Wednesday, November 16, 2011

At Odds with Circumstance

"What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance."  Theodore Roethke

There was a time in my life when I willingly embraced those things that both intrigued and frightened me. I was looking for the deeper meaning, always looking over the edge to get a glimpse into the darkness, the place where I thought all the answers to all the secrets were kept. One could say I was looking for life in all the wrong places.

It did lead to some interesting experiences and people and I have come to see that time as an invaluable precursor to what lay ahead, to the life I've come to know. I have tried to live my life since that time in the light of day, in an openness that doesn't allow for secrets to take hold, nor for shades of meaning to cloud my judgment. It's a good way to live and makes everything so much easier. Living with my cards on the table and letting the chips fall where they may has brought with it a sense of liberation that in and of itself brings deeper meaning, and with it a light and a lightness that provides reliable guidance with far surer footing.

What does this have to do with anything?  Today, it seems to have to do with Theodore Roethke.

Roethke was no stranger to the darkness. He walked the edge many times during his life. For that very reason I have wrestled with him for many years, never certain if I wanted to pull him into my circle of imaginary friends, who just happen to write good poetry, or keep him at a safe distance where I can look but not touch, at least not too much nor too often. You might not have the same response to him, but with some poets I need space between their words and my world or I feel cornered, and I've never been good at feeling cornered. Plath and Sexton, Berryman and Bukowski come to mind, so I take my Roethke slow and measured, a few lines at a time, sort of feeling my way through.

In my first reading of this poem I felt as though I was drowning in dirt, but I pushed through, turning his words over and over, pausing and mulling, pausing and mulling, and I found this: they are rich and dark with a certain mustiness that smells and tastes like the first carrot I pulled from the earth all those years ago, carelessly brushing off the dirt before taking that first delicious bite.  And this: despite the darkness a little sliver of light comes through. That, for me, is poetry of the best kind.

"In a Dark Time"

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 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.

~ Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke, above, won many awards for his poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for The Waking.

For more information:

Painting: "Roots," by Frida Kahlo


  1. This is exactly what I needed today.

    I do believe I will be reading a bit more of Mr. Roethke in the very near future.

    Thank you

  2. I am listening to the tearing wind outside ripping the last of the leaves off the trees as I ponder this poem. You're right: it's full of rich, dark earthy meaning. Thank you for introducing me to Roethke. It's my first time.

  3. I don't know much about Roethke, but I love this poem, and I find it difficult to disagree with the line, "What's madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?" I also agree that it is in a dark time that the eye really begins to see. A good post, Teresa. I enjoyed it.

  4. Beautiful, beautiful and again I say, beautiful. (This goes for your writting too!) Why does this poem make me think of T S Eliot?

  5. It's hard to know whether or not reading the words of a poet with mental illness will enlighten or disturb. It's best to be cautious.
    I find this poem intriguing and beautiful... and yet frightening at the same time.
    This poem is very structured.. He knew what he was doing. It makes me see the part of human nature that provokes his line ".. Which I is I?"
    I think that the "little sliver of light" that you see is that, for all the damage he experiences in life, he can still say "in a dark time, the eye begins to see." and that "madness" is "nobility of the soul at odds with circumstance" Yes,he writes this as a question. But, it's a positive thought from this "shadowed" mind.
    I love the line "A lord of nature weeping to a tree". I can see him finding the only place (as scary as it is)that he can be "at odds" safely, away from the criticism of others. I know this place.
    I also think that he was in the throngs of severe depression when he wrote this. The depth of scary nightmare like images is pretty intense.

  6. WANDEROKE, Probably the most rewarding aspect of blogging, after just plain having fun writing down my thoughts, is having them reach others and meet their needs as they did mine. So, I'm glad. Thank you.

    DJAN I like the image I have of you sitting there, listening to the last of the leaves as you read this poem. I think Roethke, if I may be so bold as to say so, would like it, too.

    GEORGE, He as a troubled man, as so many fine poets are, but he had his moments of light and I like to think this poem is him, just as he was getting a glimpse of it. His definition of madness has come to him hard-won.

