Theodore Roethke

About Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke was born on May 25, 1908, in Saginaw, Michigan. His grandfather Wilhelm, a Prussian immigrant, set up a greenhouse business and made Roethke's father, Otto, the flower specialist. Surrounded by plants and birds through his childhood, Roethke was heavily impacted by the natural world and influenced his poetry greatly, as did his constant desire to live up to his father’s ideals. He supposedly did not enjoy high school because of his social awkwardness, despite excelling academically. Two years after his father’s death from cancer in 1923, Roethke enrolled in the University of Michigan, the first of his family to attend a university. He graduated magna cum laude in 1929 with a bachelor’s degree and started working towards a master's with courses at Michigan and Harvard, but stopped before the academic year ended. He resisted his family’s petitions that he study law, and in 1931 began teaching at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, as well as coaching its tennis team.

Around the same time, Roethke’s poetry appeared in a few literary magazines. He began writing poems that eventually filled the pages of Open House, his first collection published in 1941. During the decade before the publication, Roethke taught English at several colleges including Michigan State College and … [He received two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Bollingen Prize] … Pennsylvania State College, and became renowned for his extremely effective methods. He was also hospitalized intermittently for bouts of depression, experiences Roethke believed offered him a chance to discover and understand himself more completely. His mental instability excused him from military service during World War II, and in 1943, Roethke began teaching at Vermont's Bennington College.

His colleagues at Bennington greatly influenced the work in Roethke’s next publication, The Lost Son and Other Poems (1949), printed soon after he began teaching at the University of Washington. The collection, much like its predecessor, was well received and highly acclaimed critically. However, his volume The Waking (1953) surpassed both successes and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954, just a year after Roethke married his former student Beatrice O'Connell. He received two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Bollingen Prize, among many other awards and honors, later in his career. In the last several years of his life, Roethke published several more books of poetry, both for adults and for children, while still teaching at Washington. He and Beatrice traveled frequently to Europe, where he wrote and gave readings of his poems. He died on August 1, 1963, of a heart attack, just outside of Seattle, Washington.

    Poems by Theodore Roethke

  • My Papa's Waltz

    in Famous Family Poems

    The whiskey on your breath
    Could make a small boy dizzy;
    But I hung on like death:
    Such waltzing was not easy.


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