The oft-anthologized “My Papa’s Waltz” is what most college students know of the poet Theodore Roethke. But my favorite poem of his is “Dolor” (meaning “suffering” or “anguish”). I read somewhere that Roethke emphasized to his students the importance of the poem’s first line. The effect of a promising first line can be seen in “Dolor”: I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils. It starts out so plain….I have known….nothing pretentious about it. Until the word: inexorable. What a great word. How often do we get to use anything like it without sounding like we went crazy using Word’s Synonym feature. But check it out. I have known the inexorable sadness…. Such a heavy sounding line. Inexorable sadness. How abstract. How over the top. But then the zinger: of pencils… Pencils? It undercuts everything. Takes the heaviness of the emotion and lands it in a common object, a common concrete object. Then the poem takes off, weaving through the concrete and abstract, the surface level and the deep, the obvious and the insightful, until we land in the “standard faces.” It’s just a beautiful poem. Thirteen lines of genius.
I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper weight,
All the misery of manilla 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.