Monday, May 25, 2009

On Theodore Roethke's Birthday: Manic Mysticism

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It's the birthday of poet and professor Theodore Roethke, (books by this author) born in Saginaw, Michigan (1908). He grew up in the Saginaw Valley, a descendent of German immigrants on both sides of his family. He was "thin, undersized, and sickly as a boy, obviously intelligent but shy and diffident as well," according to biographer Allan Seager.

His father owned a wholesale flower company. Roethke grew up surrounded by 25 acres of cultivated flowers — about a quarter million feet of which were covered by glass. Roethke later said, "[Greenhouses] were to me, I realize now, both heaven and hell, a kind of tropics created in the savage climate of Michigan, where austere German-Americans turned their love of order and their terrifying efficiency into something truly beautiful. It was a universe, several worlds, which, even as a child, one worried about, and struggled to keep alive."

Roethke was passionate about teaching. He called teaching "one of the few sacred relationships left in a crass secular world." And he once wrote in his journal: "The teaching of poetry requires fanaticism." Roethke had bipolar disorder, and he tended to be manic rather than depressed. He was hospitalized for mania on several occasions. His mental breakdowns were accompanied, he recounted, by intense mystical experiences.

When he had his first manic episode, in 1935, he was a professor at Michigan State College in East Lansing. In the days before he was hospitalized, he went out into the woods and danced in circles, trying to cultivate the "Dionysian frenzy" that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about. Roethke wrote in his journals, "I can project myself easier into a flower than a person." And, "I change into vegetables. First, a squash, then a turnip. … I become a cabbage, ready for the cleaver, the close knives." And he wrote,"I knew how it felt to be a tree, a blade of grass, even a rabbit." Also in his journal, he wrote, "I wish I could photosynthesize."

His manic episodes, in which he'd go days without sleeping, usually appeared to be connected to his childhood memories, and were often sparked by experiences in the forest. "Root Cellar" is believed to be written when Roethke was manic. He wrote:

Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,

He felt that his mental health condition was a boon for him as a poet, that his manic thinking and manic energy helped him to be inspired and productive, and he likened himself to other poets who were considered "mad" — such as William Blake, John Clare, and Christopher Smart.

Theodore Roethke had a heart attack while he was swimming in his friends' pool on Bainbridge Island, Washington, at the edge of Puget Sound. Shortly after he died, the owners of the house, who were friends of his, filled in the pool and made it into a Zen rock garden to memorialize him.

Roethke wrote:
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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