Theodore Roethke 1908–1963
(Full name Theodore Huebner Roethke) American poet, critic, essayist, and author of children's books.
Roethke is among the most celebrated American poets of the twentieth century. His poetry employs dynamic, descriptive imagery to convey the process of self-realization and discovery. The concrete language of Roethke's poetry serves to present his personal themes as archetypal experiences, resulting in a highly original, symbolic body of work charged with semantic associations that must be intuitively comprehended by the reader. According to Rosemary Sullivan, Roethke's poetry conveys "his sensitivity to the subliminal, irrational world of nature; his relationship to his dead father, who occupies the center of his work…; his attempts to explore other modes of consciousness which carried him to the edge of psychic disaster…; his interest in mysticism…; his debts, so well repaid, to the poetic ancestors from whom he learned his craft; and the calm joyousness which rests at the core of his work."
Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, to first generation German-American parents who operated a large floral greenhouse and produce business. He worked in his parents' greenhouse and attended Arthur Hill High School. Roethke began writing verse during his undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, though he did not submit poems for publication until he began pursuing a master's degree in literature, first at Michigan and then at Harvard. The Great Depression cut short Roethke's studies, as he was forced to withdraw from school to find a job. For four years—until 1935—he taught at Lafayette, a small college in Pennsylvania, where he was a popular teacher and hard drinker. During his time at Lafayette, Roethke began friendships with the poets Rolfe Humphries, Louise Bogan, and Stanley Kunitz and published nineteen poems in such magazines as Poetry, the New Republic, and the Saturday Review. He subsequently began teaching at Michigan State College in Lansing but suffered a mental breakdown in the fall of 1935 and went home to Saginaw to recuperate. Upon recovering, Roethke took a position as an instructor at Pennsylvania State, where he devoted much of his time and energy to his poetry. By 1939 he had enough poems to assemble Open House, which was eventually published in the spring of 1941. Roethke left Pennsylvania State in 1943 to join the faculty of Bennington College in Vermont. There he met the poets Leonie Adams and Kenneth Burke; the latter was an important influence on Roethke's next collection, The Lost Son, and Other Poems. Roethke experienced severe depression
toward the end of 1945 and once again returned to Saginaw to convalesce. Fortunately, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, for which he had applied earlier that year, and was able to remain in Saginaw without having to worry about returning to work. He continued writing poetry while recovering and finished the poems to be included in The Lost Son by February 1947. In September of that year he went to Seattle to assume a teaching position at the University of Washington. Encouraged by enthusiastic reviews of The Lost Son, Roethke worked hard at teaching and began composing the poems that would constitute Praise to the End! In the fall of 1949 he again suffered intense mental agitation and was taken to a sanitarium. He sought and received a second Guggenheim Fellowship and was able to finish the poems for Praise to the End! in 1950. Roethke received many more awards in his career, including Poetry magazine's Levinson Prize, a Fulbright grant, two Ford Foundation grants, the Pulitzer Prize for The Waking: Poems, 1933-1953, the Bollingen Prize and the National Book Award for Words for the Wind, and the National Book Award for The Far Field. Despite his success, he also experienced at least two more mental breakdowns that required hospitalization. Roethke retained his post at the University of Washington until his death from a heart attack in 1963.
Roethke's first volume, Open House, was warmly received by W. H. Auden and Louise Bogan, among others, who commended the poet's masterful command of conventional verse forms, meters, and rhymes. However, Auden, for one, noted that Roethke needed to develop his own style and distance himself from tradition. In his second collection, The Lost Son, and Other Poems, Roethke employed the evolutionary past—worms, slugs, snails, slime, and spiders—to represent unarticulated childhood fears and impulses submerged in his subconscious. By relaxing his dependence upon conventional structure and experimenting with free verse, Roethke evolved a form capable of examining his own psychological and emotional growth. Vegetative and nature imagery drawn from Roethke's experiences in his parents' greenhouse are central to the poem sequence "The Greenhouse Poems" as well as "The Lost Son," in which Roethke tries to come to terms with his ambivalent feelings for his father, who died when Roethke was only fourteen. Praise to the End! combines several long poems from The Lost Son with new poems that continue the themes and approach that the poet had explored in his second volume. Bogan described Roethke's subject here as "the journey from the child's primordial subconscious world, through the regions of adult terror, guilt, and despair, toward final release into the freedom of conscious being." Reprinting earlier poems with a selection of new verse, The Waking incorporates as yet unexplored metaphysical and spiritual themes, including the superiority of intuition and faith over rational thought. Similarly, in the new poetry of Words for the Wind, Roethke contrasts ideal and real love and considers the nature of humankind's spiritual and physical makeup. The Far Field—especially the poems in "North American Sequence"—presents the natural world as a mystical sanctuary in which the individual can join together with God and all of humanity.
In Open House Roethke proved himself an accomplished technician and as a knowledgable student of earlier poets, but many critics have noted that the poetry in this volume is largely derivative. With the publication of The Lost Son he established himself as a highly creative and promising poet with a highly original yet controlled style well suited to his personal themes. In subsequent collections, Roethke returned to the traditional verse forms of Open House but adapted them to his artistic aims. Nevertheless, commentators have found evidence of heavy borrowing from William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot even in Roethke's later verse. Although his output is relatively small in comparison to other major poets of the twentieth century, Roethke is appreciated for creating such popular poems as "My Papa's Waltz," "The Waking," "Four for Sir John Davies," "Elegy for Jane," and other frequently anthologized works. Critics have often disagreed, however, in their attempts to classify Roethke's poetic style. His deeply personal images and the manner in which he utilizes nature to explore psychological territories have prompted scholars to associate Roethke's verse with either the Confessional or the Romantic school of poetry. Ralph J. Mills, Jr., has argued that Roethke's verse does not fit neatly into any single category; comparing Roethke to other poets of his generation, Mills stated: "Of all these later poets Theodore Roethke appears the most considerable, in terms of imaginative daring, stylistic achievement, richness of diction, variety and fullness of music, and unity of vision…. We should not be surprised then in reading through Roethke's books to discover a wide range of moods and styles: tightly controlled formal lyrics, dramatic monologues and something like an interior monologue, nonsense verse, love lyrics, and meditative poems composed in a very free fashion. His experience reaches from the most extraordinary intuition of the life of nature to lightning flashes of mystical illumination."