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Theodore Roethke Essay, Research Paper

Research Paper on Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke was born on May 25, 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan. He was born to Otto and Helen Huebner Roethke. In 1872 Roethke’s father and grandfather emigrated from Germany. This is where Roethke’s grandfather and father bought 22 acres of land and started a market garden. After making enough money they bought a greenhouse. In 1906 Roethke’s father married Helen Huebner, also a German immigrant. This led to the birth of Theodore. While growing up, Roethke helped his father out in the greenhouse taking care of the flowers. All this working with plants and nature deeply affected Roethke, as we can see in his poetry.

From all this time working with his father, Roethke gets one of his major ideas for writing poetry. One poem we can see this in is “CHILD ON TOP OF A GREENHOUSE (1948).”

“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,

Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,

A few white clouds all rush eastward,

A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,

And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting! (1-6)

This poem, it seems, is from Roethke’s own experiences. The poem is about Roethke as a child sitting on top of a greenhouse giving us a description of the greenhouse and the nature around him. In line five, Roethke also gives us a sample of how he uses comparisons to describe nature. This gives a person a better vision of the object or motion he is writing about.

When Roethke was a teenager his father died. This didn’t seem to affect him a lot, but through his poetry we can see different. His poetry about his father seems to be of two minds and to have deeply affected him. It seems that Roethke’s father put him down when he failed to live up to the expectations. On the positive side of things Roethke loved the way his father looked at life and gave life to nature, like in the greenhouse. We can see the two sides of his relationship in his poem “MY PAPA”S WALTZ” (1948).

“The Whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy” (1-4)

“At every step you missed

My right ear scraped a buckle.” (11-12)

In these six simple lines we see a boy who’s father is drunk but even though the child is getting beat up he still loves his father for other reasons. This is just like the mixed relationship with Roethke’s father. In this poem Roethke also brings a little thought of the greenhouse into it in lines 13-14.

“You beat time on my head

With a palm caked hard by dirt”

This helps us relate that he is indeed talking about his father because by his father working in the greenhouse he would of came home with dirt caked on his hands.

In 1925 Roethke went off to college at The University of Michigan. Here he joined a few fraternities. His freshman year in college he joined the Chi Phi fraternity and played tennis. During his years at Michigan, Roethke attended classes having to do with mostly literature and language. He took nine classes dealing with language and took twelve English classes having to do with literature and composition. This led him into writing poetry in his early years at college. His senior year he joined the Phi Beta Kappa.

During the summers Roethke worked at a Heinz Pickle factory. Roethke also wrote a poem about this pickle factory. This poem is called “PICKLE BELT (no date).”

“The fruit rolled by all day.

They prayed the cogs would creep;

They thought about Saturday pay,

And Sunday sleep.” (1-4)

This poem gives us an in site into how he felt when working. By looking at these lines it seems that he observed the people he was working with. These people looked at the job as boring and did it only for the money. If Roethke is the boy in the poem, he looked at it differently. We can see that Roethke looks at things differently then most people. He looked at this in a positive way; we can see this in lines 5-6.

“Whatever he smelled was good:

The fruit and flesh smells mixed.”

In 1929 Roethke graduated from Michigan University and entered law school at Michigan Law School. Here he only enrolled in one class and got a “D”. He ended up dropping out to pursue a master’s degree in literature. He did this at Harvard Graduate School in 1930. Because of the Depression Roethke had to drop out of school to support his family. To do this he accepted a job at Lafayette and taught there for four years.

Here he was well liked by his student but known well for his drinking. After this job he went to Michigan State College in Lansing. Here he had mental breakdowns that he had for the rest of his life. He was hospitalized for 3 months.

In 1936, he took on another teaching job at Pennsylvania State. While reading poetry in New York, Roethke was reunited with one of his former students. This is where he fell in love with a librarian, Kitty Stokes. She encouraged him to compile a book of his poems. In 1941 he published the Open House, consisting of forty-seven poems. In 1943 Roethke left Penn State and moved to Bennington, Vermont where he began teaching at Bennington College. In 1945 Roethke had another depression and it forced him again into treatment. That same year he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1947 went back to Penn State to teach and here he compiled his second book The Lost Son. He stayed here for a brief time and then took a job at The University of Washington in Seattle.

In December of 1952 while reading poetry in New York Roethke ran into Beatrice O’Connell, a former Bennington student of his. Within a month they were married. They took a honeymoon to Europe, where he wrote most of his poem that went into his book The Waking. In 1954 Roethke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this book. Roethke wrote various love poems years after his marriage to his wife. One of these poems is “WISH FOR A YOUNG WIFE”(1965).

“My lizard, my lively writher,

May your limbs never wither,

May the eyes in your face

Survive the green ice” (1-4)

In these lines above he writes about love and growing old. He does this in many of his love poems. It seems that he wanted his beautiful wife never to grow old.

In 1957 Roethke had another serious breakdown and was hospitalized again for three months. After this break down, Doubleday published Words for the Wind for which Roethke received the Bollingen Prize and the National Book Award. In this was another love poem, one of his most famous “I Knew a Woman.” In 1959 Roethke had yet another breakdown and once again was hospitalized.

On August 1st 1963 Roethke had a coronary occlusion from which he died. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Saginaw. When he died he was well known in Europe and the U.S. Some people consider him the best poet of his time.


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