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Journey Into the Interior, Theodore Roethke

January 29, 2015

As we all do sometimes, I’m trying to get my assignment in at the last minute. Last year I asked about poems that you would like to see discussed, and Jenny suggested “Journey Into the Interior” by Theodore Roethke. Although I read it right away, it took me this long to think about it and feel like I had anything interesting to say.

At first I didn’t quite know what to make of the first line. Is this a journey out of the self in the sense that the speaker is trying to become less self-involved, see more of other peoples’ points of view? If so, there’s a paradox, as the harder he tries to journey “out of the self,” the farther in he goes, “path narrowing.” That reading kind of worked for me with the connotation of the title–the image of the explorer setting out to find a lost westerner and ending up in the Heart of Darkness.

But that’s not the way to read the poem literally. It’s a poem about a car trip. What kind of long journey do people make “out of the self”? We journey from birth to death. Now the poem is easy to interpret—we have places where it’s harder to drive, and some of them (“the back wheels hang almost over the edge”) make us more aware of how precarious life is. Then we get cautious. Eventually, though, no matter how careful we are, either we’re swept away by a flood or the path gets narrower and we find “the way blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree.” At the end of the journey is death.

In the long journey out of the self,
There are many detours, washed-out interrupted raw places
Where the shale slides dangerously
And the back wheels hang almost over the edge
At the sudden veering, the moment of turning.
Better to hug close, wary of rubble and falling stones.
The arroyo cracking the road, the wind-bitten buttes, the canyons,
Creeks swollen in midsummer from the flash-flood roaring into the narrow valley.
Reeds beaten flat by wind and rain,
Grey from the long winter, burnt at the base in late summer.
–Or the path narrowing,
Winding upward toward the stream with its sharp stones,
The upland of alder and birchtrees,
Through the swamp alive with quicksand,
The way blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree,
The thickets darkening,
The ravines ugly.

The ravines still appear “ugly” because we’re still looking at them from the vantage-point of this world, with our darkening sight. There is no other road, no more alternate scenery. We set out to journey into the interior of the continent, exploring, but no matter how many exciting escapes we have, the end of all our exploration is the “journey out of the self” of our bodies.

I remember my father, in his seventies, telling me he sometimes wondered about “that old man in the mirror” because the image didn’t look like what he still thought of as his self. I think of my mother now, taking a step with a cane for support. I rub my sore elbow and pet the frail back of my almost-sixteen-year-old cat, feeling each vertebrae through his fur, and think about how far we’ve come.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2015 1:19 pm

    Gosh — so perilous! I am glad he got out of the car, though.

    • February 1, 2015 4:02 pm

      Where do you see him getting out of the car? I see the car swept away in the flood, or getting through the quicksand only to be blocked by the tree. Maybe he swims out the window or makes it another few feet through the thicket on foot?

  2. January 29, 2015 2:51 pm

    This was lovely. Really wonderful analysis!

  3. January 29, 2015 3:35 pm

    I enjoyed your analysis, and thought your point of view was interesting. I have to say, though, for me, the concept of the journey “out of self” being one away from self-absorption also works well: it gets harder, not easier, as we age, l think, and it seems like we do hit ugly dead ends. The poem opened up for me personally when l looked at it that way; and l guess that’s the thrill of a work of art: it can be a mirror that reflects whoever gazes into it.

    • February 1, 2015 4:00 pm

      I see no reason why it can’t be both a journey toward death and a journey away from self-absorption. In fact, that reading works particularly well, now that I think about it, because the moment of being out of the self–death–comes when there’s no more change. Some people hit dead ends in that they get more and more self-absorbed as they get older. I think that’s a good description of “curmudgeonliness.” Other people keep looking for new paths until they die. Either way, they’ve stopped looking for new views.

  4. Jenny permalink
    February 9, 2015 3:07 pm

    Thank you for this, Jeanne (and my answer to your email is still arriving.) I’ve been reading Cavafy, lately, and maybe we can set this journey next to Roethke’s:

    As you set out on the way to Ithaca
    hope that the road is a long one,
    filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
    The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
    Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
    you’ll never come across them on your way
    as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
    emotion touches your spirit and your body.
    The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
    savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
    unless you carry them within your soul,
    unless your soul sets them up before you.

    Hope that the road is a long one.
    Many may the summer mornings be
    when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
    you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
    may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
    and there acquire fine goods:
    mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
    and heady perfumes of every kind:
    as many heady perfumes as you can.
    To many Egyptian cities may you go
    so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

    Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
    to reach her is your destiny.
    But do not rush your journey in the least.
    Better that it last for many years;
    that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
    rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
    not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

    Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
    without her you’d not have set upon the road.
    But she has nothing left to give you any more.

    And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
    As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
    you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.

    • February 10, 2015 1:12 pm

      I like the line “many may the summer mornings be.”

  5. November 1, 2016 5:31 pm

    UM NO, Children of the Corn. THIS IS FAR from the entire poem OH MY GOD

  6. November 1, 2016 5:35 pm

    Honestly. THERE IS SO MUCH MORE to Roethke’s poem than what is here. Holy Crap, my head is gonna EXPLODE.

    • November 1, 2016 8:22 pm

      You are welcome to give an explication of Roethke’s poem if you like, here in the comments. I didn’t claim to be revealing its entire meaning; that is not the purpose of this personal format.

  7. November 1, 2016 5:36 pm

    Yay Jenny. Cool cool. (Jenny? are you a professor? Double YAY)

  8. poetg65 permalink
    November 2, 2016 12:13 pm

    Good good fine whatever. You do you. Nancy’s thing is cool. YOU are cool, doll. I was looking for the ENTIRE poem, and got FREAKED that it appears.. .in WAY too many places, it seems.. in a fragment. I knee-jerked reacted, because the Internet… tends to make me… exasperated/crazy, in terms of what it… divvys out to everyone– (that’s NOT the entire poem,was my only point.) I didn’t even READ most of what everyone said. Also? Whatever. I’m… NOT arguing with you. You are entitled to think any way you want, but so am I. (I think… you’re wrong, but YAY for scholarly discourse. 😉 ) Guess what? people MAY be ‘curmudgeonly’ because… A SHIT TON of SHIT has happened to them, and.. what the f ever. Who cares? It’s most DEF no one’s business… Can we agree that… Roethke’s poetry is… gorgeous? The LANGUAGE is gorgeous? Jeeesus, dude.

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