Jun 14, 2012

Roethke's "The Geranium": Following Up

Roethke’s “The Geranium” was well-received, and the visitor comments were again thoughtful and interesting. So once again, I’m turning my responses to your responses into a post. 

Here again is the poem, and for additional information about Roethke, you might start here:

In addition to the whole premise of a man-geranium love affair, an actual love affair between a man and a green thing, here are some parts I find comic, usually because of extreme comparisons and comic hyperbole:

“like a sick poodle”

                                                “she'd lived
So long on gin, bobbie pins, half-smoked cigars, dead beer”

“The dumb dames shrieking half the night
Or the two of us, alone, both seedy,
Me breathing booze at her,
She leaning out of her pot toward the window.”

“that snuffling cretin of a maid”

“I sacked the presumptuous hag “

The Geranium

When I put her out, once, by the garbage pail,
She looked so limp and bedraggled,
So foolish and trusting, like a sick poodle,
Or a wizened aster in late September,
I brought her back in again
For a new routine--
Vitamins, water, and whatever
Sustenance seemed sensible
At the time: she'd lived
So long on gin, bobbie pins, half-smoked cigars, dead beer,
Her shriveled petals falling
On the faded carpet, the stale
Steak grease stuck to her fuzzy leaves.
(Dried-out, she creaked like a tulip.)

The things she endured!--
The dumb dames shrieking half the night
Or the two of us, alone, both seedy,
Me breathing booze at her,
She leaning out of her pot toward the window.

Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me--
And that was scary--
So when that snuffling cretin of a maid
Threw her, pot and all, into the trash-can,
I said nothing.

But I sacked the presumptuous hag the next week,
I was that lonely.

The very subject matter, a lowly geranium, sets the stage for comedy. The duo of Pathetic and Pathetic(er). Nearly indestructible.
The poem is very visual but without any kind of evocative romance one tends to expect from poems that take on nature. In my mind’s eye, I can see this odd couple - the only thing keeping them from bottoming out is the (once a week) cleaning woman. 

The line "But I sacked the presumptuous hag the next week," seems kind of heavy handed but I like it placed between "I said nothing" and "I was that lonely"

An ending thats not exactly a slam dunk; more like a kind of - huh? 

Good choice, Banjo

PA, that “huh” ending seems more frequent in contemporary poems than in older ones. I think it’s the poets’ attempts to avoid moralistic grand aphorisms, and I think that’s wise.


 ‪altadenahiker said...
I think it's ok to take this poem literally. Don't we feel companionship with certain objects in our life that can't feel back? Infuse them with personality because they've gone the distance. 

It also makes me think about when you're a child and bond with a stuffed animal or blanket. Isn't that a curious thing, by the way?

AH, it is a curious thing indeed. I bet it’s largely a matter of humans not doing such a great job of “feeling back” to each other. Do pets rank in the middle, between humans and objects? They seem better than humans at “feeling back”  but not as good as objects, which can feel back, think back, speak back, any time and any way we want them to.

 ‪Jean Spitzer said...
I've become a fan of Roethke, because of your blog. As a fan, I just don't want to hear any criticism. I like this story of co-dependency.

Jean, it is a kind of co-dependency, isn’t it. That’s great news about you and Roethke.

 ‪Kitty said...
I like that he refers to the plant and himself as 'seedy'. Ha.
 And the poem at the end seems to say that he learned about himself? He looked the other way when the maid threw it out, but then fired her because he missed the plant. It was as if the plant has its say in the end?

 Hope you are well, banjo!

Kitty, I missed “seedy”—thank you!  And yes to his learning about himself. “I was that lonely” could easily have been too loud, obvious, and direct, but I think his skillful handling of events, images and emotions leads us to the same “aha!” moment the speaker has, so that it’s not so much a preached truth as a sudden, honest discovery about himself.

 ‪Paula said...
I love the poem, it reminds me of me when I'm in a self-pitying funk, "I'll show them!"
 I have to wonder if he, a boozer, fired the housekeeper or if she left of her own accord. Obviously, she's more rational than he is. Very humorous.

Paula, there’s no doubt that the speaker has lost the rationality contest. I’m taking him at his word that he literally fired her, though in real life she might have chosen not to return. I suppose that depends in part on how desperate the maid was for wages, but I bet the poem would have lost its focus on the speaker if Roethke had veered into that.

 ‪RuneE said...
Of course I hear the humour. It may be black, but it also is what we call "self irony" (I don't know if that is the proper expression in English), that it is - irony turned on yourself. In my opinion, the most important humour a person can have.

To me, the word "presumptuous" underscores this. It has a different taste from "cretin" and "hag" - not your ordinary slang. In an elegant way he turns the tables on himself - and smiles.

Rune, I’ve heard people use “self-irony.” In any case, I agree that it’s an essential quality in both literature and life. In the 60s and 70s, I occasionally heard American writing credited by the rest of the (western) world with taking humor (along with the short story as a genre) to new heights. Those were our contributions, which amounted to “damning with faint praise” from prestigious, wannabe-Victorian folks here and abroad. America was the new kid-nuisance on the intellectual block, ruffians, not “our” kind of people.

