Posts Tagged ‘Bennington College’

Only Babies Expected Dreams to Come True: A Few More Thoughts on Theodore Roethke’s Glass House

August 30, 2014

glasshouse

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

Theodore Roethke, My Papa’s Waltz

I always get a strong reaction from my students when I teach Theodore Roethke’s often-anthologized poemMy Papa’s Waltz.” It’s about a drunken father who, much to his wife’s dismay, drags his young son through the kitchen and off to bed in a rambunctious dance. The poem is a Rorschach test on how my students feel about parental intoxication; they divide into partisan factions when I ask them whether this poem is a depiction of child abuse or merely an example of paternal playfulness.

Shortly after his father’s death, Theodore Roethke scribbled down some “accounts about his childhood and of his relations with his father” (23). For some reason, in a sketch titled “Papa” Roethke refers to himself as “John.” And here we find the genesis of “My Papa’s Waltz.”

Sometimes he dreamed about Papa. Once it seemed Papa came in and danced around with him. John put his feet on top of Papa’s and they’d waltzed. He-dee-dei-dei. Rump-tee-tump. Only babies expected dreams to come true (24).

Until I read The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke by Allan Seager (previously discussed on this blog here), I had always assumed “My Papa’s Waltz” was based upon actual events. And Roethke, a great fabulist when it came to recounting the details of his own life, encouraged the false assumption that alcoholism was rife in his family.

While his father regularly took a schnapps or two, he could hardly be called a drinking man in spite of Ted’s later statement that he came from a long line of drunks. And his mother never took a drink in her life (38).

In the essay “Papa” Roethke laments that his father “didn’t like him much” (24). And in a another adolescent remembrance called “Fish Tale,” Roethke further reveals

I was awkward of mind as well as body. I asked thousands of questions. I always imagined myself fearfully hungry. All these things irritated my father who wanted, above all, to make me a wise fisherman and a self-reliant woodsman (25).

The Glass House is a biography written by Allan Seager, a novelist who happened to be an acquaintance of his subject. And Seager often takes the liberty of presenting speculation as though it were fact:

Quite illogically, Ted felt that his father, by dying, had betrayed him, left him far too soon without his love and guidance, and intermittently in those moments when he remembered his father as flawless, Ted was tormented by guilt for even having entertained the notion that a great man like his father could have done anything so base as to betray his son (62).

It’s clear that the death of Roethke’s father, a pivotal event which shaped both his life and his poetry, was the “most important thing that ever happened to him” (104). And Seager suggests that “It is an interesting conjecture whether, had his father lived, he would have been a poet at all” (62). But such speculation merely leads us to the cul-de-sac of a tautology: If Theodore Roethke had lived a different life, he would have been a different person.

Early in Roethke’s career, Rolfe Humphries (“The first poet of ability with whom Ted could have a continuing association”) served as a friend and mentor to the poet (76). In his usual fashion, Roethke attempted to impress Humphries with absurd accounts of his ties to organized crime and tales of women who were “always falling in love” with him (78). Humphries was impressed by Roethke’s talent (“the kid’s good”), but he saw through the bravado (78):

Humphries, however, penetrated the mask. “There was a lot of self-hatred in Ted, you know” he said. Everyone who knew Ted well recognized this eventually, that he was host to a mass of free-floating guilt that made him loathe himself (78).

And perhaps it was self-hatred which compelled Roethke to deceptively claim that he had driven a Stutz Bearcat as an undergraduate, that he had traveled to Russian and Germany, or that he had won a Hopwood Award before there was a Hopwood Award (83;112). But Theodore Roethke, mob associate?

When he was past fifty, Ted liked to say that he had friends in the Purple Gang in Detroit. (“I had such an in with the Purples, they offered to bump off my Aunt Margaret for me. As a favor, you understand”) (58).

Allan Seager is remarkably forgiving about Roethke’s habitual dissembling, concocting various explanations and excuses.

In his later years, as we all do, Ted liked to tinker with his past, rectify it by selections and suppressions, true it up to fit a mature notion of himself or it may be that he was unaware that he was rectifying, that he really remembered his youth in this way (38).

