A Parallax Reading of Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”
On Abuse and Close and Distant Readings

Are you sick of parallax scrolling yet? You know, the way the foreground and background on a web page, iPhone screen, or Super Mario Brothers move at different speeds, giving the illusion of depth? Parallax scrolling is a gimmick. Take it away and not much changes. Your videogame might be a tad less immersive, but come on, how immersive was it in the first place? Turn off parallax scrolling on your phone and your battery life might actually improve. Parallax scrolling is ornamental, a hallmark of what will eventually be known as the Baroque Digital Age.

So it’s with hesitation that I’m attempting to recuperate the word parallax here. In my defense I’m using the word metaphorically, to describe a certain kind of hermeneutical approach to textual material.

Here it is: parallax reading, an interpretive maneuver that keeps both close and distant reading in focus at the same time.

If you’re just tuning in to the digital humanities, there’s a pretty much bogus IMHO tension between close and distant reading. Close reading is that thing we were all taught to do in high school English, paying attention to individual words and the subtle nuances of a text. Distant reading zooms out to look at a text—or even better, a massive body of texts—from a distance. In Franco Moretti’s memorable words, distance is “not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Patterns.”1

Cool, patterns.

“Parallax reading” is a fancy way of saying why not combine close and distant reading. And to be clear, no one is saying you can’t. Again, it’s a bogus tension, a straw man. I’m not proposing anything new here. I’m just giving it a name. And in a bit, a demo.

A parallax reading is the opposite of the “lenticular logic” that, as Tara McPherson explains, separates the two images on a 3D postcard, making it impossible to see them simultaneously. Whereas lenticular vision flips between two distinct representations, parallax reading holds multiple distances in view at once. Like its visual counterpart, parallax reading conveys a sense of depth. Unlike parallax scrolling, though, this is depth that actually matters, a depth that complicates our understanding of texts.

What would a parallax reading look like?

As a case study let’s look at Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz.” Written from the perspective of a young boy, the sixteen line poem captures a possibly tender, possibly terrifying moment, as his boozy father mock waltzes him “off to bed.” The whiskey on his father’s breath makes the boy “dizzy.” His mother looks on, barely tolerating the nonsense. The boy is so small he only comes up to his father’s waist; his dad’s belt buckle scrapes his ear with “every step.” As the boy goes to bed “still clinging” to his father’s shirt it’s not clear whether he’s clinging out of fear or love, or maybe both.

“My Papa’s Waltz” was published in 1942 and by the mid-50s was already widely anthologized. It’s a great poem, and I love teaching it. And so do other people. There’s a lot going on under its deceptively simple surface. In The Literature Workshop  (a book every teacher of literature should study), Sheridan Blau uses “My Papa’s Waltz” to confront two questions that often arise in literature classes: where does meaning come from, and how the hell do we know which meaning is the right one?

Blau observes that for twenty years or so he taught “My Papa’s Waltz” and students overwhelmingly read it as nostalgic, the fond recollection of a grown man of his gruff but loving father. Then, sometime in mid-80s, Blau’s students began to read the poem more darkly, a vivid childhood memory about abuse and a dysfunctional family.

What happened? How can the poem mean both things? At this point you might be thinking, ah, so a parallax reading is simply holding two opposing meanings of the poem in place at the same time. This is what sophisticated readers and writers do all the time. For example, Sherman Alexie describes “My Papa’s Waltz” as

incredibly sad and violent, and its sadness and violence is underscored by its gentle rhymes and rhythms. It’s Mother Goose on acid, maybe. I think that its gentle music is a form of denial about the terror contained in the poem, or maybe it’s the way kids think, huh?

A love poem about, as Alexie says later on, “the unpredictability of the alcoholic father.” Two seemingly incompatible interpretations—incompatible, that is, to a naive reader. Is this what I mean by parallax reading? Are two competing perspectives we keep in simultaneous focus what parallax reading is all about?

No!

