Theodore Roethke's Life and Career
He was born Theodore Huebner Roethke in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of Otto Roethke and Helen Huebner, owners of a local greenhouse. As a student at Saginaw's Arthur Hill High School, Roethke demonstrated early promise in a speech on the Junior Red Cross that was subsequently published in twenty-six languages. The poet's adolescent years were jarred, however, by the death of his father from cancer in 1923, a loss that would powerfully shape Roethke's psychic and creative lives. From 1925 to 1929 Roethke distinguished himself at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, graduating magna cum laude. Resisting family pressure to pursue a legal career, he quit law school after one semester and, from 1929 to 1931, took graduate courses at the University of Michigan and later the Harvard Graduate School, where he worked closely with the poet Robert Hillyer.
The hard economic times of the Great Depression forced Roethke to leave Harvard and to take up a teaching career at Lafayette College from 1931 to 1935. Here he met Rolfe Humphries, who introduced him to Louise Bogan; during these years Roethke also found a powerful supporter, colleague, and friend in the poet Stanley Kunitz. In the fall of 1935 Roethke assumed his second teaching post at Michigan State College at Lansing but was soon hospitalized for what would prove to be recurring bouts of mental illness. Throughout his subsequent career Roethke used these periodic incidents of depression for creative self-exploration. They allowed him, as he said, to "reach a new level of reality."
During the remainder of the decade Roethke enjoyed a growing reputation as a poet. He taught at Pennsylvania State University from 1936 to 1943, publishing in such prestigious journals as Poetry, the New Republic, the Saturday Review, and Sewanee Review. He brought out his first volume of verse, Open House, in 1941. Not insignificantly, the title piece of this first book stands as an early figure for the confessional aesthetic of Roethke's later poetry. "My secrets cry aloud," he writes, describing his psyche, or "heart," as an "open house" with "widely swung" doors.
Open House was an important beginning for Roethke as it was favorably reviewed in the New Yorker, the Saturday Review, the Kenyon Review, and the Atlantic; W. H. Auden called it "completely successful." Not surprisingly, this first work shows the influence of poetic models such as John Donne, William Blake, Léonie Adams, Louise Bogan, Emily Dickinson, Rolfe Humphries, Stanley Kunitz, and Elinor Wylie, writers whose verse had shaped the poet's early imagination and style. Yet the book's subjective focus on personal experience marked an important departure both from T. S. Eliot's doctrine of poetic impersonality, articulated in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," (1917), and from what the New Critics W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley later deplored as the intentional fallacy.
The year after Open House was published Roethke was, invited to deliver one of the prestigious Morris Gray lectures at Harvard University, and in 1943 he left Penn State to teach at Bennington College, where he joined such luminaries as Léonie Adams and Kenneth Burke. Bennington challenged Roethke to develop as a teaching poet. His collaboration with Burke, in particular, was crucial to the development of the second, and pivotal, volume of Roethke's career, The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948). In the book's opening fourteen lyrics, the so-called "greenhouse poems," the metaphor of the open house passes into the figure of the glasshouse as the dominant symbol of the self's interior, existential world. Roethke described the glasshouse, in "An American Poet Introduces Himself and His Poems" (BBC broadcast, 30 July 1953), as "both heaven and hell.... It was a universe, several worlds, which, even as a child, one worried about, and struggled to keep alive." The poet's close attention to the subhuman world of organic growth served as a scenic counterpart to Roethke's own imaginative development, and it staged Roethke's need as the "lost son" to work through his psychic ambivalence toward the absent patriarch Otto Roethke as well as the fathering "great dead" of the literary tradition.
The descent into the organic life of things themselves dramatized the theme of regression that is explored in psychoanalytic terms in the book's title piece. "Sometimes, of course, there is regression," Roethke said in "An American Poet Introduces Himself and His Poems." "I believe that the spiritual man must go back in order to go forward." "The Lost Son" presented this regressive aesthetic in terms of both a descent into the subhuman life of nature and a return to repressed, childhood scenes. Karl Malkoff was one of the first critics to interpret these so-called "developmental poems" in terms of Roethke's divided attitude toward his father Otto, depicted, for example, in his widely anthologized work "My Papa's Waltz." Apparently, Roethke's filial anxieties stemmed from the trauma of Otto's death, which interrupted the adolescent's successful passage through oedipal rivalry. The five sections of "The Lost Son" work through the poet's conflicted attitude toward the dead patriarch and, by extension, what Roethke described as his "spiritual ancestors" of the literary tradition. Indeed, in a telling Yale Review essay, "How to Write Like Somebody Else" (1959), Roethke described his relation to W B. Yeats in terms of "daring to compete with papa." Roethke's drive to master his precursors, however, led him to forge significant literary innovations.
Building on modernist stream-of-consciousness narrative techniques, Roethke achieved an arresting poetic performance in an associative, and often surreal, verbal style, one that depicted primal and psychic states of mind. In his next volume, Praise to the End! (1951), Roethke's regressive aesthetic continued to explore further the prerational experience of early childhood and sexual discoveries of adolescence. The volume's title, as an allusion to Wordsworth's The Prelude, signaled the work's romantic celebration of the child's unity of being in the natural world. Employing nonsense lyrics, nursery rhymes, synaesthesia, and natural personifications, works such as "Where Knock Is Open Wide" were written "entirely from the viewpoint of a very small child"--as Roethke observed in "Open Letter" (1950). Such unmediated encounters with nature and the unconscious in, for example, "I Need, I Need" also characterize the poet's initiation into erotic sexuality in "Give Way, Ye Gates," "Sensibility! O La!," and "O Lull Me, Lull Me."
