Theodore Roethke was among the modern American poets who are exceptionally gifted in 1940s and 1950s. He was greatly admired for his innovative language application and imaginative inane technique in describing the metaphor of worldly existence. His first book, the “Open House” was published in 1941 which created critical attention and became a blockbuster among his “The Lost Son and Other Poems in1948”, “Praise to the End!” in 1951, “Words for the Wind” in 1957 and “The Far Field” in 1964.
This thesis will try to explain why most of Roethke’s poetry mostly evolved in greenhouse setting. Roethke’s collected poems are forms of poetry which fully reveals his major achievements wherein he was able to perceive the reality of tensions that surround the inner and the outer worlds. His poetry depicts his experiences in the greenhouse during his youth which begun in 1941 entitled “Open House” which won a Pulitzer Award and National Book Awards among others. He was also given the Bollingen Prize by Pennsylvania University in 1959.
Theodore Roethke was born in 1908 on the west side of the river in Saginaw, Michigan. His father who was a German immigrant and market-gardener owned a greenhouse together with Theodore’s uncle where he spent most of his time. This experience can be reflected by the way he used natural metaphors when delving with his poetry. His adolescent years had been jarred by the death of his father who suffered from cancer and the death of his uncle who committed suicide on same year in 1923. Theodore was only 15 at that time thus such unpleasant event had jarred his psyche and the way he had molded his creative life into the world of poetry.
Roethke became eminent when he graduated with magna cum laude honors at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1929. He stood against the family pressure for him to pursue his study in law and took his chosen graduate courses from University of Michigan and later at Harvard Graduate School and worked along with Robert Hillyer who was also a poet himself. The economic crisis during the Great Depression drove Roethke to shift from Harvard to Lafayette College and took a teaching course. He then met Rolfe Humphries who introduced Louise Bogan to him. These people became his avid supporters and colleague. They became friends to poet Stanley Kunits. In 1935 Roethke assumed responsibility in his second post in teaching at Michigan State College in Lansing but he was hospitalized due to frequent mental illness. Consequently, Roethke made use of these periodic recurrences of depression to explore a rather new level in reality through innovative self-exploration.
As quoted by Theodore Roethke: “The greenhouse is my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth” unquote. The Poetry Foundation also notes that the love poems he made won praises which appeared in “The Walking” in a separate section of the book in stanzaic form as noted by Stanley Kunitz. One of Roethke’s critics, Ralph Mills, defined “the amatory work” as a combination of “consideration of self with potentials of eroticism as well as sensuality” and more importantly, his poems introduced and maintained a fascination that is beyond one’s self as described with the representation of another or the beloved female figure.
Roethke’s poems also depicts his weaknesses by the imitative attributes on his other lesser successful verses and the limitations of areas in his favor. He is one the finest poets in this world who threatens the existence of man as an object.
The contemplative Roethke made it known to use his own personal experience as the source of his art on his first publication, “Open House”. It was not very surprising that the book replicated the derivative and somehow traditional elements of a beginner’s “conscious imitation”. Notwithstanding the limitations that are quite visible in “Open House”, Seager tacitly acknowledged that those are works of a seasoned poet and just a neophyte despite the adverse criticisms. Stanley Kunitz was overwhelmed with Roethke’s form of art and as a person himself. The Poetry Foundation likewise noted the early reviews of Roethke’s works in response to the critics’ reviews.
W. D. Snodgrass commented that it was conservative and prerevolutionary. The poems can easily be grasped and that the metric were normal and conventional. He added further that the volume achieved had the effect of something like a frigid-controlled hysteria as often felt by the readers of Emily Dickenson. The “Open House” was a relevant exodus for Roethke. It was favorably published in different reviews such as the Atlantic, the Saturday Review, the New Yorker and the Kenyon Review. W. H. Auden applauded that it was a total success. Roethke’s works showed several influence taken from the works of famous poetic models whose verses had molded his imagination as well as style such as (name of poets). Elizabeth Drew pointed out in other reviews that Roethke’s poems had a graceful movement with precise description of images and expression with gnomic utterances so peculiar of him while attaining strict observation of language which can seldom be found in poets nowadays. Roethke kept all the critics’ views as well as other commentaries of his works as a contemplation of his creativity.
As expected, critics took up Roethke’s greenhouse experiences as the prevalent focus of his poems. Roethke was enticed to deliver in one of the high-status lectures at Morris Gray in Harvard a year after the “Open House” was circularized. In 1943, he departed Penn State and joined top personalities at Bennington College such as Kenneth Burke and Léonie Adams. He was challenged to foster as teaching poet by Bennington. His association with Burke played a very important role to Roethke’s second volume “The Lost Son” among his other poems in 1948. “The Lost Son” was Roethke’s far-reaching book had considerably won him praises from other writers such as Michael Harrington and critic Ian Hamilton. So-called “greenhouse poems, the opening of the book had fourteen lyrics with the metaphor of an open house passing through the glasshouse which symbolizes one’s inner self in relation to human existence. During the BBC broadcast sometime on July 30, 1953, Roethke described the glasshouse as a description of heaven and hell combined. It was the universe in different worlds in which a child worries about to struggle in order to live. The poet’s denouement of subhuman world served as counterpart of Roethke’s own imagery that staged back Roethke being a “lost son” and his psychic incongruity towards the non-existent patriarch Otto Roethke.
Roethke was married to Beatrice O’Connell in 1953. Like most of American poets of his time, he was prone to drinking spree and susceptible to illness. Beatrice was not informed of his repetitive depressions yet Beatrice remained a dedicated wife to him and supportive of his works. Roethke’s final volume was “The Far Field” including “Meditation at Oyster River”.
“The Return” was introduced by Folkways Records under George Abbe’s album: Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. The succeeding year, Roethke published his album entitled: “Words for the Wind Poems of Theodore Roethke In 1963, Theodore Roethke died by cardiac arrest in his friend’s swimming pool at Baindridge Island, Washington at the age of 55. His remains now lie in Saginaw’s Oakwood Cemetery.
Roethke’s meritorious work was characterized by his recurring childhood reminiscence and remarkable primordial imagery which elevated autobiographic specific to exemplary significance. His playful and dynamic verses relied abundantly on spontaneous word associations as well as careful framework of sonic effect. His penetrating exploration and subconscious mind from the past reflected lifelong search for harmony which sought for self-acceptance and otherworldliness. He was highly respected for his ingenuity and the capability to evoke personal experience universally which greatly influenced the advancement of American poetry after the war.