"What is essential in ballet is the dance, not the subject or story."1
Dana Gioia
c/o Addison Wesley Longman
Jan. 11, 1998
Dear editor:

A worker at a poison control center answered a distraught mom whose small girl had swallowed some ants. After reassuring her there was nothing to worry about, the worker was about to hang up when the mom added, "I fed her some ant poison." She was told to bring the girl right in.

I believe the traditional interpretation of Theodore Roethke— My Papa's Waltz, (in An Introduction to Poetry) as "a somewhat comic portrayal of a flawed but affectionate relationship," is much like those ants: not exactly the brightest analysis, no more than ants are high cuisine, but harmless to the student readers. Kim Larsen's alternative analysis (in the ninth edition) however, is like that ant poison, not the right place to address issues of child abuse, and potentially damaging to the student mind.

A radio spot I hear is trying to encourage dads to spend some time with their kids. It ends "It's easy to be a dad. All it takes is time. And it takes a man to be a dad." I maintain that My Papa's Waltz is one very good example of how easy it is to be a dad, for a man to be a dad. The papa in the poem drinks a man's drink, whiskey. He wears the pants in the family, whence the belt buckle. He has a manly build so that when he romps vigorously, the pans slide off the shelf. He may not have entirely succeeded in making his mark on the world, but the world has left its marks on him showing he tried. He is dominant over his woman at least to the extent that she may not freely criticize him at will, which is not to say she never finds a context for it. In short here is a man who still finds essential time for his kid.

At least that is a very accessible interpretation of the poem from a human perspective "...out West, where kids are still kids, men are men, and women do the shopping."2

I believe it is a reach to project out from the dance to the rest of the family behavior. Take an example of a prospective mom:

At first she was quiet with the children, and they were shy. But within a day they were friends. She brought her violin and played for them. She fiddled Irish airs and Gypsy songs and danced around the carpet as she played, head bobbing, auburn hair flying. She laughed as she played. The children laughed too, and Lucy clapped her hands. Then Sophie played a movement from a Bach sonata. The children fell silent. After the Bach, Sophie stopped.3
It could just as easily be that Papa's waltz was the very ticket to bring a shy man and boy into camaraderie. What about the whiskey on his breath? Yes, but how far may we take such odors? I mean, as when, "He leaned over and gave his father a strong hug—the older man smelled comfortably of tweed and horses and old books,"4 do we interpret that to mean his father goes to the races in his tweed coat to bet on horses with his bookie? Then how can we be so sure the other papa is drunk? Oh yes, it is the dark words the writer selected. It happens every time. Here is a more clear cut example of child abuse:
"Dennis shoved the boy behind him. The boy screamed and wet himself."5
We can only infer the worst, even without the broader context:5
He looked at his watch: not yet midnight. The remains of a log fire glowed in the living room fireplace, and the room was still warm. He put on his toweled bathrobe and padded downstairs. Shadows danced on the walls as he took a flashlight off the kitchen counter. Hearing a soft footfall above him, he turned. Brian stood on the staircase wearing his red flannel pajamas with pictures of Mickey Mouse and Pluto.

"I heard something, Daddy."

"I think a cow's poking around in the garbage. We threw out all those delicious chicken terriyaki bones from supper, remember? Let's go look." With Brian at his side, Dennis opened the kitchen door—the bitter cold night air struck them a solid blow. He stepped outside, flicked on the beam of the flashlight, and said, "Shoo!"

A black bear turned its great head towards him. It crouched on all fours by the laden garbage cans. Its eyes, crimson buttons in the yellow cone of the flashlight beam, suddenly and unaccountably blazed with what struck Dennis as malevolence. Dennis smelled the animal's meaty breath. It took a shuffling step towards them. Dennis shoved the boy behind him. The boy screamed and wet himself.

Gee, we were wrong to be so hasty to ascribe those dark words to child abuse. We have some maybe dark words in the poem, but so what?—we lack a broader context to define the family relatings.

I believe there is a more productive approach. Your book is an introduction to English literature, but this poem is about a dance, so might we not try to find some well established precedent for a parallel in an introduction to the history/art of dance?6

Rudolph von Laban (1879-1958), a native Hungarian, founded the Central European dance school, in which ballet technique was completely rejected and free body movements were advocated. Mary Wigman (1886-  ) and Kurt Jooss (1901-  ) were his most important disciples. Mary Wigman's tremendous stage personality gripped her audiences for many years; afterwards she became a teacher. She was the outstanding figure of German expressionism in the art of the dance, a movement that was (in Germany and Holland during the twenties and thirties) and is (in the United States today—e.g., Martha Graham) almost entirely practiced by women. These are dancers who "express themselves," believing that they can translate their deepest feelings into "dance."

Kurt Jooss was primarily a theater artist who addressed the world with an ideological message. The Green Table will always remain the masterpiece of the dance of those years. This dance drama had its première in Paris on July 3, 1932, in a competition at the International Congress of the Dance, and won the first prize, deservedly. By 1947 it had already had over 3,200 performances. The Green Table had an unmistakable influence in the world of dance, particularly on British ballet, although it does not belong to the realm of ballet on pointes. In later years Kurt Jooss came to the conviction that no school and no dance system can be built on the basis of Laban's ideas, nor on any other fixed system, for that matter.

If we draw a parallel between Papa's waltz and German expressionism, then Mrs. Larsen's "chaos" is Laban's "free body movements," the "domineering" papa is only "Mary Wigman's tremendous stage personality [that] gripped her audience," and the frowning housewife is merely the uncomprehending males facing "These women dancers who 'express themselves,' believing that they can translate their deepest feelings into 'dance.'" In other words, just as Wigman's dance art was a girl thing, Papa's waltz was a guy thing, and the parallel drawn helps the other sex comprehend it.

