Theodore Roethke Roethke, Theodore - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Open House 1941

The Lost Son, and Other Poems 1948

Praise to the End! 1951

The Waking: Poems, 1933-1953 1953

The Exorcism 1957

Words for the Wind 1957

I Am! Says the Lamb (children's poems) 1961

Party at the Zoo (children's poems) 1963

*Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical 1963

The Far Field 1964

The Achievement of Theodore Roethke: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems with a Critical Introduction 1966

The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke 1966

Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems 1969

Dirty Dinky and Other Creatures: Poems for Children (children's poems) 1973

Other Major Works

On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke (essays) 1965

Selected Letters of Theodore Roethke (correspondence) 1968

Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, 1943-63 (notebooks) 1972

* This work is an illustrated edition of a poem sequence that was first published in 1957 as part of Words for the Wind.

W. H. Auden (essay date 1941)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Verse and the Times," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 23, No. 24, April 5, 1941, pp. 30-1.

[Auden is recognized as one of the preeminent poets of the twentieth century. His poetry centers on moral issues and evidences strong political, social, and psychological orientations. In the following review, Auden hails Open House but expresses the opinion that Roethke needs to continue growing as a poet.]

Both in life and art the human task is to create a necessary order out of an arbitrary chaos. A necessary order implies that the process of its creation is not itself arbitrary; one is not free to create any order one chooses. The...

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Rolfe Humphries (essay date 1941)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Inside Story," in The New Republic, Vol. 105, No. 1, July 14, 1941, p. 62.

[An American poet and translator, Humphries published several volumes of verse and translated works by the Spanish poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca and the classical writers Ovid, Virgil, Juvenal, and Lucretius. In the following review, Humphries declares Open House an honest and impressive debut collection that demonstrates Roethke has much promise as a poet.]

The title of [Open House], and the opening lines of the title poem, at once give the reader to understand that much of the material to follow will be largely self-centered:


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Louise Bogan (essay date 1948)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of "The Lost Son," in The New Yorker, Vol. XXV, No. 12, May 15, 1948, pp. 102, 105-06.

[major American lyric poet whose darkly romantic verse is characterized by her use of traditional structures, concise language, and vivid description, Bogan is recognized particularly for her honest and austere rendering of emotion. She was also a distinguished critic who served as poetry editor for the New Yorker from 1931 to 1970 and was known for her exacting standards and her penetrating analyses of many of the major poets of the twentieth century. In the following excerpt, Bogan praises The Lost Son as an exploration of emotion and "primordial experience. "]


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Stanley Kunitz (essay date 1949)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "News of the Root," in A Kind of Order, a Kind of Folly: Essays and Conversations, Little, Brown and Company, 1975, pp. 83-6.

[An American poet and critic, Kunitz won the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his Selected Poems, 1928-1958. His work is skillfully crafted, incorporating rhythms of natural speech, and evidencing a fine ear for the musical cadence of phrases. Often considered metaphysical, his poetry is intensely personal, exploring the mystery of self and the intricacies of time. In the following review, which originally appeared in Poetry in 1949, Kunitz enthusiastically endorses Roethke's poetic style in The Lost Son, and Other Poems, finding that "The...

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Richard Eberhart (essay date 1951)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Deep, Lyrical Feelings," in The New York Times Book Review, December 16, 1951, p. 4.

[Eberhart is a highly regarded lyric poet whose verse examines fundamental questions about the nature of existence. His poems typically evoke quotidian images that illuminate conflicts between emotion and intellect, innocence and experience, chaos and order, and the spiritual and physical realms. Below, Eberhart uses the occasion of a review of Praise to the End! to extol Roethke's skill as a poet.]

Theodore Roethke joins the ranks of the pure poets. His power is that his offering is clean-cut. His verse is pure. It is totally sensuous, totally personal, and his vision...

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Louise Bogan (essay date 1952)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Praise to the End!, in The New Yorker, Vol. XXVII, No. 53, February 16, 1952, pp. 107-08.

[In the following excerpt, Bogan compares Roethke's poetry to that of Richard Eberhart and applauds the symbolism that Roethke employs in Praise to the End! to suggest the journey from childhood into mature consciousness.]

When Goethe stated that the shudder expressed mankind's best side, he was thinking not of the Gothic atmosphere fashionable in his day so much as of the general feeling of awe at the mysteries of the universe, to which the most hardened materialist is not entirely immune. In modern poetry, this larger emotion is rare indeed; the...

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Hayden Carruth (essay date 1953)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Idiom Is Personal," in The New York Times Book Review, September 13, 1953, p. 14.

[Carruth is a well-respected and prolific American poet whose verse is frequently autobiographical, varied in mood and form, and noted for its unadorned and precise language. His literary criticism, which is collected in such volumes as Working Papers (1982) and Effluences from the Sacred Cave (1983), is recognized for its directness and tolerance. In the following review, Carruth declares Roethke's poetic voice in The Waking original.]

Above all others, Theodore Roethke is a poet to encourage and comfort us in our valley of literary conformism. He leads...

