Theodore Roethke

Please note that I only include poems that I personally have transcribed from my personal library. 
Many copies of most poems that circulate on the internet are riddled with textual errors. 
I therefore choose not to copy them.

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Clouds glow like coals just fresh from fire, a flare
Of western light leaps with intenser blaze
To conflagration in the upper air.
All distant shapes turn brighter to the gaze.

The fire of heaven dies; a fire unseen
Wanes to the febrile smoldering of sleep;
Deep-hidden embers, smothered by the screen
Of flesh, burn backward to a blackened heap.

But morning light comes tapping at the lid,
Breaks up the crust of cinders that remain,
And pokes the crumbled coal the ashes hid,
Until thought crackles white across the brain.

¤ febrile. [fĕb'rəl; fē'brəl.] (adj.) Of, relating to, or characterized by fever; feverish.


Thought does not crush to stone.
The great sledge drops in vain.
Truth never is undone;
Its shafts remain.

The teeth of knitted gears
Turn slowly through the night,
But the true substance bears
The hammer's weight.

Compression cannot break
A center so congealed;
The tool can chip no flake:
The core lies sealed.


Invention sleeps within a skull
No longer quick with light,
The hive that hummed in every cell
Is now sealed honey-tight.

His thought is tied, the curving prow
Of motion moored to rock;
And minutes burst upon a brow
Insentient to shock.


Walking this field I remember
Days of another summer.
Oh that was long ago! I kept
Close to the heels of my father,
Matching his stride with half-steps
Until we came to a river.
He dipped his hand in the shallow:
Water ran over and under
Hair on a narrow wrist bone;
His image kept following after,—
Flashed with the sun in the ripple,
But when he stood up, that face
Was lost in a maze of water.


      Now light is less; noon skies are wide and deep;
      The ravages of wind and rain are healed.
      The haze of harvest drifts along the field
      Until clear eyes put on the look of sleep.

      The garden spider weaves a silken pear
      To keep inclement weather from its young.
      Straight from the oak, the gossamer is hung.
      At dusk our slow breath thickens on the air.

      Lost hues of birds the trees take as their own.
      Long since, bronze wheat was gathered into sheaves.
      The walker trudges ankle-deep in leaves;
      The feather of the milkweed flutters down.

      The shoots of spring have mellowed with the year.
      Buds, long unsealed, obscure the narrow lane.
      The blood slows trance-like in the altered vein;
      Our vernal wisdom moves through right to sere.

¤ sere. [sîr.] (adj.) Withered; dry. Having lost all moisture (used especially regarding vegetation).


              Repulse the staring eye,
              The hostile gaze of hate,
              And check the pedantry
              Of those inveterate

              Defamers of the good.
              They mock the deepest thought,
              Condemn the fortitude
              Whereby true work is wrought.

              Though just men are reviled
              When cravens cry them down,
              The brave keep undefiled
              A wisdom of their own.

              The bold wear toughened skin
              That keeps sufficient store
              Of dignity within,
              And quiet at the core.

¤ inveterate. [ĭn-vĕt'ər-ĭt.] 1: (adj.) Firmly and long established; deep-rooted. 2: (adj.) Persisting in an ingrained habit; habitual.

¤ craven. [krā'vən.] 1: (n.) A coward. 2: (adj.) Characterized by abject fear; cowardly.


I miss the polished brass, the powerful black horses,
The drivers creaking the seats of the baroque hearses,
The high-piled floral offerings with sentimental verses,
The carriages reeking with varnish and stale perfume.

I miss the pallbearers momentously taking their places,
The undertaker's obsequious grimaces,
The craned necks, the mourners' anonymous faces,
—And the eyes, still vivid, looking up from a sunken room.

¤ obsequious. [ŏb-sē'kwē-əs; əb-.] (adj.) Full of or exhibiting servile compliance; fawning.


Though the crocuses poke up their heads in the usual places,
The frog scum appear on the pond with the same froth of green,
And boys moon at girls with last year's fatuous faces,
I never am bored, however familiar the scene.

When from under the barn the cat brings a similar litter,—
Two yellow and black, and one that looks in between,—
Though it all happened before, I cannot grow bitter:
I rejoice in the spring, as though no spring ever had been.

¤ crocus. [krō'kəs.] (n.) 1: Any of various perennial Eurasian herbs of the genus Crocus, having grasslike leaves and showy, variously colored flowers.

¤ fatuous. [făch'ōō-əs.] (adj.) 1: Vacuously, smugly, and unconsciously foolish. 2: Delusive; unreal.


 I remember the crossing-tender's geranium border
That blossomed in soot; a black cat licking its paw;
The bronze wheat arranged in strict and formal order;
And the precision that for you was ultimate law:

The handkerchief tucked in the left-hand pocket
Of a man-tailored blouse; the list of shopping done;
You wound the watch in an old-fashioned locket
And pulled the green shade against morning sun.