Embracing ambivalent or contradictory interpretations is nothing new. Hopefully, literary scholars practice this—and teach it—all the time. (If anything, we celebrate ambiguity a little too much, when what the world needs now is some rock solid truth, right?) Anyway, a parallax reading is not about the interpretative outcomes, it’s about the methodological process. It’s about simultaneously negotiating close and distant readings.

Think about “My Papa’s Waltz” from a close reading perspective (the foreground of the parallax). An array of historical evidence might suggest which interpretation of his poem Roethke himself preferred. For example, we could look at drafts of the poem, which indicate several significant revisions. In one draft, the small boy is a girl and the “right ear” scraping a buckle is the less particular “forehead.”

Draft manuscript of Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz," showing that "small boy" was originally "small girl."
Roethke’s draft of “My Papa’s Waltz.” Courtesy of the Theodore Roethke Manuscripts Collection at the University of Washington in Seattle

Changing the gender of the speaker recasts the the father-son relationship as a father-daughter relationship. We might be less likely to read biographical details of Roethke’s own life into the poem: his father ran a gigantic greenhouse, worked with his hands, and died of cancer when Roethke was 14-years-old. Would any of that matter if the speaker is a girl? Would any of it matter either way?

We could also listen to Roethke’s own delivery of the poem. At least two recordings are available online. One features Roethke reading in a sing-song voice that bears no trace of fear or resentment. Another Roethke reading is somber, the accent on the words “you” in the third stanza and “beat” in the fourth stanza possibly ominous, possibly not.

Or—and this is novel—we could actually read the poem. Here’s what I did last time I taught “My Papa’s Waltz.” (I wasn’t teaching Roethke’s poem per se, I was teaching Blau’s book, in a grad class on the pedagogy of teaching literature.) I’m a fan of reading aloud in class, and that’s what we did. As we read, I asked students to point—literally, point with their index finger—to the words that were most freighted with abuse. “Scraped” and “beat” drew some attention from the students, but invariably the word with the strongest connotation of abuse for the students was “battered.” Roethke uses “battered” to describe the father’s hand—it was “battered on one knuckle”—but students couldn’t help displacing the word onto the small boy himself. It’s as if by metonymical extension the boy too was battered and bruised.

With “battered” coming into focus during our close reading as a key marker of abuse, let’s shift to a distant reading of “My Papa’s Waltz”—the background of the parallax. But how can we zoom out from a single poem? From a distance, what’s there to look at? If one poem is a drop of water, what’s the ocean of words that contains it?

One possible ocean is Google Books. Google ngrams offers a snazzy interface for tracking word frequency over time, based on Google Books’ dataset, a staggering 155 billion words in American English. Since my students found “battered” to be the center of traumatic gravity of “My Papa’s Waltz” I plugged that word into Google ngrams:

Which is honestly not that useful. Ngrams can show the rise and fall of certain terms, but they’re inadequate for more nuanced inquires. There are at least three reasons the Google ngram viewer fails here: (1) Google ngrams limits searches by collocates, that is, immediately preceding and succeeding words; (2) Google ngrams can’t search for parts of speech; and most significantly (3) Google ngrams provides no context for the words—no sentence context, no source context, nothing.

This is where the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) comes in. COHA is a dataset of 400 million words from 1810 through 2009. Established by Mark Davies at Brigham Young University, COHA includes fiction (including texts from Project Gutenberg, scanned books, and scanned movie scripts) and nonfiction (including scanned newspapers and magazines). COHA is a smaller dataset than Google Books, but it holds several critical advantages over Google Books. You can search for phrases that aren’t necessarily collocated right next to each other. You can specify what part of speech you want to search for. That’s really important if you’re looking for a word like, oh, I don’t know, “trump,” which can be a verb, noun, proper noun, and a few other things. Finally, COHA provides context for its searches.

For the time period of the 1950s, when “My Papa’s Waltz” had already been widely anthologized, COHA includes nearly 12 million words from fiction sources, 5.7 millions words from popular magazines, 3.5 million words from newspapers, and just over 3 million words from nonfiction books. That’s a total of 24 million words from the 1950s, which gives us a representative view of how language was being used across a number of domains at the time. This is the ocean of words that surrounds “My Papa’s Waltz.”

