Authors: Theodore Roethke

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner.

May 25, 1908

Saginaw, Michigan

August 1, 1963

Bainbridge Island, Washington


Theodore Huebner Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on May 25, 1908. Much of his childhood was spent in and around the greenhouse owned jointly by his father and his uncle. It is not surprising, then, that his poetry shows a familiarity with and knowledge of growing things and a reverence for life in all forms and sizes, large and small.

Roethke attended the University of Michigan, where he earned distinction as an athlete, and later did graduate work at Harvard University. His livelihood for many years was teaching. He held positions at Michigan State University, Lafayette College, Pennsylvania State University, and Bennington College and was professor of English and poet in residence at the University of Washington. While at Bennington, he met Beatrice Heath O’Connell, who was a student there; they would later marry, in 1953, and Roethke would celebrate her in moving love poems.

Roethke’s first book of poems, Open House (1941), received little critical acclaim. More than a decade later, however, his fourth book, The Waking (1953), won him the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the first in a series of major honors and awards that culminated in the 1965 National Book Award, given posthumously for The Far Field (1964). Roethke had also won a previous National Book Award, in 1959, for Words for the Wind (1957).

The rigors of teaching, combined with heavy alcohol use and bouts of manic depression (now called bipolar disorder), often forced Roethke into periods of absolute exhaustion as he tried to balance his vocation and advocation. While Michigan State University had terminated his contract in 1936 after he suffered a nervous breakdown, however, the University of Washington accepted it as an unfortunate illness belonging to a talented man.

In his last years Roethke gave readings at many colleges and was extremely popular with his student audiences. He died suddenly of a heart attack while swimming in August 1963, his creative powers at a peak and his reputation at its highest. Roethke was survived by his wife, Beatrice, to whom the literary world owes its gratitude for assembling the last poems that make up The Far Field.

Author Works Poetry: Open House, 1941 The Lost Son, and Other Poems, 1948 Praise to the End!, 1951 The Waking: Poems, 1933–1953, 1953 Words for the Wind, 1957 I Am! Says the Lamb, 1961 Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical, Poems, 1963 The Far Field, 1964 The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, 1966 Selected Poems, 1969 (Beatrice Roethke, editor) Dirty Dinky and Other Creatures: Poems for Children, 1973 (Beatrice Roethke and Stephen Lushington, editors) Selected Poems, 2005 (Edward Hirsch, editor) Nonfiction: On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose, 1965 (Ralph J. Mills Jr., editor; also known as On Poetry and Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke, 2001) The Selected Letters of Theodore Roethke, 1968 (Ralph J. Mills Jr., editor) Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, 1943–63, 1972 (David Wagoner, editor; also includes poetry) Bibliography Bloom, Harold, editor. Theodore Roethke. Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. A collection of critical essays on Roethke, ranging from the early trailblazing work of Kenneth Burke to the views of Thomas Gardner and James Applewhite. Contains an index and a bibliography. Bogen, Don. Theodore Roethke and the Writing Process. Ohio UP, 1991. A critical study of Roethke’s writing and an analysis of his philosophy. Includes bibliographical references and index. Bowers, Neal. Theodore Roethke: The Journey from I to Otherwise. U of Missouri P, 1982. Emphasizes Roethke’s use of his episodes of mental illness and other states of nonordinary reality as the source and subject of much of his best poetry. Augmented by an index and a bibliography. Kalaidjian, Walter B. Understanding Theodore Roethke. U of South Carolina P, 1987. An introductory reading of Roethke’s work with emphasis on the poet’s concern with uniting humankind with nature and using unusual psychological states as gateways to new knowledge of the self and the world. Supplemented by an index and a thoroughly annotated bibliography of other criticism. Kusch, Robert. My Toughest Mentor: Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams (1940–1948). Bucknell UP, 1999. A study of the correspondence between Roethke and Williams and the relationship they developed. Provides some biographical and historical background to the works of both authors. Includes bibliographical references and index. Malkoff, Karl. Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry. Columbia UP, 1966. Presents a psychoanalytic reading of the poet’s work. As a result, many later critics often begin by agreeing or disagreeing with Malkoff, using his work as a benchmark from which to begin their own studies. Contains an index and a bibliography of works by and about Roethke. Seager, Allan. The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke. 1968. U of Michigan P, 1991. A full-length biography of Roethke, written by a scholar and novelist who was also a close friend of the poet. Stiffler, Randall. Theodore Roethke: The Poet and His Critics. American Library Association, 1986. Reviews and evaluates the critical reception of Roethke’s works. Contains an index and a bibliography. Wolff, George. Theodore Roethke. Twayne Publishers, 1981. Offers a good brief review of the poet’s life and work. One of the Twayne series of introductory guides to American authors. Contains an index and an extensive annotated bibliography.

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