Theodore Roethke and Robert Hayden.
Credit: Images courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" and Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" are widely-anthologized, contemporary American poems. Both poems also are featured in the EDSITEment-reviewed Library of Congress's "Favorite Poem Project," indicating Americans' love for these two powerful and moving poems about father-son relationships.
In this lesson, students will study both the content and the form of these two poems, closely analyzing how each poem's use of poetic devices helps to convey and emphasize the poem's meaning. Not only will this lesson enable students to analyze "Those Winter Sundays" and "My Papa's Waltz" in an in-depth way, it will provide them with a deeper understanding of certain poetic devices and the intricate relationship between a poem’s content and its form.
For many students, perhaps the most important first step in closely analyzing a poem is to hear and/or read the poem aloud. You might ask for one student volunteer to read "Those Winter Sundays," and then invite the class to listen to the audio clip of Roethke reading his poem "My Papa's Waltz."
You may want to focus students' attention on "Those Winter Sundays," perhaps reading the poem again before asking students the following introductory questions:
Now turn to "My Papa's Waltz," which you may wish to read again before asking students some similar introductory questions:
Ask students to point out specific details from "Those Winter Sundays" that led them to their assessment of the poem's meaning and, specifically, their description of the father/son relationship. Concentrating on the first stanza, ask students which words stand out when they hear the poem. Words that they will probably mention include
cracked hands that ached
banked fires blaze
Ask students what they notice about these words. Some students will notice the recurring hard "c" sounds using the poetic device of alliteration. You may want to point out that alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds in a sequence of words and that repetition of consonant sounds other places in a sequence of words is also called consonance. Ask students to identify other recurring hard "c" or "k" sounds:
Have a volunteer to read this list of words, before asking the following questions:
Some students will notice that these hard sounds mimic the sound of the fire that the father has started to warm the house before he wakes his son. The hard sounds also indirectly contribute to an impression of the father as, perhaps, somewhat harsh despite the lack of any direct mention in this stanza of a harsh father.
As an alternative activity, if students have access to a computer word processing program, ask them to copy and paste the poem into the document and use the highlighter and/or text coloring tools to highlight the alliteration and consonance in the poem. If students do not have access to enough computers during class, consider passing out copies of the poem and having them annotate the poem using highlighters or pens.
Now read the first three lines from the earlier version of "Those Winter Sundays," researched by Peter E. Murphy and available from the PBS series on poetry "Fooling with Words with Bill Moyers," a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed Modern American Poetry website (you may need to scroll down the page to find the earlier version, or press Control-F and enter "Those Winter Sundays" as the search term). (Note: you might consider making full copies of the early version available to your students in order to avoid scrolling through the lengthy website).
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the stiffening cold,
and then with hands cracked and aching.
Compare these lines to the final version:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
Ask students the following questions:
Now turn to the second stanza, and ask students to identify examples of consonance and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds). Discuss their examples in relation to the poem's content in the second stanza, and be sure to compare the final version to the earlier version. Ask students to discuss what Hayden might mean when he writes, "fearing the chronic angers of the house."
Ask students if this poem is written in a particular form. Some will notice that the poem is has some similarities to a sonnet, with a total of 14 lines (the earlier version has 15 lines), and concluding with the "turn" that usually appears in the traditional last two lines of a sonnet. Note, however, that the poem lacks the rhyme scheme and rhythm of a sonnet. Review the earlier version, and ask students to consider the effect the formal changes had on the poem:
Students might note that the repetition conveys a greater sense of regret that the speaker never thanked his father or appreciated, until presumably later, his father's manifestations of love. The sense of longing is clear after the father's perhaps distant yet constant show of affection (building the fire, polishing the shoes).
Revisit "My Papa's Waltz." Ask students the following questions:
Some students should pick up on the rhyme scheme, the shorter lines, the consistent stanzas, and fairly consistent meter within each line. The beat that students might hear is an iambic trimester, which mimics the triple time (three beats) of a waltz. If students have difficulty with this idea, remind them to reconsider the title of the poem. Some students, when measuring out beats, may notice that lines 2, 4, 10, 12, and 14 have an extra syllable. The extra syllable emphasizes the father's missteps and the fact that "Such waltzing was not easy." Point out the content of the seven-syllable lines and relation to the lines' form.
Ask students to map the rhyme scheme, which follows the pattern of abab, cdcd, efef, ghgh. Ask students the following questions:
If the class hasn't already watched the reader video about "My Papa's Waltz," available at the Favorite Poem Project, show it to them if possible. If you do not have video capability, ask students to consider the theme of "My Papa's Waltz." William Van Fields, the man who discussed this poem in the video, argues that the poem presents a father who is kind and fun, and he contrasts this with the reaction of his schoolteacher and classmates, who thought the poem was about an abusive relationship. Ask students to argue one side or the other, and require that they use evidence from the poem's text (content and form) to back up their claims.
Divide the class into 4-5 small groups. Have each group work together to turn each poem into a prose poem. Encourage students to replace words with synonyms and to use direct subject/verb prose sentences. They should eliminate stanzas, writing each poem as one block paragraph. Have each group read their revised prose poems aloud. For the literary background and significance, see the Academy of American Poet's definition of a prose poem.
Wrap up the class by discussing students' responses to the following general question:
1-2 class periods