Let’s check out “battered” in COHA, to see how the word was being used during Roethke’s time and afterward.

Here are our search parameters, which tell COHA to find any occurrence of “battered” followed within five words by a noun (that’s the [nn*] in the Collocates box). This search acknowledges that the frequency of “battered” isn’t as important as its context.

Search Window for COHA
Search Window for COHA

The results are immediately striking. We have the kind of patterns Moretti seeks in distant reading.

The use of "battered" in printed works, 1930-2000
“battered” with nn* 0/5

The second most common noun following “battered” is women, as in “battered women.” This frequency would appear to support the idea that “battered” in “My Papa’s Waltz” is an indicator of abuse. At the very least, its appearance is ominous.

Yet dig deeper and notice that the variants of “battered…women” do not become prevalent until 1980 (with 16 occurrences) and peak in the 1990s with 46 occurrences. Prior to 1970, “battered” is rarely used in the context of physical abuse against women.

So what does “battered” typically describe when Roethke published the poem in 1942 and in the years immediately afterward? In the 1940s the most common collocate was “hat”: “a battered black stovepipe hat,” “a battered greasy hat,” “his battered hat,” “a disreputable, battered hat”—all uses that suggest a knocked-about, down-on-one’s-luck man. Here’s the KWIC (Keyword In Context) display for “battered…hat” in the 1950s:

"hat" KWIC in COHA
“battered…hat” Keyword in Context

And look at the third most common noun associated with “battered.” It’s “face,” peaking in the 1950s. This detail might appear to support the negative interpretation of “My Papa’s Waltz.” But again, look at the keyword in context.

"battered...face" in the 1950s KWIC
“battered…face” in the 1950s KWIC

The battered face here is predominantly a male face, battered by wind, hard living, and frequently, war. This is likely the kind of “battered” Roethke had in mind when he described the rough hands of the boy’s father in the poem.

Contrast this with how battered appears in the 1990s, when it is associated most frequently with “women”:

"Battered...women" in the 1990s Keyword in Context
“battered…women” in the 1990s Keyword in Context

Here we find “battered” being used the way today’s students would understand the word, associated with the physical abuse of women by men. (Grammar fun: “battered” is technically a participial adjective. It’s an adjective that started out as a participial phrase, but was shortened. Like “there were no shelters for battered women in Michigan” (the first example from the KWIC above) really means “there were no shelters for women who were battered by men in Michigan.” The agent—the men inflicting the battering—drops out of the sentence and we’re left with inexplicably battered women, and no party to take responsibility. Basically it’s passive voice in disguise, a way for abusive men to get off scott-free, linguistically speaking.)

So, a theory: “battered” is what I would call a cusp word—a word teetering on the cusp between two opposing meanings. On one side, the word suggests strength and resilience. It’s gendered masculine in this context. On the other side it suggests helplessness and victimization. It’s gendered female in this case. In other words, once associated with men at the mercy of the elements or men who have endured hardship, “battered” is now associated with women who have suffered—though this part is kept hidden by the participial adjective—at the hands of men.

We still occasionally encounter the older meaning of the word. A line from Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” (1992) comes to mind:

From the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the USA

Here “the battered heart of Chevrolet” is a stand-in for Rust Belt America, the industrial wasteland that left blue collar working men out of work. Or “stiffed,” as Susan Faludi put it in her eponymous diagnosis of 20th century masculinity.2 I’m no sociologist, but it’s not difficult to imagine that “the battered heart of Chevrolet” contributed to a sense of helplessness in men that found expression in violence against women. Emasculated men beating their way to empowerment. Thus battered souls lead to battered bodies.

We can’t know for certain, of course, but it makes sense that Roethke’s description of the father’s hands as “battered” is a kind of tribute to the man. An acknowledgment of hard work and sacrifice. Roethke’s vocabulary was shaped by the Great Depression and World Wars, an era of stoic endurance (even if that stoicism was a myth). People reading the poem today, however, see in “battered” the ugly side of human nature. Desperation, rage, brutality.

