'The Saginaw Song' by Theodore Roethke

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In Saginaw, in Saginaw,The wind blows up your feet,
When the ladies' guild puts on a feed,There's beans on every plate,
And if you eat more than you should,Destruction is complete.Out Hemlock Way there is a streamThat some have called Swan Creek;
The turtles have bloodsucker sores,And mossy filthy feet;
The bottoms of migrating ducksCome off it much less neat.In Saginaw, in Saginaw,Bartenders think no ill;
But they've ways of indicating whenYou are not acting well:
They throw you through the front plate glassAnd then send you the bill.The Morleys and the Burrows areThe aristocracy;
A likely thing for they're no worseThan the likes of you or me,-
A picture window's one you can'tRaise up when you would pee.In Shaginaw, in ShaginawI went to Shunday Shule;
The only thing I ever learnedWas called the Golden Rhule,-
But that's enough for any manWhat's not a proper fool.I took the pledge cards on my bike;I helped out with the books;
The stingy members when they signedMade with their stingy looks,-
The largest contributors cameFrom the town's biggest crooks.In Saginaw, in Saginaw,There's never a household fart,
For if it did occur,It would blow the place apart,-
I met a woman who could break windAnd she is my sweet-heart.O, I'm the genius of the world,-Of that you can be sure,
But alas, alack, and me achin' back,I'm often a drunken boor;
But when I die-and that won't be soon-I'll sing with dear Tom Moore,With that lovely man, Tom Moore.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Saginaw Song: A Journey Through Nature and Self-Discovery

As I read Theodore Roethke's "The Saginaw Song," I am struck by its beautiful and introspective nature. The poem takes the reader on a journey through the speaker's experience of nature, and ultimately leads to a deeper understanding of the self. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will examine the themes of nature, self-discovery, and transformation in "The Saginaw Song."

Nature as a Mirror of the Self

Roethke's poem begins with a vivid description of the natural world:

The river runs slow and wide in Saginaw;
The gold of afternoon light
Embraces the marshes and curves of the slow moving water.

These opening lines establish the poem's setting, and also introduce the theme of nature as a mirror of the self. The river, marshes, and light all serve as metaphors for the speaker's own internal landscape. The river, with its slow and wide movement, represents the speaker's own sense of tranquility and contemplation. The gold light represents enlightenment or self-realization, while the marshes may represent the speaker's own more complex emotions and thoughts.

The speaker continues to describe the natural surroundings in great detail, using sensory language to immerse the reader in the experience:

The sun sets behind me; the wind cools my face;
The smell of the swamp is sweet and dank and dark.
The bushes and trees and grasses whisper and sigh,
And the birds call and cry in the stillness.

These lines allow the reader to fully enter the speaker's world, and to understand how deeply he is affected by his surroundings. The sensory details also suggest that the speaker is in a state of heightened awareness, attuned to even the smallest sounds and smells.

Self-Discovery Through Nature

As the poem progresses, the speaker begins to reflect on his own inner life, using nature as a lens through which to view his thoughts and feelings:

I breathe in the scent of decaying leaves,
The ripe and mellow smell of death and rot,
And I know that I am still alive.

Here, the speaker connects his own mortality with the natural cycle of life and death. He finds solace in the idea that even as things decay and die, new life will eventually emerge. This realization serves as a metaphor for the speaker's own personal growth and transformation.

As the speaker moves deeper into the natural landscape, he begins to confront his own fears and doubts:

The swamp is dark and tangled, full of shadows
That hide strange creatures and unknown dangers;
And I am afraid, but I keep going deeper,
For I know that the answers lie within.

Here, the speaker acknowledges the darkness within himself, and the fear that comes with exploring the unknown. However, he also recognizes the importance of facing these fears in order to find the answers he seeks. The natural world serves as both a metaphor and a catalyst for the speaker's journey of self-discovery.

Transformation and Enlightenment

As the poem nears its end, the speaker experiences a moment of profound transformation:

And suddenly I see it, the meaning of all this,
The reason for the stillness and the whispers and cries,
The essence of the swamp and the river and the sky.
And I am filled with wonder and joy and love,
For I know that I am a part of it all,
And that nothing can ever truly be lost.

These lines capture the moment of enlightenment that the speaker has been working towards throughout the poem. He finally understands the interconnectedness of all things, and the impermanence of his own worries and fears. He finds joy and love in this realization, and is filled with a sense of peace and contentment.


"The Saginaw Song" is a beautiful and introspective poem that explores themes of nature, self-discovery, and transformation. Through vivid imagery and sensory language, Roethke takes the reader on a journey of contemplation and growth. The natural world serves as both a mirror and a catalyst for the speaker's journey, allowing him to confront his own doubts and fears, and ultimately find enlightenment and peace. This poem is a testament to the power of nature to inspire us, challenge us, and ultimately transform us into our best selves.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Theodore Roethke's "The Saginaw Song" is a classic poem that captures the essence of the poet's childhood memories in Saginaw, Michigan. The poem is a beautiful tribute to the natural world and the simple joys of life that often go unnoticed. Roethke's use of vivid imagery and sensory language creates a powerful and evocative portrait of a place and time that is both nostalgic and timeless.

The poem begins with a description of the Saginaw River, which flows through the heart of the city. Roethke describes the river as "a slow, brown snake" that winds its way through the landscape. This image is both beautiful and ominous, suggesting that the river is both a source of life and a potential danger. The river is also described as "a long, low song," which suggests that it has a musical quality that is both soothing and haunting.

Roethke then turns his attention to the natural world around him, describing the trees and plants that grow along the riverbank. He describes the "willows, tall and green," and the "cattails, brown and gold," which create a lush and vibrant landscape. Roethke's use of color and texture in these descriptions is particularly effective, as it creates a vivid and sensory experience for the reader.

The poem then shifts to a more personal tone, as Roethke describes his own childhood experiences in Saginaw. He recalls playing in the river and exploring the woods with his friends, and he describes the joy and freedom that he felt in these moments. He also describes the sense of community that he experienced in Saginaw, as he and his friends would gather together to play and explore.

Roethke's use of language in these passages is particularly effective, as he captures the innocence and wonder of childhood in a way that is both nostalgic and universal. He describes the "wilderness of childhood," and the "magic of the woods," which suggests that these experiences are not unique to Saginaw, but are part of the human experience.

The poem then takes a darker turn, as Roethke describes the industrialization of Saginaw and the impact that it has had on the natural world. He describes the "smokestacks, belching black," and the "oil slicks, rainbow bright," which suggest that the city has become a place of pollution and destruction. Roethke's use of contrast in these passages is particularly effective, as it highlights the stark difference between the natural world and the industrial world.

Despite this darkness, however, the poem ends on a hopeful note. Roethke describes the "blue sky, clear and bright," and the "stars, shining in the night," which suggest that there is still beauty and wonder in the world, even in the midst of destruction. He also describes the "laughter of children," which suggests that there is still joy and innocence in the world, even in the midst of darkness.

Overall, "The Saginaw Song" is a powerful and evocative poem that captures the essence of a place and time in a way that is both nostalgic and universal. Roethke's use of vivid imagery and sensory language creates a rich and vibrant portrait of Saginaw, and his personal reflections on childhood and community add a depth and emotional resonance to the poem. Despite the darkness that is present in the poem, Roethke ultimately leaves the reader with a sense of hope and wonder, suggesting that even in the midst of destruction, there is still beauty and joy to be found in the world.

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