Poet’s legend lives on through Saginaw celebrations

After a long history of communal devotion and donations, the Theodore Roethke Poetry Prize has been established as a triennial award given to a modern poet in Roethke’s honor, and this year, the River Junction poets began the week of celebration.

Last Monday, the River Junction poets read a compilation of poetry and letters written by Saginaw native and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke.

During his career, Roethke wrote nine books of poetry and was the recipient of many awards.

Though his students praised him greatly, the years after a prize were always the worst for Roethke because he never felt he deserved the praise he was given. At the same time, he was disappointed when his work went unrecognized locally.

Roethke lived a melancholy life filled with mental disorder, nervous anxiety, alcohol and family tragedy, beginning with the death of his father as a young man, which is reflected in the mental and spiritual loss present in poems such as “The Lost Son.”

However, in his fever of creation, many of his poems, such as “My Papa’s Waltz,” are filled with dramatic revelation mixed with sweet sentiments, said Maxine Harris.

Harris, one of three speakers from the River Junction poets, opened the event, saying she hoped Roethke’s letters would reveal another dimension of Roethke.

“We hope that our efforts give Roethke the respect and the regard that he so desired over the years,” Harris said.

Harris has been a member of the River Junction poets for almost 20 years and said that she finds Roethke to be “endlessly fascinating.”

She began working on compiling the notes and letters from the reading about ten years ago.

“Roethke supporters and River Junction members expressed that they were really interested in knowing more about what was going on in Roethke’s life while he was writing his first four books of poetry,” Harris said.

Betty VanOchten and Marion Tincknell are the other two River Junction poets who spoke during the reading. Both assisted Harris with editing and tinkering with the materials for the event.

“The more you work with Roethke, the more you get inspired,” Tincknell said.

Professors Ruth Sawyers and Lynne Graft attended the event.

“We loved it,” Sawyers said. “We both teach classes on the Great Lakes writers, and Roethke is always a major part of it.”

“A great thing that I appreciated about this event is that it melded Roethke’s life with his poetry,” Graft said.

Along the same line of thought, Tincknell ended the evening with the hopes that the Roethke prize, celebration, and contributions of the community will extend his life in ways that continue to inspire us all.

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