Some Thoughts on The Glass House

Allan Seager

Theodore Roethke

Some Thoughts on The Glass House

I’m naked to the bone,
With nakedness my shield.
Myself is what I wear:
I keep the spirit spare.

–from Open House by Theodore Roethke, Collected Poems (3)

Theodore Roethke and his biographer Allan Seager had a lot in common. Although they were not particularly close, the two writers were one year apart as undergraduates at the University of Michigan and they were later colleagues at Bennington College and sometime drinking buddies. Their respective literary reputations, however, are far from equal: Despite achieving a certain amount of critical acclaim during his lifetime, Allan Seager’s fiction is rarely read today; Theodore Roethke, a poet who garnered a copious collection of prizes and honors in his time, is one of the titans of American Letters. But Seager was uniquely qualified to chronicle Roethke’s life in The Glass House, as fine a biography of a literary figure as one is likely to encounter.

Allan Seager was a heavy drinker who suffered with tuberculosis and finally succumbed to lung cancer in 1968. He had just completed The Glass House, which turned out to be his most enduring work. A Rhodes Scholar and champion swimmer in his early years, Seager wrote novels and short fiction which “never won general recognition,” yet his work was “highly praised ” by such esteemed critics as Hugh Kenner, James Dickey, and Robert Penn Warren (x). In his illuminating introduction to The Glass House, Donald Hall asserts that Seager’s real strength was constructing “stories and sentences–maybe sentences more than stories,” which is confirmed by the book’s many marvelous words, beautifully collocated (xii).

Any book tells us at least as much about its creator as it does about its subject. And The Glass House is particularly revealing when it comes to Seager’s feelings about what it felt like for a young man with an artistic temperament to grow up in a small-town Michigan about a century ago. (Seager was born in Adrian which is near Lansing; Roethke was reared in the more rural and remote city of Saginaw.) Seager’s Michigan was hardly a hotbed of artistic activity:

It is hard to convey how strange, how foreign the willful making of a poem would have been in a society like his, the inert weight of custom that not only did not have room for any original work in the arts but feared and hated it (46).

And we can only wonder to what extent Seager is speaking about himself when he notes how a poetic temperament was evident in Roethke from an early age:

his despair seems to prove that he already had the prime requisites of a poet, a tingling sensitivity as if he lacked an outer layer of skin, and some sort of compulsion to elevate his life, his emotions into words (28).

As any reader of Roethke would immediately surmise, the glass house of the title refers to his family’s floral farm in Saginaw as well as the poet’s delicate ego. When Ted was fourteen, feuding between his father Otto and his Uncle Charlie, Otto’s brother, led to breakup of the family business and the sale of the beloved greenhouse. Soon thereafter, Uncle Charlie committed suicide. And then Otto, a monumental figure in young Ted’s world, died from intestinal disease. “In the space of three months, the greenhouse was gone, his uncle was gone, his father was gone” (43).

This fateful period in Roethke’s life “must have been a hell of bright awareness” because “he had suffered deprivations greater and keener than he was going to suffer again” (55). Thus, the first fourteen years of his life were “burned into his memory” and, as a poet, Roethke would continue to revisit his bucolic childhood for the rest of his life:

what he writes about are always himself, his father, his mother, more rarely his sister, the greenhouse and its flowers and its working people, the field behind it, the fishing trips with his father, and his own rambles in the game preserve and along the rivers. Instinctively he remembers the period and the area that has been charged with his deepest emotions (163).

Forever collapsing back into his early years, Roethke built one of the most remarkable careers in American Literature. According to the poet Stanley Kunitz, a great friend and supporter of Roethke, “[t]his florist’s son never really departed from the moist, fecund world of his father’s greenhouse in Saginaw” (New York Review, 1963). Ultimately, a writer has only himself to work with, and he must “use himself as a mine, to dig out, to identify, and make images of his emotions” (105). Roethke’s keen reflections of a lost youth stoked his artistic furnace for decades.

Although he would later travel extensively throughout Europe, the greatest journey for Roethke was always inward. He had little interest in sightseeing.

“Churches, galleries, the Colosseum meant nothing to him and he simply refused to see them. It was people he liked to see”(211).

Seager relates that “Stanley Kunitz says he was not a really close observer, and, of course, he did not need to be since everything around him was useful to him only as signatures of himself” (123).

Roethke, who told his students that he never voted, was not someone who kept up with current affairs (50). He read voraciously but not systematically. As Roethke’s good friend W. H. Auden explains, “Ted had hardly any general ideas at all” (67). Seager explains that Roethke was “always reading–and it was not to acquire a fund of general knowledge. Rather, like most writers, he abstracted and kept only what concerned him and let the rest slide out of his memory” (110). At any rate, somehow the multitude of words that went into his head would later recombine in marvelous combinations in his poems.

Seager concedes that Roethke’s greatest artistic asset, a near total disregard for what was happening outside his own psyche, has been seen as a liability by some critics:

Ted’s work has been criticized for the narrowness of its range, for his constant concentration on the fluctuation of the state of his own soul, with the implication that he either selfishly or helplessly limited his vision or deliberately turned it inward, using his images of the nature outside himself merely as barometric signals of internal pressures, as if he found nothing worth writing about in the world around him or was blindly unaware of it (222).

At this point, however, Roethke’s high rank in the literary cannon is very secure.

In Allan Seager’s estimation, Theodore Roethke’s life was a smashing success:

It takes determination and luck for an artist to surmount the variety of obstacles which society–and he himself with unwitting inadvertence–can throw in the way of a period when he can work effectively, eat well enough, have friends to drink with, and be bothered by only petty everyday worries. But Ted managed it (189).

(An entire post about Theodore Roethke that doesn’t mention his renowned prowess as a teacher, his mental illness, the University of Washington, the incessant self-aggrandizing lies he would tell, nor his relationships with women. Wow.)

by Richard W. Bray

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3 Responses to “Some Thoughts on The Glass House”

  1. An Effective Title-Writing Strategy for Academic Papers « Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] Some Thoughts on The Glass House […]

  2. Only Babies Expected Dreams to Come True: A Few More Thought’s on Theodore Roethke’s Glass House | Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] I read The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke by Allan Seager (previously discussed on this blog here), I had always assumed the “My Papa’s Waltz” was based upon actual events. And Roethke, a […]

  3. Seven Ways of Looking at a Line of Poetry | Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] Death and disruption at an early age hurt Theodore Roethke into poetry, as W. H. Auden suggests “mad Ireland” hurt W.B. Yeats into poetry. And oh what prodigious poetry Roethke did make! I’m going to spend a little bit of time talking about how to say the third line of a villanelle Roethke wrote called “The Waking” because my brain spends a lot of time thinking about such things. […]

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