Roethke, Wright, and the cult of authenticity.
July 31, 2005
On August 22, 1957, Pete Rademacher fought Floyd Patterson in Seattle for the world heavyweight championship. In the stands that day were two boxing fans from the English Department of the University of Washington: Theodore Roethke, a forty-nine-year-old professor, and his twenty-nine-year-old student James Wright, who was celebrating the completion of his Ph.D. Each was one of the leading poets of his generation. The year before, Wright’s first book of poems, “The Green Wall,” had been chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets award; Roethke’s most recent book, “The Waking,” had won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize.
And what a congress of stinks!— Roots ripe as old bait, Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich, Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks. Nothing would give up life: Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues; I shook the softening chalk of my bones, Saying, Snail, snail, glister me forward, Bird, soft-sigh me home, Worm, be with me. This is my hard time.
I waste no pity on the dead that stink, And no love’s lost between me and the crying Drunks of Belaire, Ohio, where police Kick at their kidneys till they die of drink.
This is not a poem. This is not an apology to the Muse. This is the cold-blooded plea of a homesick vampire To his brother and friend. If you do not care one way or another about The preceding lines, Please do not go on listening On any account of mine. Please leave the poem. Thank you.
Published in the print edition of the August 8, 2005, issue.
Adam Kirsch is a poet, a critic, and the author of, most recently, “Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?”