“THOSE WHO ARE willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Theodore Roethke, author of such immortal poems as “Open House,” “My Papa’s Waltz,” “In a Dark Time” and the extraordinary “The Waking.”
That arresting quote can be found in one of the hundreds of notebooks stored among Roethke’s papers at Suzzallo Library on the University of Washington campus.
Roethke, who also won two National Book Awards for collections of his poems, followed that maxim about vulnerability to sometimes-extreme lengths. With his perennial subject as a writer the dark yet often exultant journey to the interior of the self, Roethke indeed moved among the most profound mysteries of human existence.
The price for that, as one of his psychiatrists wrote years after Roethke’s death at the age of 55 in 1963, was a fragility that led to recurrent mental breakdowns and heavy drinking.
Roethke spent the last years of his life, from 1947 to 1963, as an enormously popular teacher of poetry writing at the UW. During that time, he also continued to write and publish verse, solidifying his reputation as one of his generation’s greatest poets.
In the classroom, he inspired some of the most famous names in Washington’s literary history. His rigorous approach to encouraging dedicated writing students to demonstrate an active mind, as well as a willingness to free their imaginations and spirits to roam, shepherded the emergence of a Northwest school of poetry that still endures.
Among Roethke’s students were such prominent talents as David Wagoner, Tess Gallagher, Carolyn Kizer and Richard Hugo. They are part of a generation of Pacific Northwest writers who, in one way or another, absorbed Roethke’s lyrical preoccupation with nature and, especially in his later years, nature in Washington state.
“Roethke was definitely a Romantic poet,” says Tree Swenson, executive director of Seattle’s Hugo House (named for the aforementioned Richard Hugo), which offers numerous classes, events and services for aspiring and experienced writers.
“He’s straight out of Yeats,” says Swenson. “Couple that with the importance to him of the natural world, of green, growing things. The Northwest school of poetry is about leaning into nature. Kizer, Wagoner and Hugo are all extremely different poets, but you can trace, in different ways, Roethke’s influence on each.”
ROETHKE’S AFFINITY TOWARD nature was hardly pastoral. It was rooted in his conflicted, lonely childhood in his native Saginaw, Michigan, where he was immersed in his family’s successful floral business.
Born in 1908 to a German immigrant father, Otto Roethke, and a Saginaw dairy farmer’s daughter, Helen Huebner, Theodore Huebner Roethke was the eldest of two children (his younger sister was June Roethke, who died in 1997). The children grew up in a unique example of the American dream at work, made possible by Otto’s green thumb and his brother Charles’ head for numbers. (Charles, also born in Germany, went by Carl until he came to America).
The two men established a thriving business growing flowers on 25 acres of land, on which sat two sturdy-looking houses in proximity: an appealingly bulky one for Otto’s family, and a smaller, charmingly storybook structure, partially made of stone (it is today still called the Stone House), for Charles’ family. Behind those houses were 60-foot-long glass greenhouses, in which grew huge roses in the style of the 1920s — enough roses to supply local retailers and offer a Roethke-brand, brisk delivery service to customers.
Each morning, Otto and Charles would meet in the kitchen of the Stone House and plan out their day. Otto would be dressed for working with soil. Charles would wear a suit. Young Ted participated in his father’s hands-on tasks, though to what extent is a matter for debate.
What is clear is that Theodore Roethke was captivated by the daily epiphany of watching life grow in the womblike environment of a greenhouse. A more mythical “greenhouse” would become a central metaphor for Roethke later on, spawning now-revered “greenhouse poems” in several collections, such as his 1948 breakthrough, “The Lost Son and Other Poems.”
Not everything about helping out with chores was innocuous.
“Greenhouses had glass roofs, and when a vent would get stuck, they’d have to throw a child up there to fix it,” says Anne Ransford, president of Friends of Theodore Roethke, a nonprofit based in Saginaw and dedicated to the preservation of the two Roethke houses. “A man would fall through that roof. So Roethke, writing about that in the early poem ‘Child On the Top of a Greenhouse,’ is possibly telling us he’d been up there.”
