Roethke and sincerity

After yesterday’s Hardy post, a few readers sent along their own favorite poems. I’ll post a few in the coming days.

I’ve been suffering from insomnia lately, partly because I’m stressed about my novel, partly because I’m insane, so when my friend Bill called my attention to Theodore Roethke’s famous villanelle “The Waking,” which begins “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow,” I dropped everything and read it.

I vaguely recall rushing through ten or fifteen pages of Roethke years ago, in an undergraduate poetry class, and I’m sure I must have seen the poem since then. But, as I said to my friend, the words in the Norton Anthology lie so close together, and the paper is more fragile than tissue, and I rarely did any poetry justice in my college years. Even now I don’t have the patience for most poetry. So much of it is precious or incomprehensible or unduly abstract, if not all of the above, and I don’t have the time or inclination to sift through the crap.

But when I do take to a poem, it stays with me like a song, or like the more striking Bible verses (parts of I Corinthians 13, snippets of Ecclesiastes) I had to learn in my youth.

And I can tell that “The Waking” will be one of those poems. There are so many breathtaking lines. Among them are the repeated “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow” (and its variations), and the absolutely unparalleled “We think by feeling. What is there to know?”

My God, I thought when I read it yesterday, how did I manage to forget that line altogether? And I know I read it, because I have a dim memory of the way the stanzas looked on the page. I was so callous at twenty.

Anyhow, I’m still trying to parse out the poem’s deeper layers of meaning. But I mention all of this because the week’s New Yorker includes an interesting piece on Roethke and James Wright and their preoccupation with sincerity.

As early as 1926, when Roethke was a sophomore at the University of Michigan, he was already laying special claim to “sincerity,–that prime virtue of any creative worker.” “I write only what I believe to be the absolute truth,” he maintained in an essay for a writing class, “even if I must ruin the theme in so doing. In this respect I feel far superior to those glib people in my classes who often garner better grades than I do. They are so often pitiful frauds,–artificial–insincere. . . . Many an incoherent yet sincere piece of writing has outlived the polished product.


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