Theodore Roethke was born May 25, 1908, in Saginaw, Michigan, where his family ran a greenhouse business. Although he relished nature and enjoyed assisting the family during his youth, the suicide of his uncle and death of his father at a young age greatly affected his childhood and had a strong impact on his writing. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Michigan in 1929, and took some graduate courses at Harvard before embarking on a teaching career at various universities. Roethke began publishing his poetry in numerous journals during the 1930s, including the Saturday Review, but a mental breakdown in 1935, and subsequent hospitalization, impeded his teaching career and publishing endeavors. His bouts with manic depression would be a recurring theme throughout the rest of his life. In 1941, he published his first volume of poetry, Open House, which met with critical acclaim and led to a Guggenheim Fellowship. His second collection, Lost Son and Other Poems, was published in 1948 and garnered a second Guggenheim Fellowship. He published Praise to the End in 1951, and married former student Beatrice O’Connell in 1953. The same year, he published The Waking, which won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.
Roethke’s poetry is heavily influenced by others of his generation, including Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In contrast to some of the other poets of the era, Roethke refrained from political or social commentary. Instead, his work was introspective and self-exploring, often reflecting his connection to the natural world, especially his surroundings remembered from childhood. Lyrical and vivid, at times he adhered to a strict meter, while other times, he used free verse.
Roethke continued publishing and teaching into the early ‘60s with two volumes of children’s verse, “I Am!" Says the Lamb (1961) and Party at the Zoo (1963). The same year, he suffered a heart attack and died. A few more collections of his work were published posthumously.