Writer Jenny N. Sullivan is a garden club member from Northern Virginia and today's guest blogger. Enjoy! t
The Green Force, Gardeners, and the Poetry of Theodore Roethke
by Jenny N. Sullivan
Soon the leaves will be raked into the street where they will vanish as the roaring vacuum truck crawls along the curb. The lawn will be aerated and the beds put down for the season. Then what is a gardener to do with no pruning, planting, weeding or raking to make demands of time and energy? The wise gardener can soothe that restlessness by visiting the poems of Michigan poet Theodore Roethke, a man who grew up with a German immigrant father who owned and operated 250,000 square feet of greenhouses in Saginaw. That’s right, almost six acres of greenhouse, the largest compound of greenhouses in Michigan at the time. Young Theodore, born in 1908, also had the run of 22 acres of open land behind his house as well as woods and wetland his father owned.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Roethke, once he began writing poetry, would write about plants. A collection of these poems has come to be known informally as his “Greenhouse Poems,” even though many poems go beyond that single location, as their provocative titles make clear. He writes about a “Root Cellar,” about a “Weed Puller,” and about “Transplanting.” Other poems with horticultural titles such as “Moss-Gathering,” “Orchids,” and “Child on Top of a Greenhouse,” among many more, are irresistible to anyone who loves flora and the tending of it.
Roethke was interested in observing what Stanley Kunitz called the “green force” of a leaf or flower or stem. The poet was in awe of that force, saying in one poem that it caused him to “quail.” Many of us who cannot write poetry feel the same way about the “green force” and can relate to what he describes in, for example, his poem “Cuttings.” Anyone who has successfully propagated a new plant from a cutting appreciates the joy this poem conveys. This cutting, a thing that looks like a mere “stick,” is only sleeping, “in-a-drowse.” But put it into a good mixture of “sugary loam,” loose like sugar, to a gardener also sweet like sugar, and see what happens. The plant drinks nourishing water until, in a beautifully restful and satisfying monosyllabic line of the poem: “The small cells bulged.” The closing stanza gives the reader an image like time-lapse photography of the growing plant pushing through the potting mixture to unfurl its glorious, delicate new self, its “tendrilous horn.” I too “quail.”
Roethke’s poem “Root Cellar” is best appreciated by those who love compost piles and natural fertilizer, those who can respect and admire a good manure. In this root cellar, “dank as a ditch,” things are growing uncontrollably, like those store-bought onions sprouting in the cabinet under your counter in spring. To some, Roethke’s root cellar would be just a dark and smelly place. The poem calls it “a congress of stinks.” To lovers of plants, that organic material is a repository of energy. That energy comes from the plants that have grown beyond ripeness to pulpiness and decay to become “silo-rich.” In decay and death, they feed new life. Why, even “the dirt kept breathing.”
Many gardeners grew up loving plants because a parent or grandparent nurtured this love in us. Theodore Roethke gives us a stunner of a moment from his childhood with his father in the greenhouse in an excerpt from “The Rose.” “And I think of roses, roses…/And my father standing astride the cement benches,/Lifting me high over the four-foot stems…/What need for heaven then,/With that man, and those roses?”
Roethke’s collected poems are available from major booksellers and can be found on the shelves of the public library. They are well worth picking up and reading this winter when snow covers everything and the ground is rock solid. They are the perfect cold weather companion for the housebound gardener sitting at the window, by a warm fire, occasionally glancing out at the fallow yard.