    ME, Thank you so much. T.S. Eliot came to mind for me, as well. Perhaps something in the voice they each use to describe the human condition draws comparisons. I like Eliot, too, but, again, in small doses. Unless we're talking the Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, and that's to be savored in one long sitting. :)

    FARMLADY, I'm not sure I'm all that cautious, but I do have this inner compass that quickly tells me when something's amiss. It works like a charm. :)

    I see him as having come to a place that allows him to have some introspection and retrospection, edgy though it may be. He has seen some glimmer of light and is now able to witness his former self (some would call it the shadow self) as it moves into that light, ever so slightly. I think his last two lines speak of redemption. I love the line, "A fallen man, I climb out of my fear." For me, this is the crux of all of life's challenges, to be able to do that. For him to then write about it is both moving and disturbing. I feel and hear a sense of hesitation in his voice. Can he trust it this time?

    Thank you so much for sharing your perspective and insight.

  7. I like this post very much.. such a journey life is.. and the life I have now is such a gift to have time to reflect on the dark times of madness and fear and realize that was when wisdom was born.. Thank you Teresa for your gifts.

  8. Hello Teresa:
    Most likely all 'good' poetry [whatever is meant by that] requires the 'mulling and pausing, mulling and pausing' that you apply to Roethke's work. You mention Plath to which, most certainly, the same could be said. But, of course, the satisfaction comes in the course of personal interpretation and the teasing out of possible meaning. The same can, in all probability, be said across all the arts.

  9. Yes, some quite strange imagery indeed : the kind of chap you would quite like to share the odd pint with but would dread him moving in next door.

  10. Okay, having been lost in that dark night of the soul, myself...known hopelessness and defeat...even attempted to end my life believing my passing would barely be noticed and was too world weary to go on with the struggle...and having pulled myself out of that on my own...I, personally, found the poem hopeful and triumphant.

    In the dark time...that is when you can really begin to see. You are tested to your core. Climbing out of your fear is an ultimate goal. And when the mind enters itself--that, to me, meant finding that ability to examine your thoughts in an objective way. And when you can step back from your own thoughts, fears, ego, and emotions...that is truly when God enters the mind. When one person feels part of the One...part of the vastness of all that is...that is when you are truly matter if you stand in the tearing wind!! There is no darkness that cannot be penetrated by that Oneness.

    I don't believe I have ever read Roethke. You repeatedly introduce me to a world of literature and art that I have never know. Thanks so much, Teresa.

  11. JOAN, Being able to reflect back and "realize that was when wisdom was born," is a great gift.The great sadness, of course, if for those who choose to leave before that opportunity comes. Thank You, Joan.

    JANE AND LANCE, There is much satisfaction from that mulling and pausing, and on some level, yes, all poetry is read with that process. Roethke requires a bit more of it for me, to push through the words that seem to carry so much weight with them. All the arts are approached, it would appear, with our own set of experiences and our own emotional makeup. That is the beauty of the arts: each person brings to it and takes away from it their own "interpretation." I have my own and I would expect each person who reads this to have theirs, as well. That's what makes this so satisfying for me.

    ALAN, I would suspect that having a neighbor such as Roethke would have its interesting moments. I would love to sit down and share an evening with him, perhaps several evenings. I relish opportunities to be around such creative people. Of course, it might also have its difficulties, to which you allude.

    RITA, I so appreciate your insight and your thoughts around this poem, particularly the last stanza. To be able to "examine your thoughts in an objective way," is what saves people from the abyss. You've described this beautifully, entering the Oneness, recognizing it, feeling the freedom it brings. Thank you so much for your response. You sound like a strong person who has arrived here, in this moment, with some very important lessons won.

  12. Dear Teresa,
    Roethke's poem speaks to me of journey into all we have been or tried to be. That journey requires that we be reflective and sensitive to the emotions and longings within ourselves.

    For many years of my life I wanted to be other than what I was. I played at being Emily Dickinson, oblique so that friends might find me interesting. I became Walt Whitman, speaking broadly so that friends might see a vastness within me. Role after role to make me acceptable. To win love to a self I found too bland. Too lackluster. Darkness I thought would make me interesting to others.

    It started of course with "putting on Christ," which was part of my Roman Catholic training. I put him on, cloaked myself in his virtues and voila there am I virtuous too.

    Yet now, as my life enters its final stages, I find that I'm able to say, "Here I am. This is me. I am enough for myself."

    And so these last lines of today's poem speak loudly to me of my own journey:

    "The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
    And one is One, free in the tearing wind."

