The Waking

Theodore Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1908. The son of an orchid and rose specialist, he spent much of his childhood in the 25-acre greenhouse (one of the largest in the Midwest) that his family owned. Wildlife and the outdoors, along with the death of his father in 1923, are among the most recurring themes in his work.

Published in 1941, Open House, Roethke's first book, took ten years to write and was critically acclaimed for its brief lyricism. The collection’s intimate, personal quality-—"my secrets cry aloud" and "my heart keeps open house"—heavily influenced later Confessional poets, including Sylvia Plath. The Lost Son and Praise to the End! his second and third books, were a significant breakthrough for Roethke, exercising his abilities to write compelling free verse.

The Waking: Poems 1933-1953 collected a number of poems from those earlier volumes and documented the poet’s return to traditional forms, including variations on the villanelle. Notable poems in the collection include "O, Thou Opening, O," "A Light Breather," "Elegy for Jane," "Four for Sir John Davies: The Dance," as well as the title poem, one of Roethke’s most celebrated pieces. The Waking was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.

By the time Roethke died of a heart attack in 1963, at age 55, he had taught at many of the country's leading colleges and amassed more poetry prizes than any other American poet at the time. Although Roethke’s work anticipated several poetic movements, including Confessional and Deep Image poetry, and despite his influence on several major American poets, many critics argue that he is not given enough attention by contemporary readers and often overlooked as a leading force in American poetry.