Charles Molesworth: On "North American Sequence"

The language of the "North American Sequence" gathers up the exfoliating parts of Roethke's sensibility; and, while this integral speech is something new and distinctive in Roethke's work (as well as in contemporary American poetry), its roots are many and traditional. Biblical rhythms, the long line and catalogue of Whitman, the ecstatic litany of Smart, the meditative energy of Stevens, and the commonplace grandeur of Eliot's Four Quartets: all these elements grace the sequence, though none dominates it. Roethke is here both litanist and botanist, to use terms Karl Shapiro once employed to distinguish the symbolist aesthetic of Poe from the native strain of Whitman. Roethke's work doesn't fit into any neat categorization of contemporary poetry, in part because he wasn't interested in theory and hence took little concern with groups or schools of poets, but also because he drew widely and unabashedly on both traditional and innovative currents of poetic energy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the language of "North American Sequence," yet most appreciative readers of Roethke consider it his "authentic" voice, the fruition of his lifelong attempt to come to terms with his burdens and possibilities.

Not only the language but also the formal structure of this sequence rests on a complexity at once densely affective and semantically straightforward. The central image is that of a journey, both as a movement to a new place and as a change to a new form; the natural cycles and stages of physical growth are gracefully, almost tangentially aligned with emotional growth. Much of the pleasure of reading the sequence comes from the lyric and equitable distribution of its parts into circular meditations and unfolding exultations. Either the circle or the threshold subtends most of the poem's images and thematic developments. Both of these "figures" can be reassuring or threatening in their immediate thrust or their larger implications; for example, the cyclical return of plant life is counterposed by the circular spins of the wheels of an automobile stuck in a snowdrift, return balanced by frustration. Mixing the traditional tropes and arguments of landscape poetry and mystical literature, the sequence draws on a resonant symbolic background, but it never courts obscurantism for its own sake; though it has clear "autobiographical" contexts, it never becomes plangently confessional.

. . .

At the end the poet's voice achieves a status commensurate with a natural force. It is almost as if Roethke were reversing the story of Orpheus and, instead of leading the rocks and trees, joining them and being gathered at last into the first of rhythms, into himself.


Title Charles Molesworth: On "North American Sequence" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Charles Molesworth Criticism Target Theodore Roethke
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry
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