Theodore Roethke

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Theodore Huebner Roethke (IPA: ['ɹ ɛ]; RET-key) (May 25, 1908 – August 1, 1963) was a United States poet, who published several volumes of poetry characterized by its rhythm and natural imagery. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954 for his book, The Waking.


  • 1 History
  • 2 References to Roethke
  • 3 Bibliography
  • 4 Filmography
  • 5 References
  • 6 External links


Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan. His father, Otto Roethke, was a German immigrant, who owned a large local greenhouse. Much of Theodore's childhood was spent in this greenhouse, as reflected by the use of natural imagery in his poetry. The poet's adolescent years were jarred, however, by the death of his father from cancer in 1923 and his uncle's suicide. These both powerfully shaped Roethke's psychic and creative lives.

He attended the University of Michigan and Harvard University and became a professor of English. He taught at several universities, among them Lafayette College, Pennsylvania State University and Bennington College.

In 1940, he was expelled from his position at Lafayette and returned to Michigan. Just prior to his return, he had an affair with established poet and critic Louise Bogan, who later became one of his strongest early supporters.[1] While teaching at Michigan State University in East Lansing, he began to suffer from depression, which he used as a creative impetus for his poetry. Lastly, he taught at the University of Washington, leading to an association with the poets of the American Northwest.

In 1953, Roethke married Beatrice O'Connell, a former student. Roethke did not inform O'Connell of his repeated episodes of depression, yet she remained dedicated to Roethke and his work. She ensured the posthumous publication of his final volume of poetry, The Far Field.

Theodore Roethke suffered a heart attack in a friend's swimming pool in 1963 and died on Bainbridge Island, Washington, aged 55. The pool was later filled in and is now a zen rock garden, which can be viewed by the public at the Bloedel Reserve, a 150-acre (60 hectare) former private estate. There is no sign to indicate that the rock garden was the site of Roethke's death.

References to Roethke

  • In his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut includes an excerpt from Roethke's poem, The Waking. Vonnegut writes in the opening chapter, "I had two books with me, which I'd meant to read on the plane. One was Words for the Wind, by Theodore Roethke, and this is what I found in there: I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. I learn by going where I have to go". Since the narrator in the opening chapter is Vonnegut himself, the choice of this stanza from The Waking provides an impetus for Vonnegut's journey back to Dresden to confront his memories of the Dresden firebombing.
  • John le Carré mentions the same stanza from "The Waking" in his 1989 novel The Russia House, although curtailed to just the last line: "I learn by going where I have to go."
  • Mia Farrow took the title for her autobiography What Falls Away from the same poem from The Waking.
  • Harold Simonson entitled his collection of autobiographical essays Going Where I Have To Go, in reference to The Waking.
  • Stanley Kunitz recounts Roethke's exuberant recitation of his children's poem, The Cow, for Kunitz's daughter in the poem, Journal for My Daughter ([1]).
  • Martin Sheen, playing President Josiah Bartlet in the episode Faith Based Initiative of the TV series The West Wing, quotes the last two lines from the Roethke poem "Infirmity": "How body from spirit slowly does unwind | Until we are pure spirit at the end."
  • Frank Herbert, a quote from Dar-es-Balat in one of the last chapters of Heretics of Dune as follows:

The world is for the living. Who are they?

We dared the dark to reach the white and warm.

She was the wind when the wind was in my way.

Alive at noon, I perished in her form.

Who rise from the flesh to spirit know the fall:

The word outleaps the world and light is all.

--Theodore Roethke, Historical Quotations: Dar-es-Balat

  • American poet Robert Lowell wrote a poem 'For Theodore Roethke', published in the collection 'Near the Ocean' in 1967.
  • Oliver Stone closes his commentaries for both JFK and Natural Born Killers with a reference to Roethke's In a Dark Time.
  • In "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" by Kim Edwards, Norah Edwards recalls the line, "I wake to sleep and take my waking slow," but can't remember where it came from.


  • Open House (1941)
  • The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948)
  • Praise to the End! (1951)
  • The Waking (1953)
  • Words for the Wind (1958)
  • I am! Says the Lamb (1961)
  • Party at the Zoo (1963) — written for children
  • The Far Field (1964) — published posthumously
  • On Poetry & Craft (1965) - a collection of prose
  • The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (1966) - includes 16 previously uncollected poems but does not include Party at the Zoo


  • I Remember Theodore Roethke (2005). Produced and edited by Jean Walkinshaw. SCCtv (Seattle Community Colleges Television). 30 min.
  1. ^ Lancashire, Ian; Department of English at the University of Toronto (2005). Selected Poetry of Louise Bogan (1897-1970) (HTML). Representative Poetry On-line. University of Toronto Press. Retrieved on 2006-07-19.
  • Brief biography at Famous Poets and Poems
  • Brief biography at Washington State History
  • "Theodore Roethke Remembered
  • Theodore Roethke Michigan's Poet" by Linda Robinson Walker at Michigan Today (Summer 2001)
  • Roethke at the Modern American Poetry Site
  • Brief profile at PBS
  • Selected poems
  • Roethke Memorial Poetry Readings at University of Washington
  • "Roethke's Revisions And The Tone Of 'My Papa's Waltz""
  • Stanely Kunitz on his friend Theodore Roethke
  • Roethke at the Modern American Poetry Site
  • Critical essay on Roethke’s Journey Into The Interior
  • Spanish translations of Roethke poems
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