Theodore Roethke

His Introspective Nature: Theodore Roethke

I always thought it would be cool to live in a greenhouse. That’s how Theodore Roethke grew up: playing and working in his father’s greenhouse, immersed in a world of growing things. His mother died when he was young, and he was a shy child. The greenhouse and the Michigan land that housed it was, most of the time, his world. This fell apart when he was a young teen, when his youth was disrupted by his father’s death from cancer and his uncle’s suicide. Though a lumpy, unpromising student, he managed to get himself into college. He started out as pre-med, but quickly ditched that for the life of a poet and professor.

Both nature and madness followed him the rest of the life. He was diagnosed manic-depressive, and suffered frequent breakdowns. Yet he was such a dedicated teacher, he was often forgiven bizarre behavior. Once he walked into the classroom and splayed his body against the chalkboard like a crucifixion. But poets are allowed their quirks, so that he was able to make a living to support his writing, though he had this to say about teaching: “It’s no way to live–to go from exhaustion to exhaustion.” Yet he soldiered through until 1963, when he died by drowning after suffering a heart attack in a friend’s pool.

Another quote, that sums up his attachment to the natural world of his youth: “When I get alone under an open sky where man isn’t too evident–then I’m tremendously exalted and a thousand vivid ideas and sweet visions flood my consciousness.”

This poem doesn’t really exemplify this theme, I just happen to like it:

My Papa’s Waltz
by Theodore Roethke

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

we romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.


I don’t have anything half that sweet and sad to follow, but here’s something, anyway:

Perfect Hangover Sunrise

Oh please, you red eye of morning,
You mustn’t look into my face
I’ve had all the fire I can stomach;
Don’t interrogate me with your gaze.

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