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Dolor -- Theodore Roethke

(Poem #1075) Dolor
 I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
 Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper-weight,
 All the misery of manila folders and mucilage,
 Desolation in immaculate public places,
 Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
 The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
 Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
 Endless duplication of lives and objects.
 And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
 Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
 Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
 Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
 Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.
-- Theodore Roethke

The first time I read this poem [1] I misinterpreted it as being just
another rant (albeit a rather good one) against the increasing mechanization
of modern society, and the concomitant death of craftsmanship and
individuality. Certainly that is one of Roethke's points, and it's not one I
disagree with. But the poet has a subtler message as well: that the
insidious spread of uniformity across _things_ has a deleterious effect on
_people_. It's easier to put a human being in a box when there are other
boxes all around; easier to contain thought when the world seems merely a
container for other objects. All neatly labeled and categorized and indexed,
in inexorable, desolate order.

[1] Ermm, let's be honest. It was all of five minutes ago :)


Notice how Roethke, like Whitman in "When I heard the Learn'd Astronomer"
(Minstrels Poem #54), uses long and decidedly unpoetic words in clunky,
choppy phrases to convey the stultifying effect of mechanical repetition and
duplication. Unlike the Whitman poem, however, there is no final easing up,
and so "Dolor" feels somewhat heavy-handed... On the other hand, "long
afternoons of tedium" could very well have been the inspiration for a phrase
we all know and love, so who am I to complain? :)


[Minstrels Links]

Poet #Roethke
Poet #Whitman


While I agree with the overall thrust of Roethke's poem, on further
reflection I must take exception to the first couple of lines: I happen to
_like_ the easy weight of sharp new pencils, the smell and texture of fresh
sheets of paper. They always make me feel creative :)

40 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Soques Kimbol said...

You say _you_ always like new pencils and blank paper :), but when I've had
on my writer-hat and hit a block sometimes the unused-ness point its fingers
at me. Pencils should be scattered across a desk, some blunt, some with
broken tips -- not forever sitting in a box.

What struck me about the poem was its sterility -- in fact, when I started
writing this comment I wrote "a block or a stale place" ... and then I
started thinking of waiting in government offices ;) .


Kathy Butler said...

When I first read this poem in high school, it tipped me off that I was not going to like being a secretary. But it payed my way through college, so a secretary I was--for too long. Roethke evocatively recreates the mood inside the mind of a thoroughly frustrated secretary--me!

sildenafil said...

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