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Hilton Kramer (essay date 1954)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Theodore Roethke," in Western Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, Winter, 1954, pp. 131-46.

[Kramer is a prominent art critic who has served on the staff of such journals as Arts Digest, Arts Magazine, Nation, New Leader, New Criterion, and the New York Times. In the following essay, which focuses primarily on the collection Praise to the End!, Kramer maintains that Roethke's treatment of prerational existence represents "the expression of a new primitivism. "]

Theodore Roethke is probably the most original poet to appear in America since the twenties. This is not always the highest praise for a poet, especially for an American poet of...

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Stephen Spender (essay date 1959)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Words for the Wind, in The New Republic, Vol. 141, Nos. 6-7, August 10, 1959, pp. 21-2.

[Spender was an English man of letters who rose to prominence during the 1930s as a Marxist lyric poet and as an associate of W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice. His poetic reputation has declined in the postwar years, while his stature as a prolific and perceptive literary critic has grown. In the following review, Spender lauds the best verse in Words for the Wind but notes the need for Roethke to expand his range as a poet.]

Poetry is an instrument which can be put to a great many uses, but as a medium it is...

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Delmore Schwartz (essay date 1959)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Cunning and the Craft of the Unconscious and the Preconscious," in Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz, edited by Donald A. Dike and David H. Zucker, The University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 197-99.

[A prominent figure in American literature, Schwartz created poems and stories that are deeply informed by his experiences as the son of Jewish immigrants. His verse often focuses on middle-class New York immigrant families whose children are alienated both from their parents and from American culture and society. Schwartz explored such themes as the importance of self-discovery, the necessity of maintaining hope in the presence of despair, free will versus determinism, and...

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Ralph J. Mills, Jr. (essay date 1962)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke: The Lyric of the Self," in Poets in Progress, Northwestern University Press, 1967, pp. 3-23.

[An American poet and critic, Mills has published several volumes of verse and studies of such poets as Richard Eberhart, Edith Sitwell, and Kathleen Raine, in addition to Roethke. As well, he is the author of the studies Contemporary American Poetry (1965), Creation's Very Self: On the Personal Element in Recent American Poetry (1969), and Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry (1975). The following essay, published in 1962, is a revised version of an article that first appeared in Tri-Quarterly in 1958. Here Mills outlines...

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Theodore Roethke (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke Speaks: The Teaching Poet," in New Letters, Vol. 49, No. 1, Fall, 1982, pp. 7-25.

[The following is a transcript of a spoken address. Roethke discusses such topics as teaching, his literary influences, the role of readers, and the poetic process. In the absence of further information regarding the date of composition, the year of Roethke's death has been substituted for the essay date.]


I think teaching is one of the last resorts of the noble mind and is a whole, a profession, and in our times one of the ones that's least corrupted. It is a second order of creation, particularly visceral, romantic...

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Hayden Carruth (essay date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Requiem for God's Gardner," in The Nation, Vol. 199, No. 8, September 28, 1964, pp. 168-69.

[In the following review, Carruth judges that in The Far Field Roethke achieved qualified success.]

During the past year the fashion has been to praise Theodore Roethke to the skies. But what possible good can it do the poor guy now that he's dead and in the ground? He was a marvelous poet and apparently, in some of his moods, a charming, likable person. But he was not a Yeats or a Keats—he was too unsure of himself, technically and emotionally, to write the handful of absolute poems that one needs to enter the first rank—and we do an injustice to his memory...

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Denis Donoghue (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke," in Connoisseurs of Chaos: Ideas of Order in Modern American Poetry, The Macmillan Company, 1965, pp. 219-45.

[Donoghue is an Irish-born educator and literary critic. In his study The Arts without Mystery (1984), he attacks the tendency of contemporary societies to reduce art to a commodity. In the following essay, Donoghue perceives Roethke's poetry as an attempt to discern order and purpose in a world that may seem meaningless.]

There is a poem called "Snake" in which Theodore Roethke describes a young snake turning and drawing away and then says:

I felt my slow blood warm.
I longed to...

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Clive James (essay date 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Theodore Roethke's Collected Poems," in First Reactions: Critical Essays 1968-79, Alfred A. Knopf, 1980, pp. 59-62.

[James is an Australian-born English critic, poet, and novelist who has written extensively about British culture and national politics but is perhaps best known for his commentaries on television and broadcast programming. Joseph Epstein, of The New York Times Book Review, has judged James "one of the brightest figures in contemporary English intellectual journalism" and the humourous and satirical qualities of his writing—including his poetry—have attracted many readers. In the following review, which was originally published in 1968, he states...

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Seamus Heaney (essay date 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Canticle to the Earth: Theodore Roethke," in Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980, pp. 190-94.

[Heaney is widely considered Ireland's most accomplished contemporary poet and has often been called the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats. In the following essay, which was first published in 1968, Heaney praises Roethke for adhering to his own instincts as a poet and characterizes his poetry at various stages in his career.]

A couple of years ago, an American poet told me that he and his generation had rejected irony and artfulness, and were trying to write poems that would not yield much to the investigations...

