Jan 24, 2012

"In a Dark Time" by Theodore Roethke









I think I’ve heard that Theodore Roethke’s “In a Dark Time” is one of his more admired poems, but I'm not sure how to think about it. I think I’d use that handy reviewer word, “uneven,” to describe it. I find some of the lines gorgeous: 

            I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
            A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
            I live between the heron and the wren . . .    

Or provocative:

            What’s madness but nobility of soul
            At odds with circumstance?

Or personalized, unique, and convincing images of nightmare and desperation:

           

           My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.   
            That place among the rocks . . .

            The edge is what I have.

            A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon . . .


I also like the fact the final line leaves some ambiguity about just how much of a
solution this union of the human mind and God might be, as we find it “free” only to
exist in a “tearing wind.” How comforting is that? How complete is that salvation?
There’s a realism in that uncertainty that works well against a facile cure-all for
closure.

However, some of Roethke’s lines and images feel a bit hyperbolic and histrionic, or
pat and predictable. The images can be rather non-specific, as if collected from a
psychology text, a formula, rather than testaments of this particular speaker’s
individual, personalized imagery of being on the brink:

                                    The day’s on fire!   
            I know the purity of pure despair,

            And in broad day the midnight come again! 

            All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

            Dark, dark my light, 

I hear more rhapsody than agony in those lines. Even the poem’s title, “In a Dark Time” strikes me as a rather generic summation of angst. To say “a dark time” is to speak something a lot of folks might have uttered. Is it wrong to expect from a major poet a higher percentage of original images and thoughts about psychological chaos? It’s not that those are absent here, but aren’t they a bit inconstant?

Let me know if the subject interests you. If it does, I’ll try to post one or two of G.M.
Hopkins’ “terrible sonnets” where the themes are similar, but the imagery seems to me more consistently stunning and creative, even though Hopkins is almost a century older than Roethke.

In a Dark Time by Theodore Roethke : The Poetry Foundation




14 comments:

altadenahiker said...

Yes, do post. I'm not a fan of this poem. Biting nails and grinding teeth. "Which I is I," bothers me, for starters. It sounds like a diary entry.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I got sucked into "the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall."
But the leap to the storm of correspondences? Is this literal? Is that what is causing his despair? I thought it must be something much darker than that. Most of us think that despair finds us. Seems Roethke is making his own?
Yes, a diary entry is a good description, AH!
Bring it on, Banjomyn.

Banjo52 said...

AH and Brenda, good to know I'm not alone, and I like your examples. Granted, poetic diction is often and by definition different from conversation, but I cannot imagine saying in either situation, "Which I is I" or "the purity of pure despair."

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I read up on Roethke and came across this

" T. S. Eliot's belief that "the only way to manipulate any kind of English verse, [is] by assimilation and imitation."

It made me think if we don't care for "Which I is I" how would we replace it? I've employed this technique before when I'm in front of a committee explaining my "Intent" I find that when I turn it around to the critique(er) with something like "well thats interesting, what would you do" - they end up stumped

Jeff M said...

Finally, Banjo! The Big Roethke. I was pleased to see that you posted some of his pieces. Indeed one of the more daring poets of the past. Now if I can just get you to stop posting Frost poems, we'd be good.

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance?

Wonderful. Just pure resonant insight that rings the bells of truth.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Can't wait until you discuss "I Knew a Woman". It turns, and counterturns. A bit fetched from Frost.

Banjo52 said...

PA, you have a point, but the rejoinder to that I always hear (and use?) is that it's the poet's job to make it right, make it work. All the critic has to do is point out when it's wrong; that's why they tend to be hated, fairly or unfairly.

What if critics are the turkey buzzards in the world of the arts and humanities? They clean up the messes, for which they're told how ugly they are.

Jeff, Welcome back! I like Roethke more often than not, and "The Waking" might be my favorite poem ever, if it's not too dumb to make such a claim. But in this poem and "The Meadow Mouse" (discussed here about a year ago), I do think he crosses the line into sentimentality or other lack of restraint, control, in some lines or some ways.

As for Frost . . . let's not go there.

Brenda, been there, done that, January 12, 2011 here.

Stickup Artist said...

I guess I'm the odd one out because I love this poem. I think it is courageous and mystical and speaks the truth of a uniquely gifted, highly sensitive individual expressing a different kind of reality. A far more dangerous reality than I will ever dare to occupy for more than the occasional glimpse. So I really have to cut the poet some major slack here...

Birdman said...

I always enjoy a good read. This Roethke fits the bill for me. Thanks.

Banjo52 said...

Stickup, Birdman, and all, I'll be interested to hear whether you prefer "In a Dark Time" to Hopkins' "Carrion Comfort," which I think I'll be able to post today. It's not that I DISlike the Roethke, but I find the Hopkins at least a bit more convincing, compelling, and more original even thought it's older. There's no RIGHT answer, of course.

Ken Mac said...

Top photo reminds of a scene from the movie I saw last night, The Grey. BOnes Bones Bones...

Banjo52 said...

Stickup, Birdman, and all, I'll be interested to hear whether you prefer "In a Dark Time" to Hopkins' "Carrion Comfort," which I think I'll be able to post today. It's not that I DISlike the Roethke, but I find the Hopkins at least a bit more convincing, compelling, and more original even thought it's older. There's no RIGHT answer, of course.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

"I always hear (and use?) is that it's the poet's job to make it right, make it work"

That assumes there is a right answer

What would a white canvas be without a critic to explain it to > the art museum curator who explains it to > the art historian who puts it in > a book and teaches it to > the indifferent student fulfilling his/her > humanity requirement in > Art History 1A?

cultural bedrock or cultural forced march?

Banjo52 said...

PA, thanks. There's little doubting the truth in your summary of the Business End of art and literature. It ain't fair or easy, for sure. But if the artist/writer can't make his piece right, surely the critic or agent can't either. That doesn't mean the flaw has disappeared.

I'm reminded of the troublesome old maxim, "If it works, works." And the assumption is that we all know when art has worked. But that doesn't begin to respond to your concern; it might even make it worse.

But when you ask a critic or scholar to tell you what to do to make it better, maybe he can, maybe not. The fact that he cannot come up with the correction . . . that doesn't mean that there are suddenly no flaws in the work, does it? And can't a writer/artist KNOW something's not quite right with a good, but not perfect, piece he's made? Should he ask the scholar/critic to come in and fix it for him, or just agree with the scholar/critic that the piece is flawed--good or even great, but not perfect?

If the flaws were that "easy" to fix, would we essentially be taking a multiple choice approach to the art object? "Well, Mr. Writer, you chose B for the plot turn in Chapter 18, when the right answer is clearly D." Surely we can't expect the writer or the critic to do that . . . .

It's murky water, and it should make clear (irony) why artists are so sensitive to criticism. That's only reasonable and human. But that doesn't mean to me that critics should be destroyed. If I'm thinking about seeing a movie, and can't get in touch with a trusted friend, or don't have a trusted friend when it comes to movies, why not turn to 3 critics I agree with more often than not?

This should probably been a post. Maybe it will be . . .

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