this waltz

When I was in high school, there was an advanced placement exam to get into the AP English track.  The exam included Theodore Roethke’s poem, “My Papa’s Waltz.”  We were graded on our interpretation of it.  There was a right answer.  I suspect we were not graded on how convincing or eloquent our interpretations were if they were indeed wrong.  I thought that was the point of writing, that everyone interprets what he or she will. 

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.

Don’t misinterpret this: I love Philip.  He is my waltz.  We are together and happy.  I’m not saying anything more about it.  I misinterpreted the poem and was denied AP placement.  Instead, I joined SWS, took AP classes and placed out of first-year college English.  They were wrong not to let me into the class.  I was wrong because I thought the poem was violent.  I thought the bit of him still left on his father’s shirt was blood.  I got it wrong, and I suspect people get me wrong, too.



  1. I won't even pretend to know you well enough to analyze you (seeing as how I've never met you and all…!) but I'd venture to say that you — or people in general, anyway — tend to write more when they are feeling insecure, ponderous or a bit upset than when they're deliriously happy. I looked back at some old diaries a few weeks ago and thought, "I had a great year that year — why the hell do I sound like that?" And I think the answer was that I wrote down what bothered me and got on with living and enjoying life — both of which you seem to do really well. So, go you. People might get you wrong sometimes, but you seem to be doing a lot right.

  2. Wow — you should have gone to high school in Illinois — we were taught, in AP English no less, that the poem was a poem about domestic abuse. We read the poem right after we read Beloved, so maybe it was "domestic violence month or something," who knows.

    But especially with poetry — shouldn't various interpretations be rewarded?

  3. That is my fear…why I don't share my writing yet. I don't want people to get me wrong. That gave me chills. You have such raw talent, Steph. Don't know ya, but you make me proud for some reason. I just love reading you, and I am looking so forward to reading your book when it comes out.

  4. Hi…I think Sandra is so right…I recall re reading some of my high school and college diaries and cringing at how sad, melodramatic and patehtic my life was back then and how I just threw all of the writings away in shame. Those feelings were real but once I expressed them on paper, I was definitely able to let my steaming, raging emotions out and then I could analyze, perspectiveize and go on. Because of cathartic writing, I was actually able to have a pretty good life.

    They serve a purpose…I don't think I could have ever laid it out there for others to read like Stephanie does…I could barely re read them myself…So when I read her stuff I always think it's really brave.

  5. I too thought that this poem was violent when I first read it. I interpreted the "whiskey on the breath" to mean that the father was an alcoholic and that the son took the brunt of his father's rage. Perhaps it is my own skewed view of the world that seeks out the worst before the good.

    They were wrong not to let you join–perspective is everything and I think that those with the "right" answer could have used some of yours. [perspective].

  6. When I was in college I took a class in literature. The professor was the same way; arrogant. We'd interpret poems, short stories, etc., and he would pronounce whether we were "right" or "wrong". I worked hard in all my classes, and was used to getting A's or B's. However, in this class, before the final exam, I had a 36%. Guess I didn't get it "right" much of the time! The final exam was more of the same. Interpret 3 stories for credit. That was it. I started writing my interpretation of the first story, then, out of frustration, ran a big X through it. I turned the exam over, wrote the professor a scathing letter about what I thought about his grading practices and the class, handed it in and walked out – knowing I failed. When I received my grades I was amazed. He had given me a C.

  7. What is brave about posting on a blog? It is fun to read, and there really is some good stuff in here but come on – some commenters on here are so obsequious.

    Some 'blog' to vent, hone their writing or be part of a community. There are people who do not use this type of forum for personal issues as the number of asshol@s in the internet ether are legion. I will say it takes cajones to enable that comment button and not edit some of the virulent personal attacks. I know I'd slam that delete key in a second.

  8. I know you closed comments on your last post but I read your blog because you are brutally honest, even in moments of weakness (like when drunk). I read some of the comments about how can you be like so in one post and so in another; well this is how people are, we go back and forth, we waiver, and whoever can't see that is obtuse.

    I love your honesty and it is one of the best things about your (already fabulous) writing.

