We have appointed our kids and our artists keepers of our flattened, post-industrialized consciences. Our poets are lasers of sensibility, feeling, seeing, perceiving with an intensity we don’t dare. And they become in this transaction the victim of their own awareness and our staggering unawareness. Thus Theodore Roethke. -Life magazine, 1972
When it comes to iconic American poets, Theodore Roethke holds a much cherished spot among readers, followers and critics of American literature.
Roethke published critically acclaimed volumes of work that influenced succeeding generations of poets and redefined American poetry. Widely regarded as one of the most accomplished in his generation, Roethke’s body of work is characterized by introspection and references to the beauties and complexities of the natural world.
Theodore Huebner Roethke was born on May 25, 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan to Otto Roethke and Helen Huebner.
His father was a German immigrant who, together with his uncle, owned a greenhouse. As a child, Roethke spent much time in the greenhouse and this childhood would later heavily influence his unique brand of poetry.
On growing up surrounded by the “confines” of nature, he later wrote, “They were to me both heaven and hell, a kind of tropics created in the savage climate of Michigan, where austere German Americans turned their love of order and their terrifying efficiency into something beautiful.”
In early 1923, at only 14 years old, his father died of cancer at about the same that his uncle also committed suicide.
Despite these traumatic events, the young Roethke graduated magna cum laude from the University of Michigan. He originally planned on pursuing a legal career in compliance with his family’s wishes, but after one semester, he quit law school. He did continue taking graduate courses at the same university and later on, at the Harvard Graduate School.
When the Great Depression hit, Roethke abandoned his studies at Harvard and began teaching at Lafayette College. He stayed there for four years, from 1931 to 1935. Here, he also started writing his first book, Open House. After Lafayette, he moved to Michigan State College where his teaching career was interrupted by a bout of mental illness. As with other prolific writers, this instability, while at times crippling, also served its purpose in igniting an unlikely source of creative spark. He also had teaching stints at Pennsylvania State College and Bennington College in Vermont. His last teaching position was at the University of Washington.
As a teacher, Roethke was complex, eccentric, temperamental and yet influential. A former student described one class wherein, after pointing out that “good writing always begins with close observation,” Roethke “jumped on top of his desk and danced an Irish jig for several minutes, then crawled out a third-story window and made faces at his students.”
His first book, Open House, took a decade to finish. Finally published and released in 1941, it was critically acclaimed by Roethke’s peers and the literary community. In 1954, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry The Waking and the annual National Book Award for Poetry in 1959 for Words for the Wind. He also won the same award, posthumously, in 1965 for The Far Field.
Theodore Roethke’s work ranged from free verse poems replete with surreal imagery to strict meter poems laced with fierce sensuality and intense lyricism. Some of his most notable poems include Child on Top of a Greenhouse, I Knew a Woman, Big Wind, Infirmity, My Papa’s Waltz, Once More, the Round and Night Journey.
He was a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1950, the Poetry magazine Levinson Prize in 1951, and other major grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He also travelled to Europe on a Fulbright grant which culminated with yet another award-winning collection of works.
It has been noted that Roethke’s works have had its profound impact on poet Sylvia Plath. As a teacher, some of his students went on to become established literary figures themselves. These include James Wright, Carolyn Kizer, Richard Hugo and David Wagoner.
As an adult, Roethke suffered through bouts of manic depression all his life. Physically, he was described as a “bear of a man” who liked big coats, big cars, young women and alcoholic binges.
In 1953, he married a former student, Beatrice O’Connell. Despite his eccentricities, O’Connell was a dedicated wife. She ensured the posthumous publication of his final volume of poetry, The Far Field.
While visiting friends at Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 1963, he suffered a fatal heart attack at the swimming pool. He was 55 years old. The pool is now a zen rock garden which can be viewed publicly at the Bloedel Reserve.
In the University of Washington, the main auditorium of Kane Hall was named in his memory. In Roethke’s hometown of Saginaw, a historical marker notes that the greenhouse “is my symbol for the whole life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth,” a fitting reminder of Theodore Roethke’s legacy as a poet.