April 23, 2012

Theodore Roethke among 10 poets honored on new first-class stamp series

News and Information

The new First-Class Forever stamp bearing the likeness of former UW faculty member Theodore Roethke.

John Deakin

The new First-Class Forever stamp bearing the likeness of former UW faculty member Theodore Roethke.

Poet and former University of Washington faculty member Theodore Roethke is one of 10 poets from the 20th century being honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a new first-class stamp.

The Postal Service rolled out the new stamps Saturday, April 21, at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held at the University of Southern California. The ceremony included a reading of Roethkes poem “The Waking.”

Roethke, considered among the great American poets of his generation, taught at the UW from 1947 until his death in 1963. His book “The Waking: Poems 1933-1953” received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1954. His next volume, “Words for the Wind,” published in 1958, earned the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize for Poetry.

Roethke is in rare company in the new stamp release, flanked by fellow Pulitzer Prize winners and even United States poets laureate. Others depicted in the stamp series are Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, ee cummings, Robert Hayden, Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop also was a visiting professor at the UW in 1966 and again in 1973.

The UW English Department remembers Roethke with its annual Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Reading, which has attracted an array of talents through the years. These include Robert Lowell (1965), Archibald MacLeish (1967), Robert Penn Warren (1968), Bishop (1974), Gary Snyder (1976), Richard Hugo (1977), W.S. Merwin (1983), Carolyn Kizer (1985), Seamus Heaney (1987), Levertov (1990), Robert Bly (2007) and the UW’s own David Wagoner (1973) and Colleen J. McElroy (1999).

This year’s reading, the 49th, will feature poet and UW faculty member Heather McHugh and will be held at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 17, in 130 Kane Hall.

Wagoner, now a UW professor emeritus of English, was a student, friend and colleague of Roethke. He wrote of Roethke in March in the Australian magazine “The Cordite Review.”

“Poets in the northwest part of this country once were a rare breed, strictly local and unknown. They scarcely existed till the arrival of Theodore Roethke who, as a kind of midwestern savage, had been winning prizes in the more lofty literary East, began teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1947.  His English Department chairman at that time told him, ‘Ted, it’s all yours.  There isn’t another poet for 500 miles in any direction who’s publishing in national magazines.’”

Wagoner goes on to say that he and other students of Roethke’s became teachers themselves, and followed one of Roethke’s “basic principles of the craft: the effort to unify sound, rhythm, and meaning, to treat them as equally important insofar as it was possible in any and every poem.”

The Postal Service says the sheet of 20th century poets is the largest group of authors honored together in its history. The stamp sheets bear photographs of the poets — Roethke’s was taken in London by John Deakin — as well as a line of poetry from each of the honored writers.

Roethke was born May 25, 1908, in Saginaw, Mich., to a family well known in the flower business, and his poetry often included references to flowers, plants and greenhouses. His boyhood home in Saginaw has been preserved by the Friends of Theodore Roethke Foundation and is listed as a National Literary Landmark.

The Postal Service says customers may view the stamps honoring poet, and other stamps, on Facebook, through Twitter @USPSstamps or on its website “Beyond the Perf,” which provides background on stamp subjects and other philatelic news. The stamps honoring twentieth century poets may be purchased at post offices nationwide, or online.