How do we understand?

by Paul Maharg on 06/04/2008

The Waking

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 learning by going where I have to go.

Theodore Roethke, ‘The Waking’, The Collected Poems of Theodore
, Doubleday & Co, 1966, originally published in The Waking,

Slow down the process of understanding it, and you will begin to
realise that the poem is about the process of understanding, or rather
about process and understanding.  The form encourages this.  It is a
villanelle, written with ryme royale – a notoriously difficult form in
which to shape meaning.  The words assume a bell-like resonance
throughout, not just because of the repetition and rhymes, but because
the syntax is deceptively simple.  The result is close to Polanyi’s
sense of ‘indwelling’, and in musical terms the form of the ground and

What Roethke gives us are variations on a theme of understanding: ‘I
learn by going where I have to go’.  The poem celebrates the
experiential quality of understanding, and the holistic nature of
thinking – ‘We think by feeling.  What is there to know?’  Knowing is
not simply a mental procedure, nor things contained in the black box of
mind, but is a process of taking account of our full self experience –
‘learn by going where to go’.  This is not simply learning by doing.
It is also learning by feeling, sensing, being aware in many different
ways, in listening, in quietude, in being lively.  There is a sense in
which a scientific theory of light can explain how we come to see as we
do, but there is more to the actual sensing of a tree than the theory
of neurology, optics and light can tell us.  Nor can it be subsumed
under the psychology of seeing.  There is more to the act of
observation than the sum of parts; and that there is such
consciousness, such observation at all is in itself an act worthy of
celebration.  The absence of the observational act, or at least the
possibility of the absence, is always there, and this poem sets out
poles within which it swings: life and death in the penultimate stanza,
the poet and others in stanza three, waking and sleeping. 

‘Poles’ may be precisely the wrong word to use: they are not rigid
opposites, and the poet, precisely because of his attitude of careful
sensing, can move between and through them in the poem.  It is the
being mortal that helps him to come to terms with mortality, and
produces, in the final stanza, a paradox that expresses this sense of
    ‘This shaking keeps me steady.  I should know.’ 
    What falls away is always.  And is near.’
The syntax mirrors the statements subtly in each line, and draws it
into the realm of the personal, where the poem dwells.  The ‘shaking’
is illness, mortal being, but it is also writing, the act of creation,
and it is this that enables the poet to communicate his sense of
creation, of being.  The very mortality of existence is an essence, and
is always personal, always near.  We learn, not by extracting or
abstracting ourselves from learning or experience, but by experiencing;
and in many different ways the poem expresses this theme by varying
it.  Knowing and feeling become different modes of experiential
awareness.  Throughout, though, there is a sense of intention.  Stanza
five ends with the writer appealing to the beloved to ‘learn by going
where to go’.  The writer himself in the final stanza ‘learn[s] by
going where I have to go’.  There is a place where he needs to go, and
things he needs to understand, and his sense of the complexity of the
process is in itself a mode of understanding.  In the poem, he holds it
equivalent to the creative time between sleeping and waking, a state
neither one nor the other, not quite full consiousness nor dreamtime,
in which he can appreciate and understand both. 

The dreaminess of the poem, with its syntax and repetitions, gives us
the sense of this.  It is a poem about a coming to understand, about
understanding, and one of the primal forms of understanding that we all
have and experience every day when we move from sleeping to waking and
back again.  The threshold quality of the experience is vital: neither
asleep nor awake; neither himself nor others; things in essence, as in
first light, without the details of parts and relationships and
hierarchies of parts to wholes: just the Ground, or a Tree.  The visual
sense is deliberately starved, and we are forced to think through
hearing  (the poem itself), and hearing, in the second stanza, a
‘dance’.  There is only one causal connection in the poem, in the carpe
diem statement of the penultimate stanza.  For the rest, statement and
question move the poem forwards.  Or rather, move it in a circular
form, like a dance.

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