Poet Theodore Roethke

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"He invented a vocabulary of metamorphosis. He uprooted his environment for unfolding images, replayed light, objects, emotions back to us in juxtapositions never seen or heard before. Inside that darkly blooming world where he debated with God, death and all things green, lovely visions struck him...

We have appointed our kids and our artists keepers of our flattened, post-industrialized consciences. Our poets are lasers of sensibility, feeling, seeing, perceiving with an intensity we don't dare. And they become in this transaction the victim of their own awareness and our staggering unawareness. Thus Theodore Roethke."

--Life magazine, 1972 footnote 1

Theodore H. Roethke, who served on the UW faculty from 1947 until his death in 1963, has earned a place in history as perhaps the greatest American poet of his generation. His poetry has been recognized as a national treasure. Among his many honors, Roethke won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1954 and the National Book Award in 1959.

Roethke's best known works are poems that incorporate memories from his childhood of his father's greenhouse. These are considered by many to be his greatest achievement.

Published in 1948 in his book, The Lost Son, those poems include "Child on Top of a Greenhouse," "Orchids," and "A Field of Light." The work was a definite shift away from the style of his earlier book, Open House, published in 1941, which had drawn little attention and had been panned for its abstract, mechanical style.

Born in 1904, Roethke had grown up in Saginaw, Michigan, where he worked and played in the greenhouses originally established by his grandfather, a German immigrant. He was a small, sickly child who felt things keenly. In Lost Son, Roethke draws upon the intense experiences of those greenhouse days. His poetry often focuses upon his father, his mother, the sights and smells of the greenhouse, and the wondrous, great field behind it--a recurring theme in Roethke's work.

"In these green images, Roethke reached the center of his memory and found his wholly individual idiom," wrote Louis Martz in "A Greenhouse Eden." footnote 3 On a mission of self-discovery, Roethke regresses into his own past to rediscover his beginnings--a sort of going back in order to go forward. The volume drew international acclaim when it was published.

Roethke's later works include Praise to the End! (1951), The Waking (1953), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and The Far Field, published posthumously in 1964.

Just as legendary as the beauty of Roethke's verse is the stormy personality of the man. Roethke suffered from bouts of manic-depression all his life. He was a bear of a man, with a taste for big fur coats, big cars--preferably Buicks--young women, and alcoholic binges. When he was in his manic states, he would become excited, overly talkative, full of extravagant ideas, and he would indulge in a variety of eccentricities. In one instance, Roethke was said to have gone into the University Bookstore near the campus, and ordered a dozen golf balls, along with volumes of his poetry, to be sent to the chiefs of police in Bellingham and Seattle.footnote 4 All through these bouts, whether high or low, Roethke continued to write poetry.

His passion for poetry and his rather eccentric antics combined to make Roethke an inspiring teacher. Before coming to the UW, he served on the faculties of LaFayette College, Pennsylvania State College, and Bennington College, Vermont. He had received his bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

I am the edge of an important shadow.footnote 1
--Theodore Roethke

When Theodore H. Roethke applied to the UW for a teaching job in 1947, the President of Bennington College wrote: "He is an extremely complex, temperamental and somewhat eccentric person… If the University of Washington can take his eccentric personality, it will acquire one of the best teachers I have ever seen."

He lived up to, and perhaps exceeded, that assessment. A former student recounted that Roethke strode into a writing class one day and said, "Good writing always begins with close observation. Watch me closely and write down exactly what I do." Roethke jumped on top of his desk and danced an Irish jig for several minutes, then crawled out a third-story window and made faces at his students.footnote 4

Antics like those and his extended stays in hospital eventually brought the scrutiny of legislators and administrators. The chairman of the English department at the time, Robert Heilman, came to Roethke's defense. Heilman successfully protected Roethke's position with what Alan Seager, author of The Glass House, described as "the finest support of a staff member I have ever heard of any university department making anywhere." footnote 5 In his letter of January 27, 1959, Heilman wrote:

"He is, I think, one of the most valuable of all our faculty members. Surely few people have a reputation comparable to his in twentieth century American literature... I think he will be a permanent figure in American literature, and whatever place he has, this university will always have a share in it. He is an investment in history such as many a university would be glad to have…I believe he has done more to make us known favorably as a university than any other single person on the staff. He is known nationally and internationally, and wherever his is known, we are known." footnote 5

In addition to his inspiring classes, Roethke was famous for magnificent poetry readings modeled after the fashion of Dylan Thomas. Roethke gave readings throughout the U.S. and Europe, and was named "Poet in Residence" at the UW in 1962. He was recognized with all of the major awards in poetry, including the Bollingen Prize, the Shelley Award, the American Academy of Poets Award, and the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award.

The main auditorium of Kane Hall on the UW campus was named in Roethke's memory in 1970.

See Selected Poetry of Theodore Roethke

  1. "The edge of an important shadow," Webster Schott, Life, 1972.
  2. Theodore Roethke: An American Romantic, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1979.
  3. "A Greenhouse Eden," Louis Martz, in Theodore Roethke: Essays on the Poetry, quoted in reference (2.).
  4. "Madness and Meter: Life with Theodore Roethke, the Great American Poet of His Generation," Jay Parini, Pacific Northwest, December 1986, p. 20.
  5. The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke, Allan Seager, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1968.
  6. Poems are reproduced from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1982 (originally by Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966) with permission.

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