Furthermore, Jooss' "unmistakable influence in the world of dance" translates into the unmistakable influence a father has on his boy's development, which is why he needs to spend (quality?) time with him. A very interesting point is the last one where Jooss rejects any fixed system of dance. It hints that a boy's development needs to have some random factors influencing it in order for him to develop into a fully functioning adult—shades of chaos theory for math and science majors to relate to. Mind you, this parallel example is from established dance history, not idle speculation.

From here we may wish to speculate on a fleshed-out family life, but we would only be betraying our own feelings as the poet left that area to our imagination. There is one way to avoid that pitfall in an introductory literature course, and that is to find some parallel context in literature (fiction) to dovetail with papa's waltz. That way we are still studying literature.

SOPHIE THREW HER arms around him as she had not done in months. "Thank you," she said. He felt that all her heart went into those two simple words. But he was a little drunk, unable to stop his tongue from voicing what was on his mind.

"You're welcome. All in a day's work. I may have lost a friend or two and I had to pillory a deputy district attorney, but the son of a bitch probably deserved it. Never mind that he was right and I was in the wrong. I just keep wondering why I have this sour taste in my mouth. Is it the bourbon? Must be."

"Don't act like this, Dennis, please. Whatever you had to do, you did the right thing."

"Did I?" Dennis said. "Convince me. Tell all."

The telephone rang. Sophie answered, and Dennis bounded up the stairs two at a time to hug his children. "Ouch, Daddy," Lucy said. "Too hard."

He flung off his suit, shirt, and tie, all his clothes, then plunged into the shower. In the frosted glass stall he shut his eyes and stood under the drumming beat of the hot water for ten minutes, as if soap and steam could wipe off the grime of the trial. When he finally came out to towel down, Sophie was waiting for him.

"That was my father who called. They wanted us to come over for dinner, to celebrate." It sounded so domestic, as if he had won a promotion or it was someone's birthday. "But I said no." Sophie wasn't smiling; she looked oddly flushed. "I need to talk to you, Dennis. I'm sorry about how you feel but I think after I've talked to you, you may feel differently. I want to explain Springhill. It can't wait. It has to be tonight. I have so much to tell you—all that I couldn't tell you before."

He was bewildered by her urgency, but not unhappy at the thought that he wouldn't have to spend the evening feasting with Scott and Bibsy. He had seen more than enough of them last week. He'd done what had to be done, but he wondered if he would ever feel the same warmth toward his in-laws as he had before he came to the conclusion they were guilty as charged. He had defended them with full vigor: that was his obligation as a lawyer, and he had won. It wasn't his obligation to forgive and forget.

The buzz of the alcohol began to wear off. "I want to spend some time now with the kids," he said.

"I understand. Do it, of course. I meant after dinner."

Sophie had barbecued two chickens and baked a peach pie. Later, at the computer, Dennis worked with Brian and Lucy on a new astronomy program. He showed them the planetal orbits. The moon whizzed around the earth; the earth flew around the sun. It was all orderly and yet it made no sense.7 Just like life, he thought. By the time the children were bored and ready for bed Dennis felt that life was beginning to move back to normalcy. The old fundamental truth struck home: whatever happens, life goes on. The planets move on their tracks and so do we.8

Comparing Sophie's Tale with Papa's Waltz, both papa and the lawyer got dirty at work, only papa's "hard caked dirt" was cleaner than the lawyer's "grime of the trial." Nevertheless, although the lawyer did his job well, he placed his family (in-laws) above his law school idealism. His mind got disjointed by the work he did on behalf of his family. If papa were anything like him, his battered knuckle was got leaning over backward for his family. Although the lawyer had friends outside the family, he placed his family above them. He was a veritable knight in shining armor. He made up for his absence from his family by seeking time with his kids before their bedtime. His wife's talk had to wait until after. With his children he was exuberant to a fault. The white collar worker drank bourbon and papa whiskey. Sophie's countenance—"wasn't smiling"—had to do with her forced patience before she got a chance to confess. Papa's wife's frown could be because she must hold back a little longer from confessing to her saint of a husband, at least as much as any other reason which their kid probably wouldn't even be aware of.

The difference between papa and the white collar worker is the former whirled bodies while the latter whirled planets on the computer. If we put papa into modern terms of a dad being a klutz on a new computer, we would probably not jump to the conclusion he was drunk, even though he had a few drinks to alleviate pressures at work. What papa's waltz has in common with the computerized planets and even life itself is, "It was all orderly and yet it made no sense."

As a dance, however, papa's waltz is an advanced version of the cross crawl Cross-Crawl (enclosed) integrating a child's development, smell from above (whiskey), touch on right (ear), sight on left (mom's frown), and taste beneath (fresh bed sheets). Sound was the music, papa's tapping, and his missed beats and the falling pans integrate human errors and random factors into the learning.

Sincerely Yours,
Earl Gosnell
Poet Laureate of Longfellow, Colorado
2 encl.




Letter 2 — examines archetypes in the poem and explains the poem's meaning.

Letter 3 — contrasts the poem with child abuse literature.


1. Hans Verwer, Guide to the Ballet (US: Barnes & Noble #282, 1963) Preface, v. Back to document back

2. Clifford Irving, The Spring (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) p. 22. Back to document back

3. Ibid., p. 39. Back to document back

4. Ibid., p. 42. Back to document back

5. Ibid., p. 56. Back to document back

6. Verwer, p. 109. Back to document back

7. Isn't that the lesson in Job in the Bible—where Job's wife actually voices her opinion? Back to document back

8. Irving, pp. 205-6. Back to document back

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Earl Gosnell
1950 Franklin Bv., Box 15
Eugene, OR 97403

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Copyright © 1998, Earl S. Gosnell III Creative Commons Licence
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