Monday, January 26, 2009

Theodore Roethke: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Poetry

My favorite website - the one website I cannot live without - is the AV Club. Last Friday, one of my favorite writers there, Nathan Rabin, mentioned that he did not like poetry. I was okay with this; poetry's not for everyone. But it was the Comments following the entry that so angered me. One lovely commentator, sure in his knowledge, claimed that poetry was a bastardization of language; that it was a butchering of prose with ridiculous rules like rhyme and scansion patterns. According to him, poetry got in the way of true human communication. I cannot even begin to express the anger I felt at reading this. The reason poetry exists, and particularly the reason poetry with rhyme and meter exists, is because of the need for human communication. These patterns of writing were developed in order to be the closest to human speech patterns. Iambic pentameter, etc. was created so writers could express something that could be easily understood, then repeated for illiterate audiences. So technically, prose is the real bastard of human communication. Asshole.

Anywhosen, my experience with this idiot made me think about my own experiences with poetry. Because truth be told, a few years ago, I would have agreed with the commentator. Now, I'm planning on getting an MFA in poetry. So what changed? The answer is pretty simple; I found the right poem. My theory about all forms of literature - poetry, fiction, comic books, etc. - is that anyone can be converted simply by finding the thing that speaks to him or her. I didn't like poetry because in high school I was exposed only to the things that bored me: Longfellow, Emerson, Browning. Once I read some poems that really meant something to me - poems that got under my skin or that I understood or whose language I craved - everything changed.

For me, that first poet was Theodore Roethke (with a smattering of Seamus Heaney on the side). Reading Roethke opened up a less restrictive, more concrete form of poetry than what I had seen earlier in life. My life with Roethke started out with the slight but image-packed work of "My Papa's Waltz" or "Dolor" (read that poem and tell me you don't want to hang out in an office supply closet all day). But last year, I carefully re-read a long, multi-part poem by Roethke entitled "The Lost Son." It's an amazing work - tense, beautiful, very strange and sprawling. Do I totally understand it? No. But that doesn't stop me from loving every single word in it. Here's the first stanza (from Part 1: "The Flight"):

At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron,
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding wells.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

Bah! I love this poem. There are probably only a handful of people in this world who get tingles down their spines while reading this, and for us, it means everything. If you're not one of those people, awesome (I personally must confess that I have never liked a single Emily Dickinson poem I've ever read). Every poem in the world is meant for a different person, and every person was meant for a different poem. The hard part is finding what you like. The easy part is falling in love.

So for that bastard commentator on the AV Club and for everyone else: Try to actually read a poem once in a while. You might be surprised by what you get.

Book Referenced: Roethke, The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke

1 comment:

  1. Thoughtful. Kind of makes me want to find a poem I understand enough to enjoy without furrowed brow.