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  • A Field Guide to the Poetry of Theodore Roethke by William Barillas
  • Christian Knoeller
A FIELD GUIDE TO THE POETRY OF THEODORE ROETHKE. By William Barillas, ed. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2020.

Throughout much of his literary career, Theodore Roethke was considered a preeminent twentieth-century American poet, likened by his contemporaries to T.S. Eliot and even hailed as a successor to Walt Whitman. Poets of Roethke’s generation bridged the historical transition from traditional patterned forms to free verse, and his own writing reflects that trajectory. With essays by forty-four contributors encompassing poems from seven major collections, A Field Guide to the Poetry of Theodore Roethke reassesses the magnitude of his contribution to American letters. In aggregate, this eclectic collection of essayists brings a variety of theoretical and philosophical perspectives—ranging from Romanticism to pastoral, Judeo-Christian thought, classical mythology, and even Eastern religion (e.g. Taoism)—that add nuance and complexity to the discussion of Roethke’s poetics and our appreciation of his work.

The manuscript is organized chronologically, progressing through Roethke’s collections in order of publication from Open House in 1941 to The Far Field in 1964. This arrangement is conducive to appreciating development of Roethke’s mature style as his writing gravitated toward free verse. The book’s embrace of formal analysis of verse is a contribution in itself, and the comprehensive reconsideration of his distinctive poetics is a valuable addition to Roethke studies. In fact, the volume offers a timely corrective by re-emphasizing elements of poetic form, a central critical concern for generations that has gradually waned. In fact, each essay offers a close reading of a single poem, often examining the impact of formal elements while reappraising the poet’s craft in terms of new directions in literary criticism ranging from feminist to ecocritical, for instance. To his credit, the editor does not privilege any one approach, evenhandedly juxtaposing a variety of theoretical frameworks such as feminist or ecocritical perspectives. As Edward Hirsch describes in the Foreword, the volume’s title evokes an underlying ecological metaphor: “We think of a field guide as a manual to help us identify things in their natural environments… This guidebook leads us down the different pathways of his imagination. It enables us to see him whole.” (xiii)

Editor William Barillas, author of The Midwestern Pastoral: Place and Landscape in Literature of the American Heartland (Ohio University Press, 2006) which also addresses Roethke in depth, has assembled an impressive array of essayists representing a wide range of critical perspectives conveying a host of fresh insights into the poet’s craft. While many contributors are established academics teaching at colleges and universities across the country, the roster of scholars includes others teaching and writing outside of the U.S. in Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, and Spain – as well as a cadre specialists affiliated with the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature. Particularly masterful chapters include several by prominent Roethke scholars such as Walter Kalaidjian, Jay Parini, and Bernard W. Quetchenbach. In “The Ecological Visions [End Page 111] of ‘The Far Field,’” for example, Quechenbach concludes that “Roethke’s ecological mysticism emphasizes horizontal movement across liminal zones where matter and spirit intersect and communicate… the convergence of worlds, and a traveler could cross between environments… Nature abides in immediate particulars integrated into a holistic, enduring net of relationships” (259). These are quintessentially ecological insights.

This Field Guide, the first book on Roethke in more than twenty years, will appeal to readers from a variety of interlocking disciplines, including scholars and students of American literature as well as twentieth-century poetry more generally. With its emphasis on close reading and formal analysis, it might also be of use to practicing as well as aspiring poets. Similarly, since chapters are written in a highly accessible style, the book is of value to students of creative writing, especially at the graduate level.

Taken together, these essays provide a synthesis of previous generations of criticism, while a number of contributors adopt forward-looking critical approaches such as ecocriticism. As such, it represents a unique contribution to Roethke studies: a comprehensive analysis of his craft, a careful examination...


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pp. 111-112
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