The author of ten poetry collections, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1954) and the annual national prize for poetry (in 1959 and 1965), placed in the top ten major American poets of the 20th century, Theodore Roethke is among the most inspiring classics – he excited the world with his poetry in his lifetime and still provokes the readers’ interest after his death (1963). An author, not popular with the Bulgarian audience, who will be liked by all those wishing to capitalize words like Spirit and Nature.
Undoubtedly, a deep connection exists between his poetry and American Transcendentalism. It is manifested in his spiritual sensuality, which allows him to reach God through the ecstatic experience of knowledge, and in his vision of nature as the other face of God, the voice of revelation („The Voice“). In times still suffering from the rationalism of the Enlightenment, Roethke’s romantic view of being advocates for the wisdom of the soul, the mystery of life, the wonders of our existence. In his poetry everything vibrates, pulsates, secretly breathes („Orchids“) moves in wave circles („I Knew a Woman“); things exchange energy and even stones grow wings (The Little Things). A vibrant, full of life universe surrounds man, draws him into the mystery of transformation, and he „becomes“ nature, finds nature in himself. Man’s divine nature connects him deeply with everything around so that if something stirs the nearby ferns, they don’t divide, but his flesh divides („The Little Things“). The poet confesses, „this shaking keeps me steady,“ that is, life is the awareness of being spiritually alive and part of a constantly vibrating universe („The Waking, “ 1956).
In Roethke’s poetry the reader will find the ecstasy of life in dark times („In Dark Times“) or the misery of leaving the spiritual path, of making „a single misstep“, to be absorbed by the inertia of the mind, ever chewing poisonous food, garnished with clichés („Prognosis“).
The reflection on existence in his poetry reveals the contradiction nature-culture. Roethke’s tone is often ironic when referring to civilization. The social sphere with its cult of order and cultural cliché becomes a vicious circle of mortality – „dust from the walls of institutions“ glazes „duplicate grey standard faces“ („Dolor“). The propensity to cling to culture and ignore nature leads to suicide, the destruction of man’s uniqueness.
Twice in this book a martyr image appears – that of the geranium, a part of nature in close proximity to people, a metaphor for nature in us, but the characters, alienated from themselves, unwittingly kill the flower.
The poem „Pure Fury“ is a challenge to the illusion that we are not that sick after all – we need wild, primordial fury, complete rejection of cultural roles and masks to see our essence as pure nature. Roethke’s romantic pantheism allows him to experience the recurrence of the natural cycle as happening yet for another first time, although he knows well that the crocuses will still grow on the same spot every year („Vernal Sentiment“). However, the revolving of the social machine as a “ritual of multigraph, paperclip, comma“ causes „endless duplication of lives and objects“ – an endless standardization in which there is no place for the unique. That is why, even when the poet revels in the rhythms of his own poetry, he acknowledges at least two sources, one of which is necessarily nature – the bear’s dance and Yeats’ poetry.
A poet „on the edge“ between here and beyond, between the sensory and the supersensory – a sensitive antenna, catching “a storm of correspondences“ („In Dark Times“). Dark light is what man senses in the will for knowledge, the light of spiritual transformation. In this light „the mind enters itself” and “man is One, free in the tearing wind.”
Dark light illuminates the world of the seeker. A great poet shares this world for the first time with the Bulgarian audience – as a unique human journey, an endless inquiry, a happy discovery…
D-r Dobrina Topalova