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Slipping Out the Window
“I teach my sighs to lengthen into songs.”
—from The Renewal, Theodore Roethke
This morning, I was reading Roethke on the train (I admit, part of me was trying to block out the news, having been chained to its great sorrow all morning). And the sun is out today in the city; spring is fully upon us and racing full-fledged into summer warmth. The weather and the blooms reminded me of when I was studying as an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle. It is the spring quarter poetry class that I remember most (I took it only in my senior year, having exhausted all of my other electives from drama to dance). The classroom we were in overlooked the quad where all the cherry trees blossomed in some unnatural frenzy of suggestiveness. We’d read poems and then most of us would stare out the window wide-eyed and restless. I was madly in love of course, as I usually am in the spring. (Aren’t you?) Anyway, my professor, Colleen McElroy, told this story of when Roethke was teaching there (the last place he taught before his death), in that same classroom on the ground floor.
She described, how he looked out the window, saw the blossoms unfolding and said, “It’s spring.” He walked to the window, opened the metal frame, and simply slipped out, saying to his students, “And now I must write.” I want to do that today.
Now, Roethke suffered from a bipolar disorder, and was prone to breakdowns and manic episodes, so perhaps this was not unsual. But he was also known for being a wonderful teacher who inspired many others to do the same: David Wagoner, Carolyn Kizer, Richard Hugo and so on. I can’t help thinking there was an important lesson to his leaving the class that day. Take it. Seize it. Go.
I’m sure most of you who teach, who are wrapping up your classes, are feeling a bit the same way. Most likely your students are feeling it too. Maybe you’re buried in papers or perhaps you’re already done for the year, but I’m hoping you get the chance to slip out your window in some way soon. And for those of you who don’t teach, I hope you can do it too. Slip out the door of your non-profit, your magazine, your butcher shop. Or put down the horse hoof and find the pen, leave the baby with your mother for just one hour. Everybody’s got a window to walk out of, let’s do it. Right now, mine is seven floors up, so I’ll wait for the evening to escape.
I don’t know if that story of Roethke is true. I hope it is. I wonder what poem Roethke wrote when he left that day. Was it something from the Far Field (posthumously published by his wife in 1964), was it this?
Many arrivals make us live: the tree becoming
Green, a bird tipping the topmost bough,
A seed pushing itself beyond itself,
The mole making its way through darkest ground,
The worm, intrepid scholar of the soil—
Do these analogies perplex? A sky with clouds,
The motion of the moon, and waves at play,
A sea-wind pausing in a summer tree.
What does what it should do needs nothing more.
The body moves, though slowly, toward desire.
We come to something without knowing why.