From the Desk of Our Poet-in-Residence, Quenton Baker

Dear Readers,

Poets, I guarantee you, never spring fully formed into their craft. We are all deeply in debt to the writers, thinkers, artists who lend us shape, structure, language; who make our own work possible by broadening our idea of what poetry, and art, is capable of. In this space, I’ll be exploring texts from writers that I consider foundational or important to my own practice. No matter what craft or path we are in pursuit of, I believe one of the strongest acts of community is to talk openly about who you’ve been influenced by, who has helped to carve out the territory that your practice now inhabits. This space will be my attempt to do just that.

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In his 1958 collection Words for the Wind, Theodore Roethke shows that he is intensely a poet of the self. He’s consumed with the deep exploration of his psyche to the point where everything becomes a function of that design. Roethke, at times, seems almost uninterested in anything outside of the self, as if his only mode is one of unrelenting introspection. I’m not even sure if introspection is the right word, because what Roethke does is a bit different than simply looking inward; he’s operating in an intense mode of self-discovery and exploration that results in almost every possible subject becoming an extension of the speaker’s psychic landscape. An example is the opening section of “First Meditation”:

 

On love’s worst ugly day,
The weeds hiss at the edge of the field,
The small winds make their chilly indictments.
Elsewhere, in houses, even pails can be sad;
While stones loosen on the obscure hillside,
And a tree tilts from its roots,
Toppling down an embankment.

 

The speaker’s surroundings, both nature and the house, become an extension of her psychic state (this is the section where Roethke assumes the perspective of his elderly mother, although it feels and reads no different in tone than the rest of the collection). Because the speaker is experiencing “love’s worst ugly day,” the “weeds hiss at the edge of the field,” the wind is cold, the pails are depressed, stones come loose, and a tree falls down a hillside; the speaker’s internal experiences aren’t merely reflected in her environment, rather it feels as if her environment exists for the sole purpose of expressing her psychic state. Rarely (if ever) are the poems in Wind observational in the sense that they’re concerned with reporting what is actually happening in the natural/outside world. Even though the poems have in them what seem like concrete objects (we see it here: the weeds, the pails, the stones, the tree) they don’t feel the same as they might in, say, a Mary Oliver poem. Roethke has a way of making the whole world exist inside of the self, where the tree isn’t a tree—the apple tree that grows in the backyard where little Jerome got stuck when he was five—it’s the tree, it’s a shifting ideal that exists primarily to express a piece of Roethke’s inner sensibility. In one poem, the tree might represent a loss of control or connectivity (as it does in “First Meditation”), and in another poem it might be the expression of ecstatic joining found in earthly love (in “All the Earth, All the Air”: “A tree glides with the moon. / The field is mine! Is mine!”). Roethke submerges his readers in the vast power of his internal being over and over, lending Words a chimerical feeling, like the reader has stepped into the dream of Roethke, or, more precisely, into the mind and heart of Roethke while he’s in the process of making serious considerations about his existence. Rarely does the reader ever feel grounded in the “real” world, in a “real” situation or place; it’s always inside of Roethke’s psyche that the poems take place. Another example can be found in “Snake”:

 

Snake

I saw a young snake glide
Out of the mottled shade
And hang, limp on a stone:
A thin mouth, and a tongue
Stayed, in the still air.

It turned; it drew away;
Its shadow bent in half;
It quickened, and was gone.

I felt my slow blood warm.
I longed to be that thing,
The pure, sensuous form.

And I may be, some time.

 

There may have been an actual snake at one point, but Roethke absorbed it in the making of this poem. Another poet might use the snake as a representative of an idea (as in: the snake is like [blank], or the snake being an extended metaphor/allegorical device), or even present the snake as snake in a meditation on the natural world, for which the snake would be approached mostly on its own terms; we as readers would see the thing as it would, more or less, appear in the natural world. The difference with Roethke is that he’s already processed the snake from a real, tangible object to an afterimage based on his perception, and what the reader gets is Roethke’s subjective response to an already-subjective afterimage. In some ways it’s baffling and a bit off-putting, but mostly it’s incredible. Roethke cannot escape his self, and consequently neither can we. Although he tries—some of the poems in the “Love Poems” section are genuine attempts to find a way out of the self, but they still end up being mostly extensions of the self.

