Really, Roethke?

Oh, geez. I don’t know why I thought it wouldn’t happen, not with this one, the poet so many upbeat and vaguely spiritual people turn to when delving into inspirational go-to-it manuals such as The Artist’s Way. I’m talking about Theodore Roethke, and I’m referencing a piece of petty misogyny I would have thought him too smart to have partaken in, even given the poem’s production in the late ’50s.

Tennessee Guerilla Women

Tennessee Guerilla Women

I knew it couldn’t turn out well when I saw the title: “Reply to a Lady Editor.” Allow me to engage in a brief, linguistically unsophisticated outburst by stating that I really hate this shit: namely, tagging on a genderizing adjective to a role or professional title or whatever when the person holding said position happens to lack a certain genital appendage. In Roethke’s day, I’m guessing it had more of a sense of patting the cute thing on the head for trying hard and being brave enough to attempt a futile run with the big boys, and less of a sense of today’s use of the practice: namely, to point out that you/your company/your faith community has a girl in an important role, and so we can all rest easy having put our liberal creds out there. Whatever the intention, what it ends up doing is reinforcing the assumption* that it’s not the norm to even think of women holding or undertaking said role, and that we’ve got an exotic curiosity on our hands.

But I’ll move on, and just reproduce the whole thing in full:


Sweet Alice S. Morris, I am pleased, of course,
You take the Times Supplement, and read its verse,
And know that True Love is more than a Life-Force
–And so like my poem called Poem.

Dan Cupid, I tell you’s a braw laddie-buck;
A visit from him is a piece of pure luck,
And should he arrive, why just lean yourself back
–And recite him my poem called Poem.

O print it, my dear, do publish it, yes,
That ladies their true natures never suppress,
When they come, dazedly, to the pretty pass
–Of acting my poem called Poem.

My darling, my dearest, most-honest-alive,
Just send me along that sweet seventy-five;
I’ll continue to think on the nature of love,
–As I dance to my poem called Poem.


The letter Mr. Paternalistic was answering, from the literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar? “If the Poem (beginning ‘I knew a woman, lovely in her bones’) in The London Times Literary Supplement has not appeared here, we offer you $75 for it. Could you wire us collect your answer?”** I’m guessing, had said editor been Alan Morris, we never would have had to deal with this particular poetic insult or its thoughts not only on Alice Morris’s non-serious editorship and the low intellectual quality of Harper’s (how surprising that someone there would read the TLS!), but also on women’s “true natures” or their assumptions about love and desirable living in general.

In short, I’d like to barf, but then the ghost of Roethke might achieve a brief victory, having allowed this doggerel to cause such an unpleasant reaction within my delicate feminine constitution. So I’ll ask: is there any legitimate criticism in there, regarding ideas of love that are sold to people? I’m tending toward no; the thing is such a blanket accusation, and pulls that “true nature” bologna as an apparent support– leaving at best a nano-smidgen of space for the reader, recipient, and whoever else to think, “Hmm; maybe a lot of women who read Harper’s have some pretty crazy expectations about love here, and maybe we could look at them and ask why that is in a funny way.” Instead, the whole thing, with its invitation to “lean yourself back” if you’re lucky enough to get a visit from some brawny Cupid, conjures up the swift self-tanking of an early ’90s Texas gubernatorial candidate. Initially leading Democratic rival Ann Richards in the polls, the lovely Clayton Williams declared to his quick doom that the state’s weather was like rape: “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.”

No, it’s not an even comparison, and you can’t expect everyone to overcome the prejudices of his/her day. Were he writing in 1990, I’m guessing Roethke wouldn’t have scribbled out this blemish. But I never thought I’d make a mental link between a West Texas good ol’ boy and a massively celebrated, prize-winning poet. But there you have it. I should cease to be surprised.


* And I’ll assert it really is/was an underlying assumption, because otherwise, no one would have (had) to specify just how peachy-keen it is that a lady bears the title.

** All this courtesy of Theodore Roethke, The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (New York: Random House, 1991), 109.


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