Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
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.
Source: The Heath Introduction to Poetry 3rd ed. 1988.
Includes 26-page Preface, On Poetry, by the Editor, Joseph de Roche, which covers a lot of ground about poetry’s stylistic elements and their use and development over the centuries. In its last paragraph he writes:
The novelist E. M. Forster once suggested we should think of writers not as men and women locked into different centuries, but as men and women sitting around a table carrying on a living conversation . . . Not everyone, after all, becomes our close friend. Nonetheless, the more we open our lives to experience, the richer our lives become. The more poets and poems we come to understand, the livelier the world becomes, no matter what century they, or we, have been fated to live in.
This is an older collection, but truly inspired in its selections of English-language poetry ranging from the 8th century to the end of the 20th. Many poets are represented in six temporal / historical sections, each often by several poems. (Approaching the 20th and 21st centuries, increasing numbers of writers are portrayed.) Each period is introduced by a short summary, A Brief History, about the relevant stylistic and historical context. Among the most illuminating collections I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.
Theodore Roethke (1908 – 1963) was, in the opinion of some of his more-or-less contemporaries (including novelist and one-time U.S. Poet Laureate, James Dickey, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1968), the greatest poet the United States had produced to date.
Though he was not as prolific as many of his peers (in part because he was also a devoted, influential and beloved teacher of poetry), Roethke’s verse is carefully crafted and continually strives to embody his wide and often unbearably intense experience of the ecstasy and anguish of living. He was relentlessly, vitally human, with a great appreciation for all life, and all facets of life.
The impact made on him by his youthful experiences of assisting in his family’s greenhouse business were among the first to profoundly and lastingly influence his life and work. Poet Richard Blessing’s impression of Roethke’s œvre, as reflecting the correspondences of the world of the greenhouse to the human being’s inner world:
The sensual world of the greenhouse is the first garden from which we have all emerged, and the attempt to make meaning of it, to recall the energies of that place occupies us all in the lonely chill of our adult beds. . . (We comprehend that) life is dynamic, not static; that the energy of the moment from the past preserves it, in part, in the present; that experience is a continuum, not a collection of dead instants preserved and pinned on walls we have left behind. (via poetryfoundation.org)
Roethke was recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, two National Book Awards, and a Bollingen Prize.
(The Bollingen Prize is awarded every two years for the best volume of poetry by an American published during those years, or for a poet’s lifetime achievement in his or her art. Launched in 1948 and originally conferred by the Library of Congress, the prize is now administered by the Yale University Library. The Bollingen Foundation’s name was philanthropists’ Paul and Mary Mellon’s way of honoring C. G. Jung, who had a country retreat near a Swiss village called Bollingen.)
This collection contains 7 poems by Roethke, including what is probably his best-known, “In a Dark Time”. I must not start making a habit of these post ‘extensions’, but will quote just one verse from this 4-verse poem (if only to make clear to the reader that Roethke wrote about much more than plant life):
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
—“In a Dark Time”, excerpt
east of Eden, Eliot, God and poetry and humanity, Goethe, LEO.org, lyric poem, Nicholas Boyle, poetry and humanity, poetry in translation, subjectivity and objectivity, the mystery of existence, truth and comfort?, What is human nature?, What is Nature?, Where is truth to be found?
Gott sandte seinen rohen Kindern
Gesetz und Ordnung, Wissenschaft und Kunst,
Begabte die mit aller Himmelsgunst
Der Erde grasses Los zu mindern.
Sie kamen nackt vom Himmel an
Und wussten sich nicht zu benehmen;
Die Poesie zog ihnen Kleider an,
Und keine hatte sich zu schämen.
In Goethe Gedichte II: Gedankenlyrik; Westöstlicher Diwan, 1982, Diogenes Taschenbuch 20438.
T R A N S L A T I O N
God sent his rough-hewn, hapless children
Law and Order, Learning, Art,
Bestowing on them all of heaven’s favours
To lighten for them striving earth’s grim lot.
They came from heaven naked both,
Unsure as to their nature, and which part to play . . .
Then Poetry arrayed their frames in fitting garb—
And Shame? She turned and crept away!
Perhaps especially in the case of poetry, interpretation happens simultaneously and inevitably with this process of rendering lines of words into another language, i.e., translation. I hope I’ve done some justice to Goethe’s verse, however verbosely. Thanks to the good folks at LEO.org for help with that chameleony grass.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1749-1832, is generally considered Germany’s greatest and most influential literary figure of the modern era. Foremost a writer of epic and lyric poetry, he was also playwright, novelist, scientist, statesman, theatre director, critic, and prolific amateur artist. There are many sources online concerning Goethe and his legacy; I have accessed a thoroughly readable summary of his life and work, and their social and literary contexts, at Britannica.com. It is written by Nicholas Boyle, updated August 2015 (accessed March 2017). Please read if you want to get a good feel for the scope of Goethe’s stature and accomplishments. An excerpt, from towards the end of the piece:
If there is a single theme running through Goethe’s huge and varied literary output, it is his reflection on subjectivity—his showing how in ever-changing ways we make our own selves, the world we inhabit, and the meaning of our lives. Yet he also shows how, without leaving that self-made world, we collide all the time with the reality of things. Ultimately, Goethe believes, this reality is not alien or hostile to us, because, whatever it is, we—and our capacity for experience—ultimately derive from it too. Goethe therefore calls it Nature, that out of which we are born.
All right, so hold on . . . This “reality of things” just mentioned: so there is an “I” and there are “things” . . . My thinking is that each of these things is a subjectivity in itself, just like I am, whether it be animal, vegetable, mineral. What is “Nature” but a thronging mass of subjectivities?
We humans seem, in our very humanity, to endlessly attempt to seek out objectivity, some measure of it at least; we call this seeking the truth. Whether through immersion in nature, in scientific pursuit, philosophy, art, theology / religion / spirituality / mysticism—even travel, reading, relationships—we seek the same “thing”, with greater or lesser awareness of our aspiration. Poetry / poesy itself is, at its heart, a tool we employ to try to touch, to comprehend, some objective truth in this life . . . yet the final mystery remains, always remains. So do we also seek comfort in truth? I think we must do. And will we find it? . . . And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time . . . / And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well . . . (T. S. Eliot, in “Little Gidding”)
I guess that’s where hope comes in. (Though Eliot has a thing or two to say about that, too. For another day.)
Decades ago, I came across the following line that appears in Goethe’s tragic play / epic poem, Faust, Part Two. It occurs in a pivotal conversation between Faust and Mephistopheles*, though I don’t know the exact context. It is spoken by Mephistopheles:
Des ewigen Sinnes ewige Unterhaltung.
(Formation, transformation, / Eternal Mind’s eternal occupation.) (der Sinn is hard to translate; it can mean sense, meaning, consciousness, memory, intellect. The word mind would not normally be capitalized in English, but I’ve taken the liberty of doing that.)
Asking your indulgence, dear reader, I quote this line for you because, though my knowledge of the German language is weak, these words have stayed with me, teasing me with a measure of truth, and mystery, through the years.
*Mephistopheles is a representative of Lucifer / Satan. There are many ways to interpret his action in the play, as well as the work’s final outcome—which may well offer redemption after the tragedy has played itself out.