Tag Archives: Theodore Roethke

The long journey out of the self…

Today David over at The Endless Further has a wonderful post up about the magic found in poetry, please check it out if you have the chance.

image of Roethke sourced from jungcurrents.com

It got me thinking about one of my favorite poets, Theodore Roethke, whom I haven’t dealt much with in years. Roethke is from my hometown of Saginaw, MI, and there are places he mentions in his poetry that were literally my old stomping grounds:

Out Hemlock Way there is a stream
That some have called Swan Creek;
The turtles have bloodsucker sores,
And mossy filthy feet;
The bottoms of migrating ducks
Come off it much less neat.

I used to dig in Swan Creek for golf balls to sell to golfers at the nearby hole-in-the-wall course. My father went through the ice of the creek as a youth while snowmobiling. It is a beautiful yet unassuming body of water. It really is just a creek. Creek creeks creek.

Upon digging around for some of my favorite works of his, I ran across the following two gems, and couldn’t help but be struck by the similarity to some of the old Chinese Ch’an masters works. The first poem is titled Journey into the Interior

In the long journey out of the self,
There are many detours, washed-out interrupted raw places
Where the shale slides dangerously
And the back wheels hang almost over the edge
At the sudden veering, the moment of turning.
Better to hug close, wary of rubble and falling stones.
The arroyo cracking the road, the wind-bitten buttes, the canyons,
Creeks swollen in midsummer from the flash-flood roaring into the narrow valley.
Reeds beaten flat by wind and rain,
Grey from the long winter, burnt at the base in late summer.
— Or the path narrowing,
Winding upward toward the stream with its sharp stones,
The upland of alder and birchtrees,
Through the swamp alive with quicksand,
The way blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree,
The thickets darkening,
The ravines ugly.
The first thing that jumps out is right there in the first line, “journey out of the self”. The rest of the poem goes on to describe the traps and hazards our phenomenal mind throws at us in our attempt to escape its binding reach.
 
Another that I stumbled upon was In a Dark Time:
 
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood–
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks–is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is–
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark,dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

To me, this is all about finding the true self, making sense of the observer watching the observer phenomenon, feeling trapped that there is no hope, no way of getting to the Source.

Roethke suffered from depression not long into his life, fueled by the tragic deaths of his uncle and father that both occurred when he was 15. This colored many of his later works, though it is for his lighter, “greenhouse” poems that he is more well-known. These poems revolve around his direct experience and contact with nature and the beauty he found growing up around his uncle’s greenhouse in Saginaw (only a couple of miles from my childhood home). At the young age of 55, Roethke died of a heart attack in a swimming pool on Bainbridge Island, here in Washington. According to wiki the pool has since been covered and a Zen rock garden has apparently been placed on top. His remains are a stone’s throw from many of my great-grandparents and their siblings.

I’m not claiming that Roethke was Zen, or a Buddhist or anything of the sort. If anything he seemed to be a sort of pantheist or transcendentalist or something of that sort. But the problems that he digs at are universal, and strike at the heart of Zen. His desire to find pure Mind and make sense of it all mirrors the path of the 10 Ox Herding images well.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the magic that Roethke helped bring to the world. Cheers.

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