Arts and Entertainment

...Into the mind of Theodore Roethke

Poulsbo actor Ken Grantham plays the legendary Roethke in Island Theatre
Poulsbo actor Ken Grantham plays the legendary Roethke in Island Theatre's reading of 'First Class.'
— image credit: Courtesy Photo/Ned Thorne

Celebrating National Poetry Month, Island Theatre presents ‘First Class’ a look into one of the Northwest’s most celebrated and most mysterious literary heroes.

There are probably close to, if not more than, 100 published works on the life and times of the enigmatic poet and educator Theodore Roethke. Not counting the published works of the poet himself.

Many are recollections by former students — Richard Hugo and “First Class” author David Wagoner among them — ruminating on a teacher who is most often regarded as profoundly impactful, in both stature and literature. But not often is Roethke’s life brought into live theater.

He’s quite often remembered as a “great bear of a man,” reports say he fancied himself as a prize fighter or a mobster type. He was emphatic, they say, intense and emotive. His poems are highly regarded for their poignant primal themes of both the natural world and human nature. Though he was born and spent much of his life in Saginaw, Mich., and died more than 40 years ago, he’s likely the most anthologized poet in Northwest, considered the father of the Northwest school of poetry.

So I asked Ken Grantham – a distinguished and seasoned actor of stage and screen, who is playing Roethke in the one-man show “First Class” for Island Theatre this month – what’s it like to tap into a character who was one of the greatest minds of his time.

“You know,” Grantham responded with a contemplative chuckle. “There’s a part in David Wagoner’s preface leading into the show, where Kathleen (Thorne, Island Theatre emcee) reads something like ‘He was the most charasmatic man I’ve ever known ... and here’s Ken Grantham.’

“I mean, how do you follow that?” he added.

Grantham’s not a poet. He’d never met Roethke nor had he delved heavily into his body of work. But similar to Roethke, Grantham is a distinguished professor and sophisticatedly rogue, creative type. Over his decades-long career he’s acted in a bevy of TV, film and stage productions while also teaching drama at New York University and the University of California.

“I just look at the forces in his life,” Grantham said.

As an academic and creative spirit Grantham can relate, and so to can he relate to the unstable, bi-polar aspects of Roethke’s personality, having seen it in people close to him, if not experienced it himself, he said.

“Everything is very familiar to me,” Grantham said.

Roethke (played by Grantham) walks into a room situated like a classroom, wearing a hospital gown over his suit and tie and mutters gruffly: ‘This is a poetry workshop, God help us all.”

From there, the show runs the exhilirating gamut of literature in Roethke’s class interwoven with the terrible landscape of mental illness that clouded most of his life.

Interestingly, in the original version of ‘First Class’ didn’t include any of Roethke’s original work. Due to what was said to be copyright issues all the poetry was quoted from other poets. But in this scaled-back reading, Island Theatre has included two Roethke originals. Find a wealth more at your local library.


Written by David Wagoner, poet and University of Washington professor emeritus portraying his mentor and colleague Theodore Roethke at one of his famous poetry workshops — starring Poulsbo-based actor Ken Grantham, directed by Kimberly King.

‘First Class’ plays at 7:30 p.m. April 18-19 at the Bainbridge Island library and again at 7 p.m. April 28 at the Port Orchard Library. All performances are free with donations accepted. All ages. Info:,

My Papa’s Waltz

The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans

Slide from the kitchen shelf;

My mother’s countenance

Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist

Was battered on one knuckle;

At every step you missed

My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head

With a palm caked hard by dirt,

Then waltzed me off to bed

Still clinging to your shirt...’’

From ‘The Lost Son'

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