What Art Is, According to Theodore Roethke

“I may look like a beer salesman,” Theodore Roethke told the President of Bennington College during a job interview, “but I am a poet.”

Mr. Roethke was 6’3″ with a lineman’s build. His hair was blonde and receding. His mouth sloped downward when closed. The poet Stanley Kunitz described him as a “big, blonde uncle-bear.”

The uncle-bear did drink, often and a lot. But his life belonged to his art: Writing poetry and teaching poetry and forever noting ideas for poetry – “the great crime is lack of a generous mind,” “the great assassin of life is haste” – on bits and pieces of paper he kept in his pockets throughout his life.

It was not always a gentle or neat life, though few are. Mr. Roethke struggled with alcohol, depression, breakdowns. And his writing didn’t shy from despair.

Nor did it shy from joy, longing, occasional mischief. “If I have a complex,” he decided, “it is a full-life complex.”

When he taught at Bennington (he got the job) and later the University of Washington, he opened his classes up to the public, no credentials required.

He demanded a lot of his students. Especially evidence of active, generous minds. Minds that didn’t blow through life with hurry and haste. “The recovery of things is our business,” he wrote. “See! We are blessed by what we see!”

And so Mr. Roethke, the poet who looked like a beer salesman, was not just in the business of poetry. He was in the business of art. Art that’s generous, that sees. That recovers the full life we might have blown through.

Because art, Theodore Roethke would write, was “the means we have of undoing the damage of haste.”

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