Roethke was well-known for his breakdowns and for his manic-depressive behavior, and it’s been posited (by Roethke himself, among others) that his intense habit of self-exploration was the culprit. His mania is in control of his work, but it’s his talent that flips it into something beautiful, almost like a defense mechanism, and as a result, reading through Words is like watching a brilliant fencer parry and riposte against an overly aggressive opponent.

We see Roethke’s brilliance quite clearly when he allows himself space to unfold. From “Fourth Meditation”:

 

I was always one for being alone,
Seeking in my own way, eternal purpose;
At the edge of the field waiting for the pure moment;
Standing, silent, on sandy beaches or walking along green embankments;
Knowing the sinuousness of small waters:
As a chip or a shell, floating lazily with a slow current,
A drop of the night rain still in me,
A bit of water caught in a wrinkled crevice,
A pool riding and shining with the river,
Dipping up and down in the ripples,
Tilting back the sunlight.

Roethke’s metrical poems are most frequently in end-rhyming iambic trimeter, which has somewhat of a stifling effect on his natural bent toward rich, winding sonic work. Sometimes he uses enjambment and near-rhyme, which allows him to work a sharper music within the body of the line, but often he forgoes some of that powerful internal music, leaving the lines a bit bottom-heavy with end-rhyme. However, none of those issues are present in his free verse. In these longer-lined, unmetered poems, Roethke seems at the height of his considerable musical power, shifting sonic rhythms at will to great effect:

 

Standing, silent, on sandy beaches or walking along green embankments;
Knowing the sinuousness of small waters:
As a chip or a shell, floating lazily with a slow current,
A drop of the night rain still in me,
A bit of water caught in a wrinkled crevice,
A pool riding and shining with the river,
Dipping up and down in the ripples,
Tilting back the sunlight.

Roethke is exceptional at countering his own heavy sounds. Here he builds and builds with the first three lines. The alliteration of “standing, silent, on sandy” and the consonance of “beaches” and “embankments.” The alliteration of the first line continues: “sinuousness of small waters” then “shell” and “slow.” It’s rich and weighty and pleasing but Roethke doesn’t keep pounding, he pulls back with: “A drop of the night rain still in me.” There’s just a whisper there; the “drop” hits slightly on the “chip” of the previous line, and “still” echoes the heavy “s” sounds, but it’s a rest, a drawn breath with the sound of the previous music still echoing. Then he picks up again, slowly: “water” hitting on the “t” in “caught” and the “w” in “wrinkled” (which hits on the hard “k” sound in “crevice”). It builds into near-rhyme: “riding and shining with the river.” Consonance, alliteration, and near-rhyme form a mini-crescendo in the penultimate line: “Dipping” hits on “up and down” and “ripples” completes a near-rhyme with “river” in the previous line. Then Roethke closes with another bit of restraint (echoing the content of the line), the first, stressed “t” sound barely tapping against the unstressed “t” in “sunlight” (and with the “s” catching the strand running through the entire stanza). It’s brilliant, really. Both in terms of sound and sense, Roethke is able to reach astounding depth. I return to his work again and again for object lessons on how to manage a profound, sprawling inner landscape and how to weight a line with a composer’s precision.

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Quenton Baker is a poet, educator, and Cave Canem fellow. His current focus is anti-blackness and the afterlife of slavery. He has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Southern Maine and is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He is a 2017 Jack Straw Fellow and a former Made at Hugo House fellow, as well as the recipient of the 2016 James W. Ray Venture Project Award and the 2018 Arts Innovator Award from Artist Trust. He is the author of This Glittering Republic (Willow Books, 2016).