  9. You don't need to defend yourself; it's your life and you need to do what works for you. Disable the comments permanently if it helps. If you don't want to do that, it might be because you do want input, in a way. But consider how any of our lives would look with unsolicited, anonymoys comments following our actions or thoughts; we'd all be doubting, or tearfully/angrily defending ourselves. Including, or especially, the ones saying the cruelest things.

  10. It's the push and pull of intimate love that keeps us really feeling. I truly understand that when it gets too close, too unbelievably real (and good) it's too scary… we need to remind ourselves of the loss- the "what if" he looks elsewhere. We pull back to protect ourselves- so that we have control over the trust, the loss or the "what ifs." When we are ready to push in is when we feel secure and safe. You're not impulsive Stephanie (comment from yesterday), you're moving closer… the stakes are higher.

  11. Dear Stephanie:

    Reading this confirms for me even more my belief in evolutionary psychology.

    Our brains have been formed not by modern cell phone, DSL, speed-dating culture, but by 100,000 years of living off the dangerous savana where a large carnivirous cat could swipe us away from the group, pull us into a tree and eat us alive. Even later when we crossed the frozen tundra into Alaska from Asia and set up shop here in America, the possibility of death was enormous.

    Saying this, and taking into account a woman's smaller size and inability to flee quickly when pregnant, it is no wonder that women evolved to WANT AND NEED a man AT ALL TIMES! Women in the neolithic period learned that if that didn't happen, you died!

    We vilify women for this and call them dependent or worse dependent personality disordered, but in reality, these women (re: Stephanie) are perhaps the most in touch with their inherited ancestral roots.


  12. My god I am just shocked that someone in your post yesterday I think said you should break up with your fiance.
    Insanity. Funny for a second, that someone deigns give relationship input (riiight) and she/he/IT deems your relationship unhealthy. So odd. The comments are interesting to read as usually someone has something salient to say, and it is fun to hear what people all think. But yikes, lets all refrain from doling out recycled Dr. Phil soundbites, shall we?

  13. One of the reasons I stopped writing in my journal many years ago is because one day a friend found it and read it and told my parents they thought I was suicidal. And looking back years later, I would probably have made the same diagnosis of myself if my only basis for judgement was the journal. In fact, I really was quite happy at the time and had no thoughts of self harm of any sort. For me, writing in a journal was about letting all of the depressed feelings out, being able to look over the writing and sort through my emotions to move on with my life. I never really wrote when I was happy because there was no need to sort through my happiness to make sense of it.

  14. don't worry so much about whether or people misunderstand you. we are all misunderstood. shrug it off, as usual. people will say what they want to, for their own reasons…

  15. As a fellow "English" person (English major, was my favorite class, etc) I couldn't believe when reading that post that they declared you wrong for your interpretation. Fortunately throughout my career I had teachers who would encourage all our different thoughts, etc and then share with us what the general interpretation was. Which I think is what you've done by allowing all the different comments, etc to be shared after you post. You let everyone have their own interpretations and don't stifle them, and when you have to you comment as well clearning the air. Way to be.

  16. I read your blog every day, and not once have I felt that your relationship with Phil was unhealthy or bad for you. On the contrary, you have found someone who really seems to understand, accept, and love every part of you. We should all be so lucky.

    It's funny that you handled the topic this way, because just yesterday, after reading your previous post, I thought, "Some of these people really need to work on their reading comprehension."

  17. Stephanie,

    As a writer you have to just put yourself out there and let the chips fall where they may. I love reading your blog everyday, but I would never presume to know you well enough to give judgement. As readers of your blog we get to see a tiny, personal portion of you, certainly not your entire soul. You do a great job of writing from a place of honesty and letting us all scramble to piece the puzzle together. I'm addicted to this blog! Take care, Stephanie.

  18. From what I can tell concerning writing, the left wing or centre tend to allow for more open interpretation than the right will tend to allow. This inclination on the part of the left is known as death of the author — and there is an interesting academic squabble going on here

    wherein the left and right seem to be staking their boundary claims within the realm of literature.

  19. In the end, anyone who comments have been hit by you. A chord was struck so much so that they turn this monologue into a dialogue.

    I got to admit though, when I read posts that try and close your emotional vents I get nervous. I hope you you never veer from your style and know that it's addictive. Your honesty and vulnerablity is simply like delicious. Even the sour ones. Looks like you're smart enough to already know all this, after all you were smart enough to close comments on your previous 'drunk' post. Clever..and cute.

