Theodore Roethke 1908–1963
(Full name Theodore Huebner Roethke) American poet.
The following entry provides an overview of Roethke's career through 1991. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 8, 11, 19, and 46.
Theodore Roethke is distinguished as one of the most gifted and innovative American poets of the 1940s and 1950s. He is widely acclaimed for his inventive use of language, facile technique, and highly imaginative metaphorical description of the natural world. With the publication of Open House (1941), his first book of poetry, Roethke received critical attention and rose to prominence with The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), Praise to the End! (1951), Words for the Wind (1957), and The Far Field (1964). Roethke's most effective work is characterized by recurring childhood memories and striking primordial imagery that elevate autobiographic detail to archetypal significance. His dynamic and often playful verse relies heavily on intuitive word associations and careful structure for sonic effect. Roethke's penetrating exploration of the past and the subconscious mind reflect a lifelong quest for harmony sought in self-acceptance and transcendence. Highly regarded for his originality and ability to evoke the universal in personal experience, Roethke exerted an important influence on the development of post-war American poetry.
Born to German-American parents in Saginaw, Michigan, Roethke's rural upbringing centered around the family's prosperous greenhouse business. His early experiences among the acres of sprawling flora ended abruptly during adolescence with a series of tragedies—the sale of the family greenhouse business, his uncle's suicide, and his father's sudden death. The last caused him considerable anguish and would have a profound effect on his writing. Roethke earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan and, after trying a semester of law school, undertook graduate studies in English at Harvard University. A university teaching career followed, first at Lafayette College, then Michigan State University, Pennsylvania State University, Bennington College, and finally at the University of Washington where he remained from 1947 until his death. During the 1930s Roethke began to establish his reputation as a poet by publishing work in several prestigious journals, including Poetry, The New Republic, and The Saturday Review. In 1935 he suffered a serious mental breakdown that resulted in hospitalization and cost him his teaching position at Michigan State University. Roethke would suffer from recurring episodes of manic depression for the rest of his life, a source of intense creative inspiration that disrupted his academic career and weakened him emotionally. He produced Open House, his first volume poetry, in 1941, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship four years later. The Lost Son and Other Poems followed in 1948, resulting in a second Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to finish Praise to the End! in 1951, another success rewarded with large grants from the Ford Foundation and National Institute of Arts and Letters the next year. In 1953 Roethke married Beatrice O'Connell, a former student from Bennington, and published The Waking (1953), which won a Pulitzer Prize, followed by Words for the Wind in 1958, the winner of several major awards, including the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize. In the next several years he also published two volumes of children's verse, I Am! Says the Lamb (1961) and Party at the Zoo (1963). After a period of lecturing and extensive travel in Europe on a Ford Foundation Grant, Roethke suffered a fatal heart attack in 1963. He left a substantial body of new work that appeared posthumously in The Far Field, winner of the National Book Award in 1964, and The Collected Poems (1966).
Roethke's artistic development is marked by persistent efforts to attain self-knowledge and unity in nature through the reconciliation of individual experience and revelation. His early poems in Open House are studied adaptations of conventional forms that display his mastery of meter and rhyme, though evince an intellectual rather than sensuous approach to his material. Roethke reveals his affinity for nature imagery and adumbrates the subconscious personal tensions that found expression in his later work. The title poem, "Open House," is a self-referential incantation that anticipates Roethke's regression into the psyche and cathartic inner journeys. With The Lost Son and Other Poems Roethke broke sharply with his contemporaries and began his innovative work, abandoning the restrained structure of his previous poetry for more expressive free verse steeped in irregularity and the irrational. The vivid imagery of the first section, referred to as the "Greenhouse Sequence," is among Roethke's most powerful, reflecting a deep connection to the vegetative world of his early life and evoking Jungian archetypes in pre-conscious experience. Through the symbolism of cultivation and harvesting, Roethke exposes the paradox and reality of life and death. This volume also contains "My Papa's Waltz," which portrays the terrifying godlike stature of Roethke's father, and "The Lost Son," which describes the complex and disillusioning process of individuation in a circular pattern that became characteristic of Roethke's metaphysical explorations. In Praise to the End! Roethke ventured further into the surreal, experimenting with the non-grammatical language of pre-verbal childhood with great effect. Alternating between nonsense verse and oracular declaration, Roethke celebrates self-discovery and the union of body and spirit. The title poem, "Praise to the End!," incorporates elements of nursery rhyme and Freudian imagery of sexual awakening to evoke the sensual joy of worldly experience and metamorphosis. The Waking contains selections from earlier volumes and Roethke's well-known "Elegy for Jane" and "Four for Sir John Davies," inspired by the influence of William Butler Yeats. Their lyrical tone, though less associative than that of the previous two volumes, reaffirms the primacy of intuitive perception and faith over reason. Words for the Wind includes The Waking in its entirety along with a series of love poems and two important longer pieces, "The Dying Man" and "Meditations on an Old Woman." Returning to the meter and rhyme of his earlier work, Roethke explores female consciousness and the contradictions of love and mortality with both empathy and wit. The Far Field contains additional love poems, "Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical," and "North American Sequence," considered Roethke's last great achievement. In this expansive series of meditative passages, Roethke employs the journey motif to juxtapose emotional self-exploration and reclamation with sweeping description of the continent and its varied flora and fauna.
Roethke is widely acclaimed as one of the most important American poets of the twentieth century. In the tradition the Romantic poets and Americans Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, Roethke evokes the mystical and visionary in solitary experience and sustained introspection. Though criticized for derivative aspects of his work, particularly the overt influence of Yeats, Roethke assimilated and extended the modernist contributions of Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot to establish a poetic voice of his own that reached further into the depths of the individual psyche. The Lost Son and Other Poems and Praise to the End! are regarded as his best collections, along with "North American Sequence" from The Far Field. Despite frequent allusion to his emotional life and childhood, Roethke's poetry aspires to the universal and is essentially ahistorical, ignoring social and political events of his time. His diverse work, with its many styles, themes, and moods, defies simple classification, though his effective synthesis of autobiography, playful idiom, and archetypal symbolism was a major influence on beat, confessional, and deep-image poets in subsequent decades. Roethke's innovative attempt to discover psychic origins and to achieve transcendence through intuitive language and organic imagery remains a significant achievement in contemporary American poetry.