My Papa's Waltz

by Theodore Roethke

Commentary by Earl Gosnell

Poet Laureate of Longfellow, Colorado

                   My Papa's Waltz
                                              --Theodore Roethke
                                              © 1942, Hearst Magazines, Inc.

In the ninth edition of An Introduction to Poetry published by Addison Wesley Longman, the editor Dana Gioia is not sure about this one. Does papa like his kid, or abuse him, or is it just that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Or for that matter, who cares?

I wrote him one, no two, letters protesting his inclusion of a flawed interpretation written by a student at such and such a community college who herself didn't—in my opinion—understand the poem very well; then I later wrote the teacher who failed to enlighten the student. Before presenting the appropriate links, I'd like to give a little background borrowed from Stuart Chase, Power of Words (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1954) p. 135.

The semantics of poetry

Poetry, of course, tries to convey the most complex meanings expressible in language, and when it succeeds can wield great power.

A measure of its failures appears in Harvard professor I.A. Richards' famous study, Practical CriticismHarcourt, Brace, 1935. He tells how he presented a variety of poems, unsigned, to a large and able class for evaluation. Not only did these readers disagree, sometimes diametrically, about every poem, but they often failed to comprehend either its sense or its intention.

The poet's intention, says Richards, is the first thing for the reader to consider. What is he trying to say? Richards lists ten difficulties the reader meets; for instance, the tendency to "stock responses ... whenever a poem seems to, or does, involve views or emotions already fully prepared in the reader's mind, so that ... the button is pressed." Another difficulty Richards calls "doctrinal adhesions," meaning ideological preconceptions in the reader. The whole study illustrates in a startling way what can happen to messages when they reach the semantic decoder.

Common experience is needed to understand any message. "In difficult cases the vehicle of communication must inevitably be complex. ... What would be highly ambiguous by itself becomes definite in a suitable context. ...

"Difficulty of communication ... should not be confused with the difficulty of the matter communicated. ... Some very difficult calculations, for example, can be communicated with ease."—Principles of Literary Criticism. Harcourt, Brace, 1924, 1928

What my three letters address is such a case where a critic in sympathy with the frowning mother is set to have her button pushed, especially if she has previously been exposed to feminist ideology. Common sense, however, is more valuable in interpreting "My Papa's Waltz" than is such an ideology or disposition.

The poem itself, whether by design or inspiration, embodies cosmic archetypes which are played out in the dance. Their complex interactions are presented line by line in the poem, but unfortunately our textbooks don't generally explain this. The first letter introduces a cosmic perspective, the second develops the archetypes, and the third lays to rest any intention by Theodore Roethke to portray child abuse in "My Papa's Waltz."

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


The material I have quoted has its own copyright, but I have used it here under the fair use doctrine.

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