'Our understanding of any given poem grows with successive rereadings and increased experience, both of life and other poems.'1
Karen Locke
LCC instructor
March 15, 1999
Dear ma'am:

In sorting through some old papers I came across a Jan. 9, 1998 article in The Register Guard, page 1B, addressing critics' opinions of a poem covered in your class. I searched my computer database to find I'd written two letters [1, 2] to a poetry textbook regarding it—which letters I have enclosed.

I was wondering if you had ever tried working the theme in reverse, that is, to take your student's analysis as the starting point to attempt to ascertain what kind of writing would result.

Quoting the article, suppose you were to ask your students to write a short piece as a 'contemporary reading' depicting 'child abuse'. They should 'choose their words' to create 'a dark image of a resentful adult reliving the fear of a domineering parent'. You want them to depict 'a drunken father clumsily waltzing around [a domestic space] with his young son'. Both the 'language and title' should depict a scene that is 'harsh and oppressive rather than comic'. You want 'the reader [to] get a visual image of a silent, unhappy woman afraid, probably due to past experience, to interfere with the chaos around her'. For example, some household items could be roughly cast aside to depict 'this domineering father who controls the family', and the bleakness of the scene could be demonstrated by a set frown. Here is one such account.

Unto the Beast2

A memory flashed from five years ago: the same backyard, a hot, bright summer morning, sitting on the lush grass with a sketchpad, trying to draw his mother while she bent and straightened, clothespinning sheets and blouses to the washline that stretched from the house to a tree. He had just given up and started to sketch the porch when a shadow from behind darkened the bright, white paper and as he twisted around (already afraid, heart leaping) he saw his mother had turned, still holding a dripping, empty shirt up to the line. Struggling to his feet and still turning (glimpsed the other shadow merging with his own on the lawn) as the hard, harsh hands clawed into the back of his neck and then he was struggling, raging, smelling the sweat, sweetish warm alcoholic breath and the sweat and must of the stained uniform as the voice bellowed over his own; "Picture painter! I'll show you who's a picture painter!"

"Let me go!"

"... I'll teach you picture painting, you stubborn swine!"

They spun together, the house going past, then his mother (a step closer to them, shirt suspended, falling behind her) then trees, a neighbor's chimney. He strained to pull away, arms flailing madly. The house, his mother, long dress and apron fluttering, running now, the shirt on the ground, shouting into the gasping, cursing, and the pounding of his blood. He struggled around to face the stocky old man—nearly seventy, hale, unsmiling, granite-eyed—who hit him a terrific punch and the boy reeled and went over into the flower-bed by the porch, seeing the sky and earth rock and sway, Mother almost there now, shouting:

"Stop this! My God, stop ... stop ... stop!"

As his father's big hands had the sketchpad, ripping, the halves and quarters of paper flying into the air and then his mother (he saw through his blurred and darkened sight) shaking the much older husband, plucking at his clothes without moving the stolidly planted figure who kept staring at his son. The thirteen-year-old struggled to get his rubbery legs under himself; his body had crushed his shape into the white and yellow flowers, cheek just starting to pulse and sting (he could feel but not yet taste the blood in his mouth), watching now as his mother was flung aside in a ballooning of frilly garments, long hair loose and shaking, as the bearded, barrel-chested former policeman with harsh and scornful lips loomed over him again. Then the golden-bright and green day blotted out as the hard hands (he heard his father's racked panting) gripped his face and the sagging, softly massive torso covered him and he gagged and screamed, felt suffocated, twisting his head against the stiff cloth in a panic for breath, smelling the stale beer smell he'd always loathed, clawing, muffled and desperate . . . Father raging, spittle flying:

"You little bum! I'll teach you . . . you little bum!"

And his mother, from far away:

"Alois, stop this! Leave him alone, Alois!"

Adolph bellowed, tears streaming, punching, punching, kicking at the stifling mountainous hulk pressing him down, sinking his teeth into the harsh cloth, then into a thick finger, bone grinding—his father's howls of pain—rolling apart, the hand still clenched in his jaw, the suffering man's free fist pounding his son's stubborn head. Adolph tasted the salt-sweet blood now, his own and his sire's. The day reeled and darkened. Voices became a single, mounting formless roar. Alois jerked free, leaving the battered boy on his knees among the blossoms, blood welling and flowing from between the bared teeth and down his chin as he swayed, seeing and hearing only in his mind now, aware of a vast, black storm of somber fire sweeping over the earth filled with a monstrous, burning, dripping shape of heads and horns and blazing bestial eyes. Another blow and he seemed to hear the wailing of numberless beings in a sea of smoke and torment and hissing blood, rising, flooding over him, as if he'd slipped and fell in a breaking surf, and he tried to cry out, and then nothing . . .

