Poem introduction

Everyone knows that America is a continent but few Europeans realize the various and diverse parts of this land. The Saginaw Valley where I was born had been great lumbering country in the 1880s. It is very fertile flat country in Michigan and the principal towns, Saginaw and Flint, lie at the northern edge of what is now the central industrial area for the United States. It was to this region that my grandfather came in 1870 from Prussia where he had been Bismarck's head forester. He and his sons started some greenhouses which became the most extensive in that part of America. It was a wonderful place for a child to grow up in and around - there were not only 25 acres in the town, mostly under glass and intensely cultivated, but farther out in the country was the last stand of virgin timber in the Saginaw Valley and elsewhere a wild area of cutover second growth timber which my father and uncle made into a small game preserve. As a child then, I had several worlds to live in which I felt were mine - one favourite place was a swampy corner of the game sanctuary where herons always nested. I put down one of my earliest memories in a poem about them.

The Heron

The Heron

The heron stands in water where the swamp
Has deepened to the blackness of a pool,
Or balances with one leg on a hump
Of marsh grass heaped above a musk-rat hole.

He walks the shallow with an antic grace.
The great feet break the ridges of the sand,
The long eye notes the minnow's hiding place.
His beak is quicker than a human hand.

He jerks a frog across his bony lip,
Then points his heavy bill above the wood.
The wide wings flap but once to lift him up.
A single ripple starts from where he stood

‘The Heron' © Theodore Roethke, from the Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (Faber, 1985), used by permission of the publishers, Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., and Faber & Faber Ltd. Recording by permission of the BBC.

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Books by Theodore Roethke