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The Poets

July 29, 2009

My Papa’s Waltz: Ambiguity in Poetry

Before reading the commentary, please read the poem first.




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.


Of the Poem:

Ambiguity in poetry generally arises in three ways:
1. when we lack the context within which the poem was written
2. when we’re outside the vernacular of the poem or the poet
3. and, when we lack both the context of the poem along with its vernacular

My Papa’s Waltz is a strange poem to interpret. Its vernacular isn’t cryptic or remote, so it would seem any English reader could easily pick up the meaning it imparts. Its context, even if the poet hasn’t disclosed it to us elsewhere, essentially gives itself away. So the possibility of misunderstanding it, one would think, would be next to nonexistent.

That said, this poem has produced two schools of thought as to its meaning. On the one hand are those who believe the poem speaks of child abuse by an alcoholic father; on the other hand there are those who, while acknowledging the role alcohol plays, believe the poem to be a cherished childhood reflection of a boy waltzing with his dad who's slightly tipsy.

It is said by the latter group that the father may have been a kind of jolly drinker who comes home from work and (albeit clumsily) dances his boy to bed; the former group- citing examples from words like battered, knuckle, scraped, beat- think the poem clearly shows the father to be a mean drunk who rapaciously abuses his boy after a day of work.

Though seemingly simple, the poem does seem to contain a strong degree of ambiguity (otherwise this division of meaning wouldn't exist as it does). Looking at it under the microscope one can understand the arguments from both sides. One might even say- though I doubt the poet would- both sides are in a way correct.

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There seems little question that the poet speaks of himself. The use of past tense terminology (e.g. was not easy) seems to suggest 'presence' and reflection. Some of the details are too descriptive to not be actual memories (whiskey on your breath, battered on one knuckle, right ear scraped). These and other examples have led both schools of interpretation to the general conclusion that the boy in the poem is Roethke himself.

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy


This doesn’t require much hermeneutic prowess; that the father had been drinking whiskey there’s no question. Both schools would agree. What they might disagree on is how much and how drunk the father was. Also, since this is where the division of interpretation seems to occur, there's the question of how the alcohol affected his mood.

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

The advocates of a more peaceful poem would say the boy ran to his father and gripped his leg as he walks in the house. The term ‘death’ does not need to be a negative one, it may resemble phrases such as: 'hugged to death', 'tickled to death', etc. Because the father staggers as the boy holds on, the boy says that this “waltzing was not easy” (in much the same way a rollercoaster ride isn’t easy). The advocates of this position tend to believe the term waltz is a simple euphemism for the father’s disequilibrium.

Those who see a more cruel aspect in the poem believe the father jerked his boy about, that the boy, off balance perhaps, “hung on like death” (where death implies the boy’s state of fear). Obviously such violent 'waltzing' wouldn't be easy for anyone. The advocates of this position tend to believe the term waltz is a euphemism for conflict, in much the same way that the phase ‘let’s dance’ might mean ' let's fight'.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

Romping by definition is playing. Here the boy and his father carry on into the kitchen where some dishes are bumped into and, falling to the ground, provoke a mild annoyance in the mother’s looks. Then again, perhaps 'romp' is deliberately used as a poetic symbol, and the reason the pans fall and the reason the mother is frowning is precisely because the abuse and violence tears into the kitchen.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.


The third stanza is where the bulk of the said ‘violent images’ comes from. Terms like, held my wrist, battered, knuckle, ear scraped, buckle …. all these seem to indicate a violent struggle: the father grips the boy’s wrist to spank him with a belt; drunk, he looses his step and catches the boy with the belt’s buckle a few times. His battered hand? Perhaps from the struggle in the kitchen area?

Some say this is going overboard. Despite being slightly buzzed, the father dances lovingly with his boy. His battered hand? Perhaps from a half-stumble in the kitchen area? Perhaps from working? The point is that they’re dancing, and because the father keeps missing his beat (he’s buzzed remember) his buckle keeps bumping his son’s right ear.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.


