Pattiann Rogers has published 12 books of poetry, the most recent being Holy Heathen Rhapsody (Penguin, 2013) and Wayfare (Penguin, 2008). Her poems have won three book awards from the Texas Institute of Letters, four Pushcart Prizes, the Tietjens Prize and the Hokin Prize from Poetry, the Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest and the Strousse Award twice from Prairie Schooner. Rogers has been the recipient of two NEA grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Poetry Fellowship. She received her MA from the University of Houston in 1981 and has taught in numerous colleges and universities.
Theodore Roethke (1908 -1963) is the author of 10 books of poetry. His first book, Open House (1941), took ten years to write and was critically acclaimed upon its publication. In 1953, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his poetry volume The Wakening. He was mentor to a generation of Northwest poets and is regarded as among the most accomplished and influential poets of his time. In 2012, he was featured on a United States postage stamp as one of ten great 20th Century American poets.
Pattiann Rogers: The Poetry of Theodore Roethke, a Personal View
Many of Theodore Roethke poems are a source of renewal and inspiration for me. My favorite Roethke poems are like pieces of music that I listen to over and over and know very well. Yet they always bring pleasure, waiting for a favorite line or phrase that I know is coming or anticipating a word so exactly in the right place with the right sound, the right meaning, the right aura that it echoes and reflects the thrust and depth of the entire piece. His poems reaffirm for me what it’s possible to do with language.
I’m guessing that Roethke listened to and felt the music of the words as he wrote. His poetry has a strong cadence. The pace is usually quick, impelling a reader down the page, a dance full of all the energy and passion that whimsy and wonder, hope and despair, together can create. There’s hardly a misstep, hardly a lull along the way, every line interesting on its own.
Many of his poems have an air of play about them. The imagery is sharp and specific. The stance and tone suggest to me that he experienced joy in the writing. Or else he faked such joy in the poetry (and experienced joy in the faking?). I read a review years ago comparing Roethke’s work with another contemporary poet’s work. The reviewer asserted that Roethke wrote poems because he had to, while the other poet wrote poems because he wanted to. I agree that Roethke’s poetry rings with an authentic intensity and passion and yearning that suggest that he was committed to the writing, body and soul. But it also rings for me with the exhilaration that comes from putting words together in original ways that result in flashes of perception.
Roethke is a master of several different voices, the colloquial and conversational, as in the open form poems “The Geranium” and “The Meadow Mouse”, yet facile in the fixed forms in his early work and in the two villanelles, “The Right Thing” and “I Wake to Sleep.” Even in his poems that I’ve termed joyful, there is generally a warning whisper running throughout, an undercurrent of premonition that gives the work the complexity of honesty and reality. Perhaps it is a kind of joy to face that dark premonition in the writing of the poetry. The creative energy is always there.
And I like the body of Roethke’s work as a whole because not every poem is successful. It’s not difficult to understand where the failure comes from. He takes some mighty risks. He stumbles. Like the child on top of the greenhouse (the act, not the poem), some of the risks in Roethke’s poems may be too great, but the daring spirit of it all is endearing and dominates. And like Evel Knievel in his time perhaps…he’s never going to jump the Grand Canyon on his motorcycle, but it seems important to know that someone in the universe believes it’s possible.
Below are specific poems from The Collected Poems that I would like us to consider during our meeting by addressing the following questions.
In which of these poems do you find both wit (a light tone) and fear (an ominous tone)?
What is your opinion of the poems that contain no human being, except for the voice of the speaker?
How are the two elegies alike and how are they different?
Is there one theme or one attitude or one technique that you feel is present in most of the poems in this selection?
Part I of The Lost Son, pages 35 -44
Elegy for Jane – 98
Elegy – 215
The Geranium – 220
All Morning – 226
The Right Thing – 242
I Wake to Sleep – 104
Journey to the Interior – 187-189