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.

Friday, May 21, 2010

55 Versus 95

In his essay "Statements of Faith," Richard Hugo muses on the qualities of self-reflection inherent within a poet, and how a poet harnesses that self reflection:

"Poets who fail (and by fail I mean fail themselves and never write a poem as good as they know they are capable of) are often poets who fail to accept feelings of personal worthlessness. They lack the self-criticism necessary to perfect the poem. They resist the role of a wrong thing in a right world and proclaim themselves the right thing in a wrong world . . ." (p. 70, my emphasis)

I find it continually useful to look to the poem and the poet through this eye of self-criticism. Some of the best American poetry in the 20th century comes out of this idea of wrong in a right world (Lowell: "my mind's not right" [Skunk Hour], Eliot: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / scuttling the floors of silent seas." [The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock]), but for this post I wanted to look specifically at John Berryman.

Briefly, Berryman published some minor poetry while he saw most of his peers (Bishop, Plath, Lowell, Schwartz) recognized and honored. An ambitious poet, he suffered from personal turmoil and the desire to be recognized by the literary community. He became a intense alcoholic. For eleven years he worked on a sequence of poems, 77 Dream Songs, which, when published, was awarded the Pulitzer in 1965. The poems are from the point of view of Henry, a character loosely (or not so loosely) based on Berryman himself; and another voice that sometimes breaks into Henry's thoughts in a black vernacular, referring to Henry as Mr. Bones, or Sir Bones. In total, Berryman, after the first 77, continued writing the Dream Song seequence, producing 385 Dream Songs in all.

The first 77 songs are meditations on self-loathing. The first line to the first poem is "Huffy Henry hid the day." Continually Henry finds himself in situations where he can only conclude that he is wrong in a right world, that "there ought to be a law against Henry." However, by the beginning of the other Dream Songs, we see a shift in Henry's perspective, a sense that Henry has more authority with his readers, and less personal hatred. I wonder how this shifts the poems, how do the quality of the poems morph?

Here are two dream songs, the 55th and the 95th - one in the first 77, and the other after. Note the similarities in personalities and action:


Peter's not friendly. He gives me sideways looks.
The architecture is far from reassuring.
I feel uneasy.
A pity, -the interview began so well:
I mentioned fiendish things, he waved them away
and sloshed out a martini

strangely needed. We spoke of indifferent matters--
God's health, the vague hell of the Congo,
John's energy,
anti-matter matter. I felt fine.
Then a change came backward. A chill fell.
Talk slackened,

died, and he began to give me sideways looks.
'Christ,' I thought, 'what now?' and would have askt for another
but didn't dare.
I feel my application failing. It's growing dark,
some other sound is overcoming. His last words are:
'We betrayed me.'


The surly cop lookt out at me in sleep
insect-like. Guess, who was the insect.
I'd asked him in my robe
& hospital gown in the elevator politely
why someone saw so many police around,
and without speaking he looked.

A meathead, and of course he was armed, to creep
across my nervous system some time ago wrecked.
I saw the point of Loeb
at last, to give oneself over to crime wholly,
baffle, torment, roar laughter, or without sound
attend while he is cooked

until with trembling hands hoist I my true
& legal ax, to get at the brains. I never liked brains--
it's the texture & the thought--
but I will like them now, spooning at you,
my guardian, slowly, until at length the rains
lose heart and the sun flames out.

In "55," we have Henry appealing to a person of authority, the one that can slosh out martinis. There is an "application" which fails. In 95 the authority figure is certainly more vague, but also its actions are to look at Henry (similar to Peter's action of the "sideways look"). The sense of worthlessness that Henry feels in 55 comes in gulps of straightforward language, a lack of ability to seek out metaphor or symbol because of the overwhelming sense of worthlessness. There is something concrete in Henry's summing up of the interview.

In 95, Henry is not in the least bit curious to explore his own feelings of self-worth. He sees himself as an "insect" in the eyes of the cop, however this is only the insult Henry believes the cop is capable of. Henry's duty to this authority figure denies any self-reflection, because it is a not a particular - like Peter - but a figure of a whole, a bureaucratic symbol. Easier to attack. The language here, instead of being subdued like in 55, is expansive, climaxing at the best of the poetry here: "until with trembling hands hoist I my true / & legal ax," the point of the execution of the cop, and Henry imagines spooning out the cop's brains. What? Are we, as readers, supposed to follow this fancy with Henry? Why is Henry in a hospital gown in the first place? What happened to his "nervous system some time ago wrecked?"

Not only is Henry a manic self-loather, he takes aim at people he can claim superiority to. The cop has nothing on Peter - Peter is allowed the enigmatic final words of Dream Song 55, whereas the cop is not allowed a voice, even as Henry dances around him delighting in the idea of spooning out his brains. The poems are much different stylistically, but that difference seems to draw itself out of the situation: in 55 the line is paralyzed into the situation and Henry doesn't have the confidence to move into an imaginative space, while 95 prances in degradation and psychotic language. The key to the difference comes out of Henry's attitude toward himself: when is the time to be wrong/right in a right/wrong world?

The level of language, in all of poetry, must come from the consciousness of the poet. Sure, a poet can manipulate feeling and sensibility in the reader, but inherent in all poetry is an attempt to make an ally of the reader. Can we align ourselves with the Henry of 95? Does Berryman understand our failing to do so? Does he expect it? Berryman, by the time he had won the Pulitzer, could act as courier from a position of poetic authority to us the reader. What was sacrificed in that shift? Would we ever have the same Henry who hid the day? Answer this question yourself: read the Dream Songs.