Theodore Roethke


by Theodore Roethke (1908 – 1963)

Where were the greenhouses going,
Lunging into the lashing
Wind driving water
So far down the river
All the faucets stopped?—
So we drained the manure-machine
For the steam plant,
Pumping the stale mixture
Into the rusty boilers,
Watching the pressure gauge
Waver over to red,
As the seams hissed
And the live steam
Drove to the far
End of the rose-house,
Where the worst wind was,
Creaking the cypress window-frames,
Cracking so much thin glass
We stayed all night,
Stuffing the holes with burlap;
But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She hove into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm,
Ploughing with her stiff prow,
Bucking into the wind-waves
That broke over the whole of her,
Flailing her sides with spray,
Flinging long strings of wet across the roof-top,
Finally veering, wearing themselves out, merely
Whistling thinly under the wind-vents;
She sailed until the calm morning,
Carrying her full cargo of roses.

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Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)

Theodore Huebner Roethke was born on 25 May 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of Otto Roethke, and Helen Huebner, who, along with an uncle owned a local greenhouse. As a child, he spent much time in the greenhouse observing nature. In 1923 his father died of cancer and his uncle committed suicide.

From 1925 to 1929 Roethke attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, graduating magna cum laude. Despite his family’s wish that he pursue a legal career, he quit law school after one semester. He spent 1929 to 1931, taking graduate courses at the University of Michigan and later attended the Harvard Graduate School, where he met and worked with fellow poet Robert Hillyer.

In 1935, while teaching at Michigan State University, Roethke suffered a bout of mental illness. He finished his Master of Arts degree at Michigan, and was able to get another teaching position at Pennsylvania State College that fall.

Open House, his first book of poems, was critically acclaimed for its brief lyricism, and the collection’s intimate, personal quality influenced later ‘confessional’ poets, including Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Along with Robert Lowell and W.S. Merwin, Roethke was one of many American poets whose writing was admired by the late Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes.

The Lost Son and Praise to the End!, his second and third books, were a significant breakthrough for Roethke, exercising his abilities to write compelling free verse. The Waking: Poems 1933-1953 collected a number of poems from those earlier volumes and documented the poet’s return to traditional forms.

In 1953, Roethke married Beatrice O’Connell, a former student. Roethke did not inform O’Connell of his repeated episodes of depression, yet she remained dedicated to Roethke and his work. She ensured the posthumous publication of his final volume of poetry, The Far Field.

I am renewed by death, thought of my death,
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.

Theodore Roethke died of a heart attack on 1 August 1963 while visiting friends on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Although his work anticipated several poetic movements, and despite his influence on several major American poets, many critics argue that he is not given enough attention by contemporary readers and has been overlooked as a leading force in American poetry.