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October 21, 2017

Roethke, Sick and Well

On this day in 1935 twenty-seven-year-old Theodore Roethke was hospitalized for the first of the manic-depressive breakdowns which would recur throughout his life. Roethke had just begun a teaching post at Michigan State University and, according to colleagues, had been drinking heavily all semester -- dozens of cups of coffee and bottles of cola a day as well as alcohol. On the previous evening, a cold one, he had taken a long walk in the woods without a coat and eventually with only one shoe; the next morning, after deciding "to cut my eight o'clock class deliberately just to see how long they would stick around," Roethke took another walk in the woods, also coatless. He was shivering and delirious when he arrived at the Dean's office, where he planned "to explain one or two things about this experiment"; the Dean, trained as a mathematician, called for the doctors. Roethke later told friends that while on his first walk he had had a mystical experience with a tree -- even pointed out the tree, while retrieving his shoe. The tree taught him "the secret of Nijinsky," he said, perhaps referring to that passage in Nijinsky's diary (written while the famous dancer was a mental patient) which describes him learning from a tree that "human beings do not understand feelings."

One of Roethke's most well-known poems concerns dancing, though hardly ballet. "My Papa's Waltz" is regarded as one of Roethke's "greenhouse poems," in the sense of being written earlier and being about his important relationship with his father, who had a greenhouse business:
    The whiskey on your breath
    Could make a small boy dizzy;
    But I hung on like death:
    Such waltzing was not easy.

    We romped until the pans
    Slid from the kitchen shelf;
    My mother's countenance
    Could not unfrown itself.

    The hand that held my wrist
    Was battered on one knuckle;
    At every step you missed
    My right ear scraped a buckle.

    You beat time on my head
    With a palm caked hard by dirt,
    Then waltzed me off to bed
    Still clinging to your shirt.
The poem first appeared in The Lost Son and Other Poems, 1948, but in an autobiographical story written probably in high school, sometime after his father's sudden death, Roethke wrote this early draft of their dance: "Sometimes he dreamed about Papa. Once it seemed Papa came in and danced around with him. John put his feet on top of Papa's and they'd waltz. Hei-dee-dei-dei. Rump-tee-tump. Only babies expected dreams to come true...." The photo above is of Otto Roethke's galoshes, sitting on the porch of the family home.

Whatever the causes of his mental problems, Roethke's biographers say that he kept working with characteristic intensity even when ill. Roethke's first psychiatrist said, "You can't cure a personality"; the psychiatrist Roethke liked best said, "I think his troubles were merely the running expenses he paid for being his kind of poet." His own assessment, given in a notebook entry shortly before his death at age fifty-five -- a heart attack, while swimming -- was that it was all a mystery:
    Am I sick? Am I well?
    Not even God, I think, could tell.

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