Theodore Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of a working-class family. His father, a German immigrant, ran a commercial greenhouse alongside Roethke's uncle. However, both men died when Roethke was a teenager—his father from cancer and his uncle from suicide. Roethke went on to attend the University of Michigan, where he developed an interest in poetry from both a critical, academic perspective and a creative one. Though he briefly attended law school at the University of Michigan, he dropped out, driven away by his distaste for corporate law. In this period he began to write more prolifically, often drawing upon familiar images of the natural world from a childhood spent in his father's greenhouse. Though he also briefly attended graduate school at Harvard, he soon left Harvard as well, spurred by the financial hardships of the Great Depression. However, his journey from amateur to well-regarded poet was a long one.
Roughly a decade passed as Roethke worked on his first collection, Open House, which was published in 1941. He was not a particularly prolific poet, but his work was both well-read and critically acclaimed, drawing praise from writers as well-known as W.H. Auden. His 1953 collection The Waking earned him a Pulitzer Prize, while his 1965 The Far Field won a National Book Award. He also taught throughout his writing career at institutions including Lafayette College, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Washington. He was known as an energetic, demanding, and devoted teacher, and helped mentor a new generation of poets, especially in his stint at the University of Washington. Despite his success, Roethke suffered from mental illness and often endured draining and highly public periods of mental breakdown.
Though he wrote in a period known for modernist experimentation in poetry, Roethke's work is known for its raw, energetic lyricism and its confessional topics. He was highly influenced not only by friends like Auden and Louise Bogan, but also by Romantic and Transcendental predecessors like Walt Whitman and William Wordsworth. Though he experimented with a wide range of forms, Roethke's writing was known both for an urgent vitality and for an unwavering exploration of both the self and the natural world.
Roethke died of a heart attack in 1963. His work has remained popular, and several of his poems have become mainstays in poetry anthologies and classrooms. Some, including the writer James Dickey, have argued that he is America's greatest poet: according to Dickey, no other American poet has "the kind of deep, gut vitality that Roethke's got."