In his explanation of his students’ changing interpretation of “My Papa’s Waltz”: Blau suggests that “a change in the culture made a particular reading available that had not been culturally available before.”3 Blau’s exactly right. That shift in meaning began in the 1980s, concomitant with growing social awareness of domestic abuse. What Blau doesn’t say—because the tools weren’t culturally available to him at the time—is that thanks to a distant reading, we can find evidence of that shift within a single word of Roethke’s poem.

What’s important for a parallax reading is that neither foreground nor background disappear entirely. In fact, they only make sense when considered together. That’s where the sense of depth comes from. Armed with knowledge gleaned from distant reading we can go back to the poem and read it again. And maybe, recursively, find other words to track across time, or to contextualize historically. But we always return to the poem.

Will a parallax reading definitively answer the question, what’s “My Papa’s Waltz” about? No. The beauty of literature and language more generally is its ambiguity (argh, though again, maybe we tolerate a little too much ambiguity). But, I have discovered evidence that complicates our interpretation of the poem. At the very least, it should shock us out of our presentist approach to language, assuming the way we use words is the way those words have always been used. And even more importantly, it’s not that I have found answers about the poem. It’s that I found a new way to ask questions.

Notes

The Best Spam. Ever.

Yesterday I received this bizarre spam, from someone “named” Solly Brit. The subject heading was “time card celibacy” and this nonsense phrase only hints at the random strings of English in the message, which reads like some methed-up computer-generated poetry slam:

zest, detect pronoun imperfection and lens radically, in as historian disposable of rest home the
four milk chocolate. with insure to tact gatecrasher rainbow tower that collectible misunderstand hither a recollection, learned nude, to an teem
committed shirt extracurricular,… progress. stale, a smelly, as wounded

jovial minority the an healer,
big deal rebel financing stepbrother as!!! adversary lethally a the and tinderbox bounce supply and demand Jun. the fishing rod, putt
left-wing unzip platter. council

rape welter player a public school esoteric ventriloquist that inadvisable but pant gazelle as chinos, stockholder of capitalization, at undressed and
pacifist as precautionary of baptismal black market as
kiln gallon, nomination, not of an G-string, to as geriatric the
meningitis the O! footpath tawny, of bluegrass, wrestle,. to bash.

Jackson Mac Low, watch out!

Terrorism Means Never Having to Say Your Sorry

I’ve been on the blogging equivalent of radio silence for several weeks now, waiting for my handlers to issue the code for me to go on active status. Last weekend was it: Vice President Dick Cheney shooting a 78 year-old man in the face with a shotgun. That was my signal. (Or, close enough: it was The quail flies at dusk, which is basically the same thing.)

Now, I know this important political issue of vital national security has been covered professionally and responsibly by the news media in a very measured way. I have nothing new to add. Except for an email exchange between my friend (and occasional SampleReality commentator) Stephen and myself:

Me:

I wonder if Dick Cheney is Jack Bauer [of 24] in disguise?

Stephen:

But has Jack Bauer ever shot someone by accident, hmm?

More to the point: has Jack Bauer ever wasted ammunition on someone he wasn’t planning to a) kill or b) torture?

Stephen is absolutely correct. And add to this that Jack Bauer has never had to apologize for killing or torturing (except for that unfortunate electroshock thing with his lover’s estranged husband in Season 4–but that was, like, totally a misunderstanding).

So Jack Bauer never has to say he’s sorry. But apologize is something Dick Cheney had to do.

Or sort of.

This is the closest Cheney comes to saying “I’m sorry. I did it.”:

“Ultimately, I’m the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry.”

Hello, Mother Goose! This is the cat that caught the rat that ate the malt that lived in the house that Jack built.

Lyrical beauty aside, this is the linguistic equivalent of saying, I only pulled the trigger. The gun did the rest. Or really, if you get down to it, it was the round, not even the gun that did it. (So it remains true: guns don’t kill people.)

