Last reviewed: June 2018
American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner.
May 25, 1908
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.