This poem by Theodore Rothke, which Kurt Vonnegut included in the intro to Slaughterhouse Five.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear
I learn by going where I have to go.
I’ve always loved this one. But it’s actually not the first poem I think of when I think of Rothke. His My Papa’s Waltz, which details a young boy being bounced around the house by his drunken father, in late-night playfulness, drove me nuts in college. I had a professor who absolutely insisted that the poem was about child abuse. Because she could not imagine that a scene involving whiskey breath, an aggravated mother, and a dizzy little boy could possibly be a scene of love and warmth. We debated. It was community college, and most of my fellow classmates agreed with me. Our dads were like this. We got it.
But the prof never came round. She was one of those uppity types: condescending by nature and easily given to indignation. (Though to be fair to her, it turns out she is not the only person to have interpreted the poem this way. Also: she encouraged my writing).
Anyway: its just another thing about writing. Even the most concise and vivid descriptions are subject to misinterpretation. I suppose if there’s a lesson in it, it’s that carefulness and diligence aside, all you can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other. Because what else is there to do? Not the most profound revelation of the day, but it’s also the point of that three-liner. So there.
Here’s that other one. It’s from the Collected Poems of Theodore Rothke. You can decide for yourself:
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.
One thought on “On Theodore Rothke and misinterpretation.”
i love your thoughts about writing. i was with you that it was playful mucking about, then i got to the right ear, and almost switched lanes (not that i wanted to agree with your uppity teacher, oh no, not at all), but then i reread and now i’m almost certain the right ear is scraping against the belt buckle (loaded choice there — smart poet) as they are dancing and the little fellow, no taller than his dad’s belt buckle, is banging into the buckle as they clumsily try to dance….the poet walks the fine line — and isn’t that often how it must seem to a child? — between play and punishment, joy and cruelty…..and might that be the poet’s point? to leave us in the fog, to sift it out, only by gut and heart….