We Dance On: On Reading Roethke

TwisterNathan Knapp at The Millions:

At the time of Roethke’s death in 1963 from a heart attack in a swimming pool on Bainbridge Island, which lies directly across Puget Sound from Seattle, he was regarded as one the preeminent living American poets, rivaled only in his generation by Robert Lowell. If you take a look at his place on the shelf of any large university library, you’ll find a hefty swath of scholarship on him dating from the late-’50s well into the early-’70s. In the early-’80s, though, scholarly work on Roethke dried up. Though his poetry was much lauded during the final decade of his life — he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for The Waking, and received both the Bollingen and the National Book Award for 1959’s Words for the Wind — he regarded himself principally as a failure. In comparison to other of his contemporaries whose places in literary history have for the most part solidified, Elizabeth Bishop being but one example, his star has fallen. This despite winning another National Book Award posthumously for The Far Field, released two years after his death, despite nearly winning another for his Collected Poems the next year, and though his work was a tremendous influence on both Sylvia Plath and, as poet August Kleinzahler pointed out recently in the London Review of Books, John Berryman. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1976, at what was probably the peak of Roethke’s posthumous fame, the poet James Dickey referred to him as “the greatest American poet,” even going so far as to say Walt Whitman was “no competition” for him. Yet in the years since, Roethke’s work has rusted into oblivion, largely unread and unremarked-upon.

more here.