Theodore Roethke

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Theodore Roethke wrote poems celebrating both wild and cultivated plants. Are there any significant differences in his attitude toward the two groups?

Roethke has a line referring to “All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.” Discuss this theme in his poetry.

What is elegiac poetry? Which Roethke poems can be so classified?

What poetic forms does Roethke favor? How well do they suit the content of his poems?

In what poems besides “Cuttings” does Roethke identify with greenhouse plants?

Mental illness can hardly be called an advantage for anyone, but did Roethke’s awareness of his precarious mental health ever lend strength to his poems?

Other literary forms

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Theodore Roethke (REHT-kee) devoted most of his energy to his poetry. Ralph J. Mills, Jr., however, has filled one small volume, On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke (1965), with Roethke’s essays and reviews. He has also edited The Selected Letters of Theodore Roethke (1968). In Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, 1943-1963 (1972), David Wagoner has selected and edited revealing passages from Roethke’s 277 working notebooks and 8,306 loose sheets. All three of these books are very useful in understanding Roethke’s difficult poetry, for the poet speaks about his own work as well as about poetry in general.


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Critics often consider Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell to be the most important poets of the post-World War II generation. Although Roethke’s achievement with traditional forms, such as the difficult villanelle, is impressive, he will be remembered primarily for his longer poems, the series of “sequences” in which he broke new ground by forging a unique poetic voice that conveys the intensity and complexity of his emotional, psychological, and spiritual struggles. Roethke created a new style in which one finds a kind of “psychic short hand,” to borrow the poet’s phrase. With the telescoping and distortion of images, the striking juxtaposition of the commonplace and the bizarre, he evokes a variety of states of consciousness under great stress, including those of the child, the mentally ill, and the mystic. Influenced by William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, and William Butler Yeats, he explores the depths of the psyche and captures the associative movement of the mind.

Roethke received many honors and awards throughout his career, including two Guggenheim Fellowships (1945, 1950), the Tietjens Prize (1947), the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine (1951), the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1952), the Bollingen Prize for Poetry (1959), and the Shelley Memorial Award (1962). However, he did not receive widespread recognition until the publication of The Waking, which won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1954. In the last decade of the poet’s life, he received his most prestigious awards and attracted the attention that he so much desired. Words for the Wind, new poems together with a selection of poems from previous volumes, won the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize (both 1959) as well as five other awards. The Far Field brought him a second National Book Award (1965). Roethke’s reputation has been steadily increasing since 1953. His poems have been translated into many foreign languages and there have been a number of critical books and many articles published on his work.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Theodore Roethke. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. A collection of critical essays on Roethke ranging from the early trailblazing work of Kenneth Burke to the views of Thomas Gardner and James Applewhite. Contains an index and a bibliography.

Bogen, Don. Theodore Roethke and the Writing Process. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991. A critical study of Roethke’s writing and an analysis of his philosophy. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Bowers, Neal. Theodore Roethke:...

(This entire section contains 392 words.)

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The Journey from I to Otherwise. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982. Emphasizes Roethke’s use of his episodes of mental illness and other states of nonordinary reality as the source and subject of much of his best poetry. Augmented by an index and a bibliography.

Kalaidjian, Walter B. Understanding Theodore Roethke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987. An introductory reading of Roethke’s work with emphasis on the poet’s concern with uniting humankind with nature and using unusual psychological states as gateways to new knowledge of the self and the world. Supplemented by an index and a thoroughly annotated bibliography of other criticism.

Kusch, Robert. My Toughest Mentor: Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams (1940-1948). Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1999. A study of the correspondence between Roethke and Williams and the relationship they developed. Provides some biographical and historical background to the works of both authors. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Malkoff, Karl. Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. Presents a psychoanalytic reading of the poet’s work. As a result, many later critics often begin by agreeing or disagreeing with Malkoff, using his work as a benchmark from which to begin their own studies. Contains an index and a bibliography of works by and about Roethke.

Seager, Allan. The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. This is a full-length biography of Roethke, written by a scholar and novelist who was also a close friend of the poet.

Stiffler, Randall. Theodore Roethke: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1986. Stiffler reviews and evaluates the critical reception of Roethke’s works. Contains an index and a bibliography.

Wolff, George. Theodore Roethke. Boston: Twayne, 1981. One of the Twayne series of introductory guides to American authors, this book offers a good brief review of the poet’s life and work. Contains an index and an extensive annotated bibliography.


Critical Essays