Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) grew up in the harsh soil and savage climate of Michigan, where his German-American parents owned a 25-acre greenhouse in the Saginaw Valley, one of the largest in the Midwest. The family greenhouse ("A house for flowers! House upon house they built") was for him a deeply special place. It was both sacred and abysmal ground, simultaneously a natural world and an artificial realm, a locale of generation and decay, order and chaos. It came to stand for the lost world of his childhood ("I'd stand upon my bed, a sleepless child/ Watching the waking of my father's world. -- / O world so far away! O my lost world!") and, at the same time, to serve as the central emblem -- both the heaven and the hell -- of his poetry.
Roethke formed his core poetic when he got down on his knees and immersed himself in the loamy soil of his Michigan childhood ("I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,/ In my veins, in my bones I feel it, -- "). The 14 "greenhouse poems" that comprise the first section of The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), were his most fertile source for art. They explore the instinctual sources of life from the dank minimal world of roots in "Root Cellar" ("And what a congress of stinks! -- ") to the open, flowering reality of young plants in "Transplanting" ("The whole flower extending outward,/ Stretching and reaching"). He plunged into the dirt and returned to the sunlit realms in "Child on Top of a Greenhouse," where the daredevil boy is a kind of artist in embryo.
Child on Top of a Greenhouse
The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!
Roethke's greenhouse poems, models of imaginative free verse, are his breakthrough work. The greenhouse was also linked to two other discoveries Roethke made in the 1940s. Largely prompted by his friend Kenneth Burke, who later wrote an insightful essay on Roethke's "vegetal radicalism," he began to explore the poetic possibilities of the unconscious, returning to the realms of childhood and thus commencing "the retrospective course" of his "hallucinatory dream." He also recognized that the organic process of plants could stand as a metaphor for the poetic enterprise itself, each poem taking its own sensuous form and intrinsic shape. This was an Emersonian notion of poetic form, a fundamental of romantic expressiveness, and it enabled Roethke to become the figure that John Berryman dubbed "The Garden Master."
I've always loved the precision and environmental ethic of "Moss-Gathering," which seems to me worthy of the free verse of D. H. Lawrence. ("For Lawrence and I are going the same way: down," Roethke once wrote in a notebook entry.)
To loosen with all ten fingers held wide and limber
And lift up a patch, dark-green, the kind for lining cemetery baskets,
Thick and cushiony, like an old-fashioned doormat,
The crumbling small hollow sticks on the underside mixed with roots,
And wintergreen berries and leaves still stuck to the top, --
That was moss-gathering.
But something always went out of me when I dug loose those carpets
Of green, or plunged to my elbows in the spongy yellowish moss of the marshes:
And afterwards I always felt mean, jogging back over the logging road,
As if I had broken the natural order of things in that swampland;
Disturbed some rhythm, old and of vast importance,
By pulling off flesh from the living planet;
As if I had committed, against the whole scheme of life, a desecration.
(All quotations are from "The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke." Doubleday. Copyright © 1966 by Beatrice Roethke as the Administratrix of the Estate of Theodore Roethke.)