THE CONTINUING CONVERSATION: texts & commentaries / “Carnations” by Roethke


Pale blossoms, each balanced on a single jointed stem,/
And leaves curled back in elaborate Corinthian scrolls;/
And the air cool, as if drifting down from wet hemlocks,/
Or rising out of ferns not far from water,/
A crisp hyacinthine coolness,/
Like that clear autumnal weather of eternity,/
The windless perpetual morning above a September cloud.

“A Book of Luminous Things,” ed. Milosz, p. 33.

CONTEXT From Milosz’s headnote: “… a poet likes to nail down something that is proper only to a given thing….Though we are not certain that he succeeds, because a carnation does not mean the same thing to each one of us.”

CONTEXT Wittgenstein: “Would it be correct to say our concepts reflect our life?
They stand in the middle of it.” Quoted in Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein (1997), p. 134.

COMMENTARY We have noted that lyrics very often begin by describing something objectively. Then the lyric proceeds to explore the equivocity of the language we use to describe the thing, then it gets hooked into a wider dialectic embracing more contexts until verging on empty silence. At this point (metaxyturn!), the lyric opens to a new register, the image having been loosened from personal experience, the voice of the poet giving way to the voice of the poem.

This “narrative” is WHY I love short poems. Larger genres have the “same” narrative but being larger they are not so appealing to me. Milosz was a connoisseur of the short poem; his anthology is a conversation between short poems and problems that haunt literary experience.

“Carnations” by Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) is included in Milosz’s anthology “A Book of Luminous Things” (1996) in the Nature section. M’s headnote suggests a critical issue that may undermine your enjoyment of the poem and indeed its “luminosity.” Wittgenstein’s comment jumpstarts a consideration of the wider issue. What does the poem have to say about all this, if anything?

Some readers stick to their guns: the poem doesn’t “say” anything, it’s about a carnation!

A closer look will reveal the poem as an event unfolding in “time,” a sequence of “moves” that I call the lyric narrative (as opposed say to “Biblical narrative”). Roethke knew his flowers and the first line embodies the ethos of lyric description: a sense of exactness that approaches the scientific ideal of univocity: just THIS carnation, there you have IT! Not the word but the thing itself!

The language itself however edges into the foreground with “Corinthian scrolls”: how clever of the poet! The poem returns to what looks like realistic description in the third line, but THIS particular carnation gives way to a mood of wetness and coolness. I call this the dialectical stage of the poem as it spirals outward/inward to foreground what Wittgenstein’s quote points out, the concepts in the midst.

Roethke reaches the limit of the concept, it would seem, with the double image “hyacinthine coolness” and the simile. The “weather of eternity” becomes the new focus of the poem. The concept in the midst emerges finally and free of any context limiting it to experience. The construction of a double image becomes the living tip of the poem. Windless perpetual morning ABOVE a September cloud. The holism of the almost surreal image—-the tension between eternity and the September index—-is eloquent, perhaps sublime.

Thus this little poem becomes big in our imagination. As Milosz’s note about the individual’s take on a given carnation suggests, the poem may not “succeed.” By success Milosz refers to his criterion of luminosity. Does the poem “wobble,” to borrow Pound’s term? Or does it have the irregular glow of the natural pearl?

But perhaps the concepts in the midst of it fight, do not cohere, clog what Desmond calls the porosity? Milosz’s luminosity depends on the immanence of the singular thing not being at odds with the emergence of the poem’s voice, which, in a sense, transcends the poet’s. The poet’s voice, having explored the world of the poem, yields to a larger voice, an other voice. Roethke’s poem certainly “works” that way, even if it doesn’t “finally” work, doesn’t, in Milosz’s editorial voice, “succeed.”

One not-final note: The issue may be the issue that is captured in the Wittgenstein quote. The conversation between poetry and philosophy continues.


Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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