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Roethke, the child of German immigrants, was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1908. He spent much of his childhood exploring the greenhouses owned by his family, which influenced his use of natural imagery throughout his poetry. His first literary success was a speech he wrote in high school on the Junior Red Cross, which was later published in twenty-six languages.
Roethke's father died suddenly from cancer in 1923, and his uncle committed suicide around the same time. In 1925, Roethke enrolled at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, becoming the first member of his family to do so. He graduated magna cum laude in 1929, and attempted to go on to study law, but quickly gave up that attempt and took graduate courses at the University of Michigan, and then Harvard University, studying there with the poet Robert Hillyer.
The Great Depression forced Roethke to move from studying to teaching, and he taught at Lafayette College from 1931 to 1935, then moved to Michigan State College at Lansing. However, soon after he began teaching there, he was hospitalized because of "recurring bouts of mental illness" (Kalaidjian). In 1936, Roethke began teaching at Pennsylvania State University, and his work began to be published in journals - Poetry, the New Republic, the Saturday Review, and the Sewanee Review, to name a few.
In 1963, Roethke suffered from a fatal heart attack while swimming in the pool of a friend on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
Roethke's first book of poetry was published in 1941 - titled Open House, it was favorably reviewed by several major publications, and gave him much more prestige as a writer. The following year, Harvard University invited Roethke to deliver "one of the prestigious Morris Gray lectures" (Kalaidjian), and in 1943, he moved to teaching at Bennington College.
His next volume of poetry, titled The Lost Son and Other Poems, was published in 1948, and contained poems written about the greenhouses of his childhood. He married a former student in 1953, Beatrice O'Connell, and from this point on, Roethke continued to win awards for his published work. His next volume was Praise to the End! in 1951, and then The Waking in 1953, which won him the Pulitzer Prize. He published several other volumes, and his wife ensured that his last volume was published after his death in 1963.
Roethke's recurring bouts of depression throughout his life helped him fuel his poetry, and gave him what he considered to be a different perspective on the world. Combined with his use of traditional, fixed forms of poetry, and his use of natural imagery and human psychology throughout the personal confessions of his poetry, Roethke helped influence the development of what we think of as confessional poetry.
There is an interesting commentary by Donald Hall on the poem "the mother" by Gwendolyn Brooks and "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke here. Both authors are identified as "essential American poets," and both authors read their own poems in the audio clip.
Kalaidjian, Walter. "Theodore Roethke's Life and Career." American National Biography (1999). Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois. Web. 18 Oct. 2010. <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/roethke/bio.htm>.
"Theodore Roethke Biography." Famous Poets and Poems. Web. 18 Oct. 2010. <http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/theodore_roethke/biography>.
"Theodore Roethke." The Poetry Archive. Web. 18 Oct. 2010. <http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=7169>.
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