Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)
David Wagoner, the acclaimed poet, novelist, and now playwright, gave himself a most delicious assignment to channel the voltage that flowed through Theodore Roethke's famous poetry workshops at the University of Washington more than 40 years ago, and to try to unloose the upwelling presence of Ted Roethke (pronounced "ret key") himself onto the stage floor. Wagoner's goal was to recreate the presence of the man he calls "the most charismatic person I have ever met."
And so it was, on opening night last week at the ACT Theater waiting for John Aylward to take his seat front and center, that I felt like I was back there again at the end of the main floor in Parrington Hall, waiting for Ted to rumble in and throw down his book bags, and experience where the wings of his words would lift us next.
Suddenly Roethke is standing there: "Everybody here? You're welcome to stay," "You're going to write poems, the best you can write!" Roethke then, fully reborn, erupts from behind his desk: "Your assignment is to read the bulk of poetry written in English â€¦ hundreds of thousands of poems, mostly bad." "The best will live in your spinal cord and change your life."
As the world premiere of Wagoner's First Class exploded onto the stage, it pulled me through my own personal flashbacks back to those brimming and mutating days from 1961-63 when Ted's class in "Advanced Verse Writing" was the center of my world.
Most playwrights would find this kind of subject matter daunting, the kind of story maybe only another poet could pull it off. Wagoner knew Roethke first as a student at Penn State in 1947 and then here in Seattle from 1954 to 1963 as a colleague and close friend. But Wagoner resurrects more than the man. He manages to capture the healing power of poetry, both as an analytic tool, and as a fulcrum that can balance your life.
First Class is terrific. Wagoner, Aylward, and stage director Kurt Beattie have brought Ted out of darkness into contemporary theater. I hope Wagoner writes some more plays, but if I could make one suggestion for the Roethke play it would be to expand the cast to include a few good actors as students.
It isn't easy to recreate the visage and the viscera of a rare teacher like Roethke, who was able to inspire his students to flower and shape their own voices from the inside out. Wagoner's spare lines help convey the capabilities Roethke had, and they are delivered with passion by Aylward, a master actor. I imagined Roethke in various forms as:
Awakener: "If you aren't already an animist, pretend you are!" "I'm here to wake you up."
Craftsman: "As a first step, strengthen the connections between meaning, rhythm, and soundâ€¦the whole range of your emotions."
Critic: "You needn't prolong your troubles by perfecting them!" "I'll give the highest grades to you who teach me the most." "I'm going to be your critic!"
Transformer (getting right inside your skin): "You're going to be alone. "You might just start talking to yourself." "The muses refuse to dance for a committee."
Fisherman: "Poems are a lot like fish. To find them you're going to look at the whole surface." "The closer you look at a good poem, the better it gets."
Leader of the band: "If you fail rhythmically everything is lost. You have nothing."
When I got home after the performance, I pulled out my copy of the notebook I carefully kept in class. There they were, the actual gems of Ted's conversations with us in 1962:
"Language starts in the compost pile." 3 Oct
"Great poems say: â€˜Change your life.'" 9 Oct
"You can reason within the tetrameter form; men could think in this form." 15 Oct
"The polysyllabic word is something you have to start mastering." 15 Oct
"The Irish have got it so good all they have to do is go out in the street and sweep it up." "What beautiful anapests in their speech." 14 Nov
Roethke's two-hour classes were held three to four times a week depending on his health and travel schedule. Roethke taught by getting inside your skin and lifting you on our own wings with your own words.
We had to write a couple of poems each week.
Roethke also taught by sharing his current live poems, some of the real moments, his own lines evolving, the tough ideas blooming, the stanzas crafting toward completion. On November 15, he brought a new epigram to class:
A learned heathen told me this:
Dwell in pure mind and mind alone;
What you brought back from the abyss
The slug was taught beneath his stone.