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Considered one of the leading poets of the twentieth century during his lifetime, Theodore Roethke’s work matured over time from initially emulating the poetry of earlier Romantics to a highly individual lyrical naturalism.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up in Michigan Theodore Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan. His father, Otto Roethke, had immigrated to America from Germany in 1872. The Roethkes prospered, and when Roethke’s grandfather had made sufficient money, he built a greenhouse so that he could enter the florist business, which also prospered. As a child, Roethke followed his father about his work. Thus, Roethke almost literally, grew up among the plants of the greenhouse. His experience ofthis vegetable world affected him deeply: the greenhouse itself was to become the central image of The Lost Son (1948) and Praise to the End! (1951). Also on the property, beyond the greenhouse, was a large field where Roethke often played as a child. This field, too, became an important image in his poetry.
During his freshman year of high school, Roethke distinguished himself by giving a speech on the Junior Red Cross, which was published and later translated into twenty-six languages for international distribution. This recognition whetted his ambition. He already knew that he wanted to become a writer, although he had not yet considered becoming a poet. At the time, he later recalled, he wanted to be a prose writer; so he began studying essayists, such as Walter Pater, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and short story writers.
During Roethke’s second year in high school, his father died of cancer, a ”kink in the bowels,” as the doctors said. Outwardly, Roethke accepted the event calmly, probably because he had been prepared for it by the long illness that preceded Otto’s death. However, as Roethke’s mature poetry suggests, the loss had a deep and lasting effect on him. His attitude toward his father had been ambivalent. On the one hand, Otto had often been a hard taskmaster, demanding perfection from his son and belittling him when he failed to live up to standards. On the other hand, Roethke could admire the life-giving quality in Otto, not just as his own father, but as the gardener who devoted himself to the perpetuation of life. In ”The Lost Son,” which is written from the point of view of a child, the father’s arrival is associated with order. In ”My Papa’s Waltz” Roethke captures the earthy vitality of Otto, and also something of his own joy and bafflement, as the victim of his father’s exuberant energy. Later, in ”Otto,” written forty years after his father’s death, Roethke objectively records the vitality, order, and contradictions in his father’s character.
A Most Unlikely Poet
Theodore Roethke was hardly one who would have been expected to become a major American poet. Though as a child he read a great deal, he strove to be accepted by his peers who felt that ”brains were sissies.” The insecurity that led him to drink to be ”in with the guys” continued at the University of Michigan, where he adopted a tough, bear-like image (he weighed well over 225 pounds) and even developed a fascination with gangsters—it was the height of the Prohibition era, when gangsters like Al Capone ruled virtual crime empires. Eccentric and nonconformist—he later called himself ”odious” and ”unhappy”—”[h]is adolescence must have been a hell of a bright awareness,” speculated Rolfe Humphries, ”frustrated because he did not know what to do with it, and it was constantly sandpapered by those around him.”
Roethke’s awareness evolved at Michigan into a decision to pursue teaching—and poetry—as a career. The first fifteen years of Roethke’s writing career, from his beginnings as an undergraduate to the publication of Open House (1941), his first book, formed a ”lengthy and painful apprenticeship” for the young writer. In cultivating his poetic expression, Roethke relied heavily upon T. S. Eliot’s belief that ”the only way to manipulate any kind of English verse, [is] by assimilation and imitation.” With this model in mind, Roethke himself once wrote ”imitation, conscious imitation, is one of the great methods, perhaps THE method of learning to write.”
Roethke’s task was no easy one. In addition to debts to such contemporaries as W. H. Auden, Louise Bogan, Babette Deutsch, and William Carlos Williams, his extensive and varied poetic tradition included William Wordsworth, William Blake, Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Dante. Along with these influences, the source of much of Roethke’s poetry was the notes he dutifully kept throughout his life. In his biography of Roethke, The Glass House, Allan Seager estimates that only three percent of the lines of poetry in Roethke’s more than two hundred notebooks was ever published.
Developing His Own Voice
After the publication of Open House, Roethke became dissatisfied with his job at Penn State, and accepted a position at Bennington College, where he thought the atmosphere would be much more congenial to his career as a poet and teacher. While at Bennington, Roethke established several important relationships with his colleagues. With the encouragement of his new friends and colleagues, Roethke threw himself into a fit of poetic creation that was to produce the major poems of The Lost Son. A period of depression followed in the winter of 1945. He was taken to a hospital in Albany where he underwent shock treatments. Roethke resumed work on his poetry during the spring while he was recovering his strength. By February 1947, the poems were completed, and he returned to Penn State to teach the spring semester. That summer he went to Yaddo, where he became friends with Robert Lowell. Also, during the summer he was accepted for a teaching position at the University of Washington in Seattle. In September he went west.
