Jun 8, 2012

Theodore Roethke, "The Geranium"

OK, OK, you literalists, it's not a geranium . . . 

I’ve delayed posting Theodore Roethke’s “The Geranium” because it’s a downer. Also, I have some reservations or questions about the poem. I can imagine some readers’ criticizing it as self-indulgent or maudlin (just as I can imagine some readers' relating completely to the speaker's loneliness). I wonder if the turn to the housekeeper at the end is too sudden or too extreme. I'll have more questions in a minute, but for whatever reason, the poem has stuck with me for decades, maybe because its confession seems honest and convincing:

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.

Shapes of a Woman
Of course I have some questions. Do you hear a touch of dark humor in the poem? If nothing else, isn't there lightness in the very fact of Roethke’s presenting the geranium as a woman—a woman who leans her head out the window to escape the speaker’s boozy breath? In a movie, that would be funny.

The Loneliness of Right Field
The best humor has substance. There’s no doubting the poem has substance, but isn’t there also in some of the details an undercurrent of comedy? And doesn’t it work against any tendency the poem might have toward falling too emotionally into a Roethke abyss?
Inspecting for Hags and Cretins
In the poem's language, I wonder about 

"presumptuous" in the penultimate line. I think that I think it's unnecessary, intrusive and awkward. I hear it disrupting the line’s rhythm, but even more so it seems like dead weight in the content. The speaker is calling the maid a cretin and a hag, which seem like plenty of insult on their own. The many-syllabled “presumptuous” slows, overburdens, fattens and softens the bullets fired in “cretin” and “hag.”  (I know, I know, a proper scholar would have said "multisyllabic"). 

I can hear an argument saying “presumptuous” turns the humor back on the speaker. It’s a ponderous word from a verbalist, and many times a verbalist makes a fool of himself by being absurdly, ponderously verbal. 

That opens the door to hearing “cretin” and “hag” as self-mockery too. A man of  words (silent, not spoken words, but many of them) is labeling a laborer in terms that might have little meaning to her. Her world is work, action, behavior, tossing out what’s dead and what stinks. She might take exception if he called her "whoring bitch," but "cretin" and "hag"?  The speaker, by contrast, perhaps wallows a bit in his own anguish, over-thinking, over-verbaling and over-emoting with regard to it.
"In Full Bloom"? Are You Sure?
Even if he is overdoing it, it doesn't kill the legitimacy of his loneliness. Most of us have been where he is (more briefly and less intensely, one hopes), so we’re not likely to laugh off his extreme isolation. But at the same time we hear the author, if not the speaker, sensing that the dismissal of the maid might be too extreme, thus adding a hint, a wink of understanding of what’s reasonable and what crosses a line. Firing a housekeeper for tossing a rotten plant goes too far. The speaker’s action probably has a more dire impact on her than her moment of carelessness has on him.

It’s worth noting that this difference between an author and his speaker’s understanding of things was at the heart of my last post. I think Roethke shows more awareness of that difference than David Wagoner does in “To a Farmer . . .”.   In "The Geranium" the author-speaker disparity enriches the poem rather than confusing it. 

For those who especially like hearing works read aloud, here is Blue Mamie, presumably another lover of “The Geranium.” She reads it a bit too fast, I think, but her voice is good, and her presentation is clear and crisp:


Pasadena Adjacent said...

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 minds 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

Anonymous 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?

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.

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!

PJ 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.

Rune Eide 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.

Stickup Artist said...

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.

Brenda's Arizona said...

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?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

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)

Banjo52 said...

Once again I like these comments enough to turn them into the next post, probably tonight or tomorrow. Thanks, everyone.

Lovers' Lane