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When your alarm clock goes off in the morning, what’s your first thought? We’re guessing it’s probably not “Hey, look at this, I’ve just crossed a threshold into a new kind of awareness,” is it? This poem is a whole different kind of wake-up call. You think your alarm clock has a loud ring? It’s nothing compared to this poem. It won’t happen all at once (and what true awakening does?); the speaker says this waking is taken slow. Just be prepared to have your eyes (and mind) opened wide.
The title poem of Theodore Roethke‘s (pronounced "ret-kee") 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection “The Waking” is written in the villanelle form, the better to shuffle through layers of experience and consciousness. By repeating key lines, Roethke explores paradoxes and ambiguities, forcing you to reevaluate your place in the world. You’ll ask yourself, as he does, what role fate plays in what you feel and where you’ll go. The poem is a series of musings that take you from a hyper-alert sleep into the nature of awareness and being, and back out again.
Along with the speaker, you too can wake to a new kind of dreamy consciousness, learn by going, feel your being, and accept your fate. So don’t hit the snooze button on this one. Your time for this waking has come.
"He invented a vocabulary of metamorphosis. He uprooted his environment for unfolding images, replayed light, objects, emotions back to us in juxtapositions never seen or heard before. Inside that darkly blooming world where he debated with God, death, and all things green, lovely visions struck him” (Webster Schott, Life, 1972).
That’s a pretty major assessment, coming in Life magazine (not, you know, in Obscure Poets Corner). It’s also so true. Put simply, Theodore Roethke is The Man. What’s more, this poem is his flag, his most famous poem next to “My Papa’s Waltz." Why? In their shifting, shuffling, circling, cycling way, these lines seem to reveal the very nature of awareness, of being and consciousness. We’re talking deep here. In some ways, this poem, out of all his others, defines this poet’s approach to poetry in general, his recognition that human logic goes only so far. Not to mention, Roethke rocks the villanelle form hard here, and that’s no easy feat.
Manic depressive, frequently institutionalized, alcoholic, infamous for his wild stunts—Theodore Roethke played the part of the mad genius to the max. What’s pretty amazing, though, is that even with all that darkness, his poems, and this poem in particular, sing a song of hope and vision. It’s a song you should bend a serious ear to, Shmoopers.
Poetry Foundation Biography
Read all about the poet’s wild life here.
Kunitz on Roethke
Peer and articulate poet himself, Stanley Kunitz reflects on Roethke’s life and work.
Search the man out in the house in which he grew up, learning where he had to go.
Looking for lots-o-links? You’ll find 'em here.
Okay, we don’t know if Roethke really looked this strange in real life, but this out-of-synch talking head rivals the Great and Powerful Oz.
Roethke with Bass
Here’s a pretty sweet musical interpretation of the poem.
Waltz with Roethke
Check out this mash-up with scenes from the animated movie Waltz with Bashir.
The poet gives sound to meaning.
Here’s a personal (maybe a little too personal?) version.
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
The poet in skullcap, looking pretty freaked by his own thoughts.
Roethke on a Wall
A graffiti finger shows him where to go, if Ted can rise to a walking position and make it so.
Imogen Cunningham, an amazing poet, captures the man’s troubled soul here.
“Setting Roethke’s Poems to Music”
Ned Rorem collaborated with Roethke, creating a “bastard” born of poetry and music. He describes his process here.
Get your lit crit fix here with a plethora of links.
The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke
Drink your fill of Roethke awesomeness.
In a Dark Time—Theodore Roethke
Check out his 1964, 24-minute DVD.