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April 29, 2011


Thanks for this extremely valuable discussion that is also true to my own experience teaching the poem. I also like what Gray and Dick had to say. -- DL

It's been my pleasure, David. Thank you very much for the opportunity.

Hi Leslie-- I read that poem years ago as an undergrad and felt it reflected my own ambivalence toward an alcoholic parent-- well before I ever addressed my own alcoholism or heard the phrase "dysfunctional family." I've published and taught extensively and dealt and deal still with demon rum et cetera-- the situation of many of us as we re-feel that poem, I think. For me one phrase that cannot be ignored is : The hand that held my wrist/Was battered on one knuckle;..." -- a barroom brawl perhaps, but perhaps a very dark allusion to domestic violence. I think it's hard to ascribe a certain intention to this poem, as we cannot ask Roethke-- unless you know something I don't-- but there may be an unconscious ambivalence toward the father on the part of the speaker working in the poem. I disagree with Gray on the enlightenment as to the nature of abuse and dysfunction of recent years as a bad thing. Many of us have needed our perceptions validated and to stop keeping the family secret or excusing the perpetrators we know and the one within. I personally continue to write about these things-- are we not driven mainly to sing what we live, what we know.

For some of us, there are no "false memories" or a turn on the "Maury" show getting paid to air false dysfunction. For some of us abuse wasn't "implanted" in our memories - we spend lifetimes wishing we could extract memories and live without their haunting presence.I don't think it is because of hype and unethical therapists that readers see abuse in the poem.

Instead, I think there are more writers, celebreties, or just someone in an intimate groups of friends that has the courage to share what happened to them in an effort to let others know they are not alone and to teach children to have a voice when someone hurts them. It isn't because of lies we hear about abuse, but because of the truth of it.

"But I hung on like death:/Such waltzing was not easy."

Whatever the intention of this poem, it's not hard to see an abused child who clings to their parent because it is the only love they know. It is a difficult kind of love to navigate, but all he has.

Dear Jenne and Kimberely,
I'm so very glad you've written responses to my post. I know the time and effort-- particularly on a subject such as this-- it takes to do so.

First, I need to say that Gray's reply mentioned only the presence of this news coverage and these television programs. She made no mention of her feelings about them or the veracity of these reports. Instead, her point was about the surge of these stories, as well as the popularity of these programs on the part of young adults. No judgement was made.

Second, the two of you have been courageously forthcoming. Please allow me to reciprocate-- to the extent I feel comfortable doing so. I, too, am an incest survivor. I spent months on locked units of two psychiatric hospitals in the mid-90's with diagnosis after diagnosis accruing in my files. I lost many, many things in my life-- marriage, child, career and friends, because of the lack of understanding the public has about mental illness of every type, including sexual trauma.

It's been almost two decades since that chapter of my personal history, enough time to reflect on the phenomenon of public fascination with sexual abuse, and to understand in how many ways the fascination itself had resulted in overdiagnosis, misdiagnosis, and the ruination of untold numbers of American women's (and some men's) lives.

I am not among those whose lives were ruined. I'm one of the few who has lived not only to tell, but to think critically about that particular time in history and how it impacted the already-burdened lives of people like me.
For the last three years I've been writing a collection of poems about mental illness, trauma, and the marginalization of those of us effected by these things. I hope to see it published in the next few years. I hope, too, that you'll continue to speak up for our sisters and brothers.

With great respect,


I so appreciate your response. It clarified some things that were not clear to me in the post itself.

I agree that misdiagnosis that leads to untold harm is very real. Along with the treatment for a right diagnosis being so off the mark it causes even more trauma.

Thank you for sharing such personal details of your life. I am also an incest survivor - and at 54 still have times of struggle. Nothing like the past ...
My son has a mental illness (schizophrenia)that has devasted his life and my daughter committed suicide after her own set of traumatic events. I admit to this being a tender area for me.

I look forward to the publication of your poetry collection. I think these subjects, though no longer taboo in the general population (well, I still find that in personal relationships many people I know back away from any mention of my son or daughter - and I try to understand their fears and misconceptions.)there's been some criticism of writing about personal experiences around abuse and its consequences. I'll be most interested in your pieces addressing marginalization.

thank you again for your response
with mutual respect,

Hi Leslie-- I really appreciated being able to weigh in on this-- it got me thinking and thinking some more. I won't bore you with personal history but I feel myself becoming interested/concerned in something that feels like a bit of a new taboo in certain literary venues: to write our own diasporas if I may temporarily appropriate that term-- the personal holocaust of the trauma survivor and the displacement and sense of illegitimacy/shame that comes with it. I read something in Beloit-- the contemporary poem should not be overshadowed by the personality of its speaker. To me the damage to the personality of trauma and abuse are as fitting a subject of poetry as anything else-- and to a great degree, of my own work. Certain literary caveats can feel like taboos, stiflings. Also concerning to me is that those of us tackling such personal issues as poets do so in a great degree of isolation, working to legitimize ourselves and our voices without any sense of who else might be tackling the same things. It is so very heartening to feel in this exchange that perhaps we are not as alone as we thought. I too look forward to your collection; I recently posted a poem with working title of "A Road and Its Scars" on my blog about trauma and recovery, with more to come I hope to place in mags and a collection but that I'll post, as well. May all of us write on in courage and strength. All best-- Jenne'

This discussion is moving and important. And in a certain way, I don't think what Roethke meant or intended is the issue. The issue is what we bring to art as "consumers" (lousy word but I can't think of another). Who was it who said, "Poems are other people's snapshots in which we recognize ourselves"? A poem - any good poem - isn't just one thing. It is as many things as it has readers. This is why true art is everlasting. And a poem like this - ambiguous, charged, discomfiting - is always going to be open to interpretation - or rather, to the individual experience of each reader through her own personal history and her own reading of the poem. There is a story about Maxine Kumin and a poem of hers about her grandmother (can't think of the title at the moment) that is known for causing audiences to dissolve into tears at her readings. Once, an interviewer asked her about that. She said something like, "You must understand they aren't crying for my grandmother. They are crying for their own grandmothers."

The other thing about good poems is that they start important conversations, well beyond the instance of their own making. Like this one.

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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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