Roethke had been disappointed in Knopf’s handling of Open House; they had not advertised the book properly, he felt, and they had failed to bring out a second printing, even when the first small printing of one thousand copies had been sold out. In the meantime, he had established contacts at Doubleday; consequently, when the manuscript of The Lost Son was completed in the spring of 1947, he sent it to them, and it was accepted. Again Roethke waited anxiously for the reviews; this time they were even more laudatory than those for Open House. This was original poetry, and the reviewers recognized it as such.
Roethke soon settled into a routine of life and was happier than he had been in any of his previous teaching positions. He was popular with his students. Among these students were several who were to become poets in their own right: Carolyn Kizer, David Wagoner, James Wright. Under these favorable conditions, Roethke worked hard at both his teaching and his poetry. His serious work was on the poems that would make up Praise to the End! (1951), but he was also writing a sequence of children’s poems about animals that were published as I Am! Says the Lamb in 1961. During the Fall of 1949, Roethke suffered another mental breakdown and spent several months in a sanitarium. Sometime during 1950 he finished the poems for Praise to the End! and it was published in November 1951.
At the Height of His Career
Roethke now had three volumes of poetry and a reputation. In 1951 he received Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize. In the spring of 1952, his friend Dylan Thomas visited the Seattle campus. There he stated that Roethke was the best poetry reader in America. Roethke cherished this praise from the master reader himself and often repeated it. Roethke was now at the height of his career and no longer had to worry about money as he had in the past. In June he went to Saginaw to see his family and work undisturbed, away from the distractions in Seattle. In December he went to New York to give a poetry reading. There he ran into one of his former Bennington students, Beatrice O’Connell, who was now living in New York teaching art in a public school in Harlem. They began to see each other daily, and they married within a month.
In September 1953, Doubleday brought out The Waking, a selection of Roethke’s poems, written between 1933 and 1953. It also included eight new poems. The end of the year brought twin tragedies in the loss of both Dylan Thomas and Roethke’s mother, but good news came several weeks later: he had won the Pulitzer Prize for The Waking.
Later Career and Accolades
Roethke spent the next several years teaching, traveling, and experiencing continued mental breakdowns. In the fall of 1958, Doubleday published Words for the Wind, a mixture of new and previously collected poems. The critical reception was overwhelmingly favorable, and he received both the Bollingen Prize and the National Book Award.
Roethke remained in Seattle for the last years of his life, teaching, working on the poems that would appear posthumously as The Far Field, and making frequent trips to receive awards and give readings. In June 1962, he was presented an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from his alma mater, the University of Michigan. In October he gave a reading for the Seattle World’s Fair. By the summer of 1963, he had completed the first draft of the manuscript for The Far Field (1964). He intended to revise it further, but on August 1, while swimming in a friend’s pool, he had a coronary occlusion from which he could not be revived. He was buried beside his mother and father in Oakwood Cemetery in Saginaw.
Works in Literary Context
Roethke is among the most celebrated American poets of the twentieth century. His work conveys through dynamic, descriptive imagery the physical essence of nature and the human body. The concrete language of Roethke’s poetry serves to present his personal themes as universal experiences, resulting in a highly original, symbolic body of work.
Roethke saw himself as working within a great tradition, modifying and extending it after his own fashion. Specifically, Roethke was a Romantic. His work abounds in references to European poets William Blake, William Wordsworth, and William Butler Yeats, especially, but also retains the American quality of his Romanticism with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman as primary ancestors, and with Ted Stevens as a strong contemporary influence. Without impugning his originality, one can read all Roethke’s work as a continuing conversation with his precursors; he was a poetic ventriloquist of sorts, able to speak through masks of those whom he called ”the great dead.”
The work of recent critics has been invaluable in showing the breadth and continuity of the Romantic movement, from its origins in eighteenth-century Germany to the present. What seems constant, is the recognition that every man is cut off from nature; given this state of affairs, art becomes indispensable in the process of reconciliation between self and nature (subject and object). Every man has either to make his peace with nature or wage his own ”war between the mind and sky,” as Stevens puts it.
