Sunday, February 12, 2012

Poetry memories: Theodore Roethke

Back in ye olde college days, I took a couple of poetry classes. Not to sound too dramatic, but it really awoke in me a different way of appreciating the world, and how to fumble my way forward to write about it. One class was more analysis and critique, the other was actual poetry writing (which of course also had analysis and critique; it felt like dumping my soul out in front of a dozen other collegiates, horrors). In the analysis class, I was exposed to poets I hadn't previously heard of, and Theodore Roethke was one of them. I remember reading the poem below, one of his better-known poems, almost like it was yesterday.

The Waking 
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
Theodore Roethke

Our professor would bring in recordings of poets reading their own work, if possible, and I really enjoyed that part of the class. He showed an old and grainy video of Theodore Roethke, probably shot in the late '50s (the poem was published in 1953). In it, the poet leaned against a mantle, and as he recited the poem, he would sway back and forth, sort of using the mantle to hold on to. I loved his voice, which seemed a little monotone and sad (in fact, I remember learning the word dolorous in connection with Roethke, odd to remember so specifically), and I also loved how the swaying added to the overall melencholy.

I had high hopes of finding that exact video clip to share, but alas, all my interwebbing has turned up naught. So, here's his voice to the poem.

It never occurred to me that someone might take these words and turn them into a song. But in my YouTube wanderings, sure enough, I found a few versions of this song, which is now on repeat in my head (well parts of it, there are other parts that are a bit too note-chasing for me...). Could be an interesting way to memorize a poem, eh?

"The Waking" was brought back to my mind by The Writer's Almanac, which highlights so many good poems to my computer every week. (I highly encourage signing up.)

Do you have a poem or poet that stays with you, years later? Tell me, please!


  1. Here's the poem I was obssessed with in high school and college. I used to be able to recite it at the drop of a hat, but it's a tiny bit rusty.

    "Effort at Speech Between Two People"

    Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now?
    I will tell you all. I will conceal nothing.
    When I was three, a little child read a story about a rabbit
    who died, in the story, and I crawled under a chair:
    a pink rabbit: it was my birthday, and a candle
    burnt a sore spot on my finger, and I was told to be happy.

    Oh, grow to know me. I am not happy. I will be open:
    Now I am thinking of white sails against a sky like music,
    like glad horns blowing, and birds tilting, and an arm about me.
    There was one I loved, who wanted to live, sailing.

    Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now?
    When I was nine, I was fruitily sentimental,
    fluid: and my widowed aunt played Chopin,
    and I bent my head on the painted woodwork, and wept.
    I want now to be close to you. I would
    link the minutes of my days close, somehow, to your days.

    I am not happy. I will be open.
    I have liked lamps in evening corners, and quiet poems.
    There has been fear in my life. Sometimes I speculate
    On what a tragedy his life was, really.

    Take my hand. Fist my mind in your hand. What are you now?
    When I was fourteen, I had dreams of suicide,
    and I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping toward death:
    if the light had not melted clouds and plains to beauty,
    if light had not transformed that day, I would have leapt.

    I am unhappy. I am lonely. Speak to me.
    I will be open. I think he never loved me:
    he loved the bright beaches, the little lips of foam
    that ride small waves, he loved the veer of gulls:
    he said with a gay mouth: I love you. Grow to know me.

    What are you now? If we could touch one another,
    if these our separate entities could come to grips,
    clenched like a chinese puzzle… yesterday
    I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,
    and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.
    Everyone silent, moving… Take my hand. Speak to me.

    - Muriel Rukeyser

    (Wow, reading it now... it's very tragic. At the time I loved it because it seemed very raw and honest in a way other poems weren't.)

    1. I can totally see how that poem could get into your mind, especially in the late teens-twenties years. Raw is a good word for it. Thanks for sharing.

  2. "I learn by going where I have to go." Wonderful! Thank you.

    This is an excerpt from my one and only remembered poem, and it's apt for this day, 14 Feb.

    "I wonder by my troth what thou and I did till we loved.
    Were we not weaned till then? Or snorted we in the seven sleepers' den.
    Twas so. But this, all pleasures fancies be.
    If ever any beauty I did see which I desired and got,
    twas but a dream of thee.

    And now, good morrow to our waking souls
    which watch not one another
    out of fear
    For love, all love of other sights controls
    And makes one little room an everywhere ..."

    ~ John Donne, The Good Morrow

    1. I love the romance of the era in which John Donne wrote; Christopher Marlowe is a favorite of mine from that time, too. And Mr. Shakespeare, of course! Thanks for sharing. I especially like the "good morrow to our waking souls which watch not one another out of fear..."

  3. Beautiful poetry ...all three are very moving. What a lovely way to start St. Valentine's Day!!


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