Ted Roethke

As an undergraduate who could recite most anything written by John Keats, I sat in a chilly classroom sipping a cup of watery coffee from the Gypsy Wagon listening to a professor tell us that our anthology textbook would introduce us to a strong representation of contemporary poets … in fact, only one poet in the collection was dead (he had died just two years earlier) … Theodore Roethke. Now I had long ago been warned about living authors who might publish that last novel and destroy the logic of your thesis, so Roethke piqued my interest. Long after that class I was still reading Roethke’s books of poems and books about Roethke (including his biography). I even did my senior thesis on Ted Roethke.

So I was rummaging around earlier today and I came upon a half-dozen of Roethke’s best known poems. Although I remember several other poems as perhaps being more deserving of attention, this was the one of the six that I really liked (I may have to dig out the old Roethke books … let’s see, they are almost fifty years old now).

I Knew a Woman

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)
How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)
Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)
Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

Finest-kind. I think I first read that poem when I was about nineteen … time does pass by. Here’s a fun fact:  Sylvia Plath was just publishing at that time and her poems had not earned the fame that would come after she offed herself. Ted Roethke was himself mentally ill (he even had himself committed). We used to say that Romantic poets either had a venereal disease or consumption (alcohol or drugs was a common theme too). Is there some correlation between diseases of the body, diseases of the mind, and great literature?

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