Now in the misery of bed-sitting room confusion,
With no hint of your presence in a jungle of masculine toys,
In the dirt and disorder I cherish one scrap of illusion:
A cheap clock ticking in ghostly cicada voice.

¤ crossing-tender. [krô'sĭng tĕn'dər.] (n.) A railroad guard who warns motorists and pedestrians of approaching trains.


Delicate the syllables that release the repression;
Hysteria masks in the studied inane.
Horace the hiker on a dubious mission
Pretends his dead bunion gives exquisite pain.

The son of misfortune long, long has been waiting
The visit of vision, luck year; overdue,
His laughter reduced the sing-song of prating,
A hutch by the EXIT his room with a view.

O cursed by the work that gets honorable mention!
Though home is not happy, where else can he go?
Necessity starves on the stoop of invention.
The sleep was not deep, but the waking is slow.

¤ prate. [prāt.] (v. intr.) To talk idly and at length; chatter.


For sale: by order of the remaining heirs
Who ran up and down the big center stairs
The what-not, the settee, the Chippendale chairs
—And an attic of horrors, a closet of fears.

The furniture polished and polished so grand,
A stable and paddock, some fox-hunting land,
The summer house shaped like a village band stand
—And grandfather's sinister hovering hand.

The antimacassar for the sofa in red,
The Bechstein piano, the four-poster bed,
The library used as a card room instead
—And some watery eyes in a Copley head.

The dining room carpet dyed brighter than blood,
The table where everyone ate as he should,
The sideboard beside which a tall footman stood
—And a fume of decay that clings fast to the wood.

The hand-painted wall-paper, finer than skin,
The room that the children had never been in,
All the rings and the relics encrusted with sin
—And the taint in a blood that was running too thin.

¤ settee. [sĕ-tē'.] (n.) 1: A long wooden bench with a back. 2: A small or medium-sized sofa.

¤ Chippendale. [chĭpən-dāl'.] (adj.) Of or relating to an 18th-century English style of furniture characterized by flowing lines and often rococo ornamentation.

¤ paddock. [păd'ək.] (n.) A fenced area, usually near a stable, used chiefly for grazing horses.

¤ antimacassar. [ăntĭ-mə-kăs'ər.] (n.) A protective covering for the backs of chairs and sofas.

¤ Bechstein. [bĕk'stīn.] (pr. n.) A long-standing brand of high quality pianos, started by Carl Bechstein roughly 150 years ago.

¤ Four-poster bed. [fôr'pō'stər, fōr-.] (n.) A bed having tall corner posts originally intended to support curtains or a canopy.

¤ Copley. [kŏp'lē.] (pr. n.) John Singleton Copley, 1738-1815. American painter known chiefly for his portraits of prominent Americans such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere, although he lived in England after 1774.

¤ sideboard. [sīd'bôrd, -bōrd.] (n.) A piece of dining room furniture having drawers and shelves for linens and tableware.

¤ footman. [fōōt'mən.] (n.) A man employed as a servant to wait at table, attend the door, and run various errands, as in a palace.


Now as the train bears west,
Its rhythm rocks the earth,
And from my Pullman berth
I stare into the night
While others take their rest.
Bridges of iron lace,
A suddenness of trees,
A lap of mountain mist
All cross my line of sight,
Then a bleak wasted place,
And a lake below my knees.
Full on my neck I feel
The straining at a curve;
My muscles move with steel,
I wake in every nerve.
I watch a beacon swing
From dark to blazing bright;
We thunder through ravines
And gullies washed with light.
Beyond the mountain pass
Mist deepens on the pane;
We rush into a train
That rattles double glass.
Wheels shake the roadbed stone,
The pistons jerk and shove,
I stay up half the night
To see the land I love.

¤ Pullman. [pōōl'mən.] (pr. n.) A passenger train parlor car or sleeping car. Named after George Mortimer Pullman. These specific railroad cars were used from beginning of the twentieth century until about the 1980s.


            Where were the greenhouses going,
            Lunging into the lashing
            Wind driving water
            So far down the river
            All the faucets stopped?—
            So we drained the manure machine
            For the steam plant,
            Pumping the stale mixture
            Into the rusty boilers,
            Watching the pressure gauge
            Waver over to red,
            As the seams hissed
            And the live steam
            Drove to the far
            End of the rose-house,
            Where the worst wind was,
            Creaking the cypress window-frames,
            Cracking so much thin glass
            We stayed all night,
            Stuffing holes with burlap;
            But she rode it out,
            That old rose-house,
            She hove into the teeth of it,
            The core and pith of that ugly storm,
            Ploughing with her stiff prow,
            Bucking into the wind-waves
            That broke over the whole of her,
            Flailing her sides with spray,
            Flinging long strings of wet across the roof-top,
            Finally veering, wearing themselves out, merely
            Whistling thinly under the wind-vents;
            She sailed until the calm morning,
            Carrying her full cargo of roses.

