A Fresh ‘Field Guide’ to the Poetry of Theodore Roethke Showcased in May Virtual Speaker Series

Posted In: Culture, , Poetry, Biography,   From Issue 912   By: Robert E Martin

22nd April, 2021     0

To celebrate National Poetry Month in the month of May and leading up to the birthday of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Theodore Roethke on May 25th, the Friends of Roethke Foundation is presenting four contributing writers as part of their Virtual Spring Speaker Series who all have contributed essays to a newly released book titled A Field Guide to the Poetry of Theodore Roethke.

This exciting and significant new anthology was spearheaded by writer, educator, and Roethke scholar William  Barillas, and represents a long overdue re-examination and celebration of Roethke’s work to a new generation of readers and poets.  It reintroduces us to a body of work that changed the sound and sense of 20th Century poetry through timely, engaging, and stylistically diverse essays that consider Roethke’s poems from new angles and situate him as an early practitioner of ‘Eco-Poetry’.

I’ve been reading Roethke for many years, back to the 1980s when I was in college and grew up near Flint,” explains Barillas. “Being from the Greater Saginaw Valley, Roethke had an immediate appeal to me because of the environment and atmosphere of the Saginaw Valley that is present in his work.  My work in graduate school focused on American literature and cultural issues of the environment as related to literature, and the dissertation I wrote became my first book, which was titled Midwestern Pastoral in Literature of the American Heartland, which included a chapter on Roethke.”

“I deeply believe Roethke really started a groundbreaking innovative movement that connected poetry to nature in a manner that subsequent modern writers such as Jim Harrison, James Wright, and Robert Bly have adopted and assimilated,” states Barillas.

Having taught Roethke’s poetry at different colleges in Michigan, New Jersey & Wisconsin, six years ago it occurred to Barillas that he had taught one of Roethke’s most popular poems, My Papa’s Waltz, for so long and analyzed it so much that he should write an essay just on that one poem. 

“While analyzing the meter of that poem, it occurred to me: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a book surveying Roethke’s career poem-by-poem, with noted scholars writing the essays,” he explains. “The first thing I did was write to scholars who had published books about Roethke and discovered this new Field Guide is the first book about Roethke that’s been written in the 21st Century.  The last one was a short book about the relationship between Roethke and William Carlos Williams in 1999; and previous to that another book appeared in 1992.  So Roethke scholarship has fallen away over the years. Articles have appeared here and there, but not a book of any kind in over 20 years and no extended study in nearly 30 years.”

Barillas says he decided to invite noted scholars that had published essays on Roethke and ended up with contributions from himself along with 43 other Roethke scholars, all with different points of view and expertise that break down one poem each and offer different critical perspectives on 44 poems culled from the impressive body of Roethke’s work.

When asked what he feels most distinguishes Roethke from the lexicon of Modern Poets, Barillas says Roethke was singular in his generation. “He’s typically discussed as one of a group of poets known as the Middle Generation of American poets, which came out in the mid-20th Century after the modernists like T.S. Eliot.  He was distinct in his generation and the most Romantic of those poets with a capital ‘R’, in the sense he was the one who most followed the spiritual example set by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau. Like them he mined a deep spiritual connection to nature and paid close attention to the particularities of nature, the environment, and the landscape.”

“A number of poets in the generation that followed in the 1960s and ‘70s such as Gary Snyder and James Wright were particularly inspired by Roethke’s work,” continues Barillas. “Roethke wrote about life as lived and places in his own life. He was a poet of place and spoke with a language deeply connected to Michigan, with words that embody the life he lived as a child in Saginaw. That made him distinctly inspirational to many poets, and I feel it makes him stand out the most.”

The Friends of Roethke May Virtual Reading Series will consist of the following installments:

May 4 • Peter Balakian • This Pulitzer Prize-winning poet will focus upon the poem Give Way, Ye Gates and Roethke’s Praise to the End! Sequence, which emerged from his experimental period of writing.

May 11 • Carrie Duke. A professor at the Indiana Institute of Technology, Duke will examine Roethke’s poem, ‘Transplanting’. According to Barillas, Duke’s essay is written from a perspective of reader response criticism. Duke grew up with a family who had greenhouses and her essay speaks of Roethke’s poetry from her own experience of being a child in a greenhouse and that sense of wonder with the flowers, plants and lush growing life that florists produce.

May 18 • David Radavich.  His essay, Elegy for Jane, The Nature of Grief is on one of Roethke’s well known poems, Elegy for Jane and appears in numerous anthologies and brings out the point that while there is joy in Roethke’s work, it is a joy that was earned, especially given the way Roethke suffered from manic depression and alcoholism and also experienced severe manic episodes that required hospitalization. While this suffering often equated with mystical experiences we may not associate with joy, Elegy For Jane is about the accidental death of one of Roethke’s students in a horse riding accident, poignantly expressing his own thoughts about sadness, doubt, and yearning for joy.

• May 25 • William Barillas. With this presentation, the editor of this new anthology will offer his take on Roethke’s poem Once More the Round, which is the last poem in Roethke’s last book, The Far Field (1964). “This is a very short poem, but I ended up writing the longest essay in the anthology about it,” explains Barillas. “I feel if you read Roethke’s work and carefully read this final poem and reflect upon it you will find a summation of everything Roethke had to say and you can understand his work very deeply. It sums up his feelings about life, about God, about Love, and truly stands alone in terms of its brevity and depth.”

“I am very honored to be part of this series,” concludes Barillas, “and I would like to thank Anne Ransford and all those involve with Friends of Roethke for doing such an incredible job preserving Roethke’s childhood home along with the Stone House.  They have done something wonderful and anything that preserves and extends Anne's work is going to be an asset to the City of Saginaw that is unique.”

“Anyone in the world who speaks of Roethke speaks of Saginaw.”

To partake of any of these virtual readings simply RSVP by clicking this link.   Each speaker will begin at 7:PM.

To order a copy of 'A Field Guide to the Poetry of Theodore Roethke click this link. 


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