters of the spirit of which Theresa of Avila writes in her spiritual autobiography come to mind beginning with "the first tide ripples" (Section 1, l. 2) which now in Section 2 summon forth in memory "the first trembling of a Michigan brook in April." The poem, crafted so that several imagistic and linguistic motifs link Oyster River and the Tittebewassee, itself shall prove to be an anticipation of the ultimate confluence of salt and fresh waters in "The Rose." The rock on which the speaker sits meditating, where Oyster River and the Georgia Strait meet, and the "cleft rock" of the waters of youth internally evoked in meditation, shall in "The Rose" become that rock facing the sea in which grows the single wild rose. That single wild rose, a final heroic image of the self, will itself evoke the roses of paternally governed childhood greenhouse. In Roethke's North American Sequence all regions of the self come, at last, to cohere.
Although sometimes explicitly identified by name, the "regions" which the poems in North American Sequence bring to consciousness in the protagonist are essentially internal meditative images. The implied present "real time" of the sequence is within the speaker's self, even as its "real places" are also essentially within the self, compositions of place of the self in meditation. One might sorely be tempted to call Roethke in contrast, say, to Robert Frost or to Elizabeth Bishop a "solipsistic poet," and perhaps in some senses he is. But as Stephen Spender argued in an early essay on Roethke "The Objective Ego," Roethke "in his concentration on his own experience, his complete identification of the 'I' with the surrounding objects seems nearer than any other poet but Rimbaud himself to what Rimbaud called 'objective poetry.' . . . In Roethke the not-I the things outside him seem to become him, or he to become them; yet, although outside, they come into being through the processes of his profound subjectivity." In North American Sequence Roethke's "objective ego," gaining strength through its identification with Whitman's, ranges freely in imagined time and place within the regions of the self, which are perceived "objectively" in symbolic internal landscapes and seascapes of the North American continent.
"Journey to the Interior"
A recurrent movement toward water even in those poems in North American Sequence whose major focus is earth asserts itself in a key passage in the third poem of the sequence, "Journey to the Interior." Section 2 enacts another return to the Michigan and the Midwest of Roethke's childhood and youth. In doing so it becomes not only a journey into the past and thus a journey to the interior of the self which, paradoxically, is a necessary precondition to the "long journey out of the self (l. 1) it becomes also an extended journey across the North American continent:
I remember how it was to drive in gravel,
Watching for dangerous down-hill places, where the wheels whined beyond eighty
When you hit the deep pit at the bottom of the swale,
The trick was to throw the car sideways and charge over the hill, full of the throttle.
Grinding up and over the narrow road, spitting and roaring.
A chance? Perhaps. But the road was part of me, and its ditches,
And the dust lay thick on my eyelids,Who ever wore goggles?
Always a sharp turn to the left past a barn close to the roadside,
To a scurry of small dogs and a shriek of children,
The highway ribboning out in a straight thrust to the North,
To the sand dunes and fish flies, hanging, thicker than moths,
Dying brightly under the street lights sunk in coarse concrete,
The towns with their high pitted road-crowns and deep gutters,
Their wooden stores of silvery pine and weather-beaten red courthouses,
An old bridge below with a buckled iron railing, broken by some idiot plunger;
Underneath, the sluggish water running between weeds, broken wheels, tires, stones.
And all flows past
The cemetery with two scrubby trees in the middle of the prairie,
The dead snakes and muskrats, the turtles gasping in the rubble,
The spikey purple bushes in the winding dry creek bed
The floating hawks, the jackrabbits, the grazing cattle
I am not moving but they are,
And the sun comes out of a blue cloud over the Tetons,
While, farther away, the heat-lightning flashes.
I rise and fall in the slow sea of a grassy plain,
The wind veering the car slightly to the right,
Whipping the line of white laundry, bending the cottonwoods apart,
The scraggly wind-break of a dusty ranch-house.
