On "I Knew a Woman"
The first of the purely sensual poems, "I Knew a Woman,' seems, at first glance, completely innocent; but closer examination reveals that the poem's words, like its lady, move "more ways than one." Double meanings dominate the poem: the lady teaches "Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand"; the protagonist comes "behind her for her pretty sake"; and love, which likes a gander, "adores a goose." Even lines easily passed over have hidden sexual connotations: ". . .what prodigious mowing we did make." "To mow," in Scots dialect, means to have sexual intercourse. And should there be any doubt as to Roethke's knowledge of this meaning, the reader need only turn to "Reply to a Lady Editor," the poet's tongue-in-cheek response to the editor of a woman's magazine who had clearly missed the poem's suggestiveness; Roethke there calls Dan Cupid a "braw laddie-buck," and advises the editor just to lean herself back if be should arrive.
From Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry. Copyright © 1966 by Columbia University Press.
The poem is built on the scaffold of an elaborate syntax. About half of its lines depend on caesural pause so that the voice is continually halting in the lingering satisfaction of adulation. Each half line is elaborately balanced against its complement -"sighed," "sigh"; "moved," "moved"; "container," "contain." Each single line is an end-stopped unit, which swings into the next, usually by the association of some quality. The consequent feeling is of a continual, spontaneous elaboration of the lover's graces.
From Theodore Roethke: The Garden Master. Copyright © 1975 by the University of Washington Press.
Richard Allen Blessing
[I]n "I Knew a Woman," what does the poet mean when he writes, "She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake, / Coming behind her for, her pretty sake"? Coburn Freer remarks that "the poem's witty sexual puns . . . are obvious enough and hardly require elucidation," but I wonder if he is fully cognizant of all the shapes that Roethke's bright containers can contain. That word "behind" is tricky. For example, in addition to completing the mowing metaphor (itself a sexual pun), the rake's coming behind his lady may suggest simple appreciation of the southern charm of a north-bound woman. Further still, our rake may be testifying to a bit of sexual chivalry, a timing of his climax "behind" hers so that the woman lovely in her bones may have her due satisfaction. Such a reading provides another level of meaning for the line "I'm martyr to a motion not my own." And again, though perhaps a bit far-fetched, to "come behind" the lady suggests sexual positioning, an interpretation which might lend a bawdy appropriateness to those "English poets who grew up on Greek" and who are, Roetbke insists, the proper chorus to sing her "choice virtues." Thus, ambiguity begets ambiguity; a pun in one line creates, in a dynamic and organic way, alternate readings in another, in others.
. . .
In "I Knew a Woman," those English poets who grew up on Greek lead us to remember that "Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand," in addition to their sexual suggestiveness, are the English equivalent of the Greek strophe, antistrophe, and epode. Apparently the woman, by her movement, becomes a kind of Muse whose turn and re-turn serve as inspiration for the poet's turns of language. "Counter-turn," after all, is also a term for the rhetorical device of repeating words in an inverse order, as in "(She moved in circles, and those circles moved)." Among the things she teaches, then, is creative writing, and this poem, with its turning and counter-turning of word against word, phrase against phrase, is both a celebration of her body's motion and a demonstration of what a poet can learn about poetics through the study of "how a body sways."
From Theodore Roethke's Dynamic Vision. Copyright © 1974 by the Indiana University Press.
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