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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Number 107: Theodore Roethke "The Waking"

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

-- Theodore Roethke

Hap Notes: This villanelle by Roethke is at the core of what good poetry is all about. He takes a concept personal to himself and gives it to you to make your own. The specific phrases with "I" and "me" as you read them, are about YOU in addition to Roethke. The moment you read the poem aloud, you own it- it's about you. What a magical gift from him for contemplation on a Sunday, eh? We've already mentioned Roethke, if you'd like to refresh your memory go here:

First of all let's talk a little about the form of the poem because I most decidedly think you should write one yourself. It's a fascinating exercise that will show you how each sentence in a poem can have a different impact depending on its place in the poem. The villanelle counts on this. I'll try to sum up the form easily.

The villanelle has six stanzas- the first five have three lines, the last one has four. The first line and the last line of the first stanza (in "The Waking it's "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow." and "I learn by going where I have to go.") are repeated throughout the poem. The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas. The last line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas. They meet as the last two lines of the sixth stanza. I have color-coded Roethke's poem for your ease in writing your own. I highly recommend it. I'd love to see how yours turns out- post it if you dare or just send it to me at Hapmansfield@hotmail if you're wary. I'll post mine when I finish it. I have no fear of looking stupid since I believe that's already been established.

Copy the rhyming pattern of Roethke's poem, which, for those of you who'd rather see it traditionally written is A(1) b A (2)/ abA(1)/abA(2)/ abA(1)/abA(2)/ abA(1)A(2).

Now to Roethke's magic. He could not have picked a better form for the myriad interpretations that grow out of this poem. The cadences of the villanelle are hypnotic, almost like sleep-walking or like a mantra of some kind aren't they? And he's saying something about life and death here- about consciousness and unconsciousness. The poem is all about the mysteries of being alive.

Roethke is saying something about becoming one with the natural universe, as if we are plants or trees with ambulatory motion. I think the worm climbing the winding stair is taken directly from a poem by Emerson (I'm wingin' it here so if you are writing a term paper take caution). Here's the Emerson poem I'm referring to:


A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes,
And speaks all languages the rose;
And, striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Do you see the connection? I've never heard it said that Roethke is using this image from Emerson and he may have gotten the image from Blake, whom he greatly admired. Here's the Blake passage he may have been thinking of:

" ...Every thing that lives
Lives not alone nor for itself. Fear not, and I will call
The weak worm from its lowly bed, and thou shalt hear its voice,
Come forth, worm of the silent valley, to thy pensive queen."
The helpless worm arose, and sat upon the Lily's leaf,
And the bright Cloud sail'd on, to find his partner in the vale.
Then Thel astonish'd view'd the Worm upon its dewy bed.
"Art thou a Worm? Image of weakness, art thou but a Worm?
I see thee like an infant wrapped in the Lily's leaf
Ah! weep not, little voice, thou canst not speak, but thou canst weep.
Is this a Worm? I see thee lay helpless and naked, weeping,
And none to answer, none to cherish thee with mother's smiles."
The Clod of Clay heard the Worm's voice and rais'd her pitying head:
She bow'd over the weeping infant, and her life exhal'd
In milky fondness: then on Thel she fix'd her humble eyes.
'O beauty of the vales of Har! we live not for ourselves."
-- William Blake ( from Thel)

I think the phrase "we live not for ourselves" has a certain context in Roethke's poem; we are going toward something bigger, more mysterious, more extraordinary. We are going to dissolve in "Great Nature", there's a transcendence happening there of some kind.

And now I leave you with Roethke's poem because it's yours. It will mean something to you, now beyond all this and I want you to have it and cherish it, ponder it or if you like, dismiss it. (Maybe it means nothing to you now- maybe it will hit you when you see the morning sunlight hit the leaves of a tree. Maybe the poem won't mean anything to you until you take your last breath. Maybe not ever. But I think you'll figure out something. I believe in you.)

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