Though nothing about it looks extraordinary, the childhood home of Theodore Roethke has a fertile history. Built in 1909, just after the poet’s birth, it was Roethke's home until he left for the University of Michigan in 1925 and each time he returned to Saginaw later in life. His years at 1805 Gratiot Avenue proved to be a source of inspiration for many of his most memorable poems.
In the back of the house stood the family’s greenhouses, from which Roethke’s grandfather, who was the Prussian chancellor’s chief forester before emigrating to America, ran a floral company. When old enough, the poet’s father, Otto, and his uncle, Charles, joined the business. They eventually took over, making it Michigan’s largest greenhouse before selling it in 1922, a few months before Otto’s death. When Roethke’s first volume of poems, Open House, appeared in 1941, it was clear the influence his family's business had on his poetry.
Viewing nature, not through the eyes of a common observer but through the gaze of a specialist, Roethke once said he associated the warm verdancy of the greenhouse with that of a womb. This connection to nature remains a common theme throughout his work, as in this excerpt from "The Storm":
We creep to our bed, and its straw mattress.
We wait; we listen.
The storm lulls off, then redoubles,
Bending the trees half-way down to the ground,
Shaking loose the last wizened oranges in the orchard,
Flattening the limber carnations.
A spider eases himself down from a swaying light- bulb,
Running over the coverlet, down under the iron bedstead.
The bulb goes on and off, weakly.
Water roars into the cistern.
Unfortunately, the greenhouses no longer exist behind the Roethke House. However, the rest of the property has been maintained by the Friends of Theodore Roethke Foundation. Each spring, in collaboration with Saginaw public schools, Roethke House invites local students and teachers to participate in poetry workshops, focusing particularly on Roethke's inspiring life and work. Weekly tours of the Roethke House are available; for hours, admission fees, and more information, visit the website.