I rise and fall, and time folds
Into a long moment;
And I hear the lichen speak,
And the ivy advance with its white lizard feet
On the shimmering road,
On the dusty detour. (ll. 18-51)
Section 2 of "Journey to the Interior" is one of several journeys in the sequence "I dream of journeys repeatedly" is how Roethke begins "The Far Field" written in a dreamlike mode which at times employs virtually cinematic techniques ("I am not moving but they are"). These dreamlike journeys to the interior regions of the self, in the form of journeys across and within the North American continent, are composed of memory, movement, and upon occasion a vision in which movement and stillness coalesce in a transforming moment. The transforming moment in the present passage, a passage which begins in gravel and ends in dust, occurs in the instant when "I rise and fall in the slow sea of a grassy plain." The two alternating elements of the sequence, water and earth, here metaphorically combine, as the madcap movement of the self originally undertaken as a daredevil automobile journey passively gives way internally to the rising and falling movement of the slow sea of a grassy plain. Even as the external journey continues the inward rocking movement continues, until "I rise and fall, and time folds / Into a long moment." Roethke's journeys to the interior of the self, in which mystical vision may occur, never are permitted to become fully transcendent of the external animate world. In the vision of "a slow sea of a grassy plain" the eye remains focused on a North American plain, the wind blowing the tall grass in wavelike motion. In time's "long moment" motion continues.
Time throughout the passage is fluid even as the North American landscape is a shifting geographical scenario of the self's journey in time, which can be traced in the sequence of tenses Roethke employs. Beginning in the simple past tense, the journey picks up speed in a succession of present participles, until it arrives at a present tense of the spirit "And all flows past" which persists throughout the remaining lines, attaining a kind of eternal present in which "I rise and fall, and time folds / Into a long moment." During this temporal spiritual journey of the self, the North American landscape also flows within the mind's eye. The journey begins as a recollection of youthful reckless driving decades ago, the aside "Who ever wore goggles?" evoking the era of the early open-air roadster of Roethke's youth and of reckless driving on local dirt roads as "the dust lay thick on my eyelids," dust being a motif which will recur later in time and space as "a dusty ranch house" momentarily appearing in the temporal and spatial journey of the self "On the shimmering road, / On the dusty detour." Here, at the beginning of the journey, it is the world of the early twentieth-century Midwest which is cinematically evoked. The presence of death, and a death-wish spurring on the youthful driver, is suggested in several images, culminating in his arrival at "An old bridge below with a buckled iron railing, broken by some idiot plunger." At this point it is a vision of water, albeit of "sluggish water running between weeds, broken wheels, tires, stones," which leads, after the silence and stillness of a sentence break, to the stationary calm moment, with something of a wordplay on past, in the seventeenth line of the thirty-four line journey, "And all flows past".
Death now, at midpoint in the journey, becomes iconic in "The cemetery with two scrubby trees in the middle of the prairie." Precisely at this point the lines begin to move westward across the continent in imagistic associations until "the sun comes out of a blue cloud over the Tetons, / While, farther away, the heat-lightning flashes." This movement westward, from the middle of the prairie at the middle of the passage, recapitulating the movement westward in Roethke's own life, the heat lightning now flashing even farther westward, becomes for a moment metaphorically transformed into water in a line discussed above, "I rise and fall in the slow sea of a grassy plain." Once again, the sequence's fundamental trope toward water asserts itself. Even in its journeys to the interior on its dusty detours the sequence continues to move toward water as the element of spiritual fulfillment. But such moments in Roethke's poetry, especially those poems in North American Sequence whose emphasis is primarily earth rather than water, are only moments. What immediately follows returns the speaker to his role of driver, "the wind veering the car slightly to the right." No longer impelled by the frenetic death-wish of youth, the mortal driver is no longer depicted as urging his car to greater and greater speed. It is now the wind, the wind blowing through this bare western landscape, which leads to the second "I rise and fall" of the passage (l. 25: "I rise and fall in the slow sea of a grassy plain," l. 29: "I rise and fall, and time folds"). Beyond the Tetons now, in this second epiphany of rising and falling, movement and stillness, youthful Midwestern images and motifs are revised. Before, the foolhardy youthful driver deliberately threw the car sideways; now it is the wind which causes it to veer. And whereas he always made "a sharp turn to the left," now it is the wind which veers the car "slightly to the right." In place of "the cemetery with two scrubby trees in the middle of the prairie" there is now the wind "Whipping the line of white laundry, bending the cottonwoods apart, / The scraggly wind-break of a dusty ranch house." The line of white laundry whipping in the wind an image containing an indirect allusion to water and, if one will, to cleansing and purification suggests, along with the cottonwoods bending apart but not falling and "a dusty ranch house" standing against the wind, persistent human survival rather than the manic death-wish impulses of youth.
