Jan 12, 2011

Theodore Roethke, "I Knew a Woman": The Gift of a Poem

I Knew a Woman by Theodore Roethke : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

A couple of times recently (see, for example, Banjo52, December 8, 2010), I’ve agreed with others in saying that art, including poetry, should be a gift—and bear smaller gifts along the way of its journey. As an example, Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman” is almost a cheat, the poem is so full of pleasures. It’s more playful than serious, but it illustrates my point. Male readers should appreciate the poem’s gifts without need for explanation. But female readers, even militant feminists, might smile too as they hear Roethke proclaim—and exaggerate, perhaps—women’s powers and their dominance over men.

These are not new gambits about gender, but consider a few of the new images or phrases. First, the woman sighs back at birds. Birds don’t sigh, as far as I know, but what a charming, though improbable image. If a man insists upon going dopey over a woman, what better defense for his insanity than her ability to sigh with the birds? Who could resist such a woman, gentle, at home in orchards, cousin to the finch? It's the end of the paradigm of Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll.

So, by the end of Line 2, Roethke has made clear that there will be some frippery here; if you want King Lear wailing over Cordelia’s corpse, you’ll have to go read the bard. Or Dostoevsky, or dozens of other somber works. This poem is primarily playful, though it might gently raise the serious issue of dominance, who’s running the show, and how much inequality of power is healthy in a relationship. There's also a bit of philosophy, mystery, even witchcraft:

What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
Is this is enough of a non-erotic basis for worship, enough adoration for attributes other than the physical? I suspect various readers will answer that differently. But the primacy of the female in Roethke's overall scheme is beyond doubt, and that primacy resides in a sublimity that's much more than lust.

Roethke died in 1963, so he missed the most recent decades of feminism as well as the latest news from evolutionists: in mating, the female of the species does the choosing. She's The Decider. (Sorry, couldn't resist). So, knowingly or unwittingly, Roethke's playful poem might be touching on some scientific concepts, proven or otherwise.

Much of the gift in art is offering the unexpected and making it seem appropriate and be appropriate--natural and convincing, both rational and supra-rational. In this vein, Roethke’s next surprise is his adoration of his love as a “bright container.” As a pick-up line, I’ve never considered, “Hey, baby, you’re one bright container.” I wonder if it would work. It should; a suitor should get points for originality.

Whatever else she is, a woman is surely a container, a bright one; she should be honored to be called a container, though it took Roethke to show me this truth. (I suppose men are containers too, but maybe we’re not all that bright . . . maybe we're milk cartons).

I’ve contemplated a hip or two passing by, but I don't recall any hips with noses. Still, Roethke-think has persuaded me to play along, just in time for a somewhat menacing image: this fine woman of circles is also a sickle—a tool! a blade! And Walmart is fresh out of codpieces! But she and he are both happy with the male as rake, following along, cleaning up after her. Only a few weeds have been amputated; all his . . . digits are intact.

There might also be a play here on that other meaning of “rake,” the rough and ready playboy, as in the song verse, “I am a rake and rambling boy.” Maybe that’s Roethke’s effort at a shred of dignity for his gender—romanticizing, idolizing tin-cup beggars that we are. But that's a stretch, and even if it has merit, it yields to the primary image of “rake” as clean-up device.

A truer test of my assertion about gifts in art would be a darker poem that we’re nevertheless glad we’ve read. Its thinking and language are so incisive, fresh, surprising, and significant that they are unquestionably worth the new light of day (or night) the poet has given them. But there have been and will be grim poems aplenty; maybe it’s all right to begin with “I Knew a Woman”—light but ingenious—so that we might all be on the same page about what I mean by gifts in a poem.

Do you find any gifts in "I Knew a Woman"? Elsewhere?


Ken Mac said...

man, you think a lot so early in the day! :)

Banjo52 said...

Ken, thanks. IF you're right . . . well, a man's gotta have a hobby. And a curse.

Brenda's Arizona said...

And the innuendos can eat you alive.

I love "(I measure time by how a body sways)"
So true.

Remind me again, Banjomyn, where were you going with this poem?

Banjo52 said...

Where was I going with it? More than the idea of the gift(s) it offers?

PJ said...

Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

This is rabbit behavior, their noses are always dancing in the most exquisite way and when they're eating something delicious, they fannies quiver; it's delightful to watch. During the times that they're active and happy to see you they run circles around your feet.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Banjo - totally off topic, but I laughed at this quote:
‎"I don't know. Poets are always taking the weather so personally. They're always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions" - J.D. Salinger, Teddy (1953)

Banjo52 said...

Paula, is that a RABBIT in the video? Are you SURE?

Brenda, do you find Roethke "sticking [his] emotions in things that have no emotions"? Like RABBITS???

Thanks for reminding me of the great Salinger stories, which I admire at least as much as Catcher.

You two, and others, no other favorite parts in this poem? No more gifts?

PJ said...

I liked the poem, but I kept seeing animal behavior in it so I was tewtally distracted by it. And that was Fats, a famous angora rabbit. Seriously, he was one in 10,000,000 and passed away last year. I was crushed.

Banjo52 said...

Paula, is that the two of you in the video?

You know, some might say that the speaker's appetites in the poem are somewhat animalistic. You know, breeding like bunnies? But I think he's proposing something a touch loftier . . . .

PJ said...

No, that wasn't me, it was Patricia Rubinelli:

- and I got my spine shot up full of steroids on Thursday and I'm not feeling all that lofty, so you'll have to bear with me for another day or two.

Banjo52 said...

Paula, Ow. Feel better. Hope you keep up the visits as comfort allows.

Lovers' Lane