Theodore Roethke, No Northwest

Theodore Roethke is not a Northwest Poet I just read a biography of Theodore Roethke — and toward the beginning of his career there is a bit about how much of an operator Robert Lowell (Roethke’s rival, Robert Frost (previous generation) and Roethke were — they were always writing letters, sending postcards, and working at dazzling influential critics. Roethke had Louis Brogan who pretty much paved the way for him. I’m not that cynical about it — I mean if Roethke or Frost or Lowell weren’t writing very good poetry it wouldn’t have gotten them far I suppose. But on the other hand I can’t help but think they were also all creatures of this system. Anyway it is a very interesting biography by Allan Seager (a famous Michigan novelist and teacher who has faded into obscurity) called The Glass House.


The book has weird shifts from present tense to past tense within the same paragraphs. It also hops from one point of view to another. The entire book is written from Seager’s pov after Roethke’s death. He includes then conversations about a particular episode that Seeger had much later after the incident. I kind of like the way it works because it is clearly a reconstructed thing — you get the sense of the author’s affection for Roethke but also the sense that a lot about his subject really bothers him. Roekthke for instance harrassesses women, feeling obligated to have parties, get them drunk, and then paw them. There a couple of funny rebuttals to this behavior. One woman after being unwillingly fondled asks him, “So Ted, there is a bedroom. Let’s go.” His death is very well handled as well — he just dies. He is going about his business several pages before the end of the book, typical schemes of working on poetry, trying to get someone to pay him way too much money for his poetry, drinking, and then he jumps in a pool where he has a heart attack and dies. No build up. Just his life drunkenly and manically swerving along until he is dead.

Roethke is often held up as the beginning of Northwest Poetry, or at least, as the moment when Northwest poetry began to become really serious. While Roethke liked the Seattle and the Pacific Northwest and made friends with some locals such as Morris Graves and Ned Rorem, Roethke like the Olmsteads (who desinged the University of Washington campus) was an import. In Roethke’s case at least he was an import from the Michigan rather than the full-on East Coast. A couple of years ago I saw Tess Gallagher read at the Universtiy of Washington. I asked her some question under the pretense of disputing Roethke’s reputations as “Northwest Poet.” Tess Gallagher was kind of flummoxed by question. She said, “How can you say that? He taught here. He taught within these very walls.” Some northwest poets were fortunate (suppose, more on that in a minute) to have Roethke as a teacher. Tess Gallagher had him a year or so before he died. Carolyn Kizer, Richard Hugo, and Madeline DeFrees were students of Roethke and probably benefitted from the experience. In so far as regionalism is useful in thinking about a poet’s work (I think it is useful but understand the otherside of the coin that it is perhaps not essential) Richard Hugo or Tess Gallagher are Northwest Poets. Roethke isn’t.

What would divide them? Roethke for most of his life wrote about a very specific part of his life, the years of his father and uncle’s operation of a massive greenhouse in Michigan. The greenhouse sat on a large plot of land and included virgin timber, a massive field, and the greenhouse itsef. Just as Roethke entered high school, his father and uncle both died within a very period of time and the greenhouse was sold. The time and place Roethke is writing in the vast majority of his poems was very short and specific. It was in Saginaw, Michigan. It is probably from 1917 – 1924. I wonder if this isn’t the case for a lot of writers? There is a specific time and place that becomes abstracted. Flannery O’Conner said about novelists and experience that a novelist has all of the experience they need by the age of seven. Once Roethke identified his plot of ground in 1948’s The Lost Son and Other Poems, he began to really develop the features of his poetry that he is known for: overpowering metrical control along with a combination of the sound and underlying sense of his poetry. In terms of lyric poetry and the kind of poetry that has been taught and honored by the University of Washington, Roethke essentially laid out his own version of poetry as the target, as the goal, as the logical end of poetry.

Roethke only wrote a handful of poems using any reference to the Northwest and by the time he wrote those he was well past the point of learning anything new.

It makes sense to me to tie writers like Roethke down to a location. Although I would argue that “regionalism” (especially in the context of a globalism is more slippery than this.)

Roethke’s greenhouse has a physical location. It has an historical reality. Roethke, in this vein, is a Michigan poet. Richard Hugo has two sites where he locates his poems. One is the Duwamish River Valley near Pidgen Hill, at the base of Delridge in West Seattle. The other is a less nailed down location, but are the ghoast towns of the Montana and the West. It may seems kind of simple (and this is part of the argument against regionalism) but simply, if you’re going to locate a writer you locate them in this plot of land that they write about.

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