One of the great experiences of youth is finding a writer who speaks directly to you, as if they know you intimately and understand you...

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One of the great experiences of youth is finding a writer who speaks directly to you, as if they know you intimately and understand you entirely.

A writer who spoke to me that way was the poet Theodore Roethke, the subject of “First Class,” a new play by David Wagoner debuting soon at ACT Theatre.

“First Class” has local hooks aplenty. Wagoner is also a well-known poet, who teaches creative writing at the University of Washington. Roethke, Wagoner’s teacher and mentor, taught at UW, with a few hiatuses, from 1947 until his death in 1963.

An auditorium in UW’s Kane Hall is named for Roethke, a burly, balding, complex, charismatic man known to friends as Ted.

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“First Class” is also a pet project of its sole actor, respected Seattle thespian John Aylward, and its director, ACT artistic head Kurt Beattie, who nurtured the one-act script with a workshop at Richard Hugo House.

But you won’t hear much Roethke verse in “First Class.” The play takes the form of a creative-writing seminar, not a poetry reading — in part, Wagoner has said, due to the difficulty of obtaining rights to the poems. But also because the play aims for a broader character study of Roethke — a brilliant writer and teacher, despite a terrible struggle with his own demons.

So who was Theodore Roethke? Certainly not one of the few American poets (Whitman, Frost, etc.) embedded in the standard high-school and college curriculum.

His eloquent, elegant and fearless verses do not bear the conversational style, urban cadences and laissez-faire structure heard at today’s poetry slams; nor the abstraction of more academic modern poetry.

Roethke’s accessible verses are steeped in his vibrant knowledge of the natural world, often evoked as a reflecting pond for the tumultuous inner terrain of the psyche. The poems are formally rigorous, yet spiritually seeking. “Deep in their roots,” Roethke wrote, “all flowers keep the light.”

But even those familiar with Roethke’s volumes “The Waking” (honored with a Pulitzer Prize), “Words for the Wind” (a National Book Award winner) and “The Far Field” may know little of the longtime Seattle resident who produced them.

A native of Saginaw, Mich., where his father and uncle owned greenhouses, Roethke grew up entranced by plants and animals. A favorite place in his boyhood was “a swampy corner of the game sanctuary where herons always nested.”

“The Glass House,” a biography of Roethke written by another teaching colleague, the late Allan Seager, paints a bucolic childhood for its subject. But tragedy struck when Ted was 15. When his father died and uncle committed suicide, he grew introspective. A gifted student, he was the first in his family to attend college (University of Michigan) and pursue a teaching career.

Poetry as a vocation came a bit later, in the early 1950s, as The Nation and other prominent periodicals published Roethke’s verse and critics took notice.

Then in 1955, this most promising of poets suffered his first mental breakdown at age 27 — and had his first stint in a sanitarium.

“What’s madness but nobility of soul/At odds with circumstance?” he would write later.

Like many others in his condition, before the advent of effective psychotropic drugs, Roethke self-medicated with alcohol. A favorite Seattle watering hole was the U-District’s fabled Blue Moon Tavern.

In the 1950s, madness and alcoholism were heavily romanticized as near-prerequisites for major poets (e.g., Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath). But in reality, reported Roethke’s wife Beatrice, “What are generally thought of as [my husband’s] best poems were written when he was well … “

Mused the poet, in one of the scores of spiral workbooks he kept: “My whole life is a struggle against psychic disturbances.”

Though mental illness clouded the rest of Roethke’s life, it did not paralyze it. Despite seesawing bouts of elation and depression, erratic behavior, volatile friendships and love affairs, Roethke became a revered American poet. But friends witnessed his private agony: Seager describes a horrific manic episode at UW, during which Roethke grew so agitated he was taken in handcuffs to Harborview Hospital.

What was most remarkable about Roethke, however, was not his rotten luck in the genetic draw. It was his productivity as a writer, and his ability to teach, mentor and inspire a generation of gifted Northwest poets, including Carolyn Kizer, Tess Gallagher, Richard Hugo. “What we need,” he once opined, “is more people who specialize in the impossible.”

But ultimately, Roethke’s main legacy is his own poetry. So, gingerly, I returned to those poems I so loved in my own youth and seemed so uncannily insightful, so profound and incandescent: “The Abyss.” “The Waking.” “In a Dark Time.”

The words still sparked off the page. The sensuousness, the lyricism, the harrowing tour of psychic sabotage were intact. The remarkable snatching of joy, even ecstasy from the jaws of agony.

I’m old enough now to see that Roethke celebrated nature, not madness. Yet through his art, he was able to cast a keen light on the latter condition, exploring it with a complexity, candor and a wisdom that are rarely glib.

So let the poet say it himself, in these closing lines from “In a Dark Time”:

My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,

Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.

The mind enters itself, and God the mind,

And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

Misha Berson:

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