Reading: The Reckoning by Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), a sickly boy who transformed into a bear of a man with father issues, was according to many critics the greatest of the American poets. While browsing a collection of his poetry on the Internet, I stumbled upon a poem about reckoning. I understand from his biography that he sought for redemption or some way to find closure with his father, who died of cancer when Ted was fourteen. The reckoning in this poem is political:

The Reckoning
All profits disappear: the gain
Of ease, the hoarded, secret sum;
And now grim digits of old pain
Return to litter up our home.

We hunt the cause of ruin, add,
Subtract, and put ourselves in pawn;
For all our scratching on the pad,
We cannot trace the error down.

What we are seeking is a fare
One way, a chance to be secure:
The lack that keeps us what we are,
The penny that usurps the poor.

The vanity of accumulation is a common theme in poetry. I like to approach it with rhyme and humor like here. This reminds me of Bertold Brecht (I would have expected a verse with penny or pence, and hence…). Grim digits of old pain are that the numbers in the books that ‘litter up’ the home like the home of a real pathological 21th century hoarder is littered up with stacks of newspaper or piles of assorted junk.

The next step is of course borrowing at a pawn shop (or taking a second mortgage perhaps? This poem is prescient of the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis). The error cannot be traced down: The failure is systemic. I’ve heard economists like Krugman or Stiglitz say the same thing…

A fare here means subsistence if I’m not mistaken. Being secure means just to be able to live and eat in your house – even if it means remaining in debt bondage. ‘We’ are seeking security by succumbing to usury, by buying into ‘the lack that keeps us who we are’, by always being in debt with the shadow of your creditor looming over you, extracting any possible surplus that you may produce.

So, I read this as a strongly anti-capitalist poem of revolt. What do you think about that interpretation?

One thought on “Reading: The Reckoning by Theodore Roethke

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *