The poet James Dickey
is standing in my parents living room on Bainbridge Island, Wash., waving his long arms dramatically. "When Ted Roethke was here, this was all wilderness
!" he exclaims, indicating the carport and a well-tended front garden. "Why, there were bears
right outside that window
It's about 1980, and Dickey has invited himself over for the evening to enjoy the company of poets and is remembering his brief connection to Northwest poetry, the year he was poet-in-residence at Reed College in Portland in 1963, the year Theordore Roethke
– Ted to his friends – died in a Bainbridge Island swimming pool.
Dickey and Roethke were, perhaps, the only bears in those woods, a wild frontier in the mind of the man who wrote Deliverance
. Big men, large-chested poets, the kind of poets you'd want at your side if you decided to storm the muse. It's not surprising that Dickey tried to conjure up a link to the man who is credited with being the Northwest's greatest poet – winner of two National Book Awards (one posthumously) and a Pulitzer Prize.
Roethke is perhaps the Northwest's most anthologized poet, but he also left his mark as founding father of the Northwest School
of poetry. He taught at the University of Washington at intervals from 1947 until his death and helped launch a generation of talented student poets into the top ranks of American and Northwest poetry: Carolyn Kizer, James Wright, Richard Hugo, and David Wagoner, among them.
Roethke's legacy is commemorated
in a poetry series at the university
. A line from a poem gives name to a Bainbridge writer's workshop
. His photo hangs on the wall of the Blue Moon tavern in Seattle, one of his favorite watering holes. But the living legacy is in the chain of poets who were influenced by his teaching, and the poets they've taught.
That tradition has been carried on by former student and colleague Wagoner, who first studied with Roethke at Penn State in the late 1940s and later got his job teaching at UW because Roethke put a good word in for him. Wagoner has become the dean of Northwest poetry
, still teaching, still writing. For decades, he edited the region's primary poetry journal, Poetry Northwest
, and his sharp, critical eye shaped the movement more than his mentor did. But the source of it all is the bi-polar brilliance of the extraordinary Roethke.
No one has spent more time inside of Roethke's mind than David Wagoner. Not only did Wagoner study with Roethke, he edited his notebooks into an extraordinary book, Straw for the Fire
, which required the double trick of maintaining his own critical judgement while mind-melding with his mentor. He controversially collected many of Roethke's fragments into poem-like clusters arranged thematically. Their beauty and power is in the poet's writing, but also in the rather thankless task Wagoner took on of making them cohere for the reader. Straw for the Fire
is my favorite Roethke work, and I'm still not quite sure who to thank for that.
Wagoner is also a novelist
and playwright, and he's now taken on Roethke the teacher as his subject. ACT Theater will premier a new Wagoner play
about Roethke called First Class
. Previews begin July 27; the play opens Aug. 2.
Wagoner is no stranger to the theater. In addition to writing plays, he once tried summer stock and says he came away from that experience knowing he wasn't an actor and also knowing that he'd make such a fool of himself on stage that he could never be embarrassed in front of audiences again. He was a literary advisor to Seattle Repertory Theater for many years. The new play has been workshopped thanks to a donation from Bagley Wright, an arts patron and friend of Roethke's. In fact, the swimming pool Roethke died in belonged to Wright's in-laws, the Bloedels.
On Sunday, June 10, Counterbalance Poetry hosted Wagoner
in a discussion about Roethke and the play. Wagoner is amazingly well-preserved – he is tall and handsome, silver-haired and a bit patrician, the youngest-looking 80 you can imagine. He told us that veteran actor John Aylward
would be playing Roethke and called his performance "uncanny." He said that Aylward has caught Roethke's manner and face just right, though he's not built like the big, burly poet.
By all accounts, Roethke
was a force of nature in the classroom, passionate, crazy, immensely knowledgeable, and well-read. And the play is an attempt to recreate the alchemy of his workshops. An excerpt of the play
ran in the Georgia Review
In his introduction to the excerpt, Wagoner wrote this about his purpose:
Most of the teaching methods of artists in all categories have gone unrecorded. We know very little about what great painters and great composers, for instance, said to their pupils. In First Class I've tried to re-create the atmosphere of one of Roethke's poetry workshops, working mostly from my memories of him and a number of examples of the kinds of poems and opinions he admired, some of the near rituals he used both on students and himself, some of his unique spirit, and some of the hectic ways Time and Place would leap over each other for him as if he were in charge of both.
I don't know how it plays on stage, but on the printed page First Class
is already the best writing workshop I never attended.
that there is none of Roethke's poetry in the play – he wanted the freedom to write without getting tangled in quotes and copyrights. He did contact Roethke's widow, Beatrice, now remarried and living in England. He says she won't be able to attend the performance, but she gave her blessing to the project. She told him the price of Roethke's reprint rights was going up, which Wagoner said was a good sign for a modern poet who has been dead for more than 40 years. Poetry is an ephemeral business, after all.
Speaking about the effort to capture the poet, Wagoner writes, "The most charismatic man I've ever met was not Adlai Stevenson, Prince Philip, Billy Graham, Dylan Thomas, or Ted Bundy (all of whom I encountered as a reporter, a fan, or a teacher), but Theodore Roethke, and if I've been able
to recapture some of that charisma here, I'll be satisfied."
For those of us who never saw Roethke in action, First Class
is likely to be as close as we're going to get to the old bear.