Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

2. Theodore Roethke, 1908–1963

When he arrived in Seattle in 1947, Theodore Roethke came to a kind of balance. He came West from a more established society, from Bennington College, Harvard, the University of Michigan, and from his childhood home in Saginaw, to a younger place, the University of Washington and the post-war boom town of Seattle. But Roethke was the son of a flower-grower, a nursery-man, and he found the Northwest to be a kind of ancient greenhouse, where nature felt less used up, more nearby, than wherever he’d lived before. The greenhouse was his model and the Northwest was his model come to full life. Seattle, which had been unexposed, really, to an ambitious and ascending poet, was an open place for Roethke, after his father’s death and after he’d left a difficult time at Bennington, to take root again. But it’s fair to say the rooting wasn’t easy, it was a strain for him. He often complained of his invisible local status, of the weather, of the thousands of miles between himself and other serious writers. Still, he came to terms with the Northwest, and, shortly before his death, he wrote in “The Rose” (Roethke 1964:29), which he read to an enthusiastic audience at the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962: “There are those to whom place is unimportant, / But this place, where sea and fresh water meet, / Is important. . . . ”

Roethke brought with him to Seattle poetic drive, poetic connections, and poetic convictions. He was a competitive man who exploited and admired the best of the poets around him—Louise Bogan, Stanley Kunitz, Leonie Adams, Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell—and he burrowed into the entire poetic tradition, so that one found in his early work and throughout his many notebooks an imitative record of those he’d studied—Christopher Smart, John Clare, William Wordsworth, W. B. Yeats especially—and an unashamed recognition of what could be learned from the long-practiced forms of poetry. The poet Carolyn Kizer, an early Seattle Roethke student, says one thing she admired was his enthusiasm for the work of other poets (cited in Roethke 2001:5). He opened his own readings by presenting the work of his contemporaries and the “great dead.” Of the many things to be said of his teaching, his encouragement that students learn to “write like someone else,” as they worked toward their own style, ranks high (Roethke 2001:55-62). He began his courses instructing his hand-picked students to “read all the poetry in English,” to memorize, to practice the short-to-long poetic lines, to omit even good lines if they didn’t serve the poem, to listen to the music of poetry, to make language sing. It is important to note how Roethke gave to the Northwest an infusion of great poetry as much as the Northwest gave Roethke the sound of itself.

Roethke brought to the University of Washington the teaching poets David Wagoner and Nelson and Beth Bentley. At the UW, Nelson Bentley extended Roethke’s influence by sponsoring a years-long series of public poetry readings, and David Wagoner edited the Kizer- and Errol Pritchard-inspired journal Poetry Northwest for 43 years and taught with an acute editor’s ear for half-a-century. Wagoner’s poetic output inspired the same respect among his students as his mentor’s had.  Many of Roethke’s students went on to become poets and teachers themselves. Thus, the sixteen years of Roethke’s residence in Seattle changed the region’s literary maturity and taste.

Roethke kept his students’ work. The University of Washington Special Collections house almost all the poems, exams, papers, and exercises of Roethke’s students—from Richard Hugo’s in the first workshops, to Tess Bond Gallagher’s in the last. In his notes to a student who is now a major American composer, Roethke wrote, “OK, you’re in. It will be fun having you around, but do some work on language, my friend.” He would suggest that each student read the poets best suited to guide growth:  “Study Hopkins, my dear.” He demanded, “Goose up.” “More rhythmical tensions.” “Physicality needed.”  His quarter-by-quarter syllabi assumed his was the only class that mattered. In addition to original student work, he asked for long papers about established poets (25 pages minimum), several shorter papers, pages of handwritten copies of major poems—his own notebooks are full of these as well—weekly memorization, and more original poems written as exercises in many meters and forms. He taught dramatically, ecstatically. David Wagoner, Carolyn Kizer, Richard Hugo, Tess Gallagher, Duane Niatum, Wesley Wehr, and others have written about his classes. Throughout the Northwest and beyond, Roethke’s students continue the art of teaching poetry as well as the art of writing it.  “I’m amazed,” says Kizer, “that my own teaching methods are such a duplicate of his. . . . I’ve simply carried on as the master taught me” (cited in Roethke 2001:4).

It is not accurate to call good writers “regional.” A strong image works into any close reader’s interior, no matter where the image is formed. Chekhov’s Russia, Wordsworth’s England, Faulkner’s Mississippi, Carver’s Yakima carry themselves around the world and live in every book and mind that holds them. Still, it’s a privilege to see one’s own country defined by the best language. Good writing helps citizens define “home.” While reading “The Rose,” any Northwest citizen will see and hear the San Juan Islands. Theodore Roethke changed the mental landscape of the Northwest by showing many new poets how to write carefully, as he did, ways to use scenery and weather as inroads to the imagination.

Roethke's poems range across many forms and styles. Some of his work is quickly accessible, some is opaque, understood more by sympathy than understanding. Most, as in “I Knew a Woman,” all are music and sound as well as sense. “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones / When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them; / Oh, when she moved, she moved more ways than one: / The shapes a bright container can contain!” (Roethke 1966:122).

Roethke occasionally broke down emotionally, and these experiences with their frenzies and subsequent hospitalizations terrified him, so that his poems often speak of dread of another bout and of a dark knowledge of the interior self. “In a dark time, the eye begins to see . . .” (Roethke 1964:79).

A Roethke reader can take many approaches to the poet’s work. Roethke worked through the poetic range, from children’s poems to poems in the oldest technical traditions, to poems experimental and surreal. In all, his poems give what the reader gives back to them. Roethke says in “The Waking,” “We think by feeling. What is there to know?" And “ I learn by going where I have to go” (Roethke 1966:104).

See: Theodore Roethke, "North American Sequence" in The Far Field. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.

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