5. Poetics of Place in “North American Sequence”: Theodore Roethke (1908–1963)
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116 5 Poetics of Place in “North American Sequence” Theodore Roethke (1908–1963) Chances are, your life and the history of your place are braided with the current of a river.... Near the river you are never far from an awareness of time.  — ​Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put a course of a river that turns, moves on, doubles back, and comes full circle, forever arriving  — ​Octavio Paz, Sunstone/Piedra de Sol While Theodore Roethke’s groundbreaking early volumes of poetry demonstrated a striking attunement to nature instilled during his youth in Michigan, this sensibility would not reach its ultimate expression until his final collection, The Far Field, and particularly the ecopoetic epic “North American Sequence.” Imaginatively traversing the entire continent, the­sequence embodies a poetics of place, consolidating a lifetime’s keen observation of nature, configured here as a transcontinental trek. In the course of this “journey” spanning the Great Plains and the Teton Range, ­ stretching from Atlantic watersheds to Pacific headlands, these poems, replete with detailed depictions of flora and fauna, portray a remarkable array of terrains . Roethke recognized that wetlands tend to be especially rich biologically , a wellspring of abundance brimming with biodiversity. This was precisely the kind of ecological principle that pioneering wildlife biologists 117 Poetics of Place: Theodore Roethke such as Paul Errington discerned in the marshes of the Upper Midwest. Such transitional zones, which have special appeal for both ecologists and literary naturalists, became a touchstone for Roethke’s poetics of place. The expansive sequence also repeatedly addresses cultural history in relation to the continent’s varied landscapes, particularly the legacy of America’s indigenous peoples. Whether expressing reverence or simply celebrating what evokes wonder, Roethke found lyrical verse conducive to meditating on spiritual dimensions of our relationship to the land and its history. Titling a poem as a meditation, as he does “Meditation at Oyster River,” reminds us of his intent to depict moments of intuitive communion with aspects of the environment that might still be deemed wild. “North American Sequence” was central to establishing Roethke’s reputation among major American poets at midcentury. He clearly aspired to make a lasting contribution and a bid for a place in literary history, venturing into ambitious forms for the sequence: six poems, each composed of three to five sections, together forming a compact epic of self-­ discovery and direct experience of the sublime in relation to nature. By the time his final collection was published posthumously in 1964, Roethke was already a celebrated figure, having been awarded the illustrious “triple crown” of poetry prizes: the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and Bollingen. He received a second National Book Award for The Far Field. Still “North American Sequence” was ultimately hailed by critics as his masterpiece. In fact, the inclusiveness of “North American Sequence” has led many ­ critics (e.g., Balakian, Barillas, Mills, Parini) to compare it favorably to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Critic Ralph J. Mills Jr., for instance, declared ­ Roethke’s sequence his magnum opus, containing “a number of the most astonishing mystical poems in the [English] language.” 1 Such accolades — ​as well as critical reception over time — ​are inevitably subject to shifting literary fashions and taste. Roethke was among poets of his generation at the forefront of a transformation in American verse, as formal tone was supplanted by the ascent of a more colloquial idiom exemplified by William Carlos Williams; as personal experience was deemed legitimate subject matter by Confessional poets such as Robert Lowell; and as organic free verse eclipsed patterned forms of the past. In this regard, ecocritic Bernard Quechenbach points to Roethke’s second book, The Lost Son and Other Poems, as pivotal, effectively ushering in the contemporary period in American poetry and, moreover, deems Roethke the most significant nature poet of his generation.2 118 Poets Expressing Ecological Sensibilities Yet from an ecocritical perspective, another profound cultural shift had long been under way. Our once largely agrarian society has grown progressively more urban and suburban, as argued so compellingly by Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of America. Consequently, over the course of a century or more, personal contact with nature has sharply decreased, as even the memory of subsistence family farming has faded. Bill McKibben warns in The End of Nature that ultimately such a “loss of memory will be the loss of meaning.” 3 Similarly, the esteemed elder statesman of what has recently come to be known as ecopoetry, W. S. Merwin, laments that many contemporary readers are...


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