Nature and the Poetic Journey
The motif of the journey is more crucial to the poetry of Theodore Roethke than to any other major American poet since Whitman. Roethke’s is a simple journey, from beginning to destination. But to say that it is simple is not to imply that it is easy. The journey, as it is recorded in The Collected Poems (1966), is that of a modern-day Pilgrim’s Progress, the allegorical seventeenth-century tale by John Bunyan, fraught with temptations of vanity and pride. But Roethke’s journey is essentially more difficult. For Roethke there is no well-defined path, nor are there signposts or prominences to indicate his destination. His journey is through a particularly American wilderness, and although the general direction of the journey is never in question, Roethke must make his groping way relying on his instincts or intuitions, “feeling” and learning by the very act of ”going” itself, as he was to articulate the process in his poem ”The Waking.” The American pilgrim makes his way westward through the wilderness toward discovery and self-realization: this is the movement of both Roethke’s poetry and his life.
Roethke’s journey is also an evolutionary one, essentially that described and speculated on by his contemporary Loren Eiseley in The Immense Journey (1957). In his second published book, The Lost Son (1948), Roethke returns to his evolutionary past, where he joins the worms, slugs, and snails in the slime of primordial existence. From that point, Roethke’s poetry moves forward, through the realization of his kinship with the higher animals, through the realization of his own humanity (in The Waking, 1953, and Words for the Wind, 1957), and finally to the transcendence of spiritual man in The Far Field (1964). It is a movement from unconscious life, through various stages of intermediate consciousness, to the highest form of self-realization man is capable of.
Works in Critical Context
At the time of his death Roethke’s reputation was high in both America and Europe. Many considered him the best American poet of his generation. Since his death, there has been a steadily increasing interest in his poetry, both by critics and the reading public. Most have placed him in the top rank of all American poets.
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. The implicit content of his poems prompted Richard Allen Blessing to note: ”When Roethke is at his best, ‘meaning’ is a complex of forces, a musical expression growing . . . out of the play of sound against sound, out of the energy of primitive rhythms . . . out of the telescoping . . . of images.” In any case, many would agree with Stanley Kunitz’s assessment:
Roethke belongs to that superior order of poets who will not let us rest in any of their poems, who keep driving us back through the whole body of their work to that live cluster of images, ideas, memories, and obsessions that constitutes the individuating source of the creative personality.
The Lost Son
Justin Parini, in his book Theodore Roethke: An American Romantic, writes, ”In all, The Lost Son remains the central volume, this poet’s most durable achievement, and the key to his work.” Michael Harrington states that ”Roethke found his own voice and central themes” in the work, and Stanley Kunitz saw a ”confirmation that he was in full possession of his art and of his vision.” Richard Allen Blessing echoes this praise when he writes:
To my mind, the transformation of Theodore Roethke from a poet of ‘lyric resourcefulness, technical proficiency and ordered sensibility’ to a poet of ‘indomitable creativeness and audacity … difficult, heroic, moving and profoundly disquieting’ is one of the most remarkable in American literary history.
- Blessing, Richard Allen. Theodore Roethke’s Dynamic Vision. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1974.
- Bogen, Don. Theodore Roethke and the Writing Process. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1991.
- Bowers, Neal. Theodore Roethke: The Journey from I to Otherwise. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1982.
- Chaney, Norman. Theodore Roethke: The Poetics of Wonder. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981.
- ”My Papa’s Waltz.” Poetry for Students. Edited by Marie Napierkowski and Mary Ruby. Vol. 3. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 1998.
- Parini, Jay. Theodore Roethke: An American Romantic. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.
- Stein, Arnold, ed. Theodore Roethke: Essays on the Poetry. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1965.
- Stiffler, Randall. Theodore Roethke, The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1986.
- Sullivan, Rosemary. Theodore Roethke: The Garden Master. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1975.
- Williams, Harry. “The Edge is What I Have”: Theodore Roethke and After. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1977.
- Wolff, George. Theodore Roethke. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
- Burke, Kenneth. ”The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke.” Sewanee Review 58 (Winter 1950): 68-108.
- Staples, Hugh. ”The Rose in the Sea-Wind: A Reading of Theodore Roethke’s ‘North American Sequence.”’ American Literature 36 (May 1964): 189-203.
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