Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Theodore Roethke

A review is on its way, but I wanted to take a moment to post a poem I came across on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac.  If I time it right, I can catch this brief show on the radio on my way home from teaching my night class.  One night last week I caught this poem by Theodore Roethke, whose work I love, even though I never made a thorough examination of it.  In fact, I could only name “My Papa’s Waltz” and “I Wake To Sleep” as poems of his I know (the latter of which I parodied as “I Wake To Eat”, and published in The Formalist a while back).  So I was happy to stumble across another one of his.
I Knew a Woman

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in a chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant notes to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).

from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. © Anchor, 1974.
It feels like this poem would be at home in the court of Henry VIII alongside Thomas Wyatt, or the Cavalier Poets like Robert Herrick.  It’s a shame we seemed to lose poets like this in the 20th century except for a few like Roethke.

You can always see the current Writer’s Almanac at http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/, and search the archive as well.

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