Slept In

My parents loved poetry and read it to my bro and me all the while we were growing up. Then, in school we studied even MORE poetry. In high school we read a LOT of poetry, so much that I graduated with the belief that poetry was a big thing for everyone in the WHOLE WIDE WORLD.

I know now that what we studied says a lot about the generation to which my teachers belonged. Some of the poetry was called “experimental” because of the use of language, the way it looked on a page, and probably a bunch of stuff I don’t remember.

The three main guys from that group who found their way into these distant strands of my life are William Carlos Williams, e. e. cummings and Theodore Roethke. I know there were others, but they didn’t “stick,” and among the three who have? Williams and cummings “stuck” because I couldn’t forget them (even though I wanted to). Williams proffered that infernal red wheel-barrow glazed with rain water beside the stupid white chicken, and cummings inflicted my life with a little lame balloon man who whistles far and wee (???).

But Theodore Roethke stuck because a couple of his poems informed my life (and are beautiful).

There were other poets, of course, the main guys, Frost, Sandburg. On my own I found the Beats, but Roethke has remained a different kind of voice.

So there we were, a bunch of kids, analyzing poetry written by this very, very, very complicated man. The poem that my teacher thought was most important was “The Waking.” I did not know when I was 17 how true it is, but I know now. And she was right. It is important.

The Waking

BY THEODORE ROETHKE

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.   
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?   
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?   
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,   
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?   
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do   
To you and me; so take the lively air,   
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.   
What falls away is always. And is near.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I learn by going where I have to go.

Featured photo: Me, Mr. Nichols, D. Ballard, Miss Decou looking at a drawing for our literary magazine which was very grandly named The Empyrean. And that’s how we dressed in high school until sometime my senior year.

In other news, WP just informed me that I’m on “a streak” and have posted “8 days in a row.” Huh? Seriously, “encouragement” from WP creeps me out.

23 thoughts on “Slept In

  1. Thanks for sharing this poem. I see what you mean. I got very little exposure to poetry at home except when my father read to us out of a Grandma Moses collection every so often. I know she was a painter, but this one book had “children’s poems” to go along with her illustrations. High school…not much poetry that I remember.

  2. e.e. cumming was very big in high school, but I think it was our rebellion from capitalization. If you had seen our high school dress, we looked like penguins: navy skirt, white blouse with a Peter Pan collar, and navy bow tie. Navy blazer if it got cold. Thankfully (or not), my kids Catholic high school had no uniforms.

    • I think you’re right about e. e. cummings. We liked him, too. I think it was the capitalization and that his poems weren’t that hard to understand. I wore a uniform for two years at the Episcopalian private school. It was kind of a relief not to have to choose… Now I wear a uniform. 🙂

  3. I didn’t grow up hearing poetry. I kind of wish I had. I envy people who have memorized favourites from their childhood. My father made up stories for me, which I suppose could have been poetry in their own way.

  4. First the photo – I have a family portrait where I’m wearing an obnoxious black/red/white/gold wool plaid jumper and a “frou-frou” blouse (which is what we called the ruffled bib that started at the little collar and cascaded down the front). Second, my parents had poetry books scattered everywhere. My mother would read stories that had poems interspersed. I enjoyed poetry. But when I was in HS it was not in vogue to write poetry so I stopped. It wasn’t until I was in college and had to keep a journal that I began writing again. Carl Sandberg was a big favorite of mine. I was too much of a wonk to enjoy ee cummings – I wanted to correct his capitalization and punctuation and the spacing! Gah. Still makes me want to get a red pen out…

    • Personally, I don’t think there’s much more pretentious than thinking you’re doing something cool and original by not using capital letter. I mean, seriously? But they were good poems for high school students to cut their teeth on, probably. 🙂

  5. I too wonder what happened to poetry. We read it and wrote it and studied it and tried to emulate the styles of famous poets. My only published poem to date was an homage to that “infernal” red wheelbarrow you referenced haha. We need more poetry. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with this world.

    • Yes. Poetry requires people to slow down and think. We definitely need that. 🙂 I SAW that infernal wheelbarrow and the damned chickens in China. At that point (early 30s) I finally understood the point of that poem.

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