Saturday, May 22, 2010


Here is a poem by Theodore Roethke, one of his most anthologized poems:

"My Papa's Waltz"

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I clung on like death:
Such waltzing is not easy.

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

The hands 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.

"My Papa's Waltz" is an easy poem for any reader to understand, and its double meaning - that of a drunken waltz with the speaker's father, and that of the father beating the child - is easily seen. Violent language pervades: "hung on like death," "unfrown itself," "battered," "scraped," "beat." Yet inside it is a sentimental tendency allowed through the use of the past tense. This is not occurring at present, but in some sort of past, and the speaker is no doubt grown by now. The emotions are therefore convoluted: there is a love of the father beating time on the speaker's head "with a palm caked hard by dirt," which empathizes with the father, a sense of a harder life for the father; "then waltzed me off to bed" is lovely in its own love, an endearment, even while "clinging to your shirt" contains the violence of child abuse.

I have heard argument that Roethke was not careful enough with the language, and the double meaning should not be there: it is either one or the other, not both. I see no reason to believe this. Poetry must, in all cases, pay close attention to a word's connotation. A word can give a feeling that the poet must be careful toward, and a group of words creates an image that must be viewed from all sides. Interpretation is usually what people say when they, as readers, attend to a poem. Sometimes an interpretation can be made the poet was in no way expecting, and plenty of interviews confirm this (there are others, such as interviews with Bob Dylan, in which Dylan is quite perplexed at some of the interpretations his interviewer comes up with). But what should be understood, and what I try to continually express in these posts, is that the poet is also being careful to interpret and examine, and usually wants to be in control of the connotations. A reader, therefore, should allow themselves the opportunity to feel the connotations - how they react emotionally to the poem. This again, is an argument for breaking down the wall between poet and reader: inviting the reader to engage in the poem from the level of connotations. Once the reader feels free and courageous enough to react to their emotions, the reader is engaging at the level of the poet. If the poet is strong, the emotions will follow course.

Here is another poem in which the poet is careful to construe connotations on an emotional level, but in a more playful manner:

"I Knew I'd Sing" -- Heather McHugh

A few sashay, a few finangle,
Some make whoopee, some
make good. But most make
diddly-squat. I tell you this

is what I love about
America - the words it puts
in my mouth, the mouth where once
my mother rubbed

a word away with soap. The word
was cunt. She stuck that bar
of family-size in there
until there was no hole to speak of,

so she hoped. But still
I'm full of it -- the cunt,
the prick, short u, short i,
the words that stood

for her and him. I loved the thing
they must have done, the love they must
have made, to make
an example of me. After my lunch of Ivory I said

vagina for a day or two, but knew
from that day forth which word
struck home like sex itself. I knew
when I was big I'd sing

a song in praise of cunt -- I'd want
to keep my word, the one with teeth in it.
Forevermore (and even after I was raised) I swore

nothing -- but nothing -- would be beneath me.

The emotion that is driven home is comedy, a chance for us to laugh at the play of language and the situation. This is a very easy example of how connotation is chosen, how images are allowed for the sake of pun. This is at play in many poems, and is always a good starting point: allowing your own emotions to fall in or out of line with the poem's.

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