Tuesday, April 22, 2008

On Theodore Roethke

The great thing about [Theodore Roethke] was that he knew how to make a good poem out of a bad poem. I like to think that he taught me to do this too. I'm not interested in that sort of perfect Iowa Workshop poem, in which everything eccentric or outrageous has been ironed out: one of those neat little poems that is disposable like Kleenex: you read it once (though you may not finish it) and think, "Very nice," and then you never think about it again. But I can take a great, big, messy, ambitious poem and find its form, and help to shape it up. Ted said many useful things about that kind of poem. One of them was to think of a poem as a three-act play, where you move from one impulse to the next, and then there is a final breath, which is the summation of the action of the whole. He had picked up that wonderful phrase from Sir John Davies which he used in a poem: "She taught me to turn, and counter-turn, and stand." Which is the essence of dramatic structure. It's what a long poem has to do. It doesn't require physical action, but there has to be some mental or emotional action that carries through in the poem.

-Carolyn Kizer, Foreword, On Poetry & Craft by Theodore Roethke (Copper Canyon Press, 2001)


Blogger Macy Swain said...

Lively ideas to wake up to, Greg -- thanks. I like the idea of the comparison to the physical movement...Sunday I memorized a poem to speak to my students on the last day of class ("Try to Praise the Mutilated World," Adam Zagajewski) and I noticed that I could remember it better if I got out of my chair and walked around while saying it. This might seem like a homely addition to your comments from Roethke, but I feel as if it's important to remember "the body" when writing (and revising, and talking about) poetry -- in more ways than one. I hope yours, by the way, has recovered from its weekend exertions!

8:53 AM  
Blogger greg rappleye said...


Fascinating comment about movement and memory. What you say is true, even on a mundane level---10 minutes ago I couldn't remember the neames of two peole I weas supposed to contact at work. When I got up and walked (briefly!) around the building, I remembered.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Rachel said...

That is a great quote! Movement and memory...also fascinating, I have never really thought about the connection between the two. Now I will.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Jilly said...

that makes me want to pick up that book- I'll add it to the list.

(i'm reading your book right now btw)

3:15 PM  
Blogger Keith Woodruff said...

I have to agree about the idea of movement and memory.

Almost always when I am talking on the phone with a prospect about a project and want to get a few ideas across I walk around a bit or at best stand up while talking to them. Seems to help me keep my thoughts ordered. Of course, this all bodes well for giving poetry readings -- even if we're just standing up and shuffling in place a bit.

10:12 PM  

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