I’d now take both of those compliments very seriously. Although irony, including humor, can become too much of a shield against straightforward, earned, honest emotion, without irony and other kinds of restraint or distancing tools, we might never stop wallowing and moralizing in earnestness and self-pity.

(And what a fine weapon the short story has become—Charles Baxter, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Tobias Wolff, and others have buttressed Faulkner’s idea: a short story is a failed poem, and a novel is a failed short story.)

I very much like Roethke and I like this poem.
My ex-boyfriend and I bought 2 small, scrawny plants at the 99¢ Store. I nursed those plants (and our relationship) thru the years and for some odd reason, held the belief that if one of those plants went, so would the relationship (which was always kinda rocky). After many years, one of the plants gave out, the other is still thriving. And the relationship gave out right in step with the plant that fizzled...

Altadenahiker said it better, but I thought about my plants as I was reading this poem.

Stickup, thanks for that. It’s amazing when a piece of writing touches on some detail or aspect of our own lives, and we end up feeling more connected because of that.

In the past Faulkner and Wordsworth did that for me, with regard to rural settings. Their Mississippi and northern England might seem irrelevant to my southern Ohio, but I think they gave me additional ways to think about small town life and hills (and for some reason, they did that more than Sherwood Anderson did).

More recently it might be the short stories of Alice Munro and Raymond Carver, who reveal more about their characters in 10-50 pages than most novelists do in 400. Munro’s stories are usually set in rural Ontario, sometimes in the early twentieth century, and Raymond Carver’s blue-collar characters always feel like small-town folks whose small lives he enlarges with his minimalist plain language (yes, it’s quite a paradox, though I suppose another version of the “less is more” paradox).

I'll have to re-read this poem for the humor... my mind doesn't see it just yet. Instead, I think of the commercial (was a Target commercial?) where someone puts an old desk lamp out in the trash alongside the curb. That night it rains, and the lamp looks so sad, so alone. It is amazing how a lamp can capture your heart - usually it takes puppy dog eyes to do that! 
OK, back to read for the humor. REALLY?

Brenda, does it help if I say that a lightness might be present here and there in addition to the serious substance, not instead of it. To some extent, the poem is a portrait of romantic love between a man and a bedraggled plant. He claims to have knocked her over with his boozy breath. Surely that’s comic hyperbole and should not be taken as straightforward and grave, lest some readers find themselves feeling superior to the speaker rather than moved by him. Since he tries to be just a bit amused at himself, we’re likely to credit him with perspective and awareness, not just self-pity alone.

Therefore, when we get to that big last line, it’s more dramatic by virtue of contrast in its entirely serious tone. It’s terse, direct, no-nonsense.  We can feel legitimately moved because the speaker earned our respect as well as our sympathy by not taking himself as seriously as he might have.

And without that respect, surely some would find him a cry baby, a drama queen, a wimp, a loser. “Dude, you fired a human and called her a cretin and hag because she dumped your pathetic old flower? Isn’t it you who’s pathetic?” 

But given the fuller portrait of the speaker, we might be thinking, as a couple of you have stated outright, “It’s OK, dude. I’ve been somewhere like that. Let me tell you what I did once, how low I was, even though I might have had less cause than you have . . . .” 

The touches of humor help us to see the speaker as our equal, or even our superior when it comes to suffering; he might be tougher and more aware of himself than we are toward ourselves—and someone in more dire straits than our own. If so, that strength was born partly in his ability to see funny traces within his isolation and suffering.  

That story is as good as the poem Stick Up artist. 

When we unconsciously set up escapes routes, it's really a form of wishful thinking. 

Mine is, if I ever find myself on Death Row, I can start smoking again. I hope I'm not unconsciously setting up my future (or it's ending)

PA, Once in a great while, I miss tobacco too.  But rumor has it that prison can be . . . inconvenient. Noisy. Unclean. Claustrophobic.


Jean Spitzer said...

Really, PA? Even on the exercise yard?

Hannah Stephenson said...

Really fun to read all of these comments, and your replies.

I love the voice in this poem--- "dames" really does something to the tone.

Anonymous said...

Why do I always confuse Alice Munro with Annie Dillard, when it's Annie Dillard that I love. But then, I also get Annie Dillard confused with Norman Maclean. I love him, too.

Banjo52 said...

Hey, Hannah, I'm a fun guy! More seriously, we don't hear "dames" these days, do we. I agree about tone. The speaker has some consistency and development as a character, and "dames" might be crucial to that.

AH, one "A" name is like another? Or you could argue that they're contemporaries who deal in rural settings. I have that confusion with Deborah Digges, Deborah Gregor, and Linda Gregerson in the poetry world. Norman Mclean? I'm gonna leave him as your demon (I don't know him, by the way).

Lovers' Lane