(William Seaton of Goshen is a poet, translator, reading series host, former teacher in prison and graduate school, and one of the most knowledgeable people about poetry whom I have the pleasure of knowing in the Hudson Valley. Let me recommend his Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems. And his “Poetry on the Loose” blog. He has kindly contributed a guest blog about one of this favorite poems.)
I Knew a Woman
By Theodore Roethke
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in a 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 proferred hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).
Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant notes 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).
When I first began to read poetry (poetry, that is, other than the lyrics of Walter R. Brooks’ Freddy the Pig, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, and Robert Service), it was the late fifties and, like a great many others of my cohort, I was excited by the Beats. From my suburban home, I studied the Donald Allen anthology and wrote to most of the small presses listed in the back. At the same time, however, I leaped into the ocean of words, trying to read everything: oral and written; ancient, medieval, and modern; American and Chinese and African and Indian. In spite of my particular affection (or weakness) for the hip writers, I was also taken by a number of quite different contemporary American authors, among them Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke. The two poets were sometimes associated due to their psychiatric diagnoses or their escape from the formal mold of the fifties which each had practiced so expertly, but to me their appeal was as craftsmen.
Roethke’s well-known lyric “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,” is as perfect as a troubadour song or an Elizabethan sonnet. If the poem breaks no new ground for the language, it is nonetheless a rare achievement. Using erotic energy, one of the most traditional poetic dynamos, Roethke manages to devise new locutions to express the oldest and simplest themes.
What may seem mannered and exaggerated adoration of the female is nothing more than a realistic portrayal of ardent desire, constrained, in the interests of art and civility, into a dance of meter and rhyme with rhetorical grace-notes and flourishes at every turn. Detailed formal analysis could not, however, demonstrate excellence. In any event, when one catches one’s breath in awe, proof seems beside the point.
As with the sonneteers the very polish of the verse takes a seductive role. Yet, the reader notes that the love-object is entirely unspecified. She could be anyone. The praise is a pure display of the poet’s imagination. Loveliness in the bones is not visible, nor is the beloved likely literally to sigh at small birds in passing. These images are for the mind alone and not the eye; they are distinguished by the extravagance of their claims rather than by any descriptive power.
The humor toward the first stanza’s end recalls Donne, at once witty and ever so earnest. The “English poets who grew up on Greek” (and fewer they are with every passing year) appear as an afterthought but then spawn the absurd image of the chorus line, more Rockettes than Aeschylus, which nonetheless prepares the way for the playful use of Turn and Counterturn to follow. The mere capitalization of “Touch” assigns it the burning urgency of desire, and the entire stanza is filled with sexual implication without the slightest explicit word. The agricultural metaphors for sexuality are universal indeed – the curious can have a peek into The Golden Bough or a reference book on vulgar slang – but Roethke lightens his version of this archaic figure with the play on “rake” and the casual word “pretty” before presenting his powerful and enthusiastic image of “prodigious mowing.” Highly physical implications continue through the third stanza: whatever it may mean that she could make “one hip quiver with a mobile nose,” it certainly sounds sexy.
The final stanza opens with almost Biblical grandeur: “Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay,” followed, with fine alliteration, by the martyr/motion line, and then a classic statement of the love as spiritual training. In what might have been a quite Platonic formula were the beloved male, the poet adores eternity in his lady. The white shadow is an excellent figure for the wonder that is love. Time collapses, and the poet concludes with a fine metaphysical crescendo, though clinging to the physical with the words “wanton” and “sways.”
Though Roethke did not feel licensed to wander freely in his backbrain for entire poems at a stretch until perhaps I Am! Says The Lamb (1961) or The Far Field (1964), he had declared as early as his “Open Letter” in 1950 an intention to “fish, patiently, in that dark pond, the unconscious, [to] dive in, with or without pants on, to come up festooned with dead cats, weeds, tin cans, and other fascinating debris.” Roethke not only did that; he proceeded to make objects of surpassing beauty with what he brought to the surface.