The first epiphanic moment is visual, "a slow sea of a grassy plain." The second "words for the wind," to quote an earlier Roethke title is aural: "I hear the lichen speak, / And the ivy advance on its white lizard feet." The motif of dust dust to dust, ashes to ashes is laid to rest in a "shimmering" image: "On the shimmering road, / On the dusty detour." Such writing, here and throughout this 34-line passage constituting section 2 of "Journey to the Interior," is hardly the sort of descriptive regional writing of cross-country "symbolic travel" of, say, John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. One could not precisely plot its course of movement on a map: when early in the passage the highway is "ribboning out in a straight thrust to the North" I construe it as heading toward Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron, if not indeed heading from Alma northwards straight to the top of upper Michigan where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet. There is, however, as the passage develops, a continental movement westward. Furthermore, the passage is composed precisely of two halves: the first with a focus on youth and the Midwest, the second moving away from youth and the Midwest toward age and the West, away from the manic death-wish impulses of youth to the seasoned heroism of age. This may not be Steinbeck but it is Roethke.
"The Long Waters"
The fourth poem in Roethke's North American Sequence begins playfully, lightheartedly, humorously, jokingly in a fashion entirely unlike the self-lacerating self-mockery of the opening section of "The Longing."
Whether the bees have thoughts, we cannot say,
But the hind part of the worm wiggles the most,
Minnows can hear, and butterflies, yellow and blue,
Rejoice in the language of smells and dancing,
Therefore I reject the world of the dog
Though he hear a note higher than C
And the thrush stopped in the middle of his song. (ll. 1-7)
The question posed in the initial line, playfully solemn, is not answered in the second line for "we cannot say." But there are things we can say, things we do know, questions de rerum natura which the human mind can satisfactorily answer. Such as which end of the worm wiggles the most? Not only that, we know that "Minnows can hear, and butterflies, yellow and blue, / Rejoice in the language of smells and dancing." But there are limits to our knowledge, and there are limits to be observed in our yearning for perception, awareness, and knowledge beyond the human, symbolized here in the sounds only dogs can hear and in that "sound" of the thrush stopped in the middle of his song.
Roethke's genuine mystical bent evident in much of his most characteristic work was, on occasion, accompanied by bouts of mental illness. The attractions of intense mystical experience, particularly as self-induced for purposes of poetic inspiration and composition, Roethke knew and acknowledged. Self-irony can be a comic saving grace, as is gaily demonstrated by the speaker in Roethke's Meditations of an Old Woman. Here, in "The Long Waters," Roethke's playful acknowledgment of human limits is followed by another verse paragraph in which the speaker, now having advanced on his spiritual journey a considerable distance, acknowledges temptations felt to spiritual pride, that most deadly of sins, which may manifest itself either in despair as at the outset of "The Longing" or in the sort of longing for extremes and "foolishness with God" to which Roethke now confesses:
And I acknowledge my foolishness with God
My desire for the peaks, the black ravines, the rolling mists
Changing with every twist of wind,
The unsinging fields where no lungs breathe,
Where light is stone.
