Saginaw poet Theodore Roethke gains one more honor

by Nancy Sajdak Manning

"I have a genuine love of nature.I can sense the moods of nature almost instinctively. Ever since I could walk, I have spent as much time as I could in the open. A perception of nature.remains with me forever."

—Theodore Roethke, 1926

Saginaw's Pulitzer Prize winning poet Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), who loved to win awards, and whose poetry was especially inspired by his Saginaw childhood and family greenhouses, would surely be delighted to know he's included in the U.S. Postal Service's new stamp series honoring 10 great 20th-century American poets.

In a 1953 BBC broadcast, Roethke described savored Saginaw areas: "There were not only 25 acres in the town, mostly under glass and intensely cultivated, but farther out in the country the last stand of virgin timber in the Saginaw Valley and, elsewhere, a wild area of cutover second-growth timber, which my father and uncle made into a small game preserve. As a child, then, I had several worlds to live in, which I felt were mine.."

Roethke's poetry also reflects his parents' rigorous Mach es tüchtig! ("Do it right!") philosophy and the 1923 same-year suicide of his uncle, and then cancer-related death of his father.

Theodore Roethke was the eldest of two children born to German-American parents, Otto and Helen Huebner Roethke, of Saginaw. His paternal grandfather, prior chief forester for Otto von Bismarck's sister in East Prussia, immigrated to Saginaw with his family in 1872. By 1880, Roethke's grandfather had established the massive William Roethke floral greenhouses on Saginaw's current Gratiot Avenue. Sons Otto, the "green thumb," and Charles later managed the greenhouse-business and built side-by-side homes in front. The business sold in 1922.

Roethke attended John Moore and Arthur Hill schools in Saginaw and was the first in his family to attend college. At age 14, he wrote a Red Cross campaign speech that was translated into 26 languages. He earned B.A. (1929) and M.A. (1936) degrees in English at the University of Michigan and received an honorary doctorate there in 1961. While attending graduate classes at Harvard in 1930-31, he sought out poet-teacher Robert Hillyer, whose encouragement helped him place his poetry in national magazines.

In 1931, Roethke began teaching English and (passionately) coaching tennis at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. He also taught at Michigan State College, Pennsylvania State University, Bennington College, and University of Washington, where he helped create the writing program. He became a tremendously gifted and engaging teacher, whose students included future poets David Wagoner and Pulitzer Prize winners Richard Hugo and Carolyn Kizer. In 1953, Roethke married his former Bennington student, Beatrice O'Connell, who was 17 years younger than he was.

Six-foot-three, blonde, lumbering Roethke was sometimes affectionately called a "dancing-bear." He was reputedly a heavy drinker, with "insatiable appetites and disabling insecurities." He loved competition, but despised losing. He continuously strove to perfect his art and promote poetry, amassing an outstanding number of prizes.

Roethke's books of poetry include Open House (1941); The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), which established him as one of America's most gifted poets; Praise to the End (1951); The Waking (1953) that won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize; The Exorcism (1957); Words for the Wind (1958); I Am! Says the Lamb (1961), for children; and The Far Field (posthumously, 1964).

The Lost Son and Other Poems delves into Roethke's greenhouse experiences. Included are the popular "My Papa's Waltz" and "The Big Wind," in which Roethke describes when powerful winds pushed the water out of the Saginaw River and his father astonishingly pumped manure into the greenhouse steam plant to provide moisture so the flowers could survive.

Roethke returned to his Saginaw home many times through 1959 for lengthy visits or respites after increasing mental breakdowns that began in 1935. In 1959, he received an alumnus award from Arthur Hill High School. That year, he saw the greenhouses had been torn down. In 1963, Roethke died from a heart attack in Washington. He is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Saginaw.

In his "Was a Man" tribute, John Ciardi recalls, "Ted Roethke was a tearing man, / A slam-bang wham-dam tantrum O / From Saginaw in Michigan /. But once he sat still and began / To listen for the lifting word, / It hovered round him like a bird. / And oh, . the things he heard in Saginaw, in Michigan!"

Today, the Roethke House, at 1805 Gratiot Avenue in Saginaw, is listed on the National Register of Historic Sites, is a designated National Literary Landmark, and has a Michigan Historical Marker. The house and grounds are preserved by the Friends of Theodore Roethke, and special Roethke-related gatherings are held there.

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