Posted: June 4th, 2021
Theodore Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1908, where his father owned a commercial greenhouse business. Roethke’s childhood memories of the greenhouses and of his father are frequent subjects of his poetry, alongside the related theme of descending into the self to discover an elementary life force at one with the growing plants of the green house and the life that surrounds it.
Roethke’s father died of cancer in 1923, two years before the poet entered the university of Michigan. Upon his graduation in 1929 he briefly attended graduate school at the university of Michigan and then at Harvard, before beginning his teaching career at Lafayette college. At Lafayette, Roethke found a strong supporter and colleague in poet Stanley kunitz, and later he formed an important friendship with Kenneth burke while teaching at pennysylvania state university(1936-1943). He then went on to teach at Bennington college.
From 1931until his death in 1963 he taught English, verse writing and (at first) tennis, at various colleges and universities in America and Europe. But between holding the positions at Lafayette and pennysylvania state, while teaching at Michigan state in 1935, Roethke was hospitalized for what were to become recurring bouts of mental illness. These breakdowns, and a drinking problem that sometimes produced violent mood swings-alternate feelings of self-doubt and of bravado-haunted Roethke for the rest of his life, but became part of the intense exploration of self (fishing “in an old wound” as he put it in “the flight”) that is central to many of his poems.
Roethke began publishing his poetry at the beginning of the 1930s, and established a growing reputation that was reinforced by the 1941 publication of ‘Open House’.
The interest in adapting the long lines and catalogue narratives of Whitman was just the final stylistic development of a number that characterize Roethke’s career. His first book of poetry was published in 1941, but his best work came late in his life.
Roethke is a poet who goes very much his own way. He is a genuine romantic, more so than most modern poets. Where the early nineteenth-century romantics reacted sharply against the sophistication of the eighteenth century, Roethke stands in similar contrast to the intellectual ingenuity prevailing in English and American poetry between 1910 and 1940.
The soul, spirit, or self is Roethke’s principal subject. His material is emotional experience rather than experience logically apprehended. The freshness and wonder which we associate with childhood is present throughout Roethke’s work .He revives apparently jaded concepts and forms (‘the spirit’, or the heavily end stopped iambic pentameter) without apology or irony,because they are valid for him. The world is seen in its natural essence –the elements, sound, colour, sensation-not politically or sociologically.
Roethke as a poet is attempting to say timeless and fundamental things. He is returning to the primary subject matter of poetry-the relationship of the individual consciousness to the physical facts of its life and its mortality. Sky, Water, Vegetation, the days and the seasons, childhood, love and death. These are the essential imagery of any such exploration, and Roethke returns to them without embarrassment.
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