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Dan Jaffe (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke: 'In a Slow Up-Sway'," in The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French, Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1970, pp. 199-207.

[In the following excerpt, Jaffe highlights Roethke's strengths as a poet.]

It has become a cliché of the modern poetry class to point out how divided critical and anthological opinion had become by the end of the 50s. The so-called academic anthologies excluded the Beat poets; the Beat collections excluded the academics. Roethke might well have been included in either kind of collection, it seems to me. Perhaps that's one reason why he was not sufficiently appreciated. Both camps probably found him suspect. During...

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Richard Wilbur (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetry's Debt to Poetry," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Summer, 1973, pp. 273-94.

[Wilbur is an American poet and critic. Respected for the craftsmanship and elegance of his verse, he employs formal poetic structures and smoothly flowing language as a response to disorder and chaos in modern life. In the following excerpt, Wilbur comments on Roethke's emulation of other poets.]

It is fatal for a writer to have one hero only; submitting to a single model, admiring but one syntax and lexicon, means that you will say what you don't mean, and that you will never find the right words for what you do mean. A commanding imagination, as many have said before...

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Jenijoy La Belle (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Martyr to a Motion Not His Own: Theodore Roethke's Love Poems" in Ball State University Forum, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 71-5.

[In the following essay, La Belle asserts that Roethke's love poems place him in the tradition of John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and Dante Alighieri, among others.]

For Theodore Roethke writing poetry was like making love: it was an activity requiring a partner. All of his poems are literary love children, the issue of a union between Roethke's own vision and the work of other poets whom he admired. This way of creating was not mere imitation. It was an attempt to connect with another sensibility, to merge, finally to "see...

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Don Bogen (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "From Open House to the Greenhouse: Theodore Roethke's Poetic Breakthrough," in ELH, Vol. 47, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 399-418.

[In the following essay, Bogen studies the evolution of Roethke's poetry as illustrated in the representative poems "Genesis," "On the Road to Woodlawn," and "Cuttings."]

My first book was much too wary, much too gingerly in its approach to experience; rather dry in tone and constricted in rhythm. I am trying to loosen up, to rite poems of greater intensity and symbolical depth. [Theodore Roethke, Selected Letters of Theodore Roethke, edited by Ralph J. Mills, Jr., 1968. Subsequent correspondences cited...

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M. L. Lewandowska (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Words of Their Roaring: Roethke's Use of the Psalms of David," in The David Myth in Western Literature, edited by Raymond-Jean Frontain and Jan Wojcik, Purdue University Press, 1980, pp. 156-67.

[In the following essay, Lewandowska claims that the poems in Praise to the End! evince the influence of the Bible's Psalms.]

Theodore Roethke's long Praise to the End! sequence is probably best approached through Roethke's own guide to perception: "We think by feeling. What is there to know?" Indeed, it is one of the few long sequences in modern poetry that can be read aloud, dramatically, and erupt into meaning solely by means of its sounds and...

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Neal Bowers (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke: The Manic Vision," in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. XI, Nos. 1-2, 1982, pp. 152-64.

[In the following essay, examines the connection between Roethke's manic-depression and evidence of mystical themes in his works.]

Although Theodore Roethke's manic depressive syndrome, which troubled him most of his adult life, and his interest in mysticism, particularly during his last decade, have been fairly well documented, no one has ever commented on the significant connection between these two things. This is a curious oversight because the relationship, far from being remote, is a causal one, with Roethke's manic experiences leading him inevitably to...

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Kermit Vanderbilt (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke," in A Literary History of the American West, Texas Christian University Press, 1987, pp. 447-55.

[In the following essay, Vanderbilt considers evidence of regionalism in Roethke's poetry.]

Since Theodore Roethke's sudden, untimely death in summer of 1963, his work has been the subject of a steadily rising flood of critical assessments. The consensus of most of them is that his career can best be explained as an intense search for identity, wholeness, and grace. He shaped his private meditations into increasingly powerful esthetic forms that are at once original and charged with echoes from his various American and English poet-masters. A...

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Thomas Gardner (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Far from the Crash of the Long Swell: Theodore Roethke's 'North American Sequence'," in Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary Long Poem, University of Illinois Press, 1989, pp. 78-98.

[In the following essay, Gardner classifies Roethke's "North American Sequence" in the long poem genre and compares the method and style of the sequence to Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," which Gardner perceives as a model of the American long poem.]

Theodore Roethke shares with [John] Berryman and [Galway] Kinnell a commitment to [Walt] Whitman's embrace as a means of singing forth what is "in me" but "without name." "It is paradoxical," he writes in an essay on...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Seager, Allan. The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke. 1968. Reprint. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1991, 301 p.

The only book-length biography on Roethke, written by a friend who was a distinguished novelist. Roethke's bibliographers James McLeod and Judith Sylte have stated: "Although critical consensus suggests that Seager's work is far from satisfactory, it remains an important point of reference in the developing critical understanding of Roethke's art" (Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 2, Gale Research).



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