All profits disappear: the gain
Of ease, the hoarded, secret sum;
And now grim digits of old pain
Return to litter up our home.
We hunt the cause of ruin, add,
Subtract, and put ourselves in pawn;
For all our scratching on the pad,
We cannot trace the error down.
What we are seeking is a fare
One way, a chance to be secure:
The lack that keeps us what we are,
The penny that usurps the poor.
The vanity of accumulation is a common theme in poetry. Grim digits of old pain are that the numbers in the books that ‘litter up’ the home like the home of a real pathological 21th century hoarder is littered up with stacks of newspaper or piles of assorted junk.
By couching the true meaning of the poems in ambiguous ways, Roethke succeeds in elevating the poetry to a level of literature more artistic and creatively demanding than journalism and by doing so ultimately exposes poetry’s power capacity to deliver connotation to the reader on a more meaningful level than the mere dissemination of facts.