Lifesaving Poems: Theodore Roethke’s ‘Elegy for Jane’

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I came across ‘Elegy for Jane’ having found poems by Theodore Roethke  in Ted Hughes’ classic anthology of poems and writing ideas Poetry in the Making. This led me on to buying and devouring the anthology he edited with Seamus Heaney, The Rattlebag

I was also persuaded that Heaney himself was such a fan. His essay on Roethke in Preoccupations, ‘Canticles to the Earth’, is one of his most gorgeous and rapturous.

This was the Precambrian period of my writing life. Transformation was taking place, but everything I did, I did alone.  I knew no other writers or poets; there was no internet; my local library only stocked Betjeman.

In those days The Poetry Library was housed not on the South Bank, but somewhere in Piccadilly. I felt as though I was working my through an especially fiendish assault course which someone had set with the explicit intention of putting me off wanting to write or engaging with poetry.

There were no other signs of life that I could see, except in the books that I borrowed there, and in the anthologies I saved up for: Geoffrey Summerfield’s Worlds and something called Poetry With an Edge by somebody called Bloodaxe.

So when I say that the poems in this series are ‘lifesaving’ that is exactly what I mean. Like the speaker in Billy Collins’s poem ‘Marginalia’, I cannot begin to fully express ‘how vastly my loneliness was deepened’ through the experience of searching for, finding, borrowing and/or buying, taking home and reading these plainly arranged words written by people I would never meet.

I feel a special reverence for the work of Roethke (it was years before I knew how to even say his name) in this regard. There was an unguardedness about the poems that I loved, as though their author had gone through life with an essential protective outer layer of skin missing. Nevertheless the poems seemed constantly open to new sensory and emotional experience, almost as it were in wilful disregard of the consequences. I was certain he understood me.

I still get a thrilling shock from my gullet to my gut when I read ‘Elegy for Jane’. I delight in its phrasing: the psalm-like concentration of ‘limp and damp as tendrils’; the delighted music of ‘sidelong pickerel smile’; the extemporising energy of ‘the mold sang in the bleached valleys’; the almost-nonsense of ‘spiney shadow’; the emotional voltage of ‘maimed darling’; the assonance and movement of ‘skittery pigeon’.

Up to and including the poem’s  final, apparently deliberately throwaway lines, it still seems all risk to me, not planned, an utterance at once defiant and tender. I am not interested in finding out or analysing how Roethke pulled it off. He seems to be saying to hell with appearances, and implicitly questions how far the ‘rights’ of a matter can fully explain all we think we need to know. I want to remain within the cocoon-like force of his need to praise everything that moves, whatever the cost.

 

Elegy for Jane

(My student, thrown by a horse)

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once started into talk, the light syllables leaped for her.
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,
A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.

Theodore Roethkefrom Collected Poems (Faber)

8 comments

  1. elleceef

    I love the line “And she balanced in the delight of her thought,” We never know which words will save us,,,I’m just grateful that some do 🙂 Thanks for introducing this poem and poet to me,,

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on this poem. I agree, that is a great line. Glad to pass it on and to widen the circle of reading pleasure. As ever Anthony Anthony Wilson

      Love for Now, my memoir of cancer, is availablehere

      Riddance, my new book of poems, is availablehere

      >________________________________

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  2. jd

    Followed someone’s tweet to this post. Roethke was terribly important to me when I was just starting to write poetry as a teenager in the 1960s. I actually went, a few years after his death, to the University of Washington, where he had taught. I studied with his student’s Nelson Bentley and David Wagoner. The elegy you post has been much anthologized in the US so it can be too easy to forget what a beautiful poem it is. At one point in my life, the late long sequences were life-saving to me.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment on this post.
      Roethke was hugely important to me as I began writing. I still hold on to him as a model of loving not too wisely but too well, in terms of his tone, exuberance and honesty. I used his line ‘There was one fly’ -from The Lost Son – as the epigram to my last book of poems, Riddance. And I wrote a backhanded homage to him in my poem Parenthood from Nowhere Better Than This, which took that amazing first line of Dolor and turned it into a monologue on changing nappies. So you can see he is vital to me.

      As ever with best wishes
      Anthony

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