I spent last evening reading Theodore Roethke. So here’s a gift. “I Knew a Woman” is perhaps the most famous of his poems, but the best poems are like your dearest friends—if they show up unexpectedly, it’s always worthwhile to stop what you’re doing and spend time with them.
Roethke lived from 1908-1963. If you watch this old (and rather longish) video documentary—which he was probably unaware would constitute a testament at the end of his life—you’ll find him well-meaning but trapped in appearances: it’s the early 1960s; he’s plain and balding, middle-aged, Midwestern, coat-and-tied, a white-guy English professor. Don’t be fooled. He’s an immortal poet. The lives of poets like Roethke are like the bush that burns and is not consumed.
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“I Knew a Woman” concludes with a stanza that I think comes as close to an appreciation of love and sex as a poem can come.
I KNEW A WOMAN
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in a chorus, cheek to cheek).
How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).
Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant notes to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).
Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).