Pictured above at around 12 years of age, U-M alumnus and poet Theodore Roethke often reflected on the time spent in his family's extensive greenhouses. He later wrote that the greenhouse "is my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth."
Image courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW28168
When Theodore Roethke’s mother forced him to choose the University of Michigan over Harvard, the future winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry exploded: “I’ll work in the pickle factory first!
”Roethke (’29, M.A. ’36, Hon. Litt.D. ’62) stuck to his word. Fresh out of high school in 1925, he took a job at the local Heinz factory the summer before he left Saginaw, Michigan, to join the incoming first-year class in Ann Arbor.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of his death from a heart attack at age 55. At the time, he was a faculty member at the University of Washington outside of Seattle, where he had been described, after submitting his application, as an “…extremely complex, temperamental and somewhat eccentric person.” But there was certainly no doubt that he was brilliant.
After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1954, Roethke won two National Book Awards in addition to a host of other honors, drawing much of his inspiration from his boyhood experiences among the plants in his family’s Saginaw-based business, the William Roethke Floral Company, run by his father and uncle.
A Poetic Quest
When he was 14 years old, Roethke’s uncle committed suicide and his father died of cancer. The boy was old enough to remember his father vividly, but still too young to fully understand his father’s austere nature.
His efforts to comprehend who his father was, coupled with his obsession with the natural world, surfaced in his undergraduate prose, and they contain the kernels of his lifelong poetic quest.
He majored in English at U-M, though he didn’t begin writing verse until his last undergraduate years, as there were no creative writing courses at U-M during that time.
On campus, Roethke portrayed himself as anything but a sensitive, introspective writer. At the height of Prohibition, he developed a tough-guy persona, buying a $400 fur coat, swearing, drinking, and swaggering around, his 235-pound frame draped in oversized, double-breasted suits.
Sometimes, he lowered the façade—to write about his father and his youth.
“I have gone hundreds of miles hurrying behind his heels and wondering what he was thinking….Thus, for me, Nature and my father became inseparably intertwined,” Roethke wrote in an undergraduate essay for English Professor Carlton Wells (’20, M.A. ’22).
Roethke was elected Phi Beta Kappa and graduated with distinction.
Chilled and Frightened
After a single term at U-M’s Law School, he switched to a Master’s program in English. His first published poems appeared in the May-June 1930 issue of The Harp, a small, now-defunct magazine.
He finally made it to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D., but in 1931, he left because of financial difficulties and took a series of teaching positions to make ends meet. Roethke continued to publish individual poems and developed his reputation as a superlative teacher—“magnetizing” his students and “drawing them to worship him,” according to a letter published in Allan Seager’s Roethke biography, The Glass House (University of Michigan Press, 1991).
He took an appointment at Michigan State College in September 1935. There, after weeks of increased drinking and increasingly bizarre behavior, he undertook a coatless November walk to the dean’s office that left Roethke, in his own words, “so cold and chilled and frightened that I was delirious.”
The episode culminated in Roethke’s voluntary commitment to Mercywood Sanitarium. The diagnosis was hypomania; Roethke was in all likelihood bipolar. He lost his teaching position.
Always Behind a Mask
Roethke experienced highs and lows all of his adult life; his drinking made matters worse. He was institutionalized repeatedly.
Friend and poet Rolfe Humphries claimed that Roethke “always wore a mask.” It is impossible to untangle the interconnections of Roethke’s mental illness, his artistic genius, and his personality.
“I may look like a beer salesman, but I’m a poet,” Roethke told the President of Bennington College, interviewing for a teaching position there.
For all his braggadocio—he once lobbied himself for the Nobel Prize in Literature—his work is beyond reproach. In his short career, Roethke garnered two National Book Awards and one Pulitzer, along with grants from Guggenheim, Ford, and Fulbright.
Impossibly, Roethke once claimed to have won a Hopwood Award, though the prize was not launched until after his time at U-M. He was, however, invited to deliver the 1960 Hopwood lecture. One of the few awards Roethke never won, he got the next best thing: In 2002, the Hopwood for long poem or poetic sequence was named in his honor.