The Imagery and Lyricism of Theodore Roethke’s Poetry

Theodore Roethke created intimate, introspective poems distinguished by lyricism and a sensual use of imagery. Best known for his poems about the natural world, Roethke was profoundly influenced by the events of his childhood and mined his past for the themes and subjects of his writing. He mastered a variety of poetic styles, from formal rhymes to experimental free verse, and received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1954 for his collection The Waking (1953).

Roethke was born on May 25, 1908, in Saginaw, Michigan, where he spent time as a child exploring the large greenhouse owned by his father and uncle. In 1929, he received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, and he took graduate courses there and at Harvard University before embarking on a teaching career at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania in 1931. During this period, his poems began to appear in the New RepublicSaturday Review, and other publications. He received a master’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1936.

The tight, carefully constructed poems of Roethke’s first collection, Open House (1941), included short metaphysical works about nature and the self. Written in conventional poetic forms, they include “The Light Comes Brighter,” in which Roethke describes the coming of spring, when “buckled ice begins to shift” and “the cold roots stir below.” In the title poem he writes more personally: “My truths are all foreknown, / This anguish self-revealed, / I’m naked to the bone, / With nakedness my shield.”

Roethke found his greatest and most joyful inspiration in the landscape of his childhood. Published in 1948, his second collection, The Lost Son and Other Poems, included the landmark “greenhouse poems.” Written in a looser, more experimental form than his earlier work, the series drew on Roethke’s recollections of the plants and insects, smells, and organic sensations of the family-owned greenhouse in Michigan where he spent his youth. “I can hear underground, that sucking and sobbing,” he writes in “Cuttings (later),” “In my veins, in my bones I feel it . . .” The poems range from tender meditations on orchids and carnations to rich descriptions of even the most mundane activities, such as pulling weeds and transferring plants from one location to another.

His relationship with his father, who died when Roethke was 15, also loomed large in the poet’s imagination. “He does not put on airs / Who lived above a potting shed for years,” he recalls in “Otto.” “I think of him, and I think of his men, / As close to him as any kith or kin.” Similar recollections surface in “The Premonition” and “My Papa’s Waltz.”

Throughout his career, Roethke changed styles frequently, moving dramatically from terse, formal rhymes to highly original free verse—and back again. For his third collection, Praise to the End! (1951), he re-imagined the world through the eyes and voice of a child. In the lengthy title poem, he adopted the comforting rhythm and nonsense sounds of a nursery rhyme: “Mips and ma the mooly moo, / The likes of him is biting who, / A cow’s a care and who’s a coo?— / What footie does is final.”

A passionate teacher praised for moving and exciting his students, Roethke taught poetry at colleges and universities across the U.S., including Pennsylvania State College, Bennington College, and the University of Washington. He also suffered from bouts of mental illness and a recurring feeling of discomfort in his own skin, but he was unafraid to confront his innermost thoughts and emotions in his work. “What’s madness but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance?” he asks in “In A Dark Time.” “My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly, / Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?” In 1953, he married Beatrice O’Connell, formerly a student at Bennington College.

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In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Roethke’s many honors include the Bollingen Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and a Fulbright lectureship. He received the National Book Award in 1959 for Words for the Wind: The Collected Verse (1958). “I Am!” Says the Lamb, a book of poems for children, was published in 1961.

Roethke died on August 1, 1963, on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Published posthumously,The Far Field (1964), a collection of poems, including love poems, received the National Book Award in 1965.

Theodore Roethke is one of ten poets featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets pane. The stamps will be issued on April 21 in Los Angeles, California, but you can preorder them today!

National Book Month: Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems

As an adolescent, I idolized poet Sylvia Plath. While my friends talked endlessly about their favorite bands and actors they wanted hanging over their beds, I spent hours poring over Plath’s poetry and journals, desperately trying to know everything I could about this mysterious woman.

Although Plath published just one collection of poetry and one novel in her lifetime, her complex body of work showcases her ability to conquer such weighty themes as marriage and motherhood, gender and power, death and resurrection, and the search for the self. Her posthumously published Collected Poems (1981) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. The collection includes poems written from 1956 until her suicide in 1963.

Plath’s most famous poem, “Daddy” (1962), delves into the painful subject of her father’s death when she was a child. Written in the singsong style of a nursery rhyme, the emotional verse evokes the feelings of sorrow and anger she felt at not having the opportunity to know her father before he died. This anger quickly changes direction, focusing on her husband, whose betrayal is connected, in Plath’s mind, to that of her father’s. By the end of the poem, the narrator has shed the burden of grief for both of these painful relationships.

As a teenager I wanted to be a poet, and Plath’s highly autobiographical style appealed to me. The way in which Plath reveals honest details of her life and innermost thoughts seemed so extraordinary. Though I no longer hold a romanticized image of becoming a poet, I do still love Sylvia Plath’s writing. With simplicity of language and self-reflection, she gives a voice not only to her own experiences, but those of many women. She is, in my mind, truly one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century.

Upon learning about the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps issuance later this year—and that the set of ten esteemed bards includes Sylvia Plath—my excitement for the 2012 stamp program spiked. Along with Plath, the commemorative pane will pay tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, E. E. Cummings, Robert Hayden, Denise Levertov, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Designed by art director Derry Noyes, the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps will be issued in April.

“Sylvia Plath”, n.d.
Photograph by Rollie McKenna
@ Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation
Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation

The National Book Award and U.S. Stamps

Congratulations to all the recipients of this year’s National Book Award! To mark the occasion, we are taking a brief look today at National Book Award winners who have also appeared on stamps.

As you might expect, the Literary Arts series has featured several NBA recipients, including William Faulkner, poet Marianne Moore, and Thornton Wilder.

Robert Penn Warren, featured on the 21st stamp in the series, was America’s first official poet laureate (1986-87) and a three-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. He received the National Book Award in 1958 for Promises: Poems, 1954-1956.

Considered a master prose stylist, Katherine Anne Porter (featured on the 22nd stamp in the Literary Arts series) was best known for her short stories, which earned her both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1966 for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965).

In addition to writers in the Literary Arts series, one other person honored on a stamp has also won a National Book Award: Rachel Carson received an NBA in 1952 for her masterful and poetic study of the oceans, The Sea Around Us.

The 2012 stamp program will see no shortage of National Book Award Winners. In fact, four of the ten poets featured on next year’s 20th-Century Poets stamp pane have received NBAs: William Carlos Williams in 1950 for Patterson Book II and Selected Poems, Wallace Stevens in 1951 for The Auroras of Autumn and in 1955 for The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke in 1959 for Word for the Wind and in 1965 for The Far Field, and Elizabeth Bishop in 1970 for The Complete Poems.

Who’s your favorite?