Roethke's Poetry Rooted in Humble Beginnings The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke's work is known for its clarity, intensity and haunting images. And throughout his life, a major source of inspiration and comfort came from his childhood home in Saginaw, Mich.
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Roethke's Poetry Rooted in Humble Beginnings

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Roethke's Poetry Rooted in Humble Beginnings

Roethke's Poetry Rooted in Humble Beginnings

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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

The poet Theodore Roethke was born 100 years ago today in Saginaw, Michigan. Roethke's poetry is known for its clarity, its intensity, its haunting images -a lot like his life. Megan Cottrell of member station WCMU visited the poet's childhood home and has this remembrance.

MEGAN COTTRELL: Roethke was some of what you might expect from a poet -sensitive, emotional - but he could also be vulgar and rowdy. He was a heavy drinker. He loved to exaggerate, and he was a ladies' man. His tumultuous life and mental state inspired much of the work that made him famous.

He came from humble beginning in a generic, four-by-four square house in Saginaw, Michigan. The house is white with black trim and sits on a busy street. It's taken care of by the Friends of Theodore Roethke Foundation.

Annie Ransford is in her mid-60s with ginger hair and bright eyes. She says the house is full of Roethke.

Ms. ANNIE RANSFORD (Friends of Theodore Roethke Foundation): You can feel the personality of the family and the ambience of the poet, who did so many things here. Even his Pulitzer Prize-winning poem, "The Waking," was drafted and written here.

COTTRELL: Although the block the house sits on is crowded with other homes, in Roethke's day the 25 acres behind the house were under glass. They were covered by greenhouses that fueled the family flower business. Here he reads one of his most famous poems, "My Papa's Waltz," about his father, Otto, coming in from a day's work out in the greenhouses.

Mr. THEODORE ROETHKE (Late Poet): The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy, but I hung on like death. Such waltzing was not easy. We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf. My mother's countenance could not unfrown itself.

Ms. RANSFORD: You can almost see it here in the kitchen. His father working in the greenhouses, coming into the kitchen, picking up Ted, dancing him around.

COTTRELL: Ted Roethke's relationship with his father influenced much of his work. It was a relationship cut short by his father's death when Roethke was just 15. The two hadn't shared interests. Otto valued the hard physical labor he did in the greenhouses, and Ted was more inclined to be a scholar and an artist.

The house is where Roethke grew up, but it was also the place he came back to throughout his life. Often, he would return when he didn't have any money and needed a place to stay or when his mind grew troubled.

Ms. CONNIE BARRETT (Secretary, Friends of Theodore Roethke): This is the door to the attic.

COTTRELL: This is Connie Barrett. She is the secretary of the Friends of Theodore Roethke.

Ms. BARRETT: And this is the window, and we know that when Theodore was depressed, he would come home and he would sometimes set up here in this window and just think or write or just look out at the cars.

COTTRELL: In 1935, Roethke began teaching at Michigan State University but was discharged from his position and hospitalized for manic depression. His manic episodes often struck after he exhausted himself on a book of poetry. In his lifetime, he published seven volumes of work. In 1953, he received the Pulitzer Prize for his book, "The Waking." That same year, he married Beatrice O'Connell.

Beatrice was a former student of Roethke's and had no idea of his struggle with manic depression.

Ms. RANSFORD: She was marrying Ted Roethke, who had been her professor at Bennington.

COTTRELL: Again, Annie Ransford.

Ms. RANSFORD: And they met on the streets of New York just by chance, and they walked across the street together on the way to one of his readings. And just months later, they were married. It was a very short courtship, and she was much younger. So she had no idea what she was getting into.

COTTRELL: Despite his problems with mental illness, Ted and Beatrice had a close, loving relationship. She helped him organize and promote his work, accompanying him to his readings and lectures. Here's Roethke in 1954 reading his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, "The Waking," at one of those lectures in San Francisco.

Mr. ROETHKE: I wait 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. We think by feeling what is there to know? I hear my being dance from ear to ear; I wait to sleep and take my waking slow.

Mr. DAVID BARBER (Poetry Editor, Atlantic Monthly): I think Roethke's work reminds us that modern poetry doesn't necessarily have to be lofty or forbidding to be profoundly felt and profoundly moving.

COTTRELL: David Barber is the poetry editor for the Atlantic Monthly. He says Roethke's distinctive style, fine craftsmanship and moving images make his poetry accessible to all kinds of readers.

Mr. BARBER: Poetic language could be a way of making sense of the story of our lives while at the same time getting under our skin.

COTTRELL: In August 1963, Roethke had a heart attack while swimming in a friend's pool in Washington State. He's buried next to his mother and father just down the road from the house where he grew up. In his childhood bedroom, Ted Roethke's portrait hangs on the wall facing the window. The greenhouses once stood below.

Connie Barrett reads from his poem, "Otto," which ends as night slowly turns to morning.

Ms. BARRETT: I'd stand upon my bed a sleepless child watching the waking of my father's world. Oh, world so far away. Oh, my lost world.

COTTRELL: For NPR News, I'm Megan Cottrell.

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