Theodore Roethke, recognized by many as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century, taught at the University of Washington from 1947 until his death in 1963. There, he inspired a generation of poets, including Richard Hugo and many others who would become well-known. Afflicted with bouts of an undiagnosed mental illness but also possessed of a lust for life, Roethke produced a large and diverse body of works, such as "The Lost Son" and "Praise to the End."
Roethke was born May 25, 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan to Otto Roethke and Helen Huebner Roethke. Otto and his brother Charles ran a huge set of greenhouses established by their father, Wilhelm, a German immigrant. Roethke's homelife was tranquil, according to all accounts, although he was thin and serious and suffered from many childhood ailments.
Young Roethke spent many hours in the greenhouses, following and helping his father in his work. He weeded greenhouse beds and gathered moss in the tract of original forest on the family property. He also roamed the game sanctuary that the family maintained, "a wild area of cut-over second-growth timber," as he described it in a 1953 BBC interview. "I had several worlds to live in, which I felt were mine. One favorite place was a swampy corner of the game sanctuary where herons always nested" (Seager, 23). Images from the greenhouse and nature crop up frequently in his later poetry.
Roethke began writing early. The first piece for which he received notice was a speech about the Junior Red Cross, a very competent composition for a 13-year-old. He also wrote for his high school newspaper and began to receive good grades. He read widely and indiscriminately. To gain acceptance -- since good grades were a social negative among his peers -- he joined an illegal fraternity called Beta Phi Sigma and learned to drink the bootleg whisky that was available during prohibition.
When Roethke was 14, a series of traumatic events began: A conflict developed between Roethke's father and his brother Charles. This led to the sale of the family greenhouses. After that, Roethke's father took ill with cancer. At about this time, in February 1923, Charles Roethke committed suicide. Roethke's father died soon after. Ted Roethke, now 15, became the "head of the household," in the traditional vision of things, although his mother retained control of family finances. After his father's death, Roethke became quieter, perhaps burdened by the new responsibilities he felt. He also developed a more uneasy relationship with his mother.
In 1925, acting on his mother's preference, Roethke enrolled at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor despite his own preference for Harvard. The first in his family to attend a university, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa his senior year and graduated in 1929 magna cum laude. Heeding the wishes of his family, he set out to enter law school but soon tired of it. In the spring of 1930, he began studies at Michigan for a master's degree in literature.
The Poetic Vocation and Mental Illness
Roethke came to poetry late in life compared to many poets. He decided on his vocation while in graduate school. He studied briefly at Harvard, where Robert Hilyer, a fellow poet, encouraged him to send out his poems to magazines. After reading some of Roethke's work, Hilyer's comment was, "any editor who wouldn't buy these is a fool" (Seager, 69).
From 1931 to 1935, Roethke taught at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. At his next post with Michigan State University in 1935, he suffered a bout of mental illness and had to be treated in a private hospital. His breakdown happened on November 11, 1935. What occured during that cold night is confusing, but Roethke later described having a "mystical experience" during a walk. After returning to campus, he caused a scene in the dean's office and had to be led away to an ambulance (Seager, 90).
After a two-month stay at Mercywood Sanitarium at the edge of Ann Arbor, Roethke lost his position at Michigan State. Instead, he finished his Master of Arts degree at Michigan and managed to get a teaching position at Pennsylvania State College that fall. He taught there until 1943. While at Penn State, he published his first book of poems, Open House. He then taught at Bennington College in Vermont until 1945.
"The Lost Son"
While at Bennington, he began work on the series of poems that were to form his second book, The Lost Son and Other Poems. This book was published in 1948, the year after he began to teach at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he remained until he died in 1963.
"The Lost Son" was Roethke's groundbreaking long poem. It begins:
At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron,
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding wells.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.
Louise Bogan, writing for The New Yorker, described the poem this way:
In the long poem that gives the book its title, he plunges into the subconscious pond, and brings up all sorts of clammy amorphos material. He often frames it in the language of the adage, the proverb, the incantation, and the nonsense rhyme .... "The Lost Son" is written with complete conscious control. The effects have been manipulated as all art is manipulated, but the method aids in understanding of the material instead of befogging it. Throughout true emotion gives the chosen style coloration and shape.
A Practicing Poet at the UW
Roethke's appointment to the University of Washington came in 1947 after two faculty members at Bennington wrote glowing letters on his behalf to the head of the UW English Department, Joseph Harrison. One of the faculty members, Lewis Jones, predicted that, if the UW could find a place for the eccentric poet, "you are in for a renaissance of interest and enthusiasm in creative literature" (Seager, 171).
Indeed, Harrison reportedly told Roethke, "Ted, we don't know quite what to do with you; you're the only serious practicing poet within fifteen hundred miles" (Barcott, 192).
Roethke immediately settled in to inspire and push his students to look at poetry in new ways. Meanwhile, the poet himself was stimulated to explore new poetic forms in his own writing, as well as to enter into a series of sexual dalliances with female students.
Friendship, Marriage, and Prizes
Roethke met and formed a lasting friendship with the poet Dylan Thomas in 1950 in New York City. It was also in New York on another occasion that he became reaquainted with Beatrice O'Connell, his former Bennington student whom he would marry in January 1953.
His book, The Waking: Poems 1933-1953 received the Pulitzer Prize in spring of 1954. His next book Words for the Wind, published in 1958, was awarded the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize.
One story has Roethke teaching a class when he learns of the Bollingen Prize. He reportedly announced, "I've just won the Bollingen. To the Moon!" "The Moon" was the Blue Moon Tavern, one of Roethke's favorites, in the University District.
An Unexpected Death and Lasting Legacy
Roethke died unexpectedly on August 1, 1963, while swimming in a pool on the Prentice and Virginia Bloedel estate on Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle. An appocryphal story has him lining the poolside with drinks and doing laps, rewarding himself with a drink on each lap. Seager writes that he had just put a pitcher of mint juleps into the refrigerator and gone for a dip. His hostess and her daughter were at poolside and noticed him floating face down. The doctor said he died of a coronary occlusion.
Contrary to widely circulated misinformation, the Bloedels did not have the pool filled with soil immediately after Roethke's death. It was left unchanged until the early 1980s, when it was replaced by the Garden of the Planes, designed by noted landscape architect Richard Haag (b. 1923). In 1986, that was replaced in turn by the existing (2012) Japanese sand and rock garden, designed by Dr. Koichi Kawana (1930-1990).
Roethke's legacy, in addition to inspiring and training several generations of students, is an extraordinarily diverse and lyrical body of poetry. He could be somber or playful, surrealistic or erotic or romantic, or many of these things at once. One example of this dexterity is his poem, "I Knew a Woman:
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one;
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).