Big Wind MP3
1.60 MB

¤ burlap. [bűr'lăp.] (n.) A strong, coarsely woven cloth made of fibers of jute, flax, or hemp and used to make bags, reinforce linoleum, and in interior decoration.


                  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.

My Papa's Waltz MP3
1.12 MB

Another Recording of My Papa's Waltz MP3
1.06 MB

¤ waltz. [wôlts, wôls.] (n.) A ballroom dance in triple time with a strong accent on the first beat. Roethke's poetic meter in "My Papa's Waltz" accords with the rhythmic meter of a ballroom waltz.


                When I saw that clumsy crow
                Flap from a wasted tree,
                A shape in the mind rose up:
                Over the gulfs of dream
                Flew a tremendous bird
                Further and further away
                Into a moonless black,
                Deep in the brain, far back.

Night Crow MP3
683 KB

My Student, Thrown by a Horse
I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,
A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing;
And the mold sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping had cheek against straw;
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiny shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.

Elegy For Jane MP3
2.04 MB


             A Lady came to a Bear by a Stream.
            "O why are you fishing that way?
             Tell me, dear Bear there by the Stream,
             Why are you fishing that way?"

            "I am what is known as a Biddly Bear,—
             That's why I'm fishing this way.
             We Biddly's are Pee-culiar Bears.
             And so,—I'm fishing this way.

            "And besides, it seems there's a Law:
             A most, most exactious Law
             Says a Bear
             Doesn't dare
             Doesn't dare
             Doesn't DARE
             Use a Hook or a Line,
             Or an old piece of Twine,
             Not even the end of his Claw, Claw, Claw,
             Not even the end of his Claw.
             Yes, a Bear has to fish with his Paw, Paw, Paw.
             A Bear has to fish with his Paw."

            "O it's Wonderful how with a flick of your Wrist,
             You can fish out a fish, out a fish, out a fish,
             If I were a fish I just couldn't resist
             You, when you are fishing that way, that way,
             When you are fishing that way."

             And at that the Lady slipped from the Bank
             And fell in the Stream still clutching a Plank,
             But the Bear just sat there until she Sank;
             As he went on fishing his way, his way,
             As he went on fishing his way.


          I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
          When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
          Ah, when she moved, she moved in more ways than one:
          The shapes a bright contained can contain!
          Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
          Or English poets who grew up on Greek
          (I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).

          How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
          She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
          She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
          I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
          She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
          Coming behind her for her pretty sake
          (But what a prodigious mowing we did make).

          Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
          Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
          She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
          My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
          Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
          Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
          (She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

          Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
          I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
          What's freedom for? To know eternity.
          I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
          But who would count eternity in days?
          These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
          (I measure time by how a body sways).

                        Louise Bogan

      The weather wept, and all the trees bent down;
      Bent down their birds: the light waves took the waves;
      Each single substance gliddered to the stare;
      Each vision purely, purely was its own:
      —There was no light; there was no light at all:

      Far from the mirrors all the bushes rang
      With their hard snow; leaned on the lonely eye;
      Cold evil twinkled tighter than a string; a fire
      Hung down: And I was only I.
      —There was no light; there was no light at all:

      Each cushion found itself a field of pins,
      Prickling pure wishes with confusions ire;
      Hope's holy wrists: the little burning boys
      Cried out their lives an instant and were free.
      —There was no light; there was no light at all.

¤ glidder. [glĭd'ər.] (v. intr.) Provincial English. Giving no sure footing; smooth; slippery.


                  I saw a young snake glide
                  Out of the mottled shade
                  And hang, limp on a stone:
                  A thin mouth, and a tongue
                  Stayed, in the still air.

                  It turned; it drew away;
                  Its shadow bent in half;
                  It quickened, and was gone.

                  I felt my slow blood warm.
                  I longed to be that thing,
                  The pure, sensuous form.

                  And I may be, some time.

I will post more Theodore Roethke poems when I have time.

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Audio Recording Information

1: Recorded with ARCHOS VIDEO AV 120 Jukebox from vinyl LP. Audio performance originally included as Band 2 of Side 2 of Record 9 of Treasury of 100 Modern American Poets, © 1969 Spoken Arts, Inc.

2: Recorded with ARCHOS VIDEO AV 120 Jukebox from HP Pavilion Laptop. Saved to harddrive with Real7ime Converter as a .WAV file from .RAM content originally located on the web page IHAS: Songbook, Snake. Performed by Harolyn Blackwell and Craig Rutenberg.

3: Recorded with ARCHOS VIDEO AV 120 Jukebox from HP Pavilion Laptop. Audio played via Flash performance located on the web page The Academy of American Poets - My Papa's Waltz (audio only). Content provided by the Academy of American Poets.

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