I return where fire has been,
To the charred edge of the sea
Where the yellowish prongs of grass poke through the blackened ash,
And the bunched logs peel in the afternoon sunlight,
Where the fresh and salt waters meet,
And the sea-winds move through the pine trees,
A country of bays and inlets, and small streams flowing seaward. (ll. 8-19)
The first sentence, composed in the language of spiritual allegory, summons up a terrain which Bunyan's Christian would tread most warily as offering obvious invitations to spiritual pride. The second sentence, a movement once again toward water, recalls motifs introduced earlier in preceding poems, especially "Meditation at Oyster River," while also anticipating the region of the self finally to be attained in "The Rose," where, once again, "the fresh and salt waters meet." The reader of Roethke's sequence in this essay I can touch upon but a few passages gradually becomes familiar with such "regions" which the sequence endows with spiritual significance. Often enough they are associated with given regions of the North American continent, and sometimes they are given a local habitation and a name, but they are also constitutive elements in a modern spiritual journey, regions of the self the poet-creator calls into being.
Recurrent rhythms, images, and movements serve to animate his symbolic internal-external landscapes and seascapes. Throughout the sequence, even as it moves westwards and toward age, there are returns to the Midwest and to childhood. Return, here and elsewhere in Roethke's poetry, regularly entails regression, which, however, is a necessary prelude to progression. Roethke frequently employed paradox as a key to spiritual truth his villanelle "The Waking" is a concentrated series of such paradoxes and a central paradox he affirmed was the need to regress in order to progress. As he once put it in an "Open Letter":
I believe that to go forward as a spiritual man it is necessary first to go back. Any history of the psyche (or allegorical journey) is bound to be a succession of experiences. There is a perpetual slipping-back, then a going-forward; but there is some "progress." Are not some experiences so powerful and so profound that they repeat themselves, thrust themselves upon us, again and again, with variation and change, each time bringing us closer to our own most particular (and thus most universal) reality? We go, as Yeats said, from exhaustion to exhaustion. To begin from the depths and come out that is difficult; for few know where the depths are or can recognize them; or, if they do, are afraid.
Whatever "progress" the protagonist has made thus far in the sequence, the way is still long, and in "The Long Waters" the journey must of necessity also be a journey backwards, in memory, image by image, finally to the Midwest of Roethke's youth, to "the edge of a prairie lake":
In time when the trout and young salmon leap for the low-flying insects,
And the ivy-branch, cast to the ground, puts down roots into the sawdust,
And the pine, whole with its roots, sinks into the estuary,
Where it leans, tilted east, a perch for the osprey,
And a fisherman dawdles over a wooden bridge,
These waves, in the sun, remind me of flowers:
The lily's piercing white,
The mottled tiger, best in the corner in a damp place,
The heliotrope, veined like a fish, the persistent morning-glory,
And the bronze of a dead burdock at the edge of a prairie lake,
Down by the muck shrinking to the alkaline center. (ll. 33-43)
The passage gradually retreats and regresses from the actual external scene, as the speaker is led back in memory finally to the muck shrinking to the alkaline center of a prairie lake. Such retreats, such regressions of the spirit to regions within the self in which decay and death threaten to absorb the waters of life, must be undergone if one is to approach, finally, the place where salt and fresh waters meet and flow. Only after his return within himself to "the muck" does the protagonist, in the next verse paragraph, speak of the external scene from which he had retreated as "here," a landlocked bay in which "salt water is freshened / By small streams running down under fallen fir trees" (ll.47-48).
"The Far Field"
In "The Far Field," the penultimate and longest poem in North American Sequence, the emphasis turns once again to earth, and to the "far field" of Roethke's Saginaw, Michigan youth, the field beyond his father's greenhouse in which he worked as a child. Much of the poem vividly evokes this childhood setting. But as in all the poems of the sequence there occurs, as well, a movement toward water, toward a river, and, ultimately, toward the sea. This movement is darkly enacted in the opening lines of the poem:
I dream of journeys repeatedly:
Of flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel,
Of driving alone, without luggage, out a long peninsula,
The road lined with snow-laden second growth,
A fine dry snow ticking the windshield,
Alternate snow and sleet, no on-coming traffic,
And no lights behind, in the blurred side mirror,
The road changing from glazed tarface to a rubble of stone,
Ending at last in a hopeless sand-rut,
Where the car stalls,
Churning in a snowdrift
Until the headlights darken. (ll. 1-12)
The car journey in which the speaker has at intervals been engaged during the sequence, most sustainedly in "Journey to the Interior," comes now to apparent final rest, in an adumbration of death. No longer the death-defying death-wishing impetuous youthful driver, the protagonist is now completing his westward journey toward death. The remaining portion of the spiritual journey toward Puget Sound and "The Rose" can be read as an ars moriendi.
