The circumstances of Theodore Roethke’s birth and childhood were very important for his development as a poet. Roethke was born in 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan, to a family of gardeners and florists. His father and uncle built and maintained a huge greenhouse complex, considered one of the best in the United States and used primarily to grow roses, orchids, and other ornamental plants. Roethke grew up in the midst of this fecundity, and in later years he returned to it in memory and spirit as the source of inspiration and power in his poetry.
Although Roethke’s father loved his son, and that love was returned, there was conflict between them. Otto Roethke was an outdoorsman and wanted his son to be a “man’s man” and a lawyer. Young Ted was clumsy at sports and outdoor activities, and he preferred books and the life of the mind and imagination. The Roethke brothers sold the greenhouse in 1922, and the next year, when Theodore was only fourteen, his father died, dealing his son a wound and a sense of unfulfillment that the poet was able to relieve only near the end of his life. Subconsciously, Roethke felt that his father had betrayed and abandoned him by dying; consciously, he believed that he had a debt to his father which he had to repay.
After Roethke graduated from high school in Saginaw, he attended the University of Michigan, receiving a bachelor of arts degree in 1929. He then attended graduate school at Harvard University but did not take a degree, returning to the University of Michigan for a master of arts diploma in 1936. Although Roethke had always been interested in literature (he subscribed to The Dial when he was in the seventh grade), at Harvard he began to write poetry seriously and was encouraged to publish it. From that time on, it was clear to him that it was his destiny to be a poet, and he devoted as much of his time as possible to studying the poets of the past, writing notes and lines, and trying to improve his craft. He published in journals and magazines throughout the 1930’s and produced his first volume of poems, Open House, in 1941.
Meanwhile, Roethke earned a living through a series of teaching jobs, which was the way he was to sustain himself for the rest of his life. His first appointment was at what was then Michigan State College in 1935, and there began another feature of Roethke’s life which was both disturbing and, finally, transforming. Roethke lost his job at Michigan State after only one semester because of a mental breakdown which required hospitalization. The nature and cause of his illness were never determined; he was...
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