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