Praise to the End! was composed after the poet's move to the University of Washington, where he not only found talented protégés in Carolyn Kizer, David Wagoner, and James Wright (1927-1980) but loyal colleagues such as Robert Heilman who, as department head, helped Roethke manage his recurring bouts of depression. The early 1950s augured Roethke's growing stature with the award of a Guggenheim Fellowship (1950), Poetry magazine's Levinson Prize (1951), and major grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1952. The following year Roethke married Beatrice O'Connell, whom he had met during his earlier stint at Bennington. The two spent the following spring at W H. Auden's villa at Ischia, off the coast of Italy, where Roethke edited the galley proofs for The Waking: Poems 1933-1953 (1953), a seminal volume that won the Pulitzer Prize the next year. Although thematically akin to Roethke's work of the late 1940s, this volume's title piece marked the poet's return to formalist verse, composed as it is in the complex villanelle pattern. The Waking also included such major works in the Roethke canon as "Elegy for Jane" and "Four for Sir John Davies," which was modeled on Davies's metaphysical poem "Orchestra."
Throughout 1955 and 1956 the Roethkes traveled in Italy, Europe, and England on a Fulbright grant. The following year he published a collection of works that included forty-three new poems entitled Words for the Wind (1957), which won the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Prize, the Longview Foundation Award, and the Pacific Northwest Writer's Award. Divided into five sections, the new poems included children's verse, love poetry (including his famous "I Knew a Woman"), poems on natural themes, and two long works entitled "Dying Man," an elegiac work in the Yeatsian mood, and "Meditations of an Old Woman," a verse commemoration of the poet's mother. Now at the height of his popularity and fame, Roethke balanced his teaching career with reading tours in New York and Europe, underwritten by another Ford Foundation grant. While visiting with friends at Bainbridge Island, Washington, Roethke suffered a fatal heart attack. During the last years of his life be had composed the sixty-one new poems that were published posthumously in The Far Field (1964)--which received the National Book Award--and in The Collected Poems (1966).
Roethke's historical significance rests both on his established place in the American canon and on his influence over a subsequent generation of award-winning poets that includes Robert Bly, James Dickey, Carolyn Kizer, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, William Stafford, David Wagoner, and James Wright. Although Roethke's last works have been criticized for their indebtedness to such high modernists as T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and W. B. Yeats, contemporary poets and critics have also emphasized the expansive vision of self, at one with American place, that Roethke masterfully presented in the Whitmanesque catalogs of "North American Sequence." "There is no poetry anywhere," James Dickey wrote in the Atlantic (Nov. 1968), "that is so valuably conscious of the human body as Roethke's; no poetry that can place the body in an environment." Roethke's pioneering explorations of nature, regional settings, depth psychology, and personal confessionalism--coupled with his stylistic innovations in open form poetics and his mastery of traditional, fixed forms--have secured his reputation as one of the most distinguished and widely read American poets of the twentieth century.
From American National Biography. Ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.
In reviewing Theodore Roethke's volume of collected work, Words for the Wind (1959), Delmore Schwartz described the essential nature of Roethke's method and matter: "These poems appear, at first glance, to be uncontrollable and subliminal outcries, the voices of roots, stones, leaves, logs, small birds; and they also resemble the songs in Shakespearian plays. . . . Roethke uses a variety of devices with the utmost cunning and craft to bring the unconsciousness to the surface of articulate expression." For Roethke, boundaries between outer and inner dissolve; the natural world seems a vast landscape of the psyche, just as the voyage inward leads to natural thingsroots, leaves, and flowersas emblems of the recesses of the self. To travel either outward or inward is to encounter the self, and the voyage in either direction is fraught with the possibilities of transcendence, dissolution, or both:
In a dark wood I saw
I saw my several selves
Come running from the leaves,
Lewd, tiny careless lives
That scuttled under stones,
Or broke, but would not go.
Triune obsessionsnature as psychic landscape, love as a vehicle out of the limited self, and dancing as a metaphor for ecstatic being in the worldmerge repeatedly, modifying one another, gaining heightened meaning through repetition in various contexts. The final stanza of "I Knew a Woman" seems to crystallize all three: "Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay: / I'm martyr to a motion not my own; / What's freedom for? To know eternity. / . . . These old bones learn to live her wanton ways: / (I measure time by how a body sways)." Swaying, reeling, whirling, the body of the speaker (which we are always reminded is the vehicle or container of spirit) is always in motion, a dance which alternates between the ecstatic and the desperate. In the beautiful lyric "The Waking," from the 1953 volume of that title, the poet asserts, "We think by feeling. What is there to know? / I hear my being dance from ear to ear." But Words for the Wind's title poem, an epithalamion, concludes on a more ambiguous note: "And I dance round and round, / A fond and foolish man. / And see and suffer myself / In another being, at last." If on one level the poem describes the joyful experience of loveemphatically made both physical and emotional in the metaphor of the circling dancethen on another it seems the narrative of a driven attempt to escape from the prison of self. There is a triumphant quality to "In another being, at last" which is made heartrendingeven elegiac in the context of Roethke's life and worksince the will to enter another being besides the self can attain its desire only in a transitory dance.
from A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Ed. Jack Myers and David Wojahn. Copyright © 1991 by the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University
Return to Theodore Roethke