Yesterday I began a long post about how my Introduction to Poetry students read Roethke’s poem, “My Papa’s Waltz” very differently than I, finding within its waltzing trimeter a relationship between an abusive alcoholic father and a son whose love is pitiful, clinging.
I asked two poet friends with decades of teaching experience if they noticed a shift in the general classroom interpretation of this poem. Gray Jacobik replied that she too was surprised by a shift in the late 1990’s to an interpretation darker with family pathology. She suggested a possible source for this: “I trace this back to the whole era of “false memories” and implanted memories and to the endless daytime television programs, such as “Maury”, where personal human tragedies were often talked about.”
I think Gray is absolutely right. I remember well the tidal wave of t.v. programming on the subject of incest, sexual abuse of very young children by teachers, bizarre ritualistic abuse scenarios by cults, and finally, the fascination with the psychological aftermath of such abuse, namely multiple personalities. It strikes me that my own response to “My Papa’s Waltz”, once I heard the alcohol and abuse responses of my students, has shifted. I can no longer read this poem without also seeing these possibilities for interpretation. It’s like the Rubin’s vase illusion ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubin_vase) , in which the mind “sees” one figure, either vase or face, and cannot see the other until it’s pointed out to them. After that, the illusion shifts back and forth between the two.
I also asked Dick Allen the same question. Here is part of his response: “When I first began teaching “My Papa’s Waltz”, it was taken as a delightful small poem about the love of a son for a father. It was a poem of realistic joy and fond memory, particularly noted for its rhythms, compactness, and pathos of “clinging.” “…..it’s best to see the poem both ways, in that Op-art way that so plays up the ambiguity of truly great poems. Look one way and it’s a poem of love and the terror of losing one’s parent. Look another and it’s a poem of semi- child abuse. The thing is, it’s both and neither and partially one and partially the other of these interpretations. Still, there’s no doubt that our 21st century P.C. attitudes towards drunkenness, toward equality in marriage, toward rough-housing with kids make it almost inevitable that our students would read this poem in probably quite a different way than Roethke thought it would be read and intended it to be read.”
Dick’s point about Roethke’s intentions for the reader is well-taken. Any contemporary poet fortunate enough to have work published in a literary magazine with a readership of more than a few hundred people (and I might be reaching with these numbers) understands that varying interpretations are inevitable, even encouraged, our era of fragmentation and pastiche. We know that very few of the poems published by those who we now consider our greatest poets will be read in a hundred years’ time. As advances in technology continue to shape the nature of communication-- and language itself--through which lenses will these poems be read? Frankly, I wonder less about these possibilities than I simply hope, a hundred years from now, that people will still be dancing.
My gratitude to Gray Jacobik, http://grayjacobik.com/ professor Emeritus, Eastern Connecticut State University, whose most recent collection of poetry, Little Boy Blue (Cavan Kerry) is a memoir in verse. I own this book and it’s not only beautifully written in her dense sensual style, but approaches, even embraces, some very difficult topics without a flinch. Gray writes a twice-monthly blog for the Michigan Quarterly Review, Come a Little Bit Closer Now Baby, in which she does close readings of canonical texts.
My gratitude as well to Dick Allen Connecticut’s current Poet Laureate. Dick was the Charles A. Dana Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at the University of Bridgeport (CT) and is the author of seven poetry collections. Present Vanishing: Poems (Sarabande Books), may have received the 2009 Connecticut Book Award for Poetry, but my personal favorite of his collection is The Day Before (Sarabande, 2005), which is a well-loved text in my creative writing classes.