Theodore Roethke was an American poet, who published several volumes of poetry
characterized by its rhythm, rhyming, and natural imagery. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for
poetry in 1954 for his book, The Waking.
Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan and grew up on the west side of the Saginaw River.
His father, Otto, was a German immigrant, a market-gardener who owned a large local
greenhouse, along with his brother (Theodore's uncle). Much of Theodore's childhood was spent
in this greenhouse, as reflected by the use of natural images in his poetry. The poet's adolescent
years were jarred, however, by his uncle's suicide and by the death of his father from cancer,
both in early 1923, when Theodore (Ted) was only 15. These deaths shaped Roethke's psyche
and creative life.
He attended the University of Michigan, earning A.B. and M.A. degrees. He briefly attended law
school before entering Harvard University, where he studied under the poet Robert Hillyer.
Abandoning graduate study because of the Great Depression, he taught English at several
universities, including Lafayette College, Pennsylvania State University, and Bennington
College. In 1940, he was expelled from his position at Lafayette and he returned to Michigan.
Just prior to his return, he had an affair with established poet and critic Louise Bogan, who later
became one of his strongest early supporters. While teaching at Michigan State University in
East Lansing, he began to suffer from manic depression, which fueled his poetic impetus. His
last teaching position was at the University of Washington, leading to an association with the
poets of the American Northwest.
In 1953, Roethke married Beatrice O'Connell, a former student. Like many other American poets
of his generation, Roethke was a heavy drinker and susceptible, as mentioned, to bouts of mental
illness. He did not inform O'Connell of his repeated episodes of depression, yet she remained
dedicated to him and his work. She ensured the posthumous publication of his final volume of
poetry, The Far Field, which includes the poem "Meditation at Oyster River."
In 1961, "The Return" was featured on George Abbe's album Anthology of Contemporary
American Poetry on Folkways Records. The following year, Roethke released his own album on
the label entitled, Words for the Wind: Poems of Theodore Roethke.
He suffered a heart attack in his friend S. Rasnics' swimming pool in 1963 and died on
Bainbridge Island, Washington, aged 55. The pool was later filled in and is now a zen rock
garden, which can be viewed by the public at the Bloedel Reserve, a 150-acre (60 hectare)
former private estate. There is no sign to indicate that the rock garden was the site of Roethke's
There is a sign that commemorates his boyhood home and burial in Saginaw, Michigan. The
historical marker notes in part:
Theodore Roethke (1908–1963) wrote of his poetry: The greenhouse "is my symbol for the
whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth." Roethke drew inspiration from his childhood
experiences of working in his family's Saginaw floral company. Beginning is 1941 with Open
House, the distinguished poet and teacher published extensively, receiving a Pulitzer Prize for
poetry and two National Book Awards among an array of honors. In 1959 Pennsylvania
University awarded him the Bollingen Prize. Roethke taught at Michigan State College, (presentday Michigan State University) and at colleges in Pennsylvania and Vermont, before joining the
faculty of the University of Washington at Seattle in 1947. Roethke died in Washington in 1963.
His remains are interred in Saginaw's Oakwood Cemetery.
The Friends of Theodore Roethke Foundation maintains his birthplace at 1805 Gratiot in
Saginaw as a museum.
In Against Oblivion, an examination of forty-five twentieth century poets, the critic Ian Hamilton
Roethke's best gift as a poet was for touching, small-scale lyricism (see Elegy for Jane, My
Papa's Waltz). More and more though he was drawn towards what he believed to be the 'major'
themes: man and God, Eternity, the Universe, and so on. Spiritual afflatus took over from direct
experience; inspiration was supplanted by ambition. In this sense, Roethke was a typical midcentury case study.
Early on, the chief influence was W. H. Auden. Later, Roethke turned to Walt Whitman - who ...
seems to have directed Roethke back to the intent scrutiny of nature that marked his early, socalled "greenhouse" poems. In Roethke's second book, The Lost Son, there are several of these
greenhouse poems and they are among the best things he wrote; convincing and exact, and rich
in loamy detail.
Poems of Theodore Roethke
/ ordered by HIT /
Selections from I Am! Said the Lamb
Once More, the Round
Journey Into The Interior
Elegy For Jane
In A Dark Time
I Knew a Woman
Child on Top of a Greenhouse
My Papa's Waltz
The Waking (1953)
The Waking (1948)
The Shape Of The Fire
The Saginaw Song
The Right Thing
The Meadow Mouse
The Far Field
''The self persists like a dying star,
In sleep, afraid.''
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), U.S. poet. Meditation at Oyster River (l. 24-25). . .
Modern American Poetry. Louis Untermeyer, ed. (8th rev. ed., 1...
''The whisky on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death;
Such waltzing was not easy.''
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), U.S. poet. My Papa's Waltz (l. 1-4). . . Norton Anthology
of Poetry, The. Alexander W. Allison and others, eds. (3d ...
''When I saw that clumsy crow
Flap from a wasted tree,
A shape in the mind rose up:''
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), U.S. poet. Night Crow (l. 1-3). . . Oxford Book of Short
Poems, The. P. J. Kavanagh and James Michie, eds. Oxford Un...
''Wheels shake the roadbed stone,
The pistons jerk and shove,
I stay up half the night
To see the land I love.''
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), U.S. poet. Night Journey (l. 24-27). . . New Yorker Book of
Poems, The. (1969) The Viking Press. (Paperback edition ...
''Nothing would give up life;
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.''
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), U.S. poet. Root Cellar (l. 10-11). . . Norton Anthology of
Poetry, The. Alexander W. Allison and others, eds. (3d ed...
''Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,''
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), U.S. poet. Root Cellar (l. 1-2). . . Norton Anthology of
Poetry, The. Alexander W. Allison and others, eds. (3d ed.,...
''But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
The small cells bulge;
One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,''
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), U.S. poet. "Sticks-in-a-drowse droop over sugary loam,"
(l. 3-6). . . Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, The. Richar...
''For something is amiss or out of place
When mice with wings can wear a human face.''
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), U.S. poet. The Bat (l. 9-10). . . Oxford Book of Children's
Verse in America, The. Donald Hall, ed. (1985) Oxford Un...
''Is that dance slowing in the mind of man
That made him think the universe could hum?''
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), U.S. poet. The Dance (l. 1-2). . . Norton Anthology of
Modern Poetry, The. Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair, eds. ...
''Love is not love until love's vulnerable.
She slowed to sigh, in that long interval.''
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), U.S. poet. The Dream (l. 17-18). . . Norton Anthology of
Poetry, The. Alexander W. Allison and others, eds. (3d ed.,...
Pictures of Theodore Roethke