Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) was an innovator, both in subject matter and form, writing in the transcendental tradition of Emerson and Thoreau but making it his own. The key to his powerful identification with nature can be found in his childhood. Born in Saginaw, Michigan, to German immigrant parents, Roethke spent much of his childhood exploring the vast greenhouses owned by his father and uncle. Covering some twenty five acres they were filled with roses and orchids and had a formative impact on Roethke’s imagination. The stability of his early years came to an abrupt end with the death of his father from cancer in 1923 and the suicide of his uncle around the same time. In 1925 Roethke became the first member of his family to go to university when he enrolled in the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, graduating magna cum laude in 1929. After an abortive attempt to study law, Roethke took a Masters degree in Literature at Michigan. U.S. academia was to become Roethke’s professional home for the rest of his life, with teaching posts first at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania, followed by the University of Michigan, Pennsylvania State College, Bennington College in Vermont and finally the University of Washington in Seattle. Roethke came relatively late to the vocation of poetry, his first book, Open House, appearing in 1941. Written in tight rhyming forms, the book received widespread praise and was significant in introducing Roethke’s confessional stance which represented a break from T. S. Eliot’s doctrine of the impersonality of the poet. However, it was 1948’s The Lost Son which was to prove his breakthrough: for this book Roethke re-visited his childhood evoking the strange world of the greenhouses which become a symbol of his internal reality, whilst the title poem delved into his ambivalent feelings towards his father. Roethke’s willingness to explore his subconscious in his poetry was to be a decisive influence on a whole generation of poets, such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Robert Bly. Roethke’s mysticism and interest in psychoanalysis were intensified by the recurring bouts of depression which he suffered throughout his adult life. Difficult as these episodes were, Roethke saw them as forms of spiritual crisis, helping him “to reach a new level of reality” in the manner of one of his poetic heroes, William Blake. Roethke continued to publish regularly, though sparingly: Praise to the End! (1951) extended his use of the stream-of-consciousness technique. By this time Roethke was settled in Washington and married to a former student, Beatrice O’Connell. He became a celebrated teacher, directly influencing a number of North Western poets including Carolyn Kizer, David Wagoner and James Wright. His poetry was increasingly recognised, a whole series of awards culminating in the Pulitzer Prize for his 1953 collection The Waking. Though this marked his return to formal verse, later work saw Roethke experimenting with a Whitmanesque length of line. Roethke died of a heart attack whilst swimming in a friend’s pool at Bainbridge Island. His pioneering explorations of nature, psychology and personal confession, coupled with his stylistic mastery of free verse and fixed forms have secured his reputation as a key American poet.

Several of his Archive-featured poems go back to the formative experience of his childhood on the family farm. As he says in his introduction to ‘The Heron’, “I had several worlds to live in which I felt were mine”. Certainly there’s a sense of Roethke marking out his imaginative territory with this intensely felt observation of the bird in all its beauty and fierceness. However, it’s in the exhilaration of the two poems about the greenhouses, ‘The Big Wind’ and ‘Child on Top of a Greenhouse’ that you can sense the creative lightning rod that connects the adults poet to his past. Here the descriptions cross the line from the naturalistic to the surreal, as chrysanthemums stare up at him “like accusers” and the rose-house becomes a huge ship riding out the night storm. In a characteristic movement the pressure of inner feelings – of guilt, danger and excitement – find charged expression in the external world.

Other poems here show Roethke’s sensitivity in capturing the ambiguities of human relationships: his aching elegy for a former student acknowledges his uncomfortable mixture of emotions, part desire, part paternal tenderness, while the father in his famous poem ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ is an exciting and yet terrifying force that scoops the young Roethke up like a whirlwind. This reading also includes ‘The Waking’, one of Roethke’s most celebrated poems. The circling form of the villanelle with its haunting repetitions perfectly expresses the paradoxes of Roethke’s statements, to the extent that the form is the meaning. The poem investigates Roethke’s belief in inner vision: sleep is the state in which we are truly awakened and wisdom lies not in conscious knowledge, but in instinct: we “think by feeling”. In the harmony of this beautiful poem and his exhilarating speaking of it, Roethke shares his visionary experience with the listener: “I hear my being dance from ear to ear.”

‘Heron’ and ‘The Waking’ are studio recordings while the other poems form an interesting contrast, being recorded live at the height of the poet’s powers in the 1950’s. Roethke is on tremendous form, relaxed in front of his audience, his resonant voice full of energy as it drives through the poems.

'The Heron' and 'The Waking' come from a recording made on 30 September 1953 from the archives of the BBC. The Poetry Archive is very grateful to the BBC for its support in enabling us to feature this important material on the site. The remaining poems come from a recording made in the 1950s at the YMHA Poetry Centre, New York, which is used by kind permission of the Library of Congress.

Books by Theodore Roethke