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Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke.

Now today I have to say, we’ve a guest at the pub with a rather special place in my heart. Not because of any particular blood or spiritual connection between myself and the poet, no, but because of more territorial concerns. This week we’re striking the rich golden veins of the 20th century in our hunt for poetic greats, and the turn of pace takes us to one Theodore Roethke.

Roethke was an American poet, a Pulitzer Prize winner (1954, for his book, the Waking–which certainly adds to the coincidence of discovery here, since it’s a full two thirds of my blog’s name), and a two-time winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. Known for his graceful and varied use of rhythm, rhyme, and natural imagery, his poetry was the very embodiment of American artistry. It also happens he came from my own hometown–a little place called Saginaw, Michigan.

The strong nature imagery that often shows through in his work largely stemmed from his own youthful experiences–a childhood raised in the presence of a 25 acre greenhouse owned and operated by his family. It was home, in more ways than one, but even the serenity of a perpetually green world can be shattered. His father died of cancer when he was just 15, on the cusp of adulthood, and his uncle committed suicide later in the same year–agonies that would haunt him for the rest of his life, in thought and verse alike. Pain he drowned in drink.

Yet he was also a man that pushed through the Great Depression. He earned two degrees from the University of Michigan, and turned to Harvard University–he may even have gone down the path of a lawyer if the Depression hadn’t forced him to abandon it. Instead, he taught English for years at universities across the country, until he began to show signs of manic depression. Yet in that time he taught many students that would, themselves, go on to fame and creative wonder. Inevitably, he died of a heart attack while visiting friends in Washington.

Today, the words shared in his memory will be those of The Waking (the poem, not the book).

~Chris Galford

I wake 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 wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

~Theodore Roethke