It sure sounds like that from the poem’s description of a chaotic, vertiginous task a kid likely would not volunteer to perform:
The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers …
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!
MORE CHALLENGING FOR Roethke was how the miracle of a greenhouse became inextricably linked to feelings of inadequacy in his father’s eyes. The seeming paradox of Otto as a strict, German disciplinarian who also was an intuitive grower of life, steeped in invisible forces behind seed and soil, was tricky enough for a boy to reconcile. But there also was Roethke’s perception, says Ransford, of Otto’s possible disappointment in his son for being fragile, sickly and self-conscious.
“He was not a man’s man,” says Ransford. “He didn’t hunt with his father. He’d cry if an animal was killed. He was timid, chubby and protected. He was not turning out like Otto. But he was beautiful with language. He was on the debate team at school. The newspaper. He wrote an essay for the Red Cross published in 26 languages. Wherever language came in, he excelled.”
There is some suggestion Roethke’s parents had more in mind for him than simply taking over the floral business one day like a dutiful son. They provided him with dance lessons, piano lessons, painting lessons.
“They were trying to make a gentleman out of him,” Ransford says, “so that he wouldn’t have to work as hard as they worked.”
Roethke’s father issues were compounded immensely with the death of Otto in 1923, following the suicide of Charles. Ted was 14. The gaping hole in him haunted Roethke for the rest of his days.
“Roethke’s deepest relationship was with Otto,” Ransford says. “The family had a tract of land 10 miles from the house. On Sundays, he and his father would walk there together. It’s a beautiful place — now Roethke Park.
“Roethke spent the rest of his life trying to please his father. ‘Look, Dad, I won a Pulitzer Prize!’ ‘I’ve spent 15 years at the University of Washington!’ It was as if the father could not be pleased.”
Roethke wrote about these struggles in “The Lost Son.”
“It’s really about the lost father,” Ransford says. “It’s the son seeking him, and he starts about 4 miles to the west in Oakwood [Memorial Mausoleum], seeking his father, then returns to the greenhouses and finds him there. But he can’t stay with him, because that’s not reality.”
ROETHKE ATTENDED THE University of Michigan, graduating in 1929 with a B.A. magna cum laude. He went on to earn an M.A. in English from the same school. In summers, he would return home, where he would write, read and reflect. His mother and sister padded around quietly in their socks so as not to disturb his muse.
After flirting with law school, Roethke rebelled against any idea that he would become part of the country-club class in Saginaw. He hit upon a combination of teaching and writing as the best possible course for his career and life.
After teaching at several colleges, he was hired by the UW in 1947, joining its English Department faculty and finding key supporters there, making it possible for him to teach poetry writing, a somewhat unprecedented concept for a class at the time.
Roethke married Beatrice O’Connell, a former student of his at Bennington College in Vermont, in 1953. They settled in the Madrona neighborhood, where Roethke spent so much time plotting out his approach to teaching, he fretted over the little time left to write.
But his students, says Gallagher, didn’t know that. In fact, they thought he was inventing his way through every class session.
“He was so alive in the moment,” says Gallagher. “Serendipity seemed to play a part in the class, because I assumed he was making it up as he went along. But after his death, when I went through his notebooks at Suzzallo, I realized he had planned classes meticulously. We were the beneficiaries of something he had created in private, for himself.”
Some of those plans, to say the least, were unorthodox. Roethke lore includes a story from his pre-UW days teaching at Michigan State University, where he crawled out of a classroom window one day and made faces at his students, fodder for their in-class assignment to describe physical action.
At the UW, says Gallagher, an affectionate Roethke gave his students pet names; sent them outside to write; and continued working with them, when class was done, at a nearby bar.
But he always was demanding. He allowed only 12 carefully chosen students to occupy his writing classes. A lot was expected, including extensive reading and study of poets, detailed memorizing of poems to every comma or period, and being prepared to recite one’s own new poems from memory.
