“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.”

A few weeks ago I shared a poem with you here called “I Knew a Woman,” by Theodore Roethke.  I seem to be in my Roethke period.  Whenever I read someone who says, better than I ever could, what I know in my heart, I feel blessed and supremely happy.

So today, his poem called “The Waking,” which captures—in the nineteen lines of a villanelle—that bright moment when you apprehend yourself, alive in the world.

This is a poem that, as the English professors like to say, “challenges interpretation.”  But “The Waking” is like a flame.  As with many another fine poem, the more wind you create while trying to explain it, the likelier you are just to blow it out.  I think I know what Roethke is saying and I can tell you in a paragraph.  But first, “The Waking”:

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

I should just let you reread that wonderful poem on your own, no?  But you know me better than that.  Here’s what I think it means:

“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow”– We are born into life only to die.  But being born is a kind of waking, and I’ll go slowly so as to savor it, dancing in my head, keeping my eyes open.  My heart will do the thinking.  After all, we can’t “know” anything—certainly not in advance.  Yet while we’re alive—you and I, both of us—we can “take the lively air, / And, lovely, learn by going where to go.”  Where we find ourselves, in other words, is how we find ourselves.  Even “the lowly worm climbs up a winding stair,” and we can do the same—alive, joyously waking all the while, knowing that we are part of something that doesn’t really ever end.  So, while I’m here, let me, reverently, say this:  “God bless the ground!  I shall walk softly there.”

Was the moment ever better captured than in “The Waking”?–that particular moment in which you catch yourself in the mirror and suddenly–unbelievably–there you are? “Here I am!  This is me!” There is much, much more to “The Waking,” but this a lot.

It’s possible that if Theodore Roethke were here, he’d tell me that’s not what he meant at all.  But I trust myself on this one.  I think I know him.

Your bonus today is a selection of three videos.  I want you to watch the first one especially.  It adds to Roethke’s recitation of “The Waking” a combination of music and animation to startling, urgent effect.  You can also hear a same recitation by Roethke in the second video, made back in the early 60s when he was still alive.  It’s probably more his speed.  The third surprised me:  a musical interpretation by jazz vocalist Kurt Elling.

More Roethke’s on its way here in two or three weeks.  Be prepared.  Resistance is futile.

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9 Responses to “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.”

  1. A thoughtful post.

  2. Well done, and interesting. I learn a lot from your insightful posts, Kaze.

    Poetry that rhymes and closely follows a meter is very enjoyable to me. Seeing each line click into place like the parts of a fine watch is very satisfying. Free verse used to feel like “cheating” to me, until I read Ars Poetica in high school, explained by a good teacher, and began to “get it”.

    Thanks for the guidance on a poem that I don’t think I would “get” on first reading. I would probably turn the page and move on because I didn’t grasp the deep ideas on first reading.

    Perhaps that is just another subform of poetry: verse that goes so far in using the words in a meaning so personal to the author that the reader must guess, and fit the words to his own interpretation.

    • All our interpretations are “our” interpretations, Glenn. If you could solve a poem like an equation, it wouldn’t remain alive to us, which the best ones do. Thanks as always for the kind words.

      • Kaze,

        There, I have learned something important about poetry. I always thought the poet had specific ideas she or he wanted to communicate to us. But here you are saying Roethke has chosen to provide, instead, a “cloud of open possibilities”, so to speak, where the reader is expected build their own poem meaning on the “framework” provided.

        Perhaps the hallmark of this kind of intent from the poet is when their language is ambiguous and non-specific.?

        • Glenn, I think every responsible poet has an intent and tries to make the poem reflect it. But a poem isn’t prose. Poets want to create poetry for the very reason that there’s more in the vessel than just the water. All readers bring their own sensibility to everything they read, but good poems give them even more to work with. One famous American poet once said, “A poem should not mean, but be.” I’m not sure I agree with that 100% but I do believe there’s more to a poem than just a meaning.

  3. Thanks for sharing this superb poem.

  4. How I love your Roethke mood, Kaze, and how true: ‘All our interpretations are “our” interpretations’. I agree with you and think that Mr. Roethke would agree with your interpretation of this poem.
    Thank you for the videos. It’s so good to be able to see and hear him read his own work, isn’t it? The magic of modern technology: they are gone, but their work is still there and on the screen we can bring them back to life for a few minutes.

  5. Roethke and Elling, just saw that tonight, Roethke was my favorite poet -30 years ago – so good to see him resurface, like a deep old friend and a whisper of beautiful language, pointing to the transcendent, kind of, sort of, maybe just short of radical awakening..

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