The word ‘beat’ seems another violent potential. In fact, it would almost certainly mimic the escalation of a violent frenzy: The father grabs his boy about; the boy, clinging fearfully to the father’s shirt, is yanked around in the kitchen where dishes fall to the ground; next comes the belt (and inadvertently the belt's buckle) … finally, perhaps frustrated by his own disequilibrium, he discards the belt and takes up his hand, dragging the boy to his room (the boy still clinging fearfully to his father’s shirt). Sad, sad if true.

Again, some would blame that perspective for going overboard. It should be simple: The father comes home a little buzzed (not necessarily drunk, and certainly not mean); his boy runs and jumps and hug onto his leg; the father mimics a waltz perhaps, but being a little tipsy in the kitchen bumps some dishes to the ground (annoying mom and maybe battering a knuckle in the process); unable to maintain tempo he misses some steps which, as this happens, causes his belt buckle scratch his son’s ear; in his attempt to maintain tempo, the father pats the rhythm of the waltz on his son’s head (“you beat time on my head”), and literally waltzes his son to bed (the son lovingly still clinging to his shirt).

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Brief Note on Hermeneutics:

Traditional hermeneutics pertains to the art of interpretation and is usually reserved for, and applied to, sacred texts. In our contemporary world the term has found itself at home in linguistics and the philosophy of language, where the question of interpretation isn’t limited to scripture, but includes such things as broad spectrum language, sign language, and even body language. Martin Heidegger applies the term to life itself, and would have us understand that without an ‘existential hermeneutic’ (of reality) human understanding would itself be impossible.

The problem in hermeneutics as linguists know it is that interpreting anything correctly depends entirely on an agreed system of terms and symbols so that a mutual vernacular is established. Where this lacks ambiguity lurks. So when we come across a poem written by a poet long gone who hasn’t disclosed the context within which the poem was written, misinterpretations give way.

That’s what I find here. We lack the knowledge of the true event that produced this poem, and the poet can’t lend us an answer. We seem left with a beautiful (maybe tragic) work that asks: What am I? Had the terms (particularly, for me anyhow, the term ‘romp’) been explained to the letter I suspect the apparent dichotomy of it would hardly exist- but then again, what would have become of the poem as poetry.

I’d love to know what your perspective of the poem was when it was first read by you. Where did you fall in the dichotomy of it? If it would help to hear the poem read, click on the link below- it is Roethke himself who does the reading (note his mood and inflection as he reads his own poem).

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I’d like to acknowledge the New England Blog PoemShape for a great breakdown of My Papa's Waltz. Also, One Poet's Notes elaborates beautifully on this topic. Please, do check these blogs out.

6 comments:

Nancy said...

I'm glad you spoke to the ambiguity of this piece and that it was not just me that felt torn in two directions. For I read through this poem with brow furrowed in puzzlement, both schools of thought for interpretation coming to mind within the first few lines.

But I feel I must go with the latter, though with a slightly different take...

While if describing an abusive situation it would be tragically sad, I sensed within this poetic memory another permeating, inherent sadness, as if the author appreciated these sweet memories yet yearned for a different reality. He hungered for more but clung to what he had. He cherishes the memories of a father with a hard life and making poor choices but who still attempts to play with his son in whatever manner he knows (or can), while the undercurrent of the boy wishing for "normality" seems to run strong.

As for as the mothers frown, she too most surely longs for more from life, from her husband, and for her son. The scene played before her is all too familiar for her to allow herself to grasp the simple pleasure which the boy was enjoying, and her face can only reflect the weariness of her own challenges.

Sweet and sad, this poem speaks to me on a deep emotional level, much like the Der Panther (which still echoes in my mind and soul). Excellent job of analysis and presenting arguments for both camps. I too would be curious as to the "real" intent of the author.

