I promised a surprise today for my fellow natives of Saginaw, Michigan. Poet Theodore Roethke is that surprise; not only was he born in Saginaw, he is an alumnus of Arthur Hill High School, my alma mater and that of my mother, siblings, and husband. He graduated from the University of Michigan, and later taught at the predecessor of Michigan State University before leaving the state to teach in other parts of the country, teaching until a heart attack at 63 ended a life fraught with what was then called manic depression, and struggles with alcohol. *
Possibly due to the influence of the greenhouse run by his father and uncle, the natural world often served as a theme or the imagery in his poetry. In reading “Meditation at Oyster River,” which mentions Saginaw’s Tittabawassee River, I was compelled to slow my pace to feel the stillness. Such peace.
As I read and listened to “The Waking,” probably his most well-known poem, I was reminded that, embarrassingly, I never understood the poem well. On tonight’s reading, though, I gained some clarity. Because poetry is such a personal experience, I won’t share that here; however, I welcome your comments and am glad to discuss.
The Friends of Roethke, located in Saginaw, have a lovely web site dedicated to the poet, and there is a park named after him. Saginaw natives are familiar with Roethke Park. I understand that there is also a museum, within walking distance of my childhood home. See the web site HERE. Explore the site to read some of Roethke’s more well-known poetry and to listen to the poet discuss his work.
You can also listen to a reading of “The Waking” below; some animation is included. There are also YouTube videos in which the poet himself reads his work; just search on his name.
Enjoy the poems, friends. Be well.
*So often we learn of people who suffered greatly, but gave us works of art. We seem to assume posthumous fame justifies the suffering. Is the legacy more important than the person? I wonder if any among them would have sacrificed that legacy for peace and happiness.