Section 2 of "The Far Field" returns to the far field of Roethke's youth, where he learned the elemental lessons of life, death, and rebirth in the natural world around him. Here, too, however, there is movement toward water, the most elemental region of being within the self. The motif of the "hopeless sand-rut" is taken up in the third stanza, in which the protagonist lies "naked in sand, / In the silted shallows of a slow river" (ll. 38-39). A return to childhood culminating in a ritualizing return naked to water "Or to sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire; / Or, with skinny knees, to sit astride a wet log" (ll. 44-45) restores to the aged man a fearlessness toward death, toward "The sprawl of the wave, / The on-coming water" (ll. 54-55). In section 3 the protagonist undergoes an extraordinary water-journey, to arrive at "a country half land, half water" (l. 76), an anticipation of that final northwest frontier he will attain to in "The Rose." Another anticipation, a fundamental orientation of the self confronting its own fears of dissolution, is declared, in section 4:
The lost self changes,
Turning toward the sea,
A sea-shape turning around,
An old man with his feet before the fire,
In robes of green, in garments of adieu. (ll. 82-86)
"The Rose" begins as "The Longing" ended, with a reply to the ending of Eliot's East Coker:
There are those to whom place is unimportant,
But this place, where sea and fresh water meet,
Is important (ll. 1-3)
To anyone who knows the Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula, "The Rose" is an extraordinarily evocative poem. But what most establishes the thisness of this place, this final good place of the Roethkean self, is the confluence of salt and fresh water. A motif sounded throughout the poem, this sacramental, healing meeting of the two may be taken as symbolizing a completion of the journey from the interior, whence fresh streams flow westward, to the sea and the mature self. Again and again Roethke emphasizes the thisness of the place, and with it the thisness of this rose, this one specific rose in one specific place. Motion and stillness, sound and silence, inner and outer are not so much opposites transcended, or fused, as co-existent aspects of this locus amoenus, whose focus is "this rose, this rose in the sea wind":
. . . this rose, this rose in the sea wind,
Stays in its true place,
Flowering out of the dark,
Widening at high noon, face upward,
A single wild rose, struggling out of the white embrace of the morning-glory,
Out of the briary hedge, the tangle of matted underbrush,
Beyond the clover, the ragged hay,
Beyond the sea pine, the oak, the wind-tipped madrona,
Moving with the waves, the undulating driftwood,
Where the slow creek winds down to the black sands of the shore
With its thick grassy scum and crabs scuttling back into their glistening craters. (ll. 38-49)
Visual perception of this single wild rose briefly evokes for the speaker memories of the roses in the Saginaw, Michigan greenhouse (ll. 50-54). The self "now turning toward the sea" is also a "sea-shape turning around." Past and present, child and adult, the Saginaw, Michigan greenhouse and the Pacific Northwest where salt and fresh waters meet are psychic regions to which it now has encompassing access.
In concentrated visual perception of "this rose," the speaker attains access to desire and memory within himself. Aural perception of "this silence" evokes, expansively, a Whitmanlike catalogue of the sounds of the North American continent:
What do they tell us, sound and silence?
I think of American sounds in this silence:
On the banks of the Tombstone, with wind-harps having their say,
The thrush singing alone, that easy bird,
The killdeer whistling away from me,
The mimetic chortling of the catbird
Down in the corner of the garden, among the raggedy lilacs,
The bobolink stirring from a broken fencepost,
The blueblood, lover of holes in old wood, lilting its light song,
And that thin cry, like a needle piercing the ear, the insistent cicada,
And the ticking of snow around oil drums in the Dakotas,
The thin whine of telephone wires in the wind of a Michigan winter,
The shriek of nails as old shingles are ripped from the top of a roof,
The bulldozer backing away, the hiss of the sandblaster,
And the deep chorus of horns coming up from the streets in early morning.
