The shape of Theodore Roethke's "Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz," narrow at the top and gradually widening, first to the pentameter of the break line, then, after an opening pentameter, back into eight two- and three-stress lines, abruptly resolves in the expansion and powerful stabilization of the heptameter. It moves from the passive declaration of the first line, through the furious activity of the next seven and three-quarters lines to the stop of the semicolon after "chrysanthemums." Then, after a slow interval of four lines--where all the windings and climbings of the opening are undercut by "the stiff / stems, jointed like corn" which the old women "tie and tuck," flat, truncated words and actions--it hurls itself into the next sequence and builds to its grand conclusion. These old women bring life out of cold sleep, they order the very light of the day, they plan beyond their own concerns.
The old women, long dead, return in the second stanza to the object of their plotting, or, perhaps, to the one who has made himself imaginatively the object of their plotting--the poet, lying cold in his bed, the seed asleep in him. They hover over him, the poem turns back on itself to all the doubleness of meaning that is in everything, and we are required to draw parallels between the poet and the forces that manipulate him, that order his wildness, that draw out his life--that work, as he must work, beyond themselves, for more than themselves.
In other words, these old women, like poets, are caretakers, orderers of plenitude, who take joy in their work. They creak, they wind, they straighten, tie, and tuck, dip, sift, sprinkle, and shake, straddle and billow and twinkle and fly. They do these things in the world of a greenhouse crammed to overflowing with flowers whose reality is their names; sweet-peas, smilax, nasturtiums, climbing roses, carnations, chrysanthemums, and their lively extensions--tendrils, coils, loops, and whorls.
All this takes place in short, three-stress lines, strongly enjambed, ending in twenty-one nouns, six verbs, and four adjectives, breaking over to nine lines that begin with verbs, six with nouns and two with strong adjectives, including five that consist of nothing but action: "to wind, to wind," "they tied and tucked," "they trellised ... they plotted," "pinching and poking." Further, the first nineteen lines are dense with verbs, the poem as it resolves trailing off into the relative passivity of the dream of the old women, long gone, but still in attendance on the speaker "in his first sleep" "alone and cold in his bed."
These old women, tenders of the greenhouse, are "witches" who tease out all those spiralings, inward-turnings, reachings-out, and relentless vegetable graspings that in the greenhouse poems and throughout his career signified for Roethke the obduracy of life. The old women are life-givers, who provide the same service to the "spindly kid," as to the flowers, pinching and poking him, who, like the plants, would otherwise lie forever "cold in his bed." They come to him, muses whose responsibility it is to "tease out the seed that the cold [keeps] asleep." And lest it seem that he has transformed them beyond themselves and out of real breath, Roethke at the end of the poem is emphatic that the world is their province--they have awakened from their first sleep and fallen into their last, but they still sweat and bleed, and "their snuff-laden breath blows lightly over [him] in [his] first sleep."
I've always preferred Roethke's earlier poems. The later ones seem to me often overwrought and over-wrought, while the early poems, though certainly not always understated, usually display a control beyond their obvious formalities. They play off a considerable exuberance of language and feeling against a base restraint, and exhibit a controlled wildness of voice and spirit that in some of the later work is gone at too hard and can seem manufactured.
My favorite of the greenhouse poems is "Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz." I admire its massing of detail, its rapid accumulation of disparate elements until suddenly, quite unexpectedly, a critical mass occurs, and the whole edifice ignites, develops the momentum that jazz musicians call drive, and that force the music critic of Time once attributed to Helen Traubel’s voice, saying it was like a steel girder abruptly flung across the auditorium. I like the effect of the long coordinate sentences run through and over short lines, that Yeatsian trick, forcing the reader at every line ending to the life-threatening little decision as to whether or not to go on, as the sentence requires, or to stop, as the line with an equal imperative insists--and in making that decision, feeling the orchestration of tiny propulsive shocks that manipulate the poem's tempi and rhetorical strategies.
Roethke is not addressing us expositorily in this poem. As he says elsewhere, the poet always "perceives the thing in physical terms." He is realizing the substance of an emotion. In another genre he might have been more analytical, or dealt with matters more fully, paying more attention, for example, to characterization, narrative, or setting. But here, in the especially immediate and concentrated vision of the poem, he is re-presenting and reimagining a particular experience that at the same time provides us the name for something we suddenly are required to realize we have always known.
"Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz" is a poem that demonstrates particularly well this characteristic double vision of the artist, this illumination of the simultaneity of two realities. Thus the three old ladies of this poem are at the same time quite literally three old ladies with sensible Teutonic names, greenhouse workers, sweaty, smelly, "thorn-bitten," but strangely passionate about their work, at the same time that they are mysteriously transubstantiated to keepers of Creation.
A great poem is an improvisation, something both individual and collective, ending in something new and strongly punctuated by bursts of ego in the solos, during which the rest of the world riffs. But nothing is ever given up by one vision to the exclusion of the other. As Marvin Bell points out, "poetry is a quality of the imagination and language inextricably bound up with the recognizable world ... a kind of flying, that ... gets up and goes." In other words, a poem, though it begins and ends in time and the world, is never simply a representation of nature--for, as someone has said, "a mirror returns to us not our identity but our anonymity." We require to be brought to our identities, to the source of the common life we recognize intuitively in one another.
Thus the sense we have, in any lively work of art, of dimension, of more than one thing happening at the same time, of contingent existences, mutually energetic, none disposing of the other for its own sake, nor of itself for the other. The poet must generalize the subject, without destroying its particularity, in order to extend its significance beyond the limits of that particular experience. The result is to merge our understanding with others, to enlarge it--to emphasize community. Experience is not univocal, but orchestral, and cannot be expressed adequately in templates of experience.
Lev Loseff points out that "words are accumulations of immense practical experience. Language is a million matters of thought, and the aim in a poem is to make it untranslatable." Roethke succeeds especially well here, I think. Still, poets are devious, and this poem is interpretable, as I hope we have seen, if not paraphrasable. We come to its truths as in the real world we come to conclusions, first through the provision of our senses, the practical intellect that feeds the speculative.
We are dealing here with the issue of indirectness, the meaning of the poem as a complex interrelationship of expressive elements, a resonant matter. What happens, for example, when one tries to paraphrase "Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz"? What is the poem doing, except describing an action? How does one paraphrase an action? There is no meditative process here, no interpretation of the action, no exposition, no metaphor, and, despite its allusiveness, not much in the way of symbolism. This poem seems to be doing no more than reporting what it sees and appears at first glance to be almost nothing but literal surface.
But poets are not much in favor of the self-evident; they are not only concerned, in the words of R. P. Blackmur, with "the matter in hand," but wish to add "to the stock of available reality." For poets, as for an artist, the world is not expendable. No artist wants to abandon its determinations, but always to transform the observable without destroying it, to incorporate realities into the unified vision of the work. And so in "Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz," beyond the description and apart from the narrative, there occur points of transformation at each of which the literal surface, while powerfully presented and sustained, is extended to what Caesar Pavese has called the double vision "through which, from the single object of the senses vividly absorbed and possessed, there radiates a sort of halo of unexpected spirituality."
Thus the catalysis of the phrases "these nurses of nobody else" who "keep creation at ease," "teased out the seed the cold kept asleep" and "plotted for more than themselves." These inform the poem to its extension from what until that point has been--however resonant, active, and richly textured--no more (or less) than a vivid recreation of the quotidian. At such nodes in all great concatenations of language, the drive is given impulse, the voice flung out into and over the anonymities of the auditorium, and the incarnation takes place--in short, there commences the poem.