Theodore Roethke ≠ Captain Beefheart
by Mike Mosher
My workplace band, all university faculty or staff, called Cremains of the Tenth Circle (please, friend us on Facebook) played at a Theodore Roethke 102nd Birthday Celebration on May 23, 2010, in a saloon in his hometown of Saginaw, Michigan. This winter I finally read some of Roethke's poems.
In December, 2010, I was sad to learn of the death of Captain Beefheart—the musical name of fine art painter Don Van Vliet—who captivated my gang in high school with his Magic Band records like Trout Mask Replica, upon which the Captain growled a dada gumbo of arresting images and seeming non-sequitors.
I had not expected to find similarities in their two poetic voices.
Words for the Wind: the Collected Verse of Theodore Roethke was issued in 1961, two years before the poet's death at age 55, including poems from earlier books. Those from his first book Open House (1941) feel conventional, emissions from a serious, rather dour poet of his time. In his 1948 book The Lost Son and Other Poems, some poems, like "My Papa's Waltz" are saved from being kitsch by unsentimental lines like:
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt
These have a sturdy rhyme scheme, ready to be sung or memorized by working folk. "Pickle Belt" is a vivid memory of a teenage job in a processing plant, and the girl working beside him. But it is in this book that he finds his unique voice: that of a guy whose father ran a florist shop, The clear and eerie "Child on Top of a Greenhouse", sketches like "Old Florist", "Cuttings", "Weed Puller" and "Flower Dump" illustrate the wise dictum to write what you know.
The florist shop is still in the Roethke family, and still operates in Saginaw; the bar where the Cremains played is a short walk away, with a sign that boasts how Roethke, his brother and uncle once frequented it.
Roethke's 1950s work included short poems, a five-part work in memory of W. B. Yeats called "The Dying Man", and the five Meditations of an Old Woman. He's willing to toss in a selection of Lighter Pieces and Pieces for Children, a popular poet like Edgar Guest as much as an academic one. The rollicking pub sing-along "Song for the Squeeze Box", how Chippewa Kate rode the Bay City freight, might fit the Cremains' own playlist. I imagine Captain Beefheart singing it, as he did his own forlorn "Well", where he sang:
My mind cracked like custard
Ran red until it sealed
Turn t' wooden 'n rolled like uh wheel well well
Still, it is Roethke's book Praise to the End (1951) that truly reminds me of Beefheart. The poem "Where Knock is Open Wide" evokes both Edward Lear and Tristan Tzara, discovering:
A kitten can
Bite with his feet;
Papa and Mamma
Have more teeth
. . .
Until the cows
All have puppies.
I believe it's supposed to be a child's voice, dismissing an uncle's death in order to distractedly expound:
I know her noise.
Her neck has kittens.
I'll make a hole for her.
In the fire.
There are more childish epiphanies and observations, and mid-career Roethke might straddle both meanings of the word "nursery", a place of child-rearing and a florist's sideline. When it comes to modern nursery rhyme, I think of Captain Beefheart's "The Blimp":
Children stop yer nursin' unless yer renderin' fun
The mother ship the mother ship
The mother ship's the one
More adolescent, "How high is have?" sounds to me like the title of a knowing, English post-Punk song, maybe the Gang of Four questioning political economy, or the existentialist Smiths. Another poem "I Need, I Need" has its same short, bursting sentences. Some stanzas rhyme, some don't, yet all seem like Beefheart could bark them portentously from the stage while his Magic Band (Zoot Horn Rollo, Winged Fingerling Eel, Antennae Jimmy Semens, etc.) canoodles with the music merrily, discordantly, exuberantly.
"Bring the Day!" and "Give Way, Ye Gates" have the same summery stoned-ness, a pastoral Jollity Farm animalism, where rats, cats, bird, stag, shrill frogs, bear, little owls, and a dead crow inhabit two pages. This menagerie is comparable to Beefheart's "Old Fart at Play":
Pappy with the Khaki sweatband
Bowed goat potbellied barnyard
The old fart was smart
The old fart was smart
The old gold cloth madonna
Dancin' t' the fiddle 'n saw
He ran down behind the knoll
'n slipped on his wooden fish head
The mouth worked 'n snapped all the bees
Back t' the bungalow
Beefheart's "Neon Meate [sic] Dream of An Octafish" has lines that remind me of another Michigan bard, Eminem:
Fack 'n feast 'n tubes tubs bulbs
In jest incest injest injust in feast incest
'n specks 'n spreckled spreckled
Fetlocks waddlin' feast
For some reason, a lot of poetry comes out of, and flows into, Michigan. If we don't manufacture automobiles and machinery so much any more (after the Great Betrayal that de-industrialized America; don't get me started), we continue to assiduously assemble words into poems. When teaching at University of Michigan in the 1970s, Donald Hall brought poets to local high schools, where we were lucky to hear Ted Berrigan (suitably weird), Diane Wakoski (whiny; or was I merely frightened by the force of female confessions?) and big, bullet-headed, bellowing Milton Kessler. Since 1978 Judith Kerman's Mayapple Press has published out of Saginaw and Bay City. The Cremains features Midland poet Melissa Seitz, whose "Highway Michigan" song even name-checks Roethke. May we all remain alert and attentive to the poetic voice, whether the old (or a new) oracular pub-crawler Roethke in the midst of our rustbelt, or arty pond-scum bluesman Beefheart wailing in southern California, both possessed by their vivid moments of inspiration.
Mike Mosher is Professor of Art/Communication & Digital Media at Saginaw Valley State University.