With Language, Seeking Out the Sublime

Writer Thomas Pierce finds inspiration in the concise beauty of Theodore Roethke's notebooks.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

The writers’ published journal is a troubled genre: it’s a form that takes the private public, and forever embalms in-process drafts. And that’s exactly the appeal, says Thomas Pierce, author of Hall of Small Mammals. When I spoke to Pierce for this series, he explained his obsession with Straw for the Fire, a book that culls from several hundred notebooks the American poet Theodore Roethke filled in the last two decades of his life. For Pierce, the unguarded imperfection of Roethke’s private writing has been a revelation—perhaps more important to him, ultimately, than the finished poems are.

Hall of Small Mammals is, in part, a bestiary—several stories hinge upon interactions with (sometimes fantastical) members of the animals kingdom. A pygmy woolly mammoth, brought back from extinction Jurassic Park-style, reconnects a mother with her son; caged monkeys at the zoo bring out a young boy’s cruelty; a deformed possum’s skull seems to hex a harried couple. Ultimately, though, the mammal on display here is us—human beings—as Pierce pits our tendency towards smallness against our capacity for redemption and magic.

Thomas Pierce’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Oxford American, and The Atlantic. He’s a graduate of the University of Virginia’s MFA program in writing, and lives in Charlottesville. He spoke with me by phone.

Thomas Pierce: When you’re 18, you’re on the lookout for a Bible. It could be the Bible, though of course it doesn’t have to be—it can be anything you carry around, duck in and out of, turn to for wisdom or beauty. When I was a freshman in college, that book basically fell into my lap. It was a copy of Straw for the Fire, a collection of excerpts from Theodore Roethke’s notebooks, given to me by my professor.

He’d just gotten a hardback version, so he gave me his old paperback copy. It was an old edition from 1974—these days, it’s lying in about eight sections, tattered and completely falling apart. It has a very dated look—the price is printed directly on the cover. For the illustration, someone assembled scraps of gold and red paper to look like a roaring flame. To me it felt ancient somehow, though it’s really not that old, and that was part of the appeal.

We’d read one of Roethke’s poems in class—probably his famous poem "The Waking"—and I’d liked it, which was unusual for me. I would not call myself an expert on poetry, by any means. I’ve always been a little bit intimidated by "Poetry" with a capital "P." I’m definitely a prose person. But something about this book put me at ease. These pieces of writing are so informal, so accessible—in part, I think, because they were never intended for publication. Straw for the Fire was assembled by the poet David Wagoner, a student of Roethke’s. He sifted through the nearly 300 spiral notebooks his teacher filled between 1943 and 1963, and plucked out the best snippets. So it’s a book of aphorisms and half-thoughts, koans and fragments. It’s a look into someone’s head who doesn’t know you’re looking.

The book is divided into two parts—"Poetry" and "Prose"—though, really, there’s not much difference between the two. Wagoner grouped the fragments under different themed subheadings, like "Words for Young Writers"—one of several sections about teaching. The first thought from that section is:

Great teachers are not necessarily systematic thinkers. The very act of teaching is against us.

Or this one, which I love:

Today I'm going to lecture on confusion. I'm all for it.

Each fragment is just a short snatch of text—often, just a sentence or two. They’re tweet-sized, really. Many of them suggest Roethke would have excelled at Twitter, had he been alive now, such as:

I spend my life doing things I keep trying to forget.

There’s a great, appealing pithiness to that line—it’s beautifully phrased—and yet it’s complicated enough that after several readings you still feel you can explore it further. This happens again and again, in lines like:

May my silences become more accurate.


The curious eat themselves.


The things I steal from sleep are what I am.

Part of the fun here is that he doesn’t fully develop each thought, necessarily—he leaves that to you. The lines seem pregnant with significance, and yet their meanings are rarely straightforward or self-evident. They possess this enigmatic weight, this sense of mystery, which makes it easy to drop in, grab a line, and chew on it for a few days.

Part of this quality stems from the fact that we’re watching Roethke seeking to understand himself. He himself doesn’t quite yet know what he means, most of the time—instead, he’s laying out possibilities, testing things out. And he knows that, often, his language won’t be sufficient to capture the thing he wants to express. Roethke understands that possibility, too. "I broke my tongue on God," he writes—a line I love, in part, because it’s such a funny image. How can a tongue, physically, become broken? It’s such pliable organ. But there’s also a sense—the tongue as language, of course—that makes God synonymous with the inexpressible, the mysterious. Trying to describe some things, language becomes broken. Our tongues are inadequate to contend with something as big as God.

This is what writing is, so much of the time—searching for meaning, for clarity, through just the right combination of words. And this exploration tends to be the explicit subject of Straw for the Fire. Roethke’s interested in the degree to which, through writing and language, we can go after God—or whatever you want to call it, the sublime, the ineffable. I think he believes that, in finding the right words, you can begin to hint at things that were previously inexpressible.

"Only in language can the spirit yearn with dignity," he writes. It’s a beautiful thought, though part of me wonders if it’s really true. (I find the "only in" slightly troubling.) Who knows of Roethke himself even believes it—as always, he’s testing the waters, reaching for something, putting words down on the page to see if they stick. And yet look at the specific words he’s putting together: "language," "yearn," "the spirit," and "dignity." Clearly, he views the writing process as a kind of transcendent activity. I find that very appealing. Writers want to think that we’re doing something more than telling stories and writing words down on the page—that, at its best, the act itself is bound up with what it means to form a relationship with the universe and God. In the fiction I read, I look for this quality—the seeking, the "yearning," that Roethke describes. My favorite stories chase after broader questions about what it means to be alive, even though there’s no guarantee we’ll ever find any answers.

Of course, our sense of what’s meaningful is changing all the time, depending on where we are in life. I know I thought about these lines differently when I was 18 than I do now, and the ones I gravitate towards are surely different. Take a line like this one:

How are you this morning—the eternal question.

I probably would have glossed over this as a college student, but now it’s one of my favorites. First, it’s just funny. This is something you might ask someone across the breakfast table, eating Cheerios—so to call it "the eternal question" is hilarious and absurd. But it’s more than a joke. "How are you this morning": it can be like asking, "For what reason do you exist this morning?" Or even "who are you this morning?" Roethke transformed this very mundane question, reflexively and without thinking, into something important. It could be a whole new way of sitting down with your significant other in the morning: What do you think about your place in the world right now? And how has it changed since last night? It’s a great thought. It could be a way of living, if you wanted it to be. That’s one of my favorite things about these lines—they can be as mundane or significant as you want to make them.

So, Straw for the Fire is a book I became tied to. It’s a comfort to have it around and know it’s there. And it’s made me slightly less nervous about poetry. It’s taught me that, when I read a few lines from a poem, I don’t have to understand. I can just receive the language, let it alter me in some less expressible way. Each a line is a little machine, with an emotional function—and I can just admire the machine, without having to have a theory about how all its gears work. And that’s such a Roethke idea, after all. That’s the great line from "The Waking": "We think by feeling, what is there to know?" You can let a poem hit you like a piece of music. Let it work its magic.