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Gary Lehmann's Poetry Focus

The Notebooks of Theodore Roethke

            When Theodore Roethke died in 1963, he left behind 277 spiral notebooks which served as a kind of hot house for his poetry.   In them, he assembled bits and pieces of life observations, lines he undoubtedly overheard in conversation, quotes from things he read, single phrases that struck his fancy, jokes, aphorisms, personal and public reflections, as well as whole poems, and pieces of poems struggling to be born.

            Reading through the contents of these notebooks from David Wagoner’s 1968 compilation entitled Straw for the Fire was particularly interesting to me because of the role Theodore Roethke played in the development of my own poetic taste.   I first read Roethke in college just a few years after his death.  His shadow still loomed large over the poetic world, and I avidly devoured his collected poems and dissected each one.     To me, the poems in Words for the Wind were so tight, so sharp and crisp in their conception and execution that I was positively amazed by their intensity and beauty.  But beyond their technical acumen, I realized that Roethke had found a way to transform his emotional life into words without losing control of his material.   It was this kind of double accomplishment that impressed me.   In Roethke, I found an artist who had managed the trick of simultaneously living a highly intense life and of recording it with remarkable clarity.  

            As a young romantic, I had been alternately captivated by Eliot and Yeats, enthralled by ancient Irish sagas like the Tain while being simultaneously swept away by the majesty of Anglo-Saxon verse like The Seafarer. I was thrown from one love to another without really having any way to sort out the “me” at the center of these hot affections.  Roethke expanded my vision by helping me see how a contemporary poet could go beyond the hard edge of modernism without becoming maudlin in print.

            The methodology behind this delicate combination of self-control and emotional depth I only began to perceive as I read the notebooks.  Roethke had a plan, a sort of rolling compositional process which started with accumulating raw human experience in the notebooks at the top of the system.   These notebooks were a sort of catch-all for ideas and expressions.  They had no particular order or sequence.  They were direct and unlettered.  They were at times crude and trite, bland and brilliant.    That was their glory.   Here Roethke could really let loose and experience things directly, without the filter of an audience to hold him back.

            Sometimes a single notebook entry showed up in any number of poems, in greatly transmuted form.  Most of the time, cool rationality prevailed and whole passages never got any further than the notebook page.   Years after a given notebook was full, Roethke would return to it to add or revise the wording, thus suggesting that at least to some extent he had each notebook’s contents permanently etched in his mind as he struggled to assemble a single poem.   He wrote like a man trying to build a motorcycle out of a whole scrapheap of motorcycle parts.

             The scholar David Wagoner, who was a student of Roethke’s in 1947 and his friend thereafter, estimates that fully one third of any given poem is taken from the material he recorded in the notebooks.

            After an idea for a poem started to take hold, Roethke went to the second stage, a clipboard with loose-leaf sheets.   After his death 8306 clipboard sheets were recovered.    Here he scribbled out ideas in a tentative poetic form.  The clipboard was undoubtedly a convenience that allowed him to hold his words in some order as the ideas rumbled and battered around in his brain.   These sheets are covered with circles, and arrows, and cross-outs.   They are messy and reflect the conscious shaping that was taking place on them.  

            Once a draft of the poem emerged from the battle of the clipboard, Roethke went to the typewriter and began to compose the poem into a kind of paper sculpture.   One of the things that impressed me about Roethke early on was the sense that each word in a Roethke poem has a pre-ordained place on the page that reinforces the poem’s meaning.  This was probably an aspect that Roethke added at this point in the compositional process.   At the typewriter, he was able to visualize how the words would appear typeset on a printed page.   I envision him typing many of his poems over and over again.

            Many poets have a single margin they prefer over many years.  Roethke’s margins vary widely.    Many poets decide early on how they will use white space.  Roethke’s poems are sometimes divided into sections and sometimes not.  Some of his most important poems have numbered sections.   He prefers symmetry in his stanzas, both in the number of lines and length of each line, but he is by no means stuck on any of these rules.  I strongly suspect that these decisions were made as Roethke bent over the typewriter.

            One surprise in the notebooks is the low overall quality of the prose, suggesting just how much of his artistry arose from revision.   The third and final step in Roethke’s compositional triumvirate was the standard one, revise, revise, revise.     Although Ogden Nash claimed in his old age that experience had taught him how to produce good work directly from “the moving finger,” most poets find that revising a single poem becomes a way of life that lasts for decades in many cases.   Ben Franklin claimed it continued even on beyond the grave.  

            Many poets have used notebooks as an aid to composition.  In 1999, the University of Rochester Libraries published John Gardner’s College Journal which shows how far he had yet to come as an artist before publishing his greatest works.   In 1922, just months before publishing The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot sold his New York benefactor, John Quinn, a notebook entitled Inventions of the March Hare, containing 55 poems, which reads to me like a notebook with drafts of his most famous poems.  

            For Roethke, writing poems from notebooks seems to have come naturally.  He seldom composed chronologically, but pieced a poem together backwards or inside out.   The methods vary widely from poet to poet, but the use of notebooks reflects the intense desire of most successful poet’s to create a method which will help them perfect the craft of writing, and from this we can all learn.


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