Penn State recently hosted a centenary celebration of the life and work of Theodroe Roethke, who had taught here for a period before his removal to the great Northwest. The celebration included student and faculty readings, a lecture on Roethke's Penn State years, a concert performance of settings of Roethke poems (including work by Ned Rorem) and a memorial reading by
David Wagoner, who had been among Roethke's students here. One surprise was the appearance in Wagoner's audience of another former student who had been in the same class for its weekly meetings in Room #201 more than a half century ago. Wagoner brought his usual quietly conversational work, but read primarily from things directly related to his relationship with Roethke, including passages from Roethke's extensive notebooks and a scene from a play Wagoner had written about Roethke as teacher.
I was asked to provide an introduction for Wagoner's appearance -- so here it is:
“Palindrome: Inside Out”
Cat loves mouse
(If death is romance)
And pat and pounce
Become pounce and pat
And romance is death
If mouse loves cat.
Perhaps an odd place to begin an introduction to David Wagoner, this small poem from his 1981 collection Landfall, a book most often cited for its powerful attention to the natural world, but in addition to foregrounding Wagoner’s mastery of form, and aside from the way in which this little lyric demonstrates just how, as one blurb writer has it, unsentimental is his view of the natural, who can deny that this is perhaps the best description we are likely to have any time soon of the chain of spectacular events marking the just-concluded presidential election campaign.
In fact, I was immediately reminded of this poem as I sat in an airport and watched a nearby television broadcast news of the nomination of Governor Palin. Like so many others in the lower 48, I had never heard of her before; like most lovers of poetry, I instinctively started looking for signs and wonders hidden in the letters of her name. The only anagrammatic amusement I could find there was the noun “lapin,” which didn’t seem to offer much ideological food for thought, though it does work with the cat and mouse play of Wagoner’s poem. Turning to my community of poet friends, I asked if anyone had a palindrome or a palinode that might offer solace in our economy of troubles. It was only then that I found the “Palindrome” web site, which turned out to be a fake Sarah Palin on-line diary.
Wagoner’s poem may be read allegorically, but it could never be read without laughter, and this is the too-little credited aspect of his work I wanted to begin by celebrating. Then too, it is something he shared with Theodore Roethke. On May 1, 1953, Roethke wrote from Italy to Arabel Porter, on the staff of New American Library publishers, concerning, among other projects, the selection of “Five American Poets” they planned to print in the next edition of New World Writing. “I take it that you want to run the poems from our group of first choices,” writes Roethke, then naming them: Kunitz, Roethke, Garrigue, Waggoner (which Roethke types with an extraneous “g”), Kallman. “Have these characters been informed about this,” he asks, as if he had not just listed himself among those “characters.” He proceeds to argue that he perhaps should not write an introductory note for the selection. “The fact that I’m in the group myself seems to inhibit me. Understand: I’ll do it, if you want. I’m just trying to be honest and, possibly even gentlemanly, for a change.”
Another trait Wagoner shares with Roethke, and indeed with their mutual precursor Wallace Stevens, is a characteristic wedding of wit and severe epistemology. It should be noted that Roethke was not always an admirer of Stevens. He once told another former student, James Wright, that he thought Stevens overrated. “I get so tired of Stevens’ doodling with a subject-matter–the same subject matter.” And yet where can we find a better illustration of Stevens’ ghostlier demarcations and keener sounds than Roethke’s own “The Light Comes Brighter”? That poem of Wagoner’s singled out by Roethke for inclusion in New World Writing soon reappeared in Wagoner’s 1958 A Place to Stand. Also found there is the still insistently contemporary and very Stevensian “The Man from the Top of the Mind.” Published eight years before Philp K. Dick was to ask readers if Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Wagoner’s poem anticipates the automaton of our own dreaming:
we will falter here
When the automaton pretends to dream
And turns in rage upon our horrible shapes–
Those nightmares, trailing shreds of his netherworld,
Who must be slaughtered backward into time.
So, admittedly an eccentric place from which to launch a hearing of David Wagoner, but perhaps Penn State, where he was in the ROTC and from which he graduated, I am told, in three years, might seem to some an eccentric launching pad for a poet so intimately identified with the NorthWest, who, indeed, edited Poetry Northwest for more than three decades. But Penn State, it seems, reaches everywhere, and while in Wagoner’s memory his first crossing of the Cascades was a “real change of consciousness,” it may well be that Happy Valley played a role in forming the consciousness that changed as it crossed yet another ridge.
Since his android dream, Wagoner has published by my count at least twenty-one additional volumes of poetry, including the most recent, A Map of the Night. He has authored ten novels, one of which, The Escape Artist, was made into a feature film by no less a producer than Francis Ford Coppola. Wagoner has won the Pushcart Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Ruth Lilly Award and the English-Speaking Union prize, among his many honors. He has served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. And he has not only been a prodigy as a student here, he has been on our faculty. I admit to a certain shock at the realization that a quarter of a century has now passed since I first saw him read his poetry at the Library of Congress. In those days, I could well have been the young poet of his “Ode to the Muse on Behalf of a Young Poet.” “Madam,” Wagoner begins, “he thinks you’ve become his lover. He doesn’t know you’re his landlady.”
Please join me in welcoming the return of one of Theodroe Roethke’s “characters,” one who is still beloved by the muse, David Wagoner.