I’m great fan of Theodore Roethke’s poems, particularly his villanelle, “The Waking” (beautifully performed by jazz singer Kurt Elling. (click here to listen to The Waking on You Tube.) Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” is included in the textbook I use for my Introduction to Poetry course as a good example of stanzaic form. It’s one of the few poems using trimeter that I feel works very well. (And that’s a challenge. I’d love to hear suggestions that would cause me to change my mind.)
A few weeks ago, on one of the rare warm days we’ve had this spring, I read “My Papa’s Waltz” to my class, hoping to pull the gazes of the young men who sit by the window back into the classroom. I’d hoped this poem’s subject, about a boy and his father, would evoke some talk of the poem’s swaying, and even encourage a student to admit to dancing with his own father.
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
Slid 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.
But the response, even before I finished reading the poem, surprised me. Many of the students shifted in their seats, murmuring to each other. There were a few disgusted tsks.
I went home that night and contacted a few of the poets, far more experienced than I as teachers, whose opinions function as reality checks for me. I wanted to know if longtime teachers of poetry had seen a shift in the way this poem (and perhaps others) is interpreted by students over the years.
Here’s a bit of Gray Jacobik’s reply:
I taught “Introduction to Poetry” from 1989 until 2004, and noticed a change in the mid to late 90s in that the idea of child abuse (beatings) and even incest would become part of the interpretation (not always, but not infrequently either).
I remember one occasion in particular when a debate ensued in class. The father was regarded as an abusive alcoholic, the child life’s endangered (“I hung on like death”), and the “waltz” regarded as symbolic, not literal, standing for the kind of dodging and manipulation that becomes the way a child needs to behave around an alcoholic father who may turn violent suddenly and erratically.
Tomorrow I’ll post the second half of this blog entry, which will include a response by Dick Allen, as well as some thoughts on how these shifts happen and how (or whether) they can serve as grist for classroom discussion.
I welcome suggestions and thoughts!