T.S. Eliot, born on September 26th, 1888, was considered one of the twentieth century’s major poets—and not just because he wrote the poems that would become the libretto for the musical Cats. He also wrote acclaimed essays, plays, and poems like The Wasteland and Four Quartets, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
His famous “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” can be read in its entirety here, thanks to Poetry Magazine:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Download the PDF to read the rest of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Along the Caribbean coast of Suriname, all of the brutalities of eighteenth century empire existed in cruel abundance. From the genocide of the natives to the millions of enslaved Africans who labored in sugar-fields for first the English and then the Dutch, Suriname provides a sobering understanding of colonialism’s twin legacies of tobacco and terror, sugar and slavery. No contemporary text better illustrates slavery’s cruelty than the Scottish-Dutch soldier John Gabriel Stedman’s 1796 The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Suriname.
Selling Stedman’s book alongside pamphlets by Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, its printer Joseph Johnson knew that the narrative’s power lay in images as well as words. One illustration depicts a young man naked but for a loin-cloth, still alive with unblinking eyes, hung from a hook which is roped around a bloody exposed rib. A scattering of bones and skulls litters the base of the gallows, as if at Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. Johnson understood that conflating this lynching with the crucifixion was necessary, and enlisted the aid of an illustrator and poet named William Blake.
Blake was a radical who, in his 1809 poem “Milton,” would emphatically declare: “Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!” The rare figure who is equally influential in literature and art, Blake is the ecstatic of Romanticism who extoled freedom, with Morris Eaves enthusing in the Huntington Library Quarterly that the poet “continues even now to be the sign of something new about to happen.” First known primarily for his art, Blake’s verse was rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, and he has remained a counter-cultural icon.
An advocate of both the American and French revolutions, Blake was the prophet of rebellion who could sing:
In every cry of ever Man,
In ever infant’s cry of fear,
In ever voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
His abolitionism was a given, but his understanding of emancipation extended in even more radical directions than other Enlightenment thinkers whose rationality Blake found oppressive, intoning that “Prisons are built with stones of law.” Where the Enlightenment promoted rationality, Blake embraced mysticism; if the philosophes celebrated science, then Blake advocated visionary ecstasy.
Such was a view that Blake presented of himself, naming names when he wrote:
Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau…
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
Modernity, Blake believed, was defined by a wicked trinity of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke – incidentally the same trio that Thomas Jefferson valorized as intellectual heroes. Such a confrontational position would seem to configure Blake as a revanchist. Nancy Morrow writes in Early American Literature that the Enlightenment is often seen as a “philosophical movement that unequivocally advocated universal human liberty and political self-determination,” and yet the Enlightenment mainstream often advocated for inhumanity, such as when Locke wrote in the 1669 Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina that “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves.”
By contrast, Blake was influenced by non-conformist religious sects from the well-known Quakers and the Baptists, to the exotic Muggletonians and Swedenborgians, which compelled him to reject slavery as an abject horror. Morrow emphasizes that “major sources of arguments against slavery during the Enlightenment” such as the Quakers “cannot be considered a true expression of the spirit of Enlightenment philosophy.” As the Age of Reason once again becomes a cultural flashpoint, it behooves us to examine what the Enlightenment was, and how its discontents offer an alternate vision.
Morrow writes that the literature of the eighteenth century demonstrates that the “dictates of reason, logic, balance, order and compromise were ineffectual tools for writers who may have wanted to forge an abolitionist ideology.” This was certainly the case for Stedman, who advocated for gradual reform rather than abolition, barely grappling with his own role in the institution of slavery. Despite this, Mario Klarer writes in New Literary History that Stedman’s narrative “ranks among the most important and influential humanitarian texts of the late eighteenth… century,” becoming a touchstone for the abolitionists, and a crucial source for Blake.
The historians Gert Oostindie and Inge Klinkers explain in Decolonizing the Caribbean: Dutch Policies in a Comparative Perspective that by the late eighteenth century in Suriname “the native people had almost completely died out” and that “slaves constituted more than ninety percent of the population.” These are staggering numbers that dwarf similar populations in the United States. Stedman had joined a Dutch army deployed to combat rebelling enslaved Africans, but his book made clear the nature of his service.
Stedman recounts stories such as that of a woman drowning her child to prevent his enslavement, for which she was punished with 200 lashes, or the suicide of a young man who preferred death to flogging. Gruesome scenes which Blake depicts, such as an executioner mutilating an enslaved man: “having not with a hatchet chopped off his left hand, next took up a heavy crow or bar, with which blow after blow he broke to shivers every bone in his body, till the splinters, blood and marrow flew about the field. But the prisoner never uttered a groan.”