And what’s with “I’m the guy who”–instead of simply “I pulled the trigger”? As my students pointed out today, that’s like saying, I just happened to be there. It could’ve been any guy. And it just happened to be me. Wrong place, wrong time kinda thing.

A lost World Trade Center poem

I recently found a poem I had written years and years ago, in July 1992, which I had absolutely, totally forgotten about. I wrote it in an undergraduate creative writing course with the astounding poet James Reiss. I’m not sure why, but Reiss generally liked my stuff. For an undergrad, I guess it was okay material. A few weeks after the class was over I was walking down the muggy streets of Oxford, Ohio, and Reiss drove by, shouting out to me, “There goes the Tungsten Wunderkind!”

Tungsten, now that I’m remembering, was one of my favorite words that summer, and Reiss knew it. The “wunderkind” was Reiss’s idea. For a while after that I fancied myself the Tungsten Wunderkind. Long after most young men give up the idea of becoming rock stars I harbored fantasies that Tungsten Wunderkind would be a great name for my first band. The one that would go on to fill stadiums around the globe, stop world hunger, meet the Pope.

How embarrasing.

But this poem here, the one I discovered in an brittle plastic binder in the back of a closet, Reiss didn’t like. I remember that too, now. Never mind the erratic meter and graceless lines, it was the closing stanza that irked Reiss. Too much like the end of Planet of the Apes, with Charlton Heston staring aghast at the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. Reiss pointed out the unintentional allusion, and I thought it was a compliment at the time.

I think I see now what Reiss was getting at.

Yet after September 11, 2001, the poem seems different. Definitely not better, definitely not redeemed, just different. I don’t feel prescient so much as in sync with Hollywood’s darkest fantasies. It’s still a bush league poem, but it’s a bush league world we’re living in.

     in my dreams…

i raze the World Trade Center
down to its cornerstones.

first i heap the ticker tape
(IBM up five and a quarter,
DuPont down two and a half)
into a haystack.

then i douse the pile with
gasoline and light a whole
book of matches from TGI
Fridays and toss it in.

finally i

awake and leave behind
twin shivering spines
hunched over the harbor.

WordCount Poetry

My students and I have been playing with WordCount, Jonathan Harris’s slick database of the 86,000 or so most commonly used words in the English language, ranked according to frequency.

As Harris points out (playfully calling it a “conspiracy“), there are many sequences of adjacent words in the ranked list of 86,800 words that are either eerily prescient, beautiful poetry, are both.

For example, sequence 1941-1945 reads “faith establish facts requires membership” — which does in fact seem to say something about the notion of faith in today’s America.

What other found poetry awaits in the list of words?

Here are a few I discovered:

love means upon areas effect likely (words 384-389)
hate ease shadow inevitably loose (3107-3111)
langley channelled haemorrhage (14867-14869)
unfortunately noise revolution index rare (2172-2176)

And actually, come to think of it, this compilation of lines seems to have a dark undercurrent of meaning flowing through it, too.

Irregular around the Margins

I’ve been a devoted follower of The Sopranos ever since I borrowed the entire first and second seasons on VHS from a friend, back in 2000. I’ve managed to see every episode since, even without having HBO, by begging, borrowing, and sometimes just showing up unannounced, uninvited at the right place at the right time. At times my desperation to see the show bordered on mania. Before Season Four began I even had a nightmare in which Tony Soprano came to me, snarling in my face, spit flying everywhere, yelling, Why the f**k don’t you have HBO? You better get it, you sad little freeloading f**k.

Ah, gotta love the sinner and hate the sin.

Now, with the fifth season in full swing, I’ve been thinking, is it really all that? Would the world end if I never saw the show again? Up until last Sunday’s episode I would have said yes.

But the episode–Irregular around the Margins–aired and blew me away. Without a doubt, it was the best episode this season and possibly the best of the past couple seasons.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that the show was back to focusing on family rather than crime. After all, The Sopranos is ultimately a family drama. The rest is just window dressing. Too often this season ancillary tensions between ancillary characters have been competing with the more compelling storylines. The brewing war between Johnny Sack and Little Carmine, the sociopath Feech and his territorial piss-posts–these plots are at best distracting and at worse like watching a bunch of local villagers squabble over a goat while outside the village gates the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse silently annihilate entire civilizations.

