It’s the birthday of poet Theodore Roethke (books by this author), born in Saginaw, Michigan (1908). His father, Otto, and his uncle Charles ran a floral company that their own father had started. The brothers had large greenhouses in their backyards, and young Theodore spent his days weeding and harvesting moss for floral baskets. Many years later, he wrote to a friend: “The greenhouse — my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.”
Roethke graduated from high school and college and went on to graduate school at Harvard. He had always loved to write, and now he started writing poetry. One night while walking through Harvard yard, he spotted a respected professor and approached him with his work. The professor invited Roethke to his office the next day, and after reading his poems, exclaimed, “Any editor who wouldn’t buy this is a fool!” Roethke was overwhelmed: “I felt I had come to the end […] of a trail. I had learned how to get high grades, but that seemed meaningless. Now I didn’t have to go into advertising […] or the law. I wasn’t just a spoiled sad snob. I could write and people I respected printed the stuff.”
The Great Depression took its toll, and Roethke dropped out of Harvard to teach at Lafayette College, and finally the University of Washington. In recommending him for the University of Washington, the president of Bennington 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.”
Roethke was a big man, 225 pounds. He was fascinated by gangsters, and he even talked like one — he had a deep voice, a growl. He was manic-depressive, and he often drank too much. He wore fur coats and drove big cars. As a teacher, he was persuasive and emotional. When he wanted his students to write a description of a physical action, he told them to describe what he was about to do, then climbed out the window onto a narrow ledge and inched his way around the whole classroom, making faces at every window. He insisted students memorize poems so that they would have something to call on when they were going through a tough period in life. He continued teaching throughout his career.
His books of poetry include The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), The Waking (1953), and The Far Field (1964).
- Heather McHugh Is Giving the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Reading at UW on Thursday (slog.thestranger.com)
- Pretzels and Bullfights: The Waking (dversepoets.com)
- Poetic Spotlight: The Waking and Saginaw Song (cianphelan.wordpress.com)
- In A Dark Time (by Theodore Roethke) (tranceworldnow.wordpress.com)
- Postal Service Immortalizes Literary Giants (sys-con.com)
- Rhymes with Everett finds the words that speak to us (heraldnet.com)