Friday

May 25, 2012

In A Dark Time

by Theodore Roethke

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 a 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.

"In A Dark Time" by Theodore Roethke, from Collected Poems. © Knopf Doubleday, 1961. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who said, "Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air." That's Ralph Waldo Emerson (books by this author), born in Boston (1803). His father, who died when he was eight, was a Unitarian minister, as were many of Emerson's family members before him. He was a quiet and well-behaved young man, not an exceptional student. He graduated in the middle of his class, studied at Harvard Divinity School, and got a job as a ministerial assistant at Boston's Second Church. Not long after his ordination, he was married. He was happy at home and in his work, and soon he was promoted to senior pastor.

Two years after Emerson was married, his wife, Ellen, died of tuberculosis, at the age of 19. He was devastated. He began to have doubts about the Church. A year after Ellen's death, he wrote in his journal: "I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers." He took a leave of absence and went on vacation in the mountains of New Hampshire. By the time he returned, he had decided to resign from his position as minister.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

It's the birthday of writer Raymond Carver (books by this author), born in Clatskanie, Oregon (1938). He's the author of many collections of stories, including What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), Cathedral (1983), and Where I'm Calling From (1988). His poetry collections include Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (1985) and Ultramarine (1987).

It's the birthday of poet Theodore Roethke (books by this author), born in Saginaw, Michigan (1908). His father, Otto, and his uncle Charles ran a floral company that their own father had started. The brothers had large greenhouses in their backyards, and young Theodore spent his days weeding and harvesting moss for floral baskets. Many years later, he wrote to a friend: "The greenhouse — my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth."

Roethke graduated from high school and college and went on to graduate school at Harvard. He had always loved to write, and now he started writing poetry. One night while walking through Harvard yard, he spotted a respected professor and approached him with his work. The professor invited Roethke to his office the next day, and after reading his poems, exclaimed, "Any editor who wouldn't buy this is a fool!" Roethke was overwhelmed: "I felt I had come to the end [...] of a trail. I had learned how to get high grades, but that seemed meaningless. Now I didn't have to go into advertising [...] or the law. I wasn't just a spoiled sad snob. I could write and people I respected printed the stuff."

The Great Depression took its toll, and Roethke dropped out of Harvard to teach at Lafayette College, and finally the University of Washington. In recommending him for the University of Washington, the president of Bennington wrote: "He is an extremely complex, temperamental and somewhat eccentric person. If the University of Washington can take his eccentric personality, it will acquire one of the best teachers I have ever seen."

Roethke was a big man, 225 pounds. He was fascinated by gangsters, and he even talked like one — he had a deep voice, a growl. He was manic-depressive, and he often drank too much. He wore fur coats and drove big cars. As a teacher, he was persuasive and emotional. When he wanted his students to write a description of a physical action, he told them to describe what he was about to do, then climbed out the window onto a narrow ledge and inched his way around the whole classroom, making faces at every window. He insisted students memorize poems so that they would have something to call on when they were going through a tough period in life. He continued teaching throughout his career.

His books of poetry include The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), The Waking (1953), and The Far Field (1964).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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