. . .
My Papa's Waltz
by Theodore Roethke
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand 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.
I chose this poem because I think ambivalence is a good start when teaching young students who are new to poetry or who (in my case often at the college level) do not like poetry and will argue that it is unimportant. Also, I had to remind myself that I'm not teaching my classmates, but learning to teach college freshman and the like (what I currently do in my profession). I presented My Papa's Waltz as I often do with my current students, those who struggle with picking a poem, then writing about it.
I presented some images of boxing, waltzing, a child dancing on a father's toes, and a child holding his ear crying. Roethke creates an image in this poem that can be read in two ways if not in others: a moment of fatherly-son play -- a moment of paternal abuse. Specific words create ambivalence and are interpreted either way. There are negative associations and positive ones - although the latter is more challenging to prove.
I like this kind of ambivalence in poetry because it always serves my goal: to ignite contrary sentiments in students that lead to debate. Ultimately, I am usually successful is discussing this work with students because they end up engaging the poem. They become closer readers without even being aware.
In my presentation I experienced some technical difficulties (I don't do Macs), but bounced back with what I hope was grace. A corrupted file, too, is never good. The funny thing is about four female students said to me during a break, "Oh my God, you handled that well. If that was me, I would have cried." And one Ph.D. student said, "You handled that as cool as a cucumber." I guess I understand them, but why breakdown? The point is to teach, even when at times we might have to improvise--a custodian of literature must be able to improvise.
Now, on an even better note, one MA who teaches 9th grade high school presented the same poem as I did, but I think her method is even more effective in sparking student engagement. She has students compare My Papa's Waltz to songs Walk a Little Straighter by Billy Currington and Dance with my Father by Luther Vandross. Very nice method and style. I like this because she brings in the same father-son relations theme but expressed from different perspectives. Her goal is to have students read the latter two, then she asks how does it affect students' prospective of Roethke's work. Very nice!
I've already started my 4,000 word essay. It won't be about Lolita; I'd like to write about Nabakov's work, but it's my experience that poetry is a difficult genre for students to grasp. I'm saving my thoughts, opines and all on Lo for later. I will write on ambivalence in literature and how it seduces students to becoming active participants and yes, even close readers. I'm using sources like Dickinson's "Twas a like Maelstrom, with a Notch" - what does it refer to? How does it make the reader-student participate in her work? By filling in the it does the reader-student sort of write the work with her? And, I'm using Shakespeare's Othello. What is that this Roderigo and Iago initially refer to? Of course, we find out later, but in the beginning we have to fill-in. And what about backstory?
Classes are ending July 7 and I have an even greater presentation coming up. Teaching Nabakov's Lolita; there will be others...professors, students, college affiliates invited to take in our short lectures.
I'm excited about this final project.