I’ve been working lately on a series of poems in which I engage with some big names–Roethke, Plath, V. Woolf, Ginsberg–and others more obscure: Victorian explorer/ ethnographer Mary Kingsley, stolen African slave/ 18th century neoclassical American poet Phillis Wheatley, failed businessman/ lifetime theater wannabe/ children’s author L. Frank Baum and the team of three very able screenwriters who adapted his 1900 “American fairy tale” into The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into MGM’s 1939 musical smash. Sometimes I address the writer directly; other poems proceed in the third person. Occasionally I have attempted to mimic a writer’s voice or style, partly as a tribute, partly in play. A few poems are in the nature of sequels or prequels, or continuations of a theme or subject in the writer’s own work or life.
Responding in and through my own writing to poets/ writers/ artists, etc., whose work moves and intrigues me is a challenging (but sometimes satisfying) occupation.
Once in a while I ask the writer about himself or herself, asking the questions I wish had been asked, or that I think ought to have been.
Sometimes I imagine other ways to look at the events depicted in a poem. I do this with my response to one of the great poems of the mid-20th century, Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz.” Here is Roethke’s poem:
“My Papa’s Waltz”
The whisky 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.
In four brief stanzas, using a simple rhyme scheme and a meter that replicates waltz time, Roethke offers a snapshot of a family of three: father, mother, and “small boy,” the speaker. Addressing his father, the boy describes the man’s overpowering whisky breath, the clumsy dance in the kitchen, the wife/ mother’s disapproving expression, the discomfort, even pain of the actual “waltzing”–and the final image, of being “waltzed . . . off to bed/ still clinging to your shirt”–is the boy clinging out of affection or desperation?
What are the clues that tell us? How can we know? Are we, like the small boy, caught between joy and pleasure at the father’s presence and attention and a set of darker, even negative emotions: trepidation, discomfort, guilt (for the mother does not like what is going on), doubt? Is Papa dancing with me because he loves me, or is it just that he is drunk? Am I really enjoying this dance, or just pretending to?
I have taught this poem for decades, in a variety of settings–private four-year university, community college, vocational classes–and have noticed that students’ responses have changed dramatically over the years.
Thirty years ago, students seemed to view the poem as an affectionate look back at a well-meaning if obtuse father whose rambunctious dance around the kitchen annoys his wife, but not enough for her to call a halt; it causes the child some real discomfort, but he plugs away nonetheless. “Such waltzing was not easy,” but it seems to the speaker, at least with the perspective of time, to have been worth the pain.
When I ask where the poem actually says any of this, they repeat the suspect words and lines. It takes real work and time and discussion to get them to sit back and really look, not just at the lines but at the tone. And the title, and the meter. The poem is written in waltz tempo; “Papa” is a term of affection. The child is struggling, yes, but the injuries he suffers are not being inflicted deliberately as such.
Today, students immediately seize on the words that appear to signal Domestic Violence and Child Abuse: often they state immediately that the father is beating the child with a belt, or with a fist, citing the line “my right ear scraped a buckle” and pointing out the “battered . . . knuckle”; they assert that the mother is afraid to intervene because of the father’s violent behavior.
And yet, I tell them, you are not wrong.
The pain, the danger, the threat are also present in the poem.
That is what makes it a work of art–that, and the implicit truth we all recognize: sometimes those we love hurt us. They love us, and they cause us pain. But we love them anyway, and maybe that is not always a good thing–but it’s real, my God, it’s real.
I have told both groups of students that the genius of the poem lies in its inhabiting both realms at the same time. It is a nostalgic little snapshot AND a slice of threat, of danger. The poem vibrates exquisitely between the two poles of tenderness and pain.
After dozens of these discussions, nearly all of which focused on the speaker’s sensations and reactions, I found myself speculating about the father’s perspective, and this poem is the result:
What Other Observations We Might Make About “My Papa’s Waltz”
(For Theodore Roethke)
He comes home every night like this,
tired to death. Ten-hours-plus spent
laying brick, dust in a man’s throat, face
purpled with heat and toil, sweat stinging
in the cuts that lace his meaty hands.
At last the whistle blows.
So head for Casey’s and a beer or two,
joke with the pretty barmaid, have a smoke
maybe shoot a little pool. It’s late. So what?
The wife’ll have a face on her would stop
a clock, but the boy, he’ll light up like
a fucking Christmas tree.
He always does. His boy’s been waiting up
for him since suppertime. Bathed, in fresh pj’s,
he sits by the door, holding a toy car. He spins
the wheels with one hand. In the kitchen,
Mama stacks away the pots and pans.
They hear the heavy tread
come up the stairs. The door flings open,
and he lumbers in. The boy runs into Papa’s
arms. The mother stands, eyes narrow, folded
arms a shield. She’s tried to tell him: Harry,
the neighbors; for Christ’s sake, Harry.
He doesn’t even hear.
He comes home every night like this,
humming his melody, lurching across the
worn linoleum, the boy’s small feet planted
atop his dusty shoes, face upturned to laugh
into the father’s eyes, the heavy paternal
hand beating triple time
while the tune buzzes above the boy’s head.
Whiskey fumes mingle with cabbage and onion
smells. The mother waits grimfaced for the last
whirling turn around the chipped deal table, the
three battered chairs. Da-DAH, da-DAH,
da-DAH, da-DAH-DAH-DAH, he warbles
like a bumblebee–clumsily spinning, his child
clinging limpet-like, the mother grimacing–
everything waiting like a held breath for the
dance to stop. Two dancers, both
determined, one to end
the waltz still standing, the other to stand
up to it; da-DAH, da-DAH, da-DAH-DAH-DAH,
a tinny clatter punctuates the final twirl, pans
falling; a final zigzag past the stove, and
Papa scoops his boy up, holds him
against his sweaty chest,
arms ropy with muscle, his chin stubbly-
rough against the child’s downy cheek, carries
him off to tuck him in. “I didn’t hurt you, did
I,” he whispers, and his boy buries his
face against a heavy shoulder; lies:
“No, Papa; never. No.”