If Stedman had ambiguous positions on such evil, the illustrator of his book did not, attacking slavery as both economic and spiritual exploitation. Blake was able to connect his beliefs to the tangible nightmares of bondage. Suriname functioned as a body of evidence for the poet’s positions. As David Erdman argued in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, both Blake’s verse and artwork illustrated “modes of cruelty and prejudice which he wished to make known to the hearts of his contemporaries.”
Between 1792 and 1794 Blake produced sixteen images for Johnson, all done with “more than his usual care,” as Erdman reports, recycling several as illustrations for his Visions of the Daughters of Albion, with Erdman describing that poem as a counterpart to the “parliamentary and editorial debates of 1789-93 on the bill to abolish the British slave trade.”
Not Blake’s first foray into the controversy around emancipation, as his 1787 lyric “The Little Black Boy” coincided with the “early phase of… [an abolition] campaign in which several artists and writers were enlisted,” as Erdman writes. While Erdman argues that Visions of the Daughters of Albion has slavery as its central theme, the hermetic enthusiasms typical of Blake can make that message difficult to interpret. By contrast, “The Little Black Boy,” from his collection Songs of Innocence and Experience seems deceptively simple. Containing the only unambiguously African characters in Blake’s corpus, the poem presents a black boy narrating his mother’s message about the fundamental equality of all people to his white compatriot.
The narrator prophecies a coming moment, both revolutionary and millennial, when “out from the grove my love & care, / And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.” For contemporary readers of the poem, however, there is something embarrassing about Blake’s language:
I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light
It centers Western chauvinism as much as the equality of humanity. Such language repeats, where “black bodies and this sun-burnt face / Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove” and where, with the coming millennium the black boy shall shade the white boy from the “heat till he can bear… And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair, / And be like him and he will then love me.”
As problematic as this is, Erdman argued that Blake was anti-racist, writing that his “engravings, with a force of expression absent from the others, emphasize the dignity” of his African characters. Writing several decades later, David Bindman claimed in Huntington Library Quarterly that Blake, exemplary though he may have been, couldn’t help but be constrained by his era, that he was “unable to free himself—no more than anyone else at the time—from the complex and often contradictory web of ancient and modern beliefs that had settled around Africa.” To focus on the literal language is a red herring. Blake engaged a radical empathy, expressing something about colonialism’s violence that is as psychic as it is physical.
Blake’s narrator is a child, processing trauma while being forced to use the language of his oppressors. The narrator’s promise to the white boy shouldn’t be read as literal, as the possibilities of radical equality are hard to imagine, not least of all because the system under which he lives makes it hard to imagine. It’s a fallacy to assume that what Blake is speaking of is assimilationist, that we’re to believe that the black boy will be transformed into a white boy, just as it would be an error to confuse the archetypal significance of those colors with physical reality. Rather, the kernel of the poem is the narrator’s mother saying: “And we are put on earth a little space, /That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”
Reading “The Black Boy” as simply the racist projection of a guilty white liberal doesn’t do justice to its subtle message. This is a lyric about what the constraints of racism does to both oppressed and oppressor, the ways in which ingrained prejudice alters perceptions, and how it limits the anarchic potential of divinity. In both the unearned sense of superiority of the white boy and the undeserved sense of inferiority from the black boy, we approach a subtle understanding of that utopian yearning for when we might “round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.”
Bindman notes that the “white boy adopts a position of supplication that would have evoked unmistakably… the famous emblem entitled ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’” Crafted by Josiah Wedgewood in 1786, this famous image depicted an African in chains pleading that question. The enslaved man, meek and deferential, is begging for a freedom that is naturally his right. Bindman claims that “The Black Boy” actually subverts the chauvinism of Wedgewood. When the black boy speaks of his partner by saying “I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear, / To lean in joy upon our fathers knee,” it’s whiteness that must bow its head in supplication, begging not for freedom, but for forgiveness.
Eaves writes that for Blake the “codes are simply too complex and cryptic—or too ambiguous and contradictory—to be cracked by straightforward references to big public categories.” Blake was not anti-Enlightenment so much as he offered an “alternate Enlightenment,” one that owed more to the religious dissenters than to Locke. While thinkers like Locke dwelled in the fallacies of pseudo-scientific bigotry, Blake was able to construct a vigorous denunciation of both slavery and racism. Marrow writes that the failure “to resolve the problem of slavery is perhaps a failure of this ‘Moderate Enlightenment,’” where an idolatry of what we assume rationality to be lends itself to inhumane conclusions. Blake’s reasoning was different, drawing not from pragmatism, but poetry; not from rationality, but prophecy—and that makes all the difference.
Such an alternate Enlightenment, which sees rights as being an issue of acknowledging the transcendent fixed within our hearts is a message of some use today. Blake offers a radical vision, where we are not slaves, nor consumers, nor products, where we are more than even just citizens—we are human. We are sisters and brothers.