Two factors which may help explain Roethke’s often-strange behavior are alcoholism and mental illness. Today, of course, his bipolar condition could be controlled with drugs, but at the time hospitalization and long periods of rest were the only available remedies for Roethke’s occasional manic episodes. And these episodes could be rather frightening for Roethke and those around him. On one occasion he told Catherine De Vries, the wife of a colleague with whom he often went walking: “I could throttle you and stick you under a culvert and they wouldn’t find you for weeks” (90).

Today some might refer to Roethke’s copious alcohol consumption as “self-medication.” Yet there was a dark side to his drinking. “[H]e would drink heavily and, drunk, he grew wild, broke furniture, and beat out windows with his fist” (63-64). One of Roethke’s psychiatrists surmised that “his troubles were merely the running expenses he paid for being his kind of poet” and another said simply, “You can’t cure a personality” (109).

It’s possible that a prescription for lithium and a twelve-step program would have rendered Theodore Roethke a happier man. We can never know how this might have affected Roethke’s poetry, but Seager suggests that

the very qualities that made Ted a poet seem to have been the ones that made him ill, his sensibility and his energy….His native energy seems to have piled up inside him as a result of the abrasions of his youthful environment, an energy of resentment, rage, and fear, and to have been released by the shock of his father’s death (103)

In addition to being one of America’s greatest poets, Roethke was also a renowned teacher. Not surprisingly, his pedagogy was often unorthodox. Here’s an example from when he was teaching at Michigan State.

He said he was going to give them an assignment in the description of a physical action. “Now you watch what I do for the next five minutes and describe it,” he said. He opened up one of the windows and climbed out on a narrow ledge that ran around the building. He edged around the three sides of the building, making faces through each window, and climbed in again. Teachers do not usually do this (88-89).

Roethke could be remarkably blunt with his students. For example, he once “snarled at a torpid class”

You’ve heard of casting pearls before swine, haven’t you? Come on, you must have. Well, those were metaphorical pearls before metaphorical swine. But what I’m doing is casting real pearls before real swine (114).

Roethke taught in a less politically-correct era when professors were afforded great deference. And he had the temerity to say things that would quickly get today’s college professor into hot water. Seager recounts this episode from when he and Roethke were colleagues at Bennington College:

I was standing in the corridor as he was finishing the last class of a term. He said, “Well, I guess that’s all. Don’t turn into a lot of little bitches before next semester.” The girls, of course, adored him and it was at Bennington that his reputation as a great teacher began to burgeon (136).

by Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on The Glass House

August 2, 2010

Allan Seager

Theodore Roethke

Some Thoughts on The Glass House

I’m naked to the bone,
With nakedness my shield.
Myself is what I wear:
I keep the spirit spare.

–from Open House by Theodore Roethke, Collected Poems (3)

Theodore Roethke and his biographer Allan Seager had a lot in common. Although they were not particularly close, the two writers were one year apart as undergraduates at the University of Michigan and they were later colleagues at Bennington College and sometime drinking buddies. Their respective literary reputations, however, are far from equal: Despite achieving a certain amount of critical acclaim during his lifetime, Allan Seager’s fiction is rarely read today; Theodore Roethke, a poet who garnered a copious collection of prizes and honors in his time, is one of the titans of American Letters. But Seager was uniquely qualified to chronicle Roethke’s life in The Glass House, as fine a biography of a literary figure as one is likely to encounter.

Allan Seager was a heavy drinker who suffered with tuberculosis and finally succumbed to lung cancer in 1968. He had just completed The Glass House, which turned out to be his most enduring work. A Rhodes Scholar and champion swimmer in his early years, Seager wrote novels and short fiction which “never won general recognition,” yet his work was “highly praised ” by such esteemed critics as Hugh Kenner, James Dickey, and Robert Penn Warren (x). In his illuminating introduction to The Glass House, Donald Hall asserts that Seager’s real strength was constructing “stories and sentences–maybe sentences more than stories,” which is confirmed by the book’s many marvelous words, beautifully collocated (xii).