Side note: Since I don't study poetry and am not familiar with the other works of this poet…. It seems that the other piece which you have on the sidebar of your blog evokes a similar sweetness I sense from this piece, as if the author easily sees the simple pleasures in small things. Is this common for this poet? If so, it could tip the scales in favor of a positive interpretation for "My Papa's Waltz." Just wondering...

Nancy said...

It has just occurred to me that perhaps the perceived ambiguity is not that at all, but the poem an exercise in contrast. The use of the "violent" descriptors merely pointing out the disparity between the world he wishes for and the world he lives in.

He envisions a happy-go-lucky family as he twirls with his father, and then looks down at the battered knuckles. Even his father playfully beating time to the music atop his head may be unintentionally just a bit too hard, causing him to yet again bump his cheek on his dad's belt buckle.

John W. May said...

Thanks for taking the time to respond, Nancy.

Roethke writes a lot of free verse poetry, which in its simplest definition is poetry without meter or rhyme scheme. Modernist poetry (and feel free anyone to correct me if you think this untrue) - modernist ‘American’ poetry is almost always synonymous with free verse poetry. I mention this because- God forgive me for saying this aloud- I’m not a fan of free verse poets. I have my reasons.

This isn’t to say that I reject free verse- far from it. The point is I have to be really impressed by a poet for me to actively seek out and read their free verse works. One of my all time favorite poems, Robert Hayden’s Perseus, is done in free verse (check it out, it’s in the blog). In it he employs imagery so perfectly that as a poem it is flawless.

In real estate the phrase is ‘location, location, location’. In free verse it is ‘imagery, imagery, imagery’. Which leads to Roethke. His sensitivity to the world about himself coupled with his ability to transfer that sensitivity by means of imagery is nothing less than impressive. Now I don’t know how it is with all poets, but yes (to answer your question), I would have to say the author easily sees the simple pleasures in small things. I like him a lot. In fact, and God knows this is no exaggeration, his works are so full of beauty and so overwhelming that I can only read a couple of them over a period of time.

About your second statement on ambiguity … if Roethke did design My Papa’s Waltz in such a manner as to intentionally and consciously contain the two perspectives together, I’d have to say he’s a poetic genius. He’s not far from it as he is.

John W. May said...

....

In fact, Nancy, here’s a free verse poem done by a local poet named Linda Keller, that I immediately liked.

PERFECT AFTERNOON

Above
a curved roof of woven branches
triangles of light
enter
draw a patchwork quilt
below

Tucked under
the comfort of
shadows weight
slivers of crystal blue
peek in

Time stops

The deep perfume
of summer bliss
inhaled

Kendra Lise said...

I did not interpret this poem to have negative or positive connotations. I saw it as a memory of the way life was as the subject of the poem remembered it. The statement "But I hung on like death" seems at first to be a dark, morbid statement; however, the poet says "like death" which meant to me that he hung onto his father as though it were inevitable, just as death is inevitable. I found that line to be the most powerful and telling line of the poem.
In its entirety, this poem portrays the typical situation of automatic love for our parents in early childhood. It shows how a child clings to every graceful and stumbling step. The child sees the adult's world for what it is, and without judgment, accepts and even clings to their God-given partner as they waltz into their own adult worlds.

John W. May said...

Wow, Kendra. That was beautiful.

One of the first things I thought about the poem was how strange line three was: “hung on like death”. It almost felt like an editor’s gloss (obviously it wasn’t, but it had that feel). The poem- truth be told- saddened me the first time I read it. I did sense abuse, I did sense alcoholism, and it pained me. But after having read both primary takes on it I felt somewhat comforted.

If, as you pointed out, the poet was rearticulating his childhood memory of “automatic love” despite the event’s true situation, then this opens up the possibility for an interpretation that’s neither “negative or positive”, one that says a false dichotomy may exists here.

Thank you for your comment.

As of April 9th, 2010