Auden’s single greatest poetic achievement, I think, is his sequence “Horae Canonicae,” which begins with the first hour of the prayerful day, Prime. Here is a stanza from Auden’s poem in which he describes something that always interested him, the experience of waking up:
Holy this moment, wholly in the right,
As, in complete obedience
To the light’s laconic outcry, next
As a sheet, near as a wall,
Out there as a mountain’s poise of stone,
The world is present, about,
And I know that I am, here, not alone
But with a world and rejoice
Unvexed, for the will has still to claim
This adjacent arm as my own,
The memory to name me, resume
Its routine of praise and blame
And smiling to me is this instant while
Still the day is intact, and I
The Adam sinless in our beginning,
Adam still previous to any act.
Most of Auden’s critics know that he read Heidegger, and it’s easy to hear here an echo of Heidegger’s idea of “being thrown” (Geworfen) into the world. John Fuller also finds here echoes of Husserl and Paul Valéry. And all that may be true, but I wonder if there might be another source: Beowulf.
In the genealogical section with which Beowulf begins, we’re told that Halfdane had four children, though that’s not quite how the poet puts it. The poet says that four bearn — as some Scots still say, bairns — “woke into the world”:
ðaém féower bearn | forðgerímed
in worold wócun
And isn’t that what Auden is talking about? The daily birth, the daily waking into the world.
Maybe, maybe not. But it would be very characteristic of Auden to write a poem which blends an idea of Heidegger’s with a phrase made by the Beowulf poet.
Also, if when we are born we wake into the world, in death, we part from it: worulde gedál. That word gedál means “parting” or “separation,” but the Germanic root also means “valley.” When we die we are parted from the world: we take a last look at it, perhaps, across the great valley that separates us. Late in Auden’s sequence, at the hour of Compline, as he moves towards sleep at the end of a day that has seen the incomprehensible sacrifice of “our victim,” he writes:
Nothing is with me now but a sound,
A heart’s rhythm, a sense of stars
Leisurely walking around, and both
Talk a language of motion
I can measure but not read: maybe
My heart is confessing her part
In what happened to us from noon till three,
That constellations indeed
Sing of some hilarity beyond
All liking and happening,
But, knowing I neither know what they know
Nor what I ought to know, scorning
All vain fornications of fancy,
Now let me, blessing them both
For the sweetness of their cassations,
Accept our separations.
As we reach the end of Poetry Month, you might like to know about the amazing collection of alternative literary magazines that are part of Reveal Digital’s Independent Voices collection. Here, anyone (you!) can browse rare gems like Adventures in Poetry and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. And so, so much more.
Rest assured that we will be highlighting various parts of the Independent Voices collection in the future—Reveal Digital is now part of ITHAKA, our parent organization—but in the meantime, round out your poetry month by having a look at a few things we found this afternoon.
Bernadette Mayer, from Moving, published in Adventures in Poetry: “This is an epic of war fever fighting sex and starvation…”
The first issue of Chrysalis, where you’ll find poems by Audre Lorde, Honor Moore, and Adrienne Rich.
John Ashbery in O-blek responding to, we presume, Wallace Stevens: “The waltz no longer a strain/now”.
Or, a critique of capitalism by the likes of Kathy Acker, which is maybe not a poem, but is in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and is still great!
You can search by author, title, etc. or browse around some of the titles in the Independent Voices collection.
Happy National Poetry Month! To celebrate, we pulled together our best stories about poetry with free links to poems from contemporary and classic American poets.
… my ambition to advance myself
In the sort of project that, if carried out
Successfully, is good for anyone,
Whether rich or poor, and its failure is bound to be
Harmful to anyone, whether he’s young or old.
Asking them to tell you how you can
Get through your life in a peaceable tranquil way.
Will it be greed, that always feels poverty-stricken,
That harasses and torments you all your days?
Will it be hope and fear about trivial things,
In anxious alternation in your mind?
Where is it virtue comes from, is it from books?
Or is it a gift from Nature that can’t be learned?
What is the way to become a friend to yourself?
What brings tranquility? What makes you care less?
Honor? Or money? Or living your life unnoticed?
Whenever I drink from the cold refreshing waters
Of the little brook Digentia, down below
Our local hill town, what do you think I pray for?
“May I continue to have what I have right now,
Or even less, as long as I’m self-sufficient.
If the gods should grant me life, though just for a while,
May I live my life to myself, with books to read,
And food to sustain me for another year,
And not to waver with the wavering hours.”
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.”[note]Moretti, Franco. “Graphs, Maps, Trees 2: Abstract Models for Literary History.” New Left Review, vol. 26, no. March-April, 2004, p. 94.[/note]
“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
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?
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.”
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.
The results are immediately striking. We have the kind of patterns Moretti seeks in distant reading.
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:
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.
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”:
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.[note]Faludi, Susan. Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Harper Perennial, 1999.[/note] 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.”[note]Blau, Sheridan. The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers. Heinemann, 2003, p. 73.[/note] 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.