Theodore Roethke - I Knew A Woman

troethke.jpg (10960 bytes) "There is no poetry anywhere that is so valuably conscious of the human body as Roethke’s... He more than any other is a poet of pure being... When you read him, you realize with a great surge of astonishment and joy that, truly, you are not yet dead" (Bloom 117-118). James Dickey dubbed Theodore Roethke "the greatest American poet" in the essay above for the very joy contained in such poems as "I Knew a Woman." More than his many fine works, "I Knew a Woman" seems to exemplify this joy of pure being best. Frolicsome and almost giddy in tone, the poem revels in the wonders of a woman’s body. In addition, the poem cleverly uses figures of speech to hint at both the pleasures Roethke found in sexual relations, as well as the pleasures of language itself. Roethke puts both words and bodies in motion through puns, hyperboles, word repetitions, double entendres and more.

The first stanza is ripe with all the above mentioned types of word play. Word repetition appears four times in this stanza, including three of the first four lines. It is clear from the very start that Roethke is planning to play with the language and the reader. Words move around, reappearing, creating a sense of motion that permeates the entire work. "When she moved, she moved more ways than one," he announces in line three, clearly stating that the poem will also move in many ways. Repetition appears again in stanza two and stanza three, but is clearly dominant in the first.

"The shapes a bright container can contain!" begins the assault of sexual and literary puns and double meanings in the poem. This line can be interpreted as the shapes her body can form during her motions, but it can also be seen as a metaphor for the female sexual role as a "container". In terms of literary pun, he could easily be referring to the word play to come in the poem, words and lines taking new, playful shapes in the "container" of this poem.

The strongest series of puns in the poem begins in the last three lines of the first stanza and continues through other sections as well. "Of her choice virtues only gods should speak, or English poets who grew up on Greek (I’d have them singing in a chorus, cheek to cheek)." On the sexual side, it is not hard to see the ironic nature of English poets growing up on Greek, cheek to cheek. These lines also set up the continuing references to Greek choral odes in stanza two. In line 9, Roethke gives us, "She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand." Those three terms, "in addition to their sexual suggestiveness, are the English equivalent of the Greek strophe, antistrophe, and epode. Apparently the woman, by her movement, becomes a kind of Muse whose turn and re-turn serve as inspiration for the poet’s turns of language" (Blessing 184). Strophe, antistrophe, and epode refer to the three-part stanza structure of the Greek choral ode. The strophe presents one ideological position; the antistrophe presents the other side; and finally, the epode acts as a summary of both (Encarta "Ode"). A counter-turn is also "a term for the rhetorical device of repeating words in a reverse order, as in ‘(She moved in circles, and those circles moved)’" (Blessing 185).

Double-entendres continue through stanza two and stanza three. "She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake; coming behind her for her pretty sake (But what a prodigious mowing we did make)" from lines 12-14 "employs the imagery of English pastoral verse as in Marvell’s ‘mower’ poems" (Kalaidjian 105). Again, Roethke is playing with other literary traditions, filling them with sexual meanings. At least he is respecting and chivalrous of his lady, since he is "coming behind her for her pretty sake." "Behind" can mean "later" or used as a reference to positioning (another reference to "Greek"). As for their "prodigious mowing," Karl Malkoff reminds us that "‘to mow,’ in Scots dialect, means to have sexual intercourse" (Malkoff 126).

Stanza three continues with these sexual double meanings, giving the reader, "Love likes a gander, and adores a goose." Is Roethke referring to flocks of geese or sly looks and crude gropes? Line 16 also has many connotations. "Her full lips" are "pursed". In sexual terms, this line could refer to lips ready to kiss or the female genitals. "The errant note to seize" can mean a wrong musical note (musical puns again), or, more likely, to take advantage of an adventuring emotion. Roethke’s lady is clearly in control of this sexual encounter, since she is doing the seizing, the puckering (tightening of muscles), and is playing the role of the sickle (the tool doing the actual mowing). "She played it quick, she played it light and loose," continues her domination of the situation. No, this is not a serious, romantic encounter, but a fun, playful one--quick, light and loose (another pun).

Stanza three continues with another of several hyperboles in the poem. "My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees" shows the exaggeration of the hyperbole. "Flowing" can refer to "smooth, harmonious, or graceful." It can also mean "to move or run freely." A third meaning can lead to another sexual innuendo, "To discharge a stream" (Bookshelf "Flow"). All three can apply to Roethke’s usage--the woman has beautiful legs; she moves with grace; and, possibly, she has reached orgasm. The hyperbole is created when Roethke writes that the narrator’s eyes dazzle, or "become bewildered, amazed, or overwhelmed" (Bookshelf "Dazzle"). Other hyperboles in the poem include lines 5 and 25.

The last stanza of the poem finally states Roethke’s feelings about the motion of this woman and his time with her. He reveals that much of the poem is about time and aging. This younger woman clearly keeps him feeling youthful with her playfulness. The reader realizes this age difference from the comparison of his "old bones" to her "lovely" ones. The first line of the stanza refers to time, also. "Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay" shows the life cycle of grass, from birth to harvest. Yet again, it conjures sexual imagery of mowing, making hay, or rolling in the hay. "Seed" also has sexual connotations.

"She is incredible, almost awesome--swaying, playing, waking, breaking, frolicking, wandering, and, of course, moving more ways than one. . . The poor narrator must respond as best he can, dancing round and round like a tame and toothless bear in a comic, scruffy, yet strangely dignified romp" (Blessing 183). The narrator "lives to learn her wanton ways," but "wanton" can mean "sexually unrestrained" (Bookshelf "Wanton") along with the innocent, frolicking motion Blessing mentions.

This playful, sensuous woman liberates the narrator, giving him his freedom and youth. Instead of "counting eternity by days," he chooses to "measure time by how a body sways," yet another musical allusion, this time to the metronome. He has learned that youthfulness is in the mind and the actions of a person. She has tortured him, making him a "martyr" to her ways. Is this suffering yet another hyperbole or maybe another sexual reference to dying as orgasm? Whichever meaning the reader uses, the narrator certainly is rejuvenated from this "torture".

Roethke has used figures of speech and word play in almost every line of "I Knew a Woman." With puns, metaphors, hyperboles, and allusions to ancient Greek odes, he has taken his narrator on a journey. "The way of the lover leads through humiliation to humility and, like the way of the religious mystic, beyond humility to enlightenment" (Blessing 183). It is clear from the playfulness and joy of the language that Roethke’s narrator has, indeed, found this enlightenment.

Works Cited

Blessing, Richard Allen. Theodore Roethke’s Dynamic Vision. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Theodore Roethke. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Kalaidjian, Walter B. Understanding Theodore Roethke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Malkoff, Karl. Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Microsoft Bookshelf 1993 CD-ROM. Redmon, WA: Microsoft, Inc., 1993. (Photographic Image)

Microsoft Encarta 1994 CD-ROM. Redmon, WA: Microsoft, Inc., 1994.

Untermeyer, Louis. A Treasury of Great Poems. New York: Galahad Books, 1993.


Chikara, 1994

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