Face it, Tony and his troubling familial relationships–the civilization of Tony–are what we come to watch: Tony’s disintegrating relationship with his wife, his distant relationship with his children, his antagonistic relationship with his sister and uncle, and now, with this episode, his uneasy reconciliation with his own nephew, Christopher, whose fiancee, Adriana, Tony had nearly slept with.

The writing of this episode was so hewn, the symbolism and allegory so finely wrought, that I think it brings into relief why cultural critics should pay attention to The Sopranos. And this depth and richness is the second reason why the show blew me away. Its incest plot and the struggle between generations–Tony versus Christopher, whom Tony is grooming to be his successor–transforms the show into something reminiscent of a Greek or Roman tragedy.

Saturn Devouring His Son, by Goya (c. 1819-1823)

In fact, I am reminded of Goya‘s disturbing masterpiece Saturn–a haunting painting of the Roman titan Saturn devouring one of his children. According to one myth, Saturn was later thrown from the heavens by Jupiter, another one of his children. No wonder Saturn wanted to devour them. But myth aside, the painting is of course allegorical. It doesn’t seem to be about war in the heavens so much as an awakening of primal savagery, the collapse of civilization and the rise of nothing but rage, revenge, and unrepressed urges.

Tony Soprano embodies this struggle between savagery and civilization–and the rise and fall of one or the other is inextricably linked to the destruction or rejuvenation of his own family. Tony recognizes this at some level and even seeks Dr. Melfi’s help. It’s a “breakthrough,” Melfi tells Tony, to recognize this struggle and even attempt to avert it.

But can he? One aspect of David Chase’s (the creator of The Sopranos) worldview crystalized in this episode, namely that we cannot control our bodies. Our bodies betray us. We see this repeatedly in “Irregular Around the Margins” in the three principle characters of the episode, Tony, Adriana, and Christopher.

Consider each character separately:

Tony
Tony has some sort of cancerous cyst removed from his scalp; this melanoma, unpredictable and unsettling, is what makes him feel “irregular around the margins.” It’s as if he cannot trust his body anymore. There’s also Tony’s casual drug use, which he could control if he tried, but he doesn’t. When Adriana offers him a line of cocaine, he smiles and says, “I won’t say no.” And finally, there’s his libidinal urge, his bodily lust for Adriana that he only keeps in check by luck. They’re interrupted right at the moment when they could kiss for the first time.

Adriana
Like Tony, Adriana is a casual drug user. Well, probably more than casual. The reason she and Tony are in a car accident in the middle of the night in Dover, New Jersey, is because that’s where her dealer is. More significantly, Adriana is diagnosed in the episode with IBS–Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Meaning, she can’t control her bowels and she’s beset with painful diarrhea. Her body, quite literally, is a pile of shit.

Christopher
Last season Christopher made an admirable recovery from a destructive heroin habit. The first four episodes of the fifth season Christopher had been stone cold sober. On edge and quarrelsome, but sober–no booze, no drugs, nothing but cigarettes. It doesn’t last. Hearing the rumor that Adriana had been out in Dover having sex with Tony when the accident occurred–a false rumor, it turns out, although maybe the car wreck was the only thing that stopped the liaison from happening–hearing this rumor, Christopher throws Adriana out and quickly grabs the nearest alcohol he can find, a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka Adriana had hidden in the freezer. Once again, in Christopher’s relapse we find a body that cannot control itself, an urge that cannot bear repression.

Alongside Goya’s Saturn, there is another cultural reference this episode calls to mind. It’s the car wreck–I can’t help but think of the last lines of William Carlos William’s damning critique of American postwar culture, the poem “To Elsie.” The poem begins with the ambiguous line,

The pure products of America
go crazy…

And it ends with these despairing verses:

the stifling heat of September
Somehow
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
something
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

No one to drive the car, Williams says. No one is in control, The Sopranos says.