The Poet As A Psychoanalyst Of His Own Past and His Own Sinful Innocence

A mind too active is no mind at all; the deep eye sees the shimmer of the stone…
Theodore Roethke

Pickle Belt

The fruit rolled by all day.
They prayed the cogs would creep;
They thought about Saturday pay,
And Sunday sleep.

Whatever he smelled was good:
The fruit and flesh smells mixed.
There beside him she stood,-
And he, perplexed.

He, in his shrunken britches,
Eyes rimmed with pickle dust,
Prickling with all the itches
Of sixteen-year-old lust.

Theodore Roethke

To those who were sixteen and who in later life are able to keep some contact with their memories, who haven’t shut them up to feel “stronger” than we need to be.

In “Pickle Belt,” Roethke draws on his experience at the Heinz pickle factory where he worked the summer he was sixteen. The poem is set in motion by the contrast between his adolescent urges and the monotony of the factory… In opposition to the conveyor belt Roethke asserts the processes of nature, “the fruit and flesh smell mixed.” The metaphoric phallus controls the poem. The phallic fruit – the pickle is squelched by the inverted phallus – the conveyor belt. The wonderful slant and buried rhyming of “britches,” “pickle,” “prickling,” and “itches,” reveal the poet in the throes of frustration in a world where nature’s urges and mechanized efficiency are irreconcilable.
Peter Balakian, “Theodore Roethke’s Far Fields: the Evolution of His Poetry”, 1989, p. 62 – 63

For humanistic approach to life psychology can sometimes take the place of philosophy. The poet forces the readers to confront the truth about their own adolescent and youthful desires and our as trivial as bizarre rituals of their satisfaction, the truth about our life together with our human nature, with its mystery and tyranny. The poem is based on Roethke’s own personal experience in an age when we all are tormented by our sexual impulses whose seductive “monstrosity“ we exaggerate because we don’t understand it and because we feel shame that we are condemned to our sexual despair while believing that other people are happy being “less sinful” than we are.

Following the symptomatic of our condition the poem emphasizes the difference between “them” and “me” – between regular people (here, the adult workers) and “him/ me” who interprets everything through the prism of his “obsession“ with sexual feelings. The first stanza is dedicated to “them”, the breed or race for which only work and rest from work exist – a typical narcissistic underestimation of the world of adults by teenagers thinking that only they are condemned and chosen to be engulfed by their sexuality. Roethke stylized this illusion into a form of the poem – “They thought about Saturday pay/And Sunday sleep”. Here he is cutting the meter in the same manner as he cuts it between the third and the fourth lines in the second stanza and… problematizes it in the transition from the third to fourth lines in the third one.

It is exactly where “they” (“ordinary” workers) only dream about prosaic sleep, the protagonist of the poem is “perplexed” in his proximity to the young girl while inhaling “the fruit and flesh smell mixed”. The rhythmic cut between the third and the fourth lines of the first (jokingly) and second (whole-heartedly) stanzas means, it seems, to emphasize the difference between flopped ejaculation (the first stanza – They thought about Saturday pay,/and Sunday sleep) and genuine one (the second one – There beside him she stood,-/And he, perplexed). Roethke’s comparison of three types of “illegal” sexual experiences, that codes the images of ejaculation/orgasm into metric metaphors is provocatively bold and intentionally challenging people’s Puritanism – just the sheer physical exhaustion (the first stanza), sublimated ejaculation (the second stanza) and full psychological climax, awkward and shy (the fourth line of the third stanza) when meter is shaky (Prickling with all the itches/Of sixteen-year-old lust).

How is the poet able to make the readers simultaneously embarrassed and redeemed? And, most of them will not even become aware of it because both feelings are left unconscious, and what is conscious is only a strange fixation on the poem and a feeling of cathartic relief while they experience Roethke’s art.

“Whatever he smelled was good” in the second stanza doesn’t mean that “everything” he smelled was good. The poetic use of language transforms “everything” into “whatever” (everything we can focus on becomes whatever we chose to focus on), transforms constatives into performatives, objective into subjective, intentions into facts, truth into truthful distortion as adaptation of truth to hungry, greedy and imaginative perception.

In the third stanza, Roethke doesn’t mean “prosaic lust”. He means lust as a poetic joke (he refers to a sixteen-year-old, when lust is just a probing, an attempt to discover, listening to the depth of the well, and “criminal“transgression we heroically meet with an open chest. “Eyes rimmed with pickle dust” is a lucid reference to the age of masturbation – somatically and emotionally stormy years, together with “Prickling with all the itches/of sixteen-year-old lust”. Pickle belt is, finally, a metaphor of a pickled body, body suffering from not being realized, body that has to postpone its existence. Memory and poetry transform human bodily desires into metaphysics of human body.

Theodore Roethke
Theodore Roethke as a teenager

Theodore Roethke, 1908-63