A Celebration of Theodore Roethke
Oct. 17, 2008
Rackham Amphitheatre 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Open to the public

“What we need is more people who specialize in the impossible,” Theodore Roethke once wrote.

For the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and University alum, this may have meant stretching the boundaries of 20th century American poetry. Receiving wide acclaim in his own time, his work still holds cause for revisiting. And with the recent centenary of his birth, there is no more appropriate time than now to acknowledge his achievements. Tomorrow, faculty and students will gather in Rackham Amphitheatre to discuss his life and creative works.

Planning for the event began last year when English Prof. Laurence Goldstein teamed up with Creative Writing Lecturer Keith Taylor and decided to honor Roethke. Camille Paglia, columnist for Slate.com and author of “Break, Blow, Burn” which discusses Roethke’s poetry, will deliver the keynote address. As a controversialist, Paglia has written on popular, political and literary cultures since the 1990s when she first stepped into the public sphere.

Paglia will also participate in the panel discussion with Taylor, Creative Writing Prof. Laura Kasischke and English Assistant Prof. Gillian White.

William Bolcom, a Grammy-winning composer and a School of Music, Theatre and Dance professor, is a former student of Roethke. Bolcom will discuss the influence of Roethke on his own music and play various compositions set to Roethke’s poetry. The event will conclude with readings of Roethke’s work by students and faculty.

Unlike the poets of his time, Roethke borrowed from the Romantic era’s tendency to focus on nature. As a native of Saginaw, he often reflected on the local nature of his home where his father maintained a greenhouse. Roethke’s outlook on the natural world is often combined with confessional poetry’s involvement with the spiritual world, which makes it especially unique and difficult to classify. His poetry isn’t only diversified in its subject matter but in form as well. He experimented with lyric poems, love poems and children’s poems, frequently incorporating nursery rhymes.

“It is intensely moving, for one, and very skilled,” White said. “It draws on a mix of influences to explore personal material and to describe and honor the natural world.”

“His work explores the unconscious and scenes of childhood to achieve an expressive poetry that marks a self’s effort to connect to forces larger than the self or its local conditions,” she said.

As an undergraduate and graduate student at the University in the late 1920s and early ’30s, one may see Ann Arbor as the place in which Roethke’s evolvement as a poet took place.

“When Roethke came to Ann Arbor, he met people from all over the word and people who were paying attention to literature from all over the world, and those things would not have been available in Saginaw,” Taylor said.

As Roethke grew older, he began to suffer from manic depression. His mental illness is reflected in many internal poems of the late ’40s and early ’50s. These poems later influenced confessional poets like Sylvia Plath, making it possible for others to discuss personal issues in their work.

Before returning to Ann Arbor in the 1960s, Roethke taught at Michigan State University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Washington.

“There is a regional importance for something like this to remind people that real work can be done no matter where they are; they don’t have to go elsewhere or abandon things,” Taylor said.

The transcendence of Roethke’s poetry across geographical boundaries and time is evidence of this. Tomorrow’s event will be a chance to experience just how far his poetry has entered the larger cultural world and how grounded it has remained locally.

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