The Waking Theodore Roethke

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(1953) The title poem of Theodore roethke's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Waking, Poems: 1933-1953 (1953), is a short, haunting meditation on living and learning, and it is one of the finest villanelles in English. Other villanelles in its class are "One Art" (1979) by Elizabeth bishop and "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" (1952) by Dylan Thomas. The rigidity of the villanelle form makes it so difficult that the truly great ones easily stand out above the rest, and often above most other poetry. Such is the case with "The Waking," which may be a philosophical outgrowth of one of Roethke's earlier, simpler nature poems: As collected in The Lost Son (1948), the first poem he titled "The Waking" is a series of descriptive quatrains about how wonderful it feels to stroll "across / an open field."

In the later villanelle, Roethke seems to advocate an almost zen approach to learning, as if education is a natural part of life: "I learn by going where I have to go." His advice is to relax and enjoy nature, not to strive too hard (like the lowly worm who pointlessly climbs the winding stair) and not to become too worried about living or learning. The truly important knowledge, he implies, will come just as easily as the trees change with the seasons. As the biographer Allan Seager quotes, Roethke once wrote, "I can sense the moods of nature almost instinctively. . . . When I get alone under an open sky . . . I'm tremendously exalted and a thousand vivid ideas and sweet visions flood my consciousness" (55).

"The Waking" seems to have been Roethke's way of putting his easygoing, nature-loving philosophy into a musical, semireligious form, a mantra that is both soothing and instructive. It shows his reverence for the earth while giving valuable advice to future generations. "The Waking" is one of his most accessible and popular poems.


Blessing, Richard A. "The Shaking That Steadies: Theodore

Roethke's 'The Waking.'" Ball State University Forum 12.4

(1971): 17-19. Seager, Allan. The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke.

New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Jack Turner

WAKOSKI, DIANE (1937- ) Diane Wakoski's large body of work is notable for its narrative and digressionary style and its consistent use of her personal history and mythology to explore abstract themes, among them the pursuit of beauty and identity, loss, betrayal, and the world's dualities. Her influences include writers associated with the SAN francisco renaissance as well as Wallace stevens.

Wakoski was born in Whittier, California, and began writing poetry at the age of seven. She published her first of more than 40 volumes, Coins and Coffins, in 1962. Her many honors include the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Robert Frost Fellowship (1966) and the William Carlos WILLIAMS Prize (1989) for her selected poems, Emerald Ice (1988). She has taught at a number of schools, principally at Michigan State University.

Critic Mark Harris divides her career into three phases—the imagistic, the search for beauty, and the musical; however, all of Wakoski's work maintains a digressionary narrative style and uses individual experiences as a way of exploring more complex themes. Describing poetry as "a way of solving a problem" (qtd. in Erskine 5054), Wakoski is sometimes perceived as angry, because of her recurrent focus on lost love. "Justice Is Reason Enough" (1962) tells the story of a suicide, interjected with repeated questioning of "Why?" As is often the case, toward the end of the poem, Wakoski poses a resolution, "Justice is / reason enough for anything ugly. It balances the beauty in the / world."

The later work continues the exploration of loss and maintains the digressions that marked her early work; however, the problems posed in the poems tend toward more affirmative resolutions, as in "To the Thin and Elegant Woman Who Resides Inside of Alix Nelson" (1976), which critiques American consumerism and ideals of beauty by affirming the author's growing recognition of beauty in what is natural. She encourages the woman to "dump fashion" and "love your own soft peachy cheeks."

In an early interview Wakoski asserted that poetry was "control through words" (9). Though her musing, conversational style appears effortless, her exploration of conceptual dualities marks the complex refinement of her work.


Erskine, Thomas L. "Diane Wakoski." In Critical Survey of Poetry 7. Vol. 7; 2d. ed., edited by Philip K. Jason. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2003, pp. 4,052-4,060. Harris, Mark. "Diane Wakoski." In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 5, American Poets since World War II, edited by Donald J. Greiner. Detroit: Gale, 1980, pp. 355-366. Wakoski, Diane. "An Interview with Diane Wakoski," by Claire Healey. Contemporary Literature 18.1 (winter 1977): 1-19.

Sharon L. Barnes

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