Modern American Poet (1908-1963)
Theodore Huebner Roethke was born May 25, 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan. He had the kind of childhood a poet might have invented. Both his father and his German grandfather kept greenhouses for a living. The greenhouse world, he later said, represented for him "both heaven and hell, a kind of tropics created in the safe climate of Michigan, where austere German Americans turned their love of order and their terrifying efficiency into something truly beautiful." He was the son of Otto Roethke and Helen Huebner, owners of a local greenhouse. He attended Arthur Hill High School in Saginaw where he wrote a honorable speech for the Junior Red Cross, which was later published in 26 languages. His adolescent years were horrid. His father died of cancer in 1926, which would shape his life both positively as well as negatively. His father's death gave him a lack of confidence, yet the inspiration for creativity. The lack of confidence made him drink. He attended the University of Michigan from 1925 to 1929, in which he would graduate magna cum laude. He quit law school after one year from family pressure and decided to attend Harvard Graduate School, where he worked with the poet Robert Hillyer.
The arrival of the Great Depression forced Roethke to leave Harvard and make him a professor at Lafayette College from 1931 to 1935. Roethke got his second teaching position at Michigan State College in the fall of 1935. As his reputation was growing as a great writer, Theodore Roethke found another teaching and tennis coaching job at Pennsylvania State University in 1936. In 1941 Roethke finally came out with his first volume of verse called Open House. However, he was soon put in the hospital for mental illness. Throughout his career, Roethke used these moments of depression to go into a world of creative self-exploration. They allowed him, as he said, to "reach a new level of reality."
Rothke's poetry often reenacted this "schooling" of the spirit by revisiting the landscapes of his childhood: the nature poems that made up the largest part of his early work tried to bridge the distance between a child's consciousness and the adult mysteries presided over by his father. Roethke arranged and rearranged poems to give a sense of spiritual autobiography, especially in The Lost Son (1948), Praise to the End!(1951), and The Walking (1953). The greenhouse world emerged as a "reality harsher than reality." In his books The Lost Son and Other Poems and Praise to the End!, Roethke explored the regenerative possibilities of speech like children’s riddles in which language as sound that recaptures nonlogical states of being. In these poems, his most dazzling and original work, Roethke opened the possibilities of language. The Lost Son is called "The Gibber", a pun because the word means both a meaningless utterance and the pouch at the base of the calyx of a flower.
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.
If nature poems of Roethke's first four books explores the anxieties with him since childhood, his later love poems show him in periods of release and momentary pleasure:
And I dance round and round,
A fond and foolish man,
And see and suffer myself
In another being at last.
From 1955 and 1956, Roethke traveled in Italy, Europe, and England on a Fulbright grant. The love poems, many of them included in Worlds for the Wind (1958) and The Far Field (1964), are among the most appealing in modern American verse. He recieved the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Prize, the Longview Foundation Award, and the Pacific Northwest Writer's Award for the They stand in sharp relief Roethke experienced in other areas of his personal life, periods of mental breakdowns and heavy alcoholism. This would later lead to a premature death. He was greatly honored later in his career with a Pulitzer Prize for The Walking (1953).
Theodore Roethke died from a heart attack in 1963 while visiting some friends in Brimbridge Island, Washington. Before this terrible incident, Roethke wrote 61 poems that were gathered and published after his death in The Far Field (1964).
Sources included the American National Biography. Ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999., http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=13, www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/roethke/roethke.htm, and