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April 28, 2011


Depending on the sophistication of the class, you might frame this as a discussion of what the reader brings to the poem - how our own cultural, biographical, and psychological prisms influence what light(s) a particular poem casts onto the wall for us.

This poem made me uncomfortable from the very first time I heard it, in grade school, I think (and we're going way back now). At the time, I didn't have the awareness or vocabulary to know, much less explain, why the poem so unsettled me. As an adult, the poem immediately came to mind when I first read the James Joyce short story "Counterparts" in The Dubliners, a much more explicit story of an alcoholic parent. My Papa's Walz was always taught as a poem of exuberance and play, with the mother more exasperated in the "Father Knows Best" way but that never seemed quite right to me. I find it menacing. I'm curious to know read others' comments. Thank you for this post.

My students generally agree that the father is emotionally abusive. They also tend to agree that the waltz is a metaphor for the father-son relationship; it should be easier, like a waltz, but it's not. The father is clearly out of control("beat time," the pans falling, etc.)but not abusive.

It's funny-- I was taught this poem as a blue collar father-son "waltz" circa the early 20th century, possibly Depression-era (or should I say "first Depression-era"?)I never read a note of alcoholism of abusiveness into the poem until my classroom experience. Now that I've heard the students' comments, I read it all over the poem, that sense of menace, as Stacey put it so well. Laura, I love your idea of using it as a means to explore "psychological prisms" and Caroline, you've some sophisticated students!
Part II's going up in a minute.

I remember my best friend and I both discussing the subterranean current of the father's abusiveness circa 1992, reading the poem for Joseph Brodsky's class. It didn't seem coy or particularly hidden to us, just part of the poem's subtext.

Brilliant ideas. I love this poem.

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That Ship Has Sailed
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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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