I return to the twittering of swallows above water,
And that sound, that single sound,
When the mind remembers all,
And gently the light enters the sleeping soul,
A sound so thin it could not woo a bird,
Beautiful my desire, and the place of my desire. (ll. 57-77)
Beginning in "this silence," Roethke's chorus of American sounds increases very gradually in volume, building ultimately to the loud noises of bulldozer, of sandblaster, of auto horns. Having reached this crescendo, this encompassing continental chorus, American sounds now diminish to the most minimal sound heard by the self in this place: "I return to the twittering of swallows above water." Beyond that sound there is yet another, a "single sound" within the self "when the mind remembers all / And gently the light enters the sleeping soul." The "place of my desire" is the most interior region of the self, where the sleeping soul is gently awakened by the light cast by a single sound "so thin it could not woo a bird."
The concluding section of "The Rose" reaffirms the thisness of "this place" where salt and fresh waters meet; where this rose in the sea wind is rooted in stone on a cliffside; where the self turning toward the sea is also a sea-shape turning. The condition of the self at the end of its journey westward from childhood to old age, from the paternally nurtured roses in the Michigan greenhouse to this single rose rooted in stone on a cliff facing the sea, from the self-lacerating malaise with which "The Longing" began to the serenity with which "The Rose" concludes is one of opposites reconciled, of peace, of harmony. The achievement of such harmony has required a process with returns and regressions of becoming at one with the continent itself. As Karl Malkoff has remarked, "Roethke, in a very important sense, is the North American continent."  Many an American Adam has preceded the protagonist of North American Sequence in a journey of healing of the self, and in doing so has entered the wilderness, or gone on the road, or glimpsed in a clearing the bear. Roethke found himself where he already was, in the Pacific Northwest.
1. As quoted in Alan Seager, The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke (New York: McGraw Hill, 1968) 12. Wilhelm Roethke had been a Hauptförster on the Pasewalk estate of the Gräfin von Arnim, where his wife had been a housekeeper. In 1870 he resigned his position and moved to Berlin, where he had a flower shop. In 1872 he left for America, with his wife and three sons, Emil, Karl, and Otto, then a baby. Otto, Roethke's father, married another child of German immigrants, Helen Huebner, in 1906. On Roethke's family on both sides, see Seager 9-17.2. All quotations from Roethke's poems are from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (New York: Doubleday, 1966)."The Longing" was first published in the Times Literary Supplement 6 Nov. 1959; "Meditation at Oyster River" in The New Yorker, 19 Nov. 1960; "Journey to the Interior" in The New Yorker, 7 Jan., 1961; "The Long Waters" in the The New Yorker, 2 June 1962; "The Far Field" in the Oct.-Dec. 1962 number of the Sewanee Review; and "The Rose" in The New Yorker, 6 July 1963. Roethke died of a heart attack, on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, in a swimming pool, floating face down, on August 1, 1963. 3. T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (London: Faber, 1974) 203-204. For a comprehensive study of Roethke's creative assimilations of Blake, Yeats, Whitman, Eliot and other poets, see Jennyjoy LaBelle, The Echoing Wood of Theodore Roethke (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976). 4. The classic account of the topic, influencing many later literary histories, is R.W.B. Lewis, The American Adam (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1955). 5. Hugh B. Staples, "The Rose in the Sea-Wind: A Reading of Theodore Roethke's 'North American Sequence,'" American Literature 36 (1964): 189-203. 