    Stephanie Klein seems so New York but then again I haven't been to Austin so maybe that'll be you too.

  20. You write: "I thought that was the point of writing, that everyone interpret what he or she will".

    Anything that you post on this blog is open to interpretation by anyone else who reads it. Unless you shut down the comments section, you will continue to receive a mix of positive and negative comments – what is so wrong with that?

    Why worry about whether or not people are misinterpreting you? They're reading your writing, isn't that the point?

  21. "I thought that was the point of writing, that everyone interprets what he or she will".

    To a point. While I would say there is never a "right" interpretation of a piece of literature, there are certainly wrong ones— ones out of left field, ones bringing things to the text that just aren't there. (I'm speaking generally here, not trying to say anything here about your interpretation of the poem.) Outside of that, we can talk about different points of view, or maybe of interpretations that are more or less productive, or insightful, or elegant than others… but not "right".

    That's in talking about literature, though. What you're doing here is different — journal, memoir, autobiography? It might be useful for you to think more specifically about genre and audience, and about what you're doing with this.

  22. why did that poem only have one correct interpretation?
    that's what's troubling about high school. :)
    good on ya for continuing to interpret things on your own terms. everyone'll always have opinions

  23. write for yourself, not for the positive or negative feedback you might receive.

    if you feel like people are misinterpreting your ideas and thoughts, you might want to reevalute the words you are using.

    as a new reader of your blog, i will say that my first impression of your current relationship based on things that you have written, is one that is not healthy. in fact, it reminds me of the emotional abuse that i lived through while i was married.

    take that for what it is… not advice, just my unfettered opinion.

    be well.


  24. I think I'd agree that your interpretation was incorrect, but in this case, I'd defend to death your right to be incorrect. If poetry, or art, or music, was only open to one interpretation, it wouldn't be art, it would be math.

    I had the same experience about a Frost poem, Riding in Woods(?). My interepretation was correct, and the teacher was incorrect. But none of that matters. Unless the author says which one is correct, then I do not see how my interpretation, or your's, is any less valid than anyone else's.

  25. I think that readers often project their own feelings, thoughts or experiences onto whatever they're reading – and that certainly seems to be the case with this blog.

    On the other hand, this is a personal blog and thus, by definition, an autobiography of sorts. If you feel that your readers are misinterpreting your point of view then you should consider how you are presenting this information. Ultimately it is the responsibility of the writer to get the point across – particularly when describing actual people or events.

  26. One minute you're picking out baby names, the next minute cowboy boots then the next minute you're casting doubt on it all. Sounds like you got something not good, not bad, but real.

    I'll take the bad, so long as it's real.

  27. the one and only reason i will ever refrain from publishing anything i truly love is fear that someone will pigeonhole it. i want to be sure that my work can be interpreted by anyone in any way. that if they love it or hate it they see it through their eyes.

    that's what writing is about. that's what writing is for.

  28. that poem is about violence…and domestic abuse. and the complex relationship of father and son.

  29. i used to talk to my close friends about my relationship and share EVERYTHING. i like to talk through things – to share my passion and elation and to vent my sadness, my loneliness, my frustration. then i realized that what i was sharing was generally fleeting but the interpretation by most of my friends stuck. i talked to my friends because i wanted to get out of my head and because i needed comfort. but i didn't need judgement which was often what i found i got. so i stopped. i started writing it down. i found a friend or two who live the way i do, who i could vent to unconditionally. who understood that i am in love and in it for the long haul but that i needed to talk it out.

    the only person who can evaluate the quality of your relationship is you. some people will tell you that the feelings you have – the highs and the lows – are not normal or healthy. i disagree. what is normal anyhow? you feel things deeply. you are vulnerable and open and that leaves room to get hurt. all of the beautiful qualities that make you alive and you are the same things that sometimes breed insecurity. not everyone loves the same way, feels the same way, lives the same way. not all relationships work the same way.

    i say bravo for being honest. i don't believe for a second that everyone in the world doesn't have those moments of questioning, of insecurity, of loneliness. but i do believe that not everyone is brave enough to admit it.

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