My Toughest Mentor: Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams (1940-1948)

My Toughest Mentor: Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams (1940-1948)

My Toughest Mentor: Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams (1940-1948)

My Toughest Mentor: Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams (1940-1948)

Synopsis

This study recreates the discourse about poetry, spoken and unspoken, that lives in the letters of Williams and Roethke. The letters are arranged in sequence, with all of the complicated assessments, the insights, the blunders, and the innuendoes left in. Williams held an intricate, demanding standard for Roethke's work, and he was not above offering a few of his own controversial beliefs as part of the exchange.

Excerpt

Few poets achieve the continuity and direction of their major poems without some inner conflict, and many exorcise their uncertainty by developing a “reader” whose sense of the future they can trust. in modern poetry, the best-known example is T. S. Eliot’s showing a draft of The Waste Land to Ezra Pound, but we know that Yeats, Joyce, H. D., and William Carlos Williams also brought their work to Pound, who spoke for the next generation of critics in his notations. Williams once compared his first meeting with Pound to the difference between “B. C. and A. D.,” and he engaged in one of Pound’s many vocations by becoming a prolific commentator on the work of young poets, several of whom were just discovering a language they could claim as their own. Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov have spoken at length of Williams’s involvement with decisive changes in their work, but Williams offers a longer, more complicated, and interesting history than even their stories can measure. in the fall of 1957, when Robert Lowell was bringing such poems as “Skunk Hour” and “Memories of West Street and Lepke” closer to the immediacy of conversation, he wrote Williams a series of warm, personal letters, saying at the close of one: “I feel more and more technically indebted to you, growing young in my forties,” and Theodore Roethke, exploring the instinctive sources of his language during the years of World War ii, has left an important record of Williams’s discernment and support.

“You’re my toughest mentor,” Roethke wrote in a letter to Williams on November 11, 1942, two years after their first meeting. Although he meant it as a compliment, Roethke was clearly summarizing his relationship with Williams and involving himself further in the long process of self-criticism and growth. During those years, Roethke had managed to convert almost everyone to . . .

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