I went to my favorite cemetery (doesn’t everyone have one?), a hilly retreat in northern Michigan, and there I left a handful of death-related poems. I’ll feature them one by one, beginning with Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane. I leaned the poem against a stone arm, nestled in some stone greenery.
Elegy for Jane
(My student, thrown by a horse)
by Theodore Roethke
I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once started into talk, the light syllables leaped for her.
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,
A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.
Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.
My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.
If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.
What lush images of this long-ago Jane, Roethke’s maimed darling, his skittery pigeon. In life and in death she is inseparable from the beauty of nature, and the beauty of this poem lies in those associations.
Theodore Roethke (1908- 1963) was born in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of German immigrants. His father ran a floral business, and Roethke spent hours and hours in the greenhouses, which he would later call “my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.” When he was fourteen, his father died of cancer and his uncle committed suicide.
He went to University of Michigan where, according to the Poetry Foundation’s biography of him, “he adopted a tough, bear-like image (weighing over 225 pounds) and even developed a fascination with gangsters.” This is one of my favorite details of any poet’s life, ever.
Roethke earned his bachelor’s and master’s degree at Michigan, and later briefly studied law and did other graduate work at Harvard. During the Depression he was forced to quit and take a job teaching at Lafayette College.
He had manic-depression and had to be hospitalized at times to treat it. Despite his mental illness and heavy drinking, he is known as one of the greatest poetry teachers ever (once climbing out on a window ledge to inspire his students) and one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.
He married a former student, Beatrice O’Connell, who stayed with him despite not knowing of his mental illness when she married him. He taught at Michigan State, Bennington, and most famously at University of Washington for the last fifteen years of his life. He died of a heart attack in a friend’s swimming pool in 1963, and is buried in Saginaw, where his childhood home has been turned into a museum.
You probably read Roetke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” back in high school. It’s still a favorite of mine and a good one to memorize.
Link here for Roetke reading “Elegy for Jane.” (The way he says the last two words of the poem confuse and fascinate me.)