Theodore Roethke became one of America’s most renowned poets and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954.
His death in 1963 was mourned as the loss of one of the nation’s great literary talents. He was only 55 when he died on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, Washington.
Roethke was born in Saginaw, son of a west side greenhouse operator. His boyhood, spent playing in and working in the greenhouse, furnished material for some of his bewitching, haunting poems.
Ted Roethke became a curious, enigmatic, bulbous man who once said, “I may look like a beer salesman, but I’m a poet.” A Washington newspaper critic once described well the Saginaw poet’s sensitivity and the muted beauty of what he wrote about nature and his sometimes blasphemous hoots at mankind’s foibles. He wrote: “Roethke’s poems—whether on geraniums, a meadow mouse, big winds, far fields, beloved women—are votes of beauty cast in the endless elections where the life of growing things wins out over the daily vacuums. Let my words lift you, say the poems, come soaring with your feelings.”
Roethke, an English professor and teacher of poetry at a number of leading colleges, including the University of Michigan, from which he was graduated, always had a singular affinity with his students. He was a graduate of Saginaw’s Arthur Hill High School. Poet, teacher, bon vivant, Roethke was a big man physically and had a big soul.
He was a fine tennis player, even in his later years. He learned to play the game on the clay courts of the former Saginaw Canoe Club.
A Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize was inaugurated in 1967. There was a public celebration in Saginaw.
In his Saginaw grade school and high school days, he gave little indication of the writing genius which lived within him. In high school he was a member of the debate team, a public speaker with poise and a telling ability to use language with accuracy.
According to a friend and classmate at the University of Michigan, where Roethke won the Phi Beta Kappa scholastic key, Roethke was not a student grind. Said the friend: “He liked a glass of beer, but was no lush. He could drink with the best of ‘em and never show it.”
Roethke won a Pulitzer Prize for his volume, The Waking. He won many other honors: given two Guggenheim Fellowships for advanced studies; awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for studies at the University of Florence, Italy; elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; granted a Ford Foundation Fellowship, and won the 1951 Levinson Prize, highest award given by Poetry magazine. Among his books were The Lost Son and Other Poems, Praise to the End! and Open House. His collected works were published under the title of Words for the Wind, a book of 212 pages.
One of Roethke’s memorable essays was titled, “Last Class,” containing his parting remarks to the girls of Bennington College where he taught. He later married one. “Goodbye,” he wrote, “If only once or twice, some sly generous hint from the unconscious slipped from the side of my mouth, if any of you have looked for the last time into that cracked mirror of self-love, then we have not failed, you and I. “We both may escape the leagues of swank and swink, all the petty malice and provincial nastiness that wants to smother, to suffocate anything human and alive. Nymphs, I wish you swoops of many fish. May your search for the abiding be forever furious.”
A San Francisco newspaperman wrote after Roethke’s death a feature article titled “Eulogy for a Slightly Mad Poet.” It was a keeper for collectors of Roethkeiana. Wrote the newspaperman: “I feel slightly nervy writing about Theodore Roethke, the poet who died a few years ago. He was my teacher once.
“I was a student in one of his poetry-workshop classes at the University of Washington, or rather, I was a kind of wild horse that should have been out galloping in Arizona, a horse who wanted not just to talk, but to sing yet.
“I can still see the poor man laying his great bald head down on the table and spitting out execrations against horsey interlopers in class. He was right.
“He loved poetry more than anything in life, and he was always making it, even when he sneezed. ‘Gesundheit,’ he’d say, facing a would-be poet at the end of the table, and ‘excuse me, o prince of lassitude.’
“Like most poets, he never quite went insane but just resisted sanity enough to outrage the conventions of his time. Sometimes he would show up in class absolutely drunk, wearing nothing but his brightest striped underpants, and would do on top of the table the dance called, ‘Crazy Jane Makes the Bishop Blush.’
“I liked sitting out on the steps of the building where he taught, and even though you’d have given anything to be able to go up and talk with him, you felt the need he had to be left alone.”