6. My excursus on the political implications in 1959 of Roethke's alliance with the Iroquois I owe to Christoph Irmscher, who drew my attention to them. For the relevant historical backgrounds, see Edmund Wilson, Apologies to the Iroquois (New York: Random House, 1960). Wilson's impassioned book, which had a great impact on its many readers, appeared originally as an extended essay in 1959 in the The New Yorker, in its 17, 24, 31 Oct. and 7 Nov. issues. "Iroquois War on White Man's Law" was how Life titled its illustrated story (30 March 1959) while Newsweek announced "War on the reservation" (23 March 1959). Don Bogen in his Theodore Roethke and the Writing Process (Athens: Univ. of Ohio Press, 1991), based on close study of the extensive body of unpublished Roethke papers in the Roethke Collection at the Suzallo Library of the University of Washington, notes that "In his work on 'The Longing' Roethke began to expand his sense of American guilt and work toward an image which would counter the bleakness and brutality of modern existence. Several notebooks include reading notes on books about American Indian life as well as drafts of the scene that concludes the poem (TR 41-181, 41-182, 41-184)" (148). At the time of his death Roethke was planning a new poem which would confront the "guilts" of American history. Seager, a friend from Saginaw days, writes in his biography: "Some of his last notes spoke of an epic dealing with the injustices done to the Indians and based on an automobile journey across the continent where he would pass the site of each tribe's final defeat or betrayal. He had been reading history about the Indians, for there are references to Custer, Crazy Horse, General Crook, Black Elk, and Chief Joseph. If we think in terms of the growth of Ted's mind, it seems to have taken nearly his whole lifetime to come to terms emotionally and spiritually with the presences of the Saginaw Valley, his father, his mother, the greenhouse, the field and its creatures. Only on the eve of his unexpected death was he ready to leave home, and even then, the epic that he had planned may have started from the memories of what he had heard there of the debasement of the Chippewas and the extinction of the Sauks" (279). The Native American poet Duane Niatum, who studied at the University of Washington, commemorates Roethke in a sonnet sequence, "Lines for Theordore Roethke Twenty Years after His Death," Harper's Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry, ed. Duane Niatum (New York: Harper & Row, 1988) 103-105. 7. The title poem of Roethke's The Waking (1953), reprinted in The Complete Poems: "This shaking keeps me steady. I should know" (l. 16, 104). 8. Stephen Spender, "The Objective Ego," in Theodore Roethke: Essays on the Poetry, ed. Arnold Stein (Seattle: U of Washington P, 1965) 8-9. Discussing Roethke's late poem "Infirmity," Spender speaks of how Roethke "employs language so that each word becomes a thing or microscopic part of a thing when he himself, while remaining intensely himself, yet disappears into these things so much outside himself, which yet could only occur inside him" (10). 9. On the function of grammatical tenses in relation to Roethke's sense of time in the passage, see Richard Blessing, Theodore Roethke's Dynamic Vision (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1974) 145-147. 10. Theodore Roethke, "Open Letter," On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke, ed., Ralph J. Mills, Jr. (Seattle: U of Washington P, 1965) 39-40. 11. Bogen observes that "the westward movement of the freshwater stream parallels Roethke's own, both in the sequence and in his life. The opening image suggests an important aspect of the place of 'meeting' between the two realms: the interaction between the interior and exterior worlds, the personal past and the world outside the self, is continuous and interdependent, with the stream from the interior constantly feeding the external sea" (162). More diffuse associations with the symbolic language of mysticism such as Theresa of Avila's four waters of the spirit I have alluded to earlier are, especially given Rothke's readings of the mystics, equally warranted. 12. Roethke's poetry is populated by an American chorus of birds, fifty-eight species in all, plus sub-species. See Gary Lane, ed., A Concordance to the Poems of Theodore Roethke (Metchuen: Scarecrow, 1972). Seager notes that as a child Roethke, who began reading early, "had a set of books with leatheroid bindings that stank in wet weather, Birds of Michigan, Wild Flowers of Michigan, and so on through the animals and insects. He liked to watch birds but, later, he hated birdwatchers in groups they were too highly organized" (27). 13. Karl Malkoff, Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia UP, 1966) 176. For a reading of North American Sequence as a product of the American historical period in which it was written, see Cary Nelson, Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1981) 31-61.
Copyright © by Frank J. Kearful
Return to Theodore Roethke