Six Poems by Theodore Roethke

Composed by Ned Rorem (b. 1923)

Pulitzer-winning Theodore H. Roethke (1908-1963) was born and raised in Saginaw, Mich., and returned to his boyhood home (now the Theodore Roethke Home Museum) for family visits throughout his adult life spent as a college professor. Much of his of poetry was inspired by Saginaw, his childhood and the family greenhouse business that occupied 25 acres in back of their home.

Today Roethke’s poems are in textbooks and anthologies worldwide. He won the Pulitzer in 1954 for “The Waking”; the National Book Award in 1959 for “Words for the Wind” and in 1965 for “The Far Field.”

His poems have been set to music by Ned Rorem, William Bolcom and Samuel Barber. Former student and poet David Wagoner penned a play about him, “First Class.” And in 2012, Roethke was one of 10 American poets featured on a commemorative sheet of stamps.

For more information:

The element of air was out of hand,
The rush of wind ripped off the tender leaves
And flung them in confusion on the land.
We waited for the first rain in the eaves.
The chaos grew as hour by hour the light decreased
Beneath an undivided sky.
Our pupils widened with unnatural night.
But still the roads and dusty field kept dry.
The rain stayed in its cloud, full dark came near.
The wind lay motionless in the long grass.
The veins within our hands betrayed our fear.
What we had hoped for had not come to pass.

In 1962 Ned Rorem wrote to Roethke asking him for pieces he could set to music dealing with “rain and/or love.” Roethke responded: “The enclosed poem ‘Interlude’ deals with the rain that stays in its clouds and might be the ideal piece for an interlude in your sequence.” The setting of this short poem was included in the Rorem collection Songs of Love & Rain. It is the only poem from Roethke’s debut book of verse, Open House (1941), that Rorem set to music.

My Lizard (Wish for a Young Wife)
My lizard, my lively writher,
May your limbs never wither,
May the eyes in your face
Survive the green ice
Of envy’s mean gaze;
May you live out your life
Without hate, without grief,
And your hair ever blaze,
In the sun, in the sun,
When I am undone,
When I am no one.

Wish For a Young Wife is a widely set Roethke piece. Art song masters Rorem and Samuel Barber produced beautiful musical versions of the poem that originally appeared in Roethke’s second National Book Award-winning volume, The Far Field. This volume is considered a central text in the neo-romantic tradition of mystical nature poetry. Wish for a Young Wife is widely regarded as one of the most moving and prophetic pieces in the book as Roethke seems to foretell his own death, which came shortly after the poem was written.

They lean over the path,
Swaying close to the face,
Coming out, soft and deceptive,
Limp and damp, delicate as a young bird’s tongue;
Their fluttery fledgling lips
Move slowly,
Drawing in the warm air.
And at night,
The faint moon falling through whitewashed glass,
The heat going down
So their musky smell comes even stronger,
Drifting down from their mossy cradles:
So many devouring infants!
Soft luminescent fingers,
Lips neither dead nor alive,
Loose ghostly mouths

Orchids is the first song in Ned Rorem’s song set Two Poems of Theodore Roethke from 1969. It is one of the later pieces in the Roethke/Rorem songbook. The poem was originally published in Roethke’s book The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948). Noted literary critic Harold Bloom called The Lost Son Roethke’s masterwork and one of the greatest post-war books of poetry. The book features Roethke’s legendary greenhouse poems, of which Orchids is a splendid example.

In the slow world of dream,
We breathe in unison.
The outside dies within,
And she knows all I am.
She turns, as if to go,
Half-bird, half-animal.
The wind dies on the hill.
Love’s all. Love’s all I know.

A doe drinks by a stream,
A doe and its fawn.
When I follow after them,
The grass changes to stone.

Rorem had not read Roethke’s poetry until he was commissioned to set three pieces to music by New York Soprano and arts patron Alice Esty. She debuted this Roethke/Rorem work,Memory, on stage in New York 1959. The poem itself is from Roethke’s National Book Award-winning collection Words for the Wind (1958). At this point in his development, Roethke’s work had shifted from what some critics saw as the self-absorption of his early work to an otherness that characterizes Roethke’s best love poems. That shift, which began to occur after his marriage, is palpable throughout this work.

The Waking
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

The Waking is written in a highly sophisticated form known as a villanelle; a fixed poetic form of five tercets and a quatrain. The villanelle is built on only two rhymes, with the two key lines of the first stanza alternately repeated as the last line of each tercet and joined together in the closing quatrain.(Go try that at home!) The Waking is considered one of the most accomplished examples of this difficult but effective form. Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is yet another. This tight rhythmic structure makes it an interesting and challenging poem to set to music. Rorem does it masterfully.

I Strolled Across an Open Field
I strolled across
An open field;
The sun was out;
Heat was happy.
This way! This way!
The wren’s throat shimmered,
Either to other,
The blossoms sang.
The stones sang,
The little ones did,
And the flowers jumped
Like small goats.
A ragged fringe
Of daisys waved;
I wasn’t alone
In a grove of apples.
Far in the wood
A nestling sighed;
The dew loosened
Its morning smells.
I came where the river
Ran over stones:
My ears knew
An early joy.
And all the waters
Of all the streams
Sang in my veins
That summer day.

I Strolled Across an Open Field is the second song of Rorem’s 1969 song set, Two Poems of Theodore Roethke; Orchids (above) being the other. This is a decidedly joyous poem that was included in Roethke’s masterpiece, The Lost Son and Other Poems. While the critically acclaimed greenhouse poems in the same volume seek to illuminate the struggle and raw beauty of nature, this poem can, in that context, be read as a celebration of the ultimate victory of natural forces. Rorem’s setting of the work is, like the poem itself, uplifting and inspirational.

—Notes by Mike Kolleth

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