Tuesday, August 17, 2021

My Mantra for the past 40 years: The Influence of Roethke's The Waking:

by Michael Bridges

I thought I would close these musings on poetry and the journey of life with a poem that I first read when I was nineteen years old and in the very early days of leaving home and trying to find my own inner, guiding voice. When I first came across The Waking, I had no idea what a villanelle was. But I do remember that the repeating rhymes and refrains were both powerful and soothing. And while I was aware from my readings in philosophy and psychology that an awareness of my own mortality was important, exactly why that was important was an abstract concept that eluded me. Still, I was aware even as a young man, that the sleep that Roethke was referring to, was that bigger sleep that waits for all of us at the end of our journey. But without giving too much away, I’ll let you read and experience Roethke’s wonderful work before sharing more about how much The Waking has influenced my life.


The Waking

by Theodore Roethke


I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.  

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.  

I learn by going where I have to go.


We think by feeling. What is there to know?  

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.  

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.


Of those so close beside me, which are you?  

God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,  

And learn by going where I have to go.


Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?  

The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;  

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.


Great Nature has another thing to do  

To you and me; so take the lively air,  

And, lovely, learn by going where to go.


This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.  

What falls away is always. And is near.  

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.  

I learn by going where I have to go.

My love for The Waking has only deepened over the years and has actually inspired my own poetic attempt at a morning, spiritual practice for several years now. I take Roethke’s advice to “…take my waking slow” literally. I try to always make sure I wake with at least an hour to continue waking slowly. The most hurry I display after I first wake is to get my first cup of coffee. (I’m very sure that Roethke neglected to mention coffee only because it through off the rigid rhyming requirements of the villanelle.) After I fill my cup, I immediately return to my bed where I sit, sip coffee, and give myself time to notice things like fragments of dreams, the way the light comes through my bedroom window, how the light changes with the seasons and the weather. I also notice the way the just waking, “To Do List” managers of my mind start planning our day. But my internal managers and I have reached an understanding, and I remind them this is still the time for poetry and reflection.

As I continue to sip my coffee and take my waking slow, I reach for one of the books or anthologies of poetry that I keep nearby and sometimes scan the table of contents for inspiration, or occasionally just randomly flip through until a particular title or line calls out. Then I read the poem aloud. I’ve noticed over time that certain poems that move me when I read then silently, will bring tears to my eyes when I read them aloud. Occasionally, I will be inspired to pick up my journal and attempt a poem of my own. And, while I am very aware that I lack both the talent and discipline of the poets I’ve shared thus far, I will close with one of my poems that, I hope, in a small way conveys how much poetry has influenced by experience of the journey of my life.

How Did I Get Here? What Have I Learned?

by Michael R. Bridges


I’m grateful I’m learning

To look back on all my

Bumbling, misguided failures

And see them as difficult,

Steep, rocky, dark, and

Muddy trails that still

Led me to the same

Spacious vista

I was hoping for.


Out of breath,

But each exhale

A silent, ragged



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