Theodore Roethke photographed by  Imogen Cunningham, 1959

Theodore Roethke photographed by Imogen Cunningham,

S+ Stimulant: the poets dead – were with me


Theodore Roethke was an American poet.  May 25, 1908 – August 1, 1963.

Roethke’s work is characterized by its introspection, rhythm and natural imagery. The self-exploratory Roethke announced his bold “intention to use himself as the material for his art” through the title of his first published volume, Open House.

Because his father was a market gardener much of Theodore’s childhood was spent in his 25 acre greenhouse. Roethke’s poetry would later seek to tie the world of the greenhouse to the “inner world” of man. Roethke himself said: The greenhouse “is my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.” A great proponent of the mystical qualities of Nature he stated: “When I get alone under an open sky where man isn’t too evident—then I’m tremendously exalted and a thousand vivid ideas and sweet visions flood my consciousness.”

Heavily influenced by Evelyn Underhill’s seminal book Mysticism, many of his later poems follow her psychological progression that begins with: the painful apprehension of personal insufficiency, aggravated by the awareness of the possibility of a deeper reality. This is followed by a desire for purification through self-castigation and mortification, which ultimately leads to a sudden breakthrough to a heightened visionary joy in the awakening of transcendental consciousness.

Theodore Roethke was a poet’s poet who fully felt himself to be a vehicle for the creative spirit. An excerpt from one his lectures vividly describes his experience:

I was in that particular hell of the poet: a longish dry period. It was 1952, I was 44, and I thought I was done. I was living alone in a biggish house in Edmonds, Washington. I had been reading – and re-reading – not Yeats, but Raleigh and Sir John Davies. I had been teaching the five-beat line for weeks – I knew quite a bit about it, but write it myself? – no; so I felt myself a fraud.

Suddenly, in the early evening, the poem ‘The Dance’ started, and finished itself in a very short time – say thirty minutes, maybe in the greater part of an hour, it was all done. I felt, I knew, I had hit it. I walked around, and I wept; and I knelt down – I always do after I’ve written what I know is a good piece. But at the same time I had, as God is my witness, the actual sense of a Presence – as if Yeats himself were in that room. The experience was in a way terrifying, for it lasted at least half an hour. That house, I repeat, was charged with a psychic presence: the very walls seemed to shimmer. I wept for joy … He, they – the poets dead – were with me.


S+ suggested reading: The Waking by Theodore Roethke

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954.

[*Source: Poetry Foundation & Wikipedia]



Published: April 16th, 2015

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