    For once I accepted that I didn't need to be like anyone that I was One with all and they with me, then I walked into the house of freedom.

    Thank you for sharing this evocative poem. Once again your posting has captured my heart and mind.


  13. Dee, Thank you for sharing your thoughts around this. Earlier in life, I tried on various personas, as well, each of them being an aspect of my self, but finding that true center is so liberating and allows for anything that no longer fits to drop away. "The house of freedom," is a good place to come home to.

  14. I had to read Roethke's words several times, Teresa. That's a good thing, I think. Poetry is like that, of course. First and second readings, and more; aloud and in silence. A good poem speaks many languages and this poem does that for me. The despair, of course. The loneliness of a night without even the comfort of tears is almost unbearable to read. The climbing out of fear is so beautiful an image and often a reality to partake in, though, is it not? Thank you for introducing me to this.

    " . . . always looking over the edge to get a glimpse into the darkness, the place where I thought all the answers to all the secrets were kept." So well said, Teresa. You have such a beautiful way with words and such a teacher's way of introducing a soul like me to other poets. I am grateful.

  15. I think Roethke is my favourite American poet, although hardly anyone I know shares my enthusiasm.
    I have posted 'The Visitation' as my current poem on my poetry and pictures blog.

  16. PENNY, Aloud and in silence. Each offers a unique perspective, don't they?

    Thank you so much. I guess I left the teaching profession, but found another way to share the ideas about which I'm passionate.

    FRIKO, We each have our favorites and he certainly is an interesting choice. I just came back from visiting your site and reading "The Visitation." I love his "greenhouse" imagery, and that we both chose a Roethke to post this week!

  17. You always post such mind-opening things...things that really make a person question and wonder about things. Very provocative. I like that about you and your blog. And I love reading what everyone else's take on the poems are too. It really makes a connection with me and makes me realize that I'm not the only "crazy" one out here. We all have our shadows and our darkness. I think the key is to recognize that is true and not be afraid of it. And that conquering means different things to different people. There are always different levels of recognition.

  18. Teri, I've always liked the line from the movie Dream Team, "We're all crazy on this bus." And all at "different levels of recognition." It's what makes blogging interesting and the world go round.


  19. When I'm at my center place, it looks very little like the persona I've presented for most of my life. But it feels wonderful and wise and unafraid.

  20. Over My Years....I Keep Bumping Into Roethke's Words. Yes,An Earthy Sound.Elemental.Shades Of Ted Hughes,But With added Compassion.
    The Idea Of Him Having A Pint With Alan Intrigues! A Happy Hour of The Soul!:)

  21. Tony, Yes, shades of Ted Hughes, which may well qualify as a pun. Burnett and Roethke deep in conversation over a pint sounds very intriguing. I would want to be a mouse in the corner, recording it. "A Happy Hour of the Soul." Great line.

  22. Down in the abyss
    I walked among the dead souls
    And felt hope depart.

  23. Interesting post. I wonder who took the photo of him - it's very striking and strange.

  24. PAUL, It sounds like you have done some wandering in Roethke territory.... I trust all is well.

    JENNY, I was struck by that image, as well. It reminded me of his line, "My shadow pinned against a sweating wall," as well as that entire second stanza, but with the added imagery of "apparitions" on the rock it makes for an interesting photo, and the obvious choice for this post.

  25. My favorite line in the poem is this:

    A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.

    The movement from dark to light, from evil to good, from destruction to creation, always is a process. Just today, I posted this in the middle of a comment on another blog:

    But best of all, I remember re-learning how not to fear – and perhaps there, in that process, is the place where dreams and reality meet.

    As for the influence an artist's personal darkness can have on us, I've always liked Luther's take on things: We can't keep the birds from flying about our heads, but we can stop them building a nest in our hair.

  26. Hi shoreacres, Letting go of fear is an ongoing theme of my life. Of course, new challenges bring new opportunities to re-learn it. It's gotten much easier.

    I no longer like dark poetry just for the sake of darkness, as I can well imagine is true for you, as well, so I tend to steer clear of those who never found the light. I read, but don't allow birds to build nests in my hair. :) I want to see that sliver of light they found, and "hear" them as they reach for it.

    Thanks so much for visiting and commenting.

  27. I have put him on my reading list.