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Friday, January 21, 2011

Number 44: Theodore Roethke "The Bat"

The Bat

By day the bat is cousin to the mouse.
He likes the attic of an aging house.

His fingers make a hat about his head.
His pulse beat is so slow we think him dead.

He loops in crazy figures half the night
Among the trees that face the corner light.

But when he brushes up against a screen,
We are afraid of what our eyes have seen:

For something is amiss or out of place
When mice with wings can wear a human face.

--Theodore Roethke

Hap Notes: Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) is one of my favorite poets due to his understanding of the natural world. He grew up in Saginaw, Michigan where his German immigrant father ran a large local greeenhouse. The name is pronounced "Ret-Ka", or that's close enough to get you by anyway.

The greenhouse (it's more like green houses- the place had many of them) run by his father and uncle, is enormously present in his poetry for a variety of reasons. As a child, Roethke spent a lot of time looking at and working around glass houses full of roses and orchids. His father was stern and mysterious man to Roethke. His dad died of cancer and his uncle committed suicide around the same time in 1923. So first, there's all that to take in.

Next, Roethke, like Robert Lowell, was diagnosed as a manic-depressive but Roethke's "attacks" of the illness were quite different from Lowell's. Roethke became animated and almost divinely enthusiastic in the manic side and he kept on writing during the depressive side. He thought it gave him another window into the world. He used it to write. If you read his poem "The Lost Son" he takes you on this mental journey and the poem is marvelous and sad and strange. It's always been one of my favorites. It's not so much about his illness as it is about his internal reality.

"The Lost Son," however, is far too long for our purposes here. Another favorite of mine, "The Waking," is a villanelle we'll do at some point. Roethke's poetry is super-loaded with botanical and animal references and they are a joy to read if you like to observe nature.

The bat picture above was taken with a microscope and it certainly is astonishing in its human qualities. This particular bat looks like a Jim Henson puppet with its wise eyes and grim expression. Roethke is telling us something about human beings in that we are both like wild creatures and frightened of our similarities. The poem is clever because it starts off like a cute nursery rhyme. The bat loops around in "crazy" figures, his pulse isn't normal, his hands are strange. Then the poet tells us-with a thud- he looks a little bit like us. Kind of amusing, more than a little startling.

Roethke was famous for giving readings of his poetry that were moving and grand. He was never afraid, in his poetry, to explore the unconscious mind and he was attracted to mysticism. One of his poetic heroes was, unsurprisingly really, William Blake. He taught at several universities (remember the Kunitz story?) and really found a teaching home at the University of Washington. One imagines Roethke's delight in the flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest. He loved nature.

Roethke won a Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards in addition to many other awards and fellowships. He was friends with many poets; had an affair with Louise Bogan, studied under Robert Hillyer, W.H. Auden was the best man at his wedding and he taught several contemporary writers including poet Carolyn Kizer, playwright David Wagoner and poet James Wright.

We'll spend more time with Roethke this year but here are a couple of good quotes:

"Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It's what everything else isn't."

and (very telling, I might add)-"You must believe: a poem is a holy thing -- a good poem, that is."

You can find more Roethke here:

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