Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Plans underway for two events honoring poet Theodore Roethke

Portrait of Theodore Roethke

by Janet I. Martineau
As the new year starts, plans are taking shape for two events celebrating the legacy of Theodore M. Roethke, Saginaw’s Pulitzer-winning poet.
Every three years, the Triennial Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize is awarded to poet of national stature. The last one went to Robert Pinsky, a former U.S. poet laureate, in 2008. So 2011 marks the next awarding of the monetary prize and a reading by the winner,  in November on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University. 
And this coming spring the Friends of Theodore Roethke organization, which maintains the poet’s boyhood home at 1805 Gratiot, plans to celebrate his May 25 birth date with a visit from Tess Gallagher -- one of Roethke’s students during his tenure at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Gallagher, 67, lives in Port Angeles, Wash., and is a poet, essayist, author and playwright. She also oversees the legacy of her late husband, author Raymond Carver. More than a decade ago Gallagher visited Saginaw for one of the Rouse for Roethke readings begun by the late Al Hellus.
In other Roethke-related news, SVSU reports that its Zahnow Library has received a donation of books, letters, photographs, recordings and other items from Roethke’s widow, Beatrice Roethke Lushington.
Among the items from Lushington, who lives in England, are more than 70 personal letters between her and Roethke’s sister, June. Written between 1960 and 1995, many of the letters have never been seen before and provide insights into the private life of the poet. Roethke (1908-1963) suffered from bipolar disorder. His sister, an English teacher, was a lifelong resident of Saginaw and lived in the family home until her death in 1997. Both of them are buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Saginaw Township.
Poet/writer Tess Gallagher
Also in the donation is a collection of nearly 200 books from Lushington’s library, reflecting her lifelong interest in poets and poetry. Among them is an annotated  copy of Allan Seager’s Roethke biography, “The Glass House,” in which Lushington corrects what  she consider errors in the book and records her personal reaction to events detailed in the book.
Although the triennial prize was begin in 1968 by the privately operated Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation, in 2008 SVSU assumed control of its operation as well as memorabilia it had collected.
Jan Poppe, in the communications department at SVSU, chairs the committee overseeing the awarding of the prize this year. While award festivities have taken place in Saginaw in years past, Poppe reports that the Nov. 12-16 event will take on more of a festival atmosphere and will expand into Bay and Midland counties.
Although everything is preliminary at this point, the committee is planning:

-- A Saturday, Nov. 12, Poetry Slam at SVSU’s Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum.
-- Sunday, Nov. 13, a Roethke display at the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library in Midland and a possible slam or poetry reading there.
-- Monday, Nov. 14, a dinner-by-invitation at the Alden B. Dow Home and Studio in Midland. The SVSU Foundation  has formed a Theodore Roethke Memorial Endowment to help fund the growing festival, the prize itself and the establishment of a  Roethke scholar-in-residence program. The dinner may cultivate prospective donors. The endowment hopes to raise $500,000 by 2014.
-- Tuesday, Nov 15, a banquet and prize-bestowing event featuring the new prize winner and other poetic guests. The winner also will visit classes at SVSU.
-- Wednesday, Nov. 16, a “Grand Finale Concert” at First Presbyterian Church in Bay City, featuring Roethke poems set to music by Ned Rorem;  a string quartet playing a piece composed by Samuel Barber, whose says he found the lyricism of Roethke’s verse excellent material for song settings, and  a jazz set in recognition of Roethke’s love for that musical form.
-- On Nov. 14 or Nov. 16, a “Haunts of Roethke” bus tour throughout Saginaw.
The poet winning the prize is chosen by a process involving the current U.S. poet laureate and three judges who are working and published poets. That process has not yet begun.
As for the May 25th event at the Roethke boyhood home, Friends of Theodore Roethke president Annie Ransford says, health willing, 85-year-old Lushington plans to attend.
Gallagher will participate as a poet-in-residence, May 21-24, and in addition to reading from her own works will conduct writing workshops. 
In addition to authoring several books of prose and poetry, Gallagher  also has received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation and two National Endowment of the Arts awards and has taught at numerous colleges.

Theodore Roethke published nine books of poetry, much of it reflecting the family greenhouse business and his love of nature. He won the Pulitzer, in 1954, for his book “The Waking” and today his work is in textbooks and anthologies worldwide.


  1. Thanks Janet for sharing this info. What a great opportunity for Beatrice and Tess to meet!

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