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.


The above is the first stanza of Theodore Roethke’s beloved if ambiguous poem “The Waking.” It is a poem studied in classrooms, where a student might work hard to extract a graspable meaning from those words and the ones that follow, many of them repetitions of the lines, “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow,” and “I learn by going where I have to go.”

Cover story: Poet and UW professor Theodore Roethke moved among mysteries — and literary legacy

But it can take a lifetime to really appreciate “The Waking” and Roethke’s meaning, though part of that meaning is in how the poem will always be shrouded in the kind of enigma one comes to accept and cope with late in life. 

A seasoned adult realizes we do wake to sleep, the everyday sleep of obliviousness; of persistent, gnawing doubt; of a suspicion there is something beyond the visible world that one could know, if only we knew how to see it.

Roethke’s answer to these things is: “I take my waking slow … I learn by going where I have to go.” Our journey is long. Let intuition and impulse be your guide through the adventure. Wake up, be here, as poet Tess Gallagher, interviewed for my cover story, describes as Roethke’s essential message to us.

Short of turning my life over to one or another off-the-rack spiritual discipline, I take this desultory but driven approach as pretty good advice.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to have spoken with several amazing people, experts on Roethke, for this story. When I started the research, I had no idea what roads to go down. But that’s the point of doing these things, of following my nose and going where I have to go.