What is a "chestnut"? An old joke. Or in the arts, a familiar standby, an anthology piece. Sometimes the chestnut is nevertheless a great work of art, and to create one in poetry is no small thing. Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) made at least two poems that people often quote and allude to and recite. The wholehearted romanticism Edward Hirsch describes in his introduction to the new Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems makes Roethke an unfashionable and therefore challenging figure in a period when young poets can study all sorts of sly bet-hedging. Maybe every period has its fashionable shortcuts to sophistication: a kind of easy irony or an ambiguous commitment to one's words or a postmodern muttering -- all provide a kind of exit strategy.

In contrast, Roethke's "The Waking" and "My Papa's Waltz" have conviction: a full-throated quality that carries them beyond mere styles and periods.

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.

I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?

God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,

And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?

The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do

To you and me; so take the lively air,

And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.

What falls away is always. And is near.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I learn by going where I have to go.

My Papa's Waltz

The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans

Slid from the kitchen shelf;

My mother's countenance

Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist

Was battered on one knuckle;

At every step you missed

My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head

With a palm caked hard by dirt,

Then waltzed me off to bed

Still clinging to your shirt.

These poems have their mysteries and ambiguities, the unspecified balance of fear and attraction in that waltz, the uncertain nature of morality in "where I have to go." But the emotional pressure is unwavering. Such poems are built to last. (Theodore Roethke's poems "The Waking" and "My Papa's Waltz" can be found in "The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke." Doubleday. Copyright © 1946 by Editorial Publications, Inc., 1948 by the Tiger's Eye, 1950 by Theodore Roethke.)