Any book tells us at least as much about its creator as it does about its subject. And The Glass House is particularly revealing when it comes to Seager’s feelings about what it felt like for a young man with an artistic temperament to grow up in a small-town Michigan about a century ago. (Seager was born in Adrian which is near Lansing; Roethke was reared in the more rural and remote city of Saginaw.) Seager’s Michigan was hardly a hotbed of artistic activity:

It is hard to convey how strange, how foreign the willful making of a poem would have been in a society like his, the inert weight of custom that not only did not have room for any original work in the arts but feared and hated it (46).

And we can only wonder to what extent Seager is speaking about himself when he notes how a poetic temperament was evident in Roethke from an early age:

his despair seems to prove that he already had the prime requisites of a poet, a tingling sensitivity as if he lacked an outer layer of skin, and some sort of compulsion to elevate his life, his emotions into words (28).

As any reader of Roethke would immediately surmise, the glass house of the title refers to his family’s floral farm in Saginaw as well as the poet’s delicate ego. When Ted was fourteen, feuding between his father Otto and his Uncle Charlie, Otto’s brother, led to breakup of the family business and the sale of the beloved greenhouse. Soon thereafter, Uncle Charlie committed suicide. And then Otto, a monumental figure in young Ted’s world, died from intestinal disease. “In the space of three months, the greenhouse was gone, his uncle was gone, his father was gone” (43).

This fateful period in Roethke’s life “must have been a hell of bright awareness” because “he had suffered deprivations greater and keener than he was going to suffer again” (55). Thus, the first fourteen years of his life were “burned into his memory” and, as a poet, Roethke would continue to revisit his bucolic childhood for the rest of his life:

what he writes about are always himself, his father, his mother, more rarely his sister, the greenhouse and its flowers and its working people, the field behind it, the fishing trips with his father, and his own rambles in the game preserve and along the rivers. Instinctively he remembers the period and the area that has been charged with his deepest emotions (163).

Forever collapsing back into his early years, Roethke built one of the most remarkable careers in American Literature. According to the poet Stanley Kunitz, a great friend and supporter of Roethke, “[t]his florist’s son never really departed from the moist, fecund world of his father’s greenhouse in Saginaw” (New York Review, 1963). Ultimately, a writer has only himself to work with, and he must “use himself as a mine, to dig out, to identify, and make images of his emotions” (105). Roethke’s keen reflections of a lost youth stoked his artistic furnace for decades.

Although he would later travel extensively throughout Europe, the greatest journey for Roethke was always inward. He had little interest in sightseeing.

“Churches, galleries, the Colosseum meant nothing to him and he simply refused to see them. It was people he liked to see”(211).

Seager relates that “Stanley Kunitz says he was not a really close observer, and, of course, he did not need to be since everything around him was useful to him only as signatures of himself” (123).

Roethke, who told his students that he never voted, was not someone who kept up with current affairs (50). He read voraciously but not systematically. As Roethke’s good friend W. H. Auden explains, “Ted had hardly any general ideas at all” (67). Seager explains that Roethke was “always reading–and it was not to acquire a fund of general knowledge. Rather, like most writers, he abstracted and kept only what concerned him and let the rest slide out of his memory” (110). At any rate, somehow the multitude of words that went into his head would later recombine in marvelous combinations in his poems.

Seager concedes that Roethke’s greatest artistic asset, a near total disregard for what was happening outside his own psyche, has been seen as a liability by some critics:

Ted’s work has been criticized for the narrowness of its range, for his constant concentration on the fluctuation of the state of his own soul, with the implication that he either selfishly or helplessly limited his vision or deliberately turned it inward, using his images of the nature outside himself merely as barometric signals of internal pressures, as if he found nothing worth writing about in the world around him or was blindly unaware of it (222).

At this point, however, Roethke’s high rank in the literary cannon is very secure.

In Allan Seager’s estimation, Theodore Roethke’s life was a smashing success:

It takes determination and luck for an artist to surmount the variety of obstacles which society–and he himself with unwitting inadvertence–can throw in the way of a period when he can work effectively, eat well enough, have friends to drink with, and be bothered by only petty everyday worries. But Ted managed it (189).

(An entire post about Theodore Roethke that doesn’t mention his renowned prowess as a teacher, his mental illness, the University of Washington, the incessant self-aggrandizing lies he would tell, nor his relationships with women. Wow.)

by Richard W. Bray