Born in 1908, by the time Theodore Roethke died in 1963 he had established himself as one of the most important poets of his generation and with “My Papa’s Waltz” also became one of the most widely read. To find a college student who has not been assigned to write an essay on that universally anthologized poem at some point over the last half century would be a monumental feat, indeed.
Roethke himself was a college professor with his longest professorship situating him at the Univ. of Washington long enough to be named Poet-in-Residence shortly before his death. When he wasn’t instructing students on the writings of others, he was producing collections of poetry that would earn him a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and a National Book Award five years later. In 1964, he was posthumously honored with a second National Book Award for his final collection, The Far Fields.
Roethke’s own drinking problems colluded with a diagnosis of what was termed then manic depression and is today known as bipolar depression to result in the poet requiring hospitalized treatment a few times during his life. An unresolved profound ambivalence of feeling toward his father meant that Roethke was often producing verse within a state of highly strung emotional tension. The most obvious result of that tension is his most famous work. The emotional ambivalence and psychological tension is so palpably put on display in such an artistically ambiguous way that it is not just freshman and college students who have written volumes of words. That one single example of Roethke’s poetic genius has also served as the focus for entire books by scholars, academics and educators.
Between his first collection, Open House, published in 1941 and that final award-winning capper to his career, Roethke revealed himself as a poet capable of growth and experimentation while still remaining fully committed to the metaphysical instincts and penetrating self-psychoanalysis that mark his most expressive work. The imagery itself often borders into the realm of the surreal, but his precise attention to the way that the sounds made by individual words and the rhythm created by their construction always keep them grounded within accessible reality.