of roses, roses,
A little later, almost in the poem's final lines, that self emerges in lines that echo two key influences on Roethke's later work - Whitman and Dylan Thomas:
Among the half-dead trees, I came upon the true ease of myself,
As if another man appeared out of the depths of my being,
And I stood outside myself,
Beyond becoming and perishing,
A something wholly other,
As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,
This interest in adapting the long lines and catalogue narratives of Whitman was just the final stylistic development of a number that characterize Roethke's career. Some of the influences that have been suggested for his first book, Open House (1941), include W. H. Auden, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and John Donne, while he consciously based some poems in the 1950s on the work of Yeats. But Roethke is far more than an imitator of other poets' styles, and he used these poetic "fathers" in innovative ways as part of exploring his ambivalent attitude towards his childhood and towards his own father. This autobiographical search is combined with an intense feeling of affinity with the oneness of living things and natural processes that he felt with even the most neglected and lowly forms of nature. He has been seen by some readers as a latter-day transcendentalist.
Roethke's father died of cancer in 1923, two years before the poet entered the University of Michigan. Upon his graduation in 1929 he briefly attended graduate school at the University of Michigan and then at Harvard, before beginning his teaching career at Lafayette College. At Lafayette Roethke found a strong supporter and colleague in poet Stanley Kunitz, and later he formed an important friendship with Kenneth Burke while teaching at Pennsylvania State University (1936-43). He then went on to teach at Bennington College. But between holding the positions at Lafayette and Pennsylvania State, while teaching at Michigan State in 1935, Roethke was hospitalized for what were to become recurring bouts of mental illness. These breakdowns, and a drinking problem that sometimes produced violent mood swings - alternate feelings of self-doubt and of bravado - haunted Roethke for the rest of his life, but became part of the intense exploration of self (Fishing "in an old wound" as he put it in "The Flight") that is central to many of his poems.
Roethke began publishing his poetry at the beginning of the 1930s, and established a growing reputation that was reinforced by the 1941 publication of Open House. In 1948, the year in which he took a position as poet-in-residence at the University of Washington, he published what many critics consider his finest volume, The Lost Son and Other Poems. The book uses the sometimes repressed memories of lost youth, including memories of the greenhouses and of the poet's father, to explore a visionary connection between the self, imagination, memory, and nature. The volume contains such well-known poems as "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze" (three of Otto Roethke's employees), "My Papa's Waltz," and the two poems titled "Cuttings." The poet's close identification with the elemental life forms around him is expressed dramatically rather than meditatively, as in the second of the "Cuttings" poems, " I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing, / In my veins, in my bones I feel it, - / ... I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet."
Some of the poems of The Lost Son use forms and rhythms associated with childhood as part of their attempt to capture early memories and responses, and this strategy is developed more fully in Praise to the End! (1951). But the new poems in his subsequent volume, The Waking: Poems 1933-1953 (1953), mark Roethke's return to the more formalist verse of his earlier career, now with a particular interest in the work of Yeats. This volume, which won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize, contains the often anthologized "Four for Sir John Davies." The continuity of Roethke's themes is illustrated by the poem's explicit echoes of Yeats's "Among School Children," itself an exploration of memory, age, and youth. In the same year as this book appeared, 1953, Roethke married a former student from Bennington, Beatrice O'Connell, who provided invaluable support through the poet's continuing mental and alcoholic crises.
The 1950s saw Roethke's reputation continue to grow. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1950, two Ford Foundation grants, and a Fulbright grant. He received many awards for his 1957 volume Words for the Wind, including the Bollingen Prize and the National Book Award. In this volume Roethke published "Meditations of an Old Woman," a commemoration of his mother, as well as some children's verse and the often reprinted "I Knew a Woman." Now at the height of his fame, Roethke lived a life of teaching, reading, writing, and travel until suffering a fatal heart attack at the age of 55.
Following the publication of his last poems in The Far Field in 1964 -which won another National Book Award - his Collected Poems appeared in 1966. Among the many notable poets who have been influenced by his work are James Dickey, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and James Wright.
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