Gallagher joined what turned out to be Roethke’s final class, before his death, in the spring of 1963. She was 17, and didn’t think she had a chance of getting in.
“I was with him for one quarter, but it was an absolute turning point in my life,” she says. “I was so young, but I just didn’t have any other choice but to be a poet after that class. He was so compelling. I loved listening to him read poetry aloud, talk about poems, read letters he received from other poets.”
Still, it wasn’t long before Gallagher felt lost and overwhelmed by the course work. She also was carrying the burden of the recent loss of her brother, who was killed in a car accident. She suggested to Roethke that she withdraw from the class and better prepare herself to take it again at a later date.
Roethke’s response: No. Seize the day.
“He told me that if I was going to come along, come along now,” says Gallagher. “How many of us at 17 or 18 get to have the chance to take hold of our lives? It’s a great gift he gave me. His message was always, ‘Wake up, wake up. Be here.’ Which is also the message of poetry.”
ROETHKE WAS AFFECTED by bipolar disorder, a psychological condition known as manic depression during his lifetime. His first experience with a manic episode as a young man resulted in hospitalization and shock therapy.
Such episodes grew more frequent in the final years of his life. He underwent psychoanalysis, but a number of observers believe his mental health was in part damaged by his need as a poet to focus on an interior life to the exclusion of all else.
“In his own poetry, he was often in conversation with himself,” says Gallagher. “He was trying to figure out what to do with the ego. You sometimes need it to become visible to yourself, and then you need to get out of it. He was often throwing off his ego and trying to get in touch with his creaturely self. His wildness, his feeling permeated by the whole physicality of the universe and being.”
“As a poet, he embraced darkness,” says Swenson. “He really trusted the irrational. The unconscious. He says, in one of his most famous poems, ‘The Waking’ [for which he earned the 1954 Pulitzer for poetry], that he is ‘going where I have to go.’ Wherever impulse leads me, that’s what he’s saying.”
Jay Parini, an author (“Borges and Me: An Encounter”), wrote “Theodore Roethke: An American Romantic,” published in 1979 after Parini’s extensive study of Roethke’s poems and the archived materials at Suzzallo. His view is that Roethke, however doomstruck, was the most important poet of his time.
“His work is in the tradition of American Romanticism, which has its roots in Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists,” says Parini.
“Roethke sees in the natural world emblems of the spirit. There’s a sense, especially in his late poems, of the spiritual world hovering just behind the physical world. Early on, he identified the mystic journey. He was himself a mystic, and this was part of the transcendental heritage: getting beyond the small self and identifying with the large self. He came at that in various ways, through Freud, Zen and ecstatic mysticism. So there is a lot of the journey out of the self in Roethke, which begins with the journey to the interior. You go inside to go out, go down in order to go up.”
Theodore Roethke died at age 55 on Aug. 1, 1963. He was swimming at a friend’s house on Bainbridge Island and had a heart attack in the pool. Beatrice was shopping in downtown Seattle.
There is now a rock garden where that pool once existed. The spot is open to the public at the Bloedel Reserve, but there is no sign alluding to Roethke.
For that matter, there isn’t much of a Roethke footprint in Seattle, a city that was lucky to have such an influential artist. There is the auditorium in Kane Hall named after him on the UW campus. An alley adjoining the Blue Moon Tavern in the U District — once a literary hangout that Roethke frequented — is called Roethke Mews.
Roethke’s roots in Saginaw are more fervently honored by Friends of Theodore Roethke and their uphill efforts to complete the Roethke Museum in his family home and a multiuse literary center in the Stone House.
But Roethke belongs to a world, as evidenced by the ubiquity of his poems in classrooms and never-ending new collections of favorite American poetry.
Swenson puts it more globally.
“There are poets wildly acclaimed during their lifetimes,” she says, “and then the minute they die, no one mentions them again. Roethke has a life well beyond his demise.”