The title of the source, Unto the Beast, is at once dark and forbidding; which is the opposite of My Papa's Waltz, which is light and endearing. For contrast let's take them side by side:
Papa The Beast
Exhilaration vs. loathing.
'The whiskey on your breath/ Could make a small boy dizzy' 'smelling the stale beer smell he'd always loathed—sweetish warm alcoholic breath'
Clinging to father vs. repelling father.
'But I hung on like death' 'he was struggling, raging, ... "Let me go!"'
'Still clinging to your shirt.' 'He strained to pull away, ... struggled to get his rubbery legs under himself'
Understates his accomplishment Elaborates on an ambush
'Such waltzing was not easy.' 'They spun together, ... He struggled around to face the stocky old man'
Kitchen accident vs. a deliberate act
'We romped until the pans/ Slid from the kitchen shelf' 'mother had turned, still holding a dripping, empty shirt ... suspended, falling behind her'
Unamused observer vs. unsympathetic abuser
"My mother's countenance/ Could not unfrown itself.' 'the stocky old man—nearly seventy, hale, unsmiling, granite-eyed'
Abused hands vs. abusing hands.
'The hand that held my wrist/ Was battered on one knuckle;' 'the hard, harsh hands clawed into the back of his neck ... the hard hands gripped his face'
Missed beat vs. missed breath.
'At every step you missed/ My right ear scraped a buckle' 'twisting his head against the stiff cloth in a panic for breath'
Love pats vs. closed-fist strikes.
'You beat time on my head/ With a palm caked hard by dirt' 'the suffering man's free fist pounding his son's stubborn head.'
A veritable 'children's hour' vs. a daytime nightmare.
'Then waltzed me off to bed' 'a hot, bright summer morning, ... a shadow from behind darkened the bright, white paper (he saw through his blurred and darkened sight) ... The day reeled and darkened. ... seeing and hearing only in his mind now, aware of a vast, black storm'
Encourages his kid to dance vs. discourages his son from sketching.
Maternal instincts on hold vs. maternal instincts in play.

I believe that for one of your (now published) students to make My Papa's Waltz into a recounting of a childhood abuse was to ignore hint #6)3:

Don't try to force your own ideas onto the poem; the business of a poem is to be itself. Be certain that you can support your opinions with evidence drawn from the poem.

For comparison here is another recounting—whose interpretation need not be forced—of child abuse:

The first time Teresa ran, Jersey Crowder was six hours—ten beers, maybe fifteen—into a two-case bender.

When Jersey exploded—and everyone in the family had known he would explode sometime on that July third Saturday—Teresa, eight years and two days old, was arguing with her mother about how she was going to dress for church the next morning, insisting that her friends would not be wearing dresses, and neither would she. Jersey Crowder—a big man, six-one, two hundred and ten pounds—came up behind the argumentative Teresa and hefted his fifty-pound daughter under her arms, spun her around in the air, raised her face to within an inch of his own, and shook her.

Of what happened next, Teresa remembered only the roar and the smell and the fear.

The terror chilled her like a blast of freezing rain, and she trembled. She looked to her mother, who stood across the room impassive and tearful.

No more than ten minutes later, Teresa ran. ¶That first time she ran she just hid in the orchard.4

If "my papa" had wanted to commit child abuse, he would have hefted the kid, not merely waltzed with him however awkwardly. A mother witnessing the abuse of her child has tears in her eyes, not merely a frown on her face. A child being abused runs if he knows what's coming; he doesn't cling to the shirt of the abuser tucking him into bed. And he is not likely to remember clearly what happened, and certainly not going to write whimsical poetry about it.

Our current setting may give us a mind set alien to the poet.

American society is famous for the brutality of social life. The high rate of violent crime is incomprehensible. Rapes, female battering, child abuse, and molestation are the lead stories for local television and the print media. The information about violence has many positive consequences. If we wish to fight something, if we want to prevent crime, we must be aware of it. However, the constant forced awareness—the information on why and how someone was killed or raped—accustoms Americans to violence. They treat it as something natural...5
Imposing a meaning from a politicalagenda, however worthy, is in effect similar to the mistake of putting religious meanings onto secular works where they don't belong, which danger a teacher is probably familiar with.
One of the obvious dangers of this approach, analyzing so-called secular works of art for religious meaning, lies in an overenthusiasm to impose too much meaning upon the work of art from without, to push and pull and manipulate so that the poem ... says what we want it to say, to deprive the work of a multiplicity of meaning levels in our need to have it say one thing that the artist may never have intended at all.6
I hope that my observations may help you better understand the poem so that you might better instruct your students how to appreciate poetry and all good literature, regardless of how some busy critic assesses it.
Sincerely Yours,
Earl Gosnell
Poet Laureate of
Longfellow, Colorado
c.c. Dana Gioia, X.J. Kennedy




First letter — Introduces a broader perspective.

Second letter — Thorough multilevel analysis. Looks at archetypes in the poem and explains its meaning.


1. C.F. Main & Peter J. Seng, Poems (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 4th ed.) p. 64.
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2. Richard Monaco, Unto the Beast (New York: Bantam Books, 1987) pp. 18-20.
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3. C.F. Main, p. 65.
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4. Stephen White, Higher Authority (New York: Penguin Books, First Signet printing, 1996), pp. 72-3
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5. Janusz Mucha, 'An Outsider's View of American Culture,' from Philip DeVita, Distant Mirrors, America as a Foreign Culture (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1993) pp. 23-34.
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6. Mary Farrell Bednarowski, American Religion (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984) p. 80.
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Earl Gosnell
1950 Franklin Bv., Box 15
Eugene, OR 97403

Contact: feedbackatbibles.n7nz.org

Copyright © 1999, 2006, Earl S. Gosnell III Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.

Permission is hereby granted to use the portions original to this paper--with credit given, of course--in intellectually honest non-profit educational material. The material I myself have quoted has its own copyright in most cases, which I cannot speak for but have used here under the fair use doctrine.

I have used material from a number of sources for teaching, comment and illustration in this nonprofit teaching endeavor. The sources are included at the end in notes. Such uses must be judged on individual merit, of course, so I cannot say how other uses of the same material might fare. Theodore Roethke's poem My Papa's Waltz is copyright © 1942, Hearst Magazines, Inc.

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