May 27, 2008

What hath Godke Roethke?

Yesterday I caught part of a piece on public radio about Theodore Roethke, which included him reading his poem "The Waking." Go ahead and check it out; I'll wait.

A few things: first of all, the villanelle seems to me an inherently annoying poetic form, in spite of the fact that there are some good ones, or at least popular ones.

Secondly: I've always pronounced his name "Rethke." The woman who does the story seems to be saying "Ruthke." The secretary of the Friends of Theodore Roethke seems to be saying "Rothke." Hmm. Go figure. Then again, Roethlisberger is "Roth," not "reth." To his credit, "Ted" Roethke seems never to have thrown an interception, so I'm switching to Roth in the hopes that Big Ben will learn from the poet. Sports logic, ladies and gentlemen. Twirl them Terrible (tearable?) towels!

Thirdly: Isn't it interesting how we think that hearing the poet read his/her own work will help us understand it better but in fact almost always has the opposite effect? Don't believe me? Check out Eliot reading The Waste Land sometime ... it's like he doesn't even understand the words he's saying. By the way--can you guess from his accent what part of England Eliot is from? F---ing MISSOURI. You're already one of the best two or three 20th century poets in the language ... do you have to be poser?

(I knew a guy slightly in Charleston who spent ONE SUMMER in the UK as an ADULT and came back with an accent which he supposedly could not shake. So sad.) But I digress.

Fourthly: Many years ago I took a graduate course in Modern Poetry that was not great, and it was a long time before I started appreciating modern poetry. Poems like "The Waking" just made me laugh incredulously. I wrote a short paper on a different poem of Roethke's that received the lowest grade I've ever gotten on a paper at any point in my education: a B. And that was a grad school B, ladies and gentlemen ... so, it was like a D. I think my interpretation was a little on the ... earnest side, but the professor's refutation of it was phrased in the strange language of denial, as if I had touched a weird nerve. But then, he had just turned forty and decided to start writing poetry instead of writing about it. He probably wouldn't have enjoyed my Freudian reading of Hop on Pop either. That professor was my previous nemesis, but he bought me lunch once, so that was the end of that.

Fifthly: I now appreciate a lot of modern poetry and have taught several Modern Poetry courses. I am a veritable MoMofo. But I don't like Roethke more than I used to, I have to confess. Some of his poems are okay, but some just don't work for me. Maybe I'm too lazy to read them carefully ... too slothke for Roethke.


Anonymous said...

We simple-minded molders of the middle school brains only teach this Roethke poem:
The wee tykes are not particularly impressed by it.

I have always pronounced it "Ru" and will continue to do so.

JB said...

I like that one much better than The Waking.