American poetry has given us a host of names that everyone knows – the household words, the people we all studied in high school: Frost, Sandburg, Dickinson, Whitman, Plath. There are others known to more than aficionados, if not to high school students. Among them, somewhere, is Theodore Roethke.
The Far Field is Roethke’s last collection. Published in 1964, just after his sudden death the year before, it is a distillation of a lifetime of making poems by a man who not only understood poetry as a craft and an art, but understood life as more than a subject for poetry.
The first section of the book is titled “North American Sequence” and is something rich, potent, sometimes frightening, sometimes serene. “The Longing,” the first in the sequence, begins:
One things asleep, no balm:
A kingdom of stinks and sighs,
Fetor of cockroaches, dead fish, petroleum . . .
Agony of crucifixion on barstools.
Mordant, almost depressing, but Roethke was too wise, and too human, to leave it that way. The poem ends with a witty and almost conspiratorial finish,
Old men should be explorers?
I’ll be an Indian.
There are also those poems that reveal Roethke’s humor, lighthearted, almost droll, as in “The Happy Three,” a short commentary on the frictions of married life that appears in the second section, “Love Poems.” A domestic contretemps is ameliorated by the goose, Marianne,
Named for a poetess
(Whom I like nonetheless) . . .
But when she pecked my toe,
My banked-up vertigo
Vanished like April snow;
All rage was gone.
One of the hallmarks of Roethke’s poetry is the way he uses form to reinforce mood, as in this poem, or the earlier “My Papa’s Waltz” (which does not appear in this collection, but I love it so much I’m going to quote it anyway):
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
Not every poet has figured this out – they have one form, or one voice, I’m never sure which. The boundaries of Roethke’s poetry are not easy to find: on the one hand, he is very serious (even for a poet), with a dark vision that sees into the things that most people hide. One the other hand, he is light, humorous, sometimes nonsensical, making small songs out of silly things. Even though it does show flashes of Roethke’s wit and his quirky, almost childlike humor, The Far Field is a solemn collection, although reading through it again after many years, there is a very strong sense of resolution in these works. There is an undercurrent of joy in Roethke’s work, even at his most mordant, and in these poems in particular, the joy and the bleakness are balanced by an overarching serenity.
In any collection by any poet, we are seeing where he is right now; this is as true of The Far Field as any other. All of his collections except the children’s poems in Party at the Zoo, along with a number of previously unpublished works, were assembled in Roethke: Collected Poems in 1966. If you want Roethke represented in your library, go for that one – it’s astonishing. If you run across The Far Field in your browsings, it’s certainly worth having, as a summary of wisdom gained through living wide awake.
(Doiubleday and Company, 1964)