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contained “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” perhaps his most famous poem. His first
novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), won the Harmon Gold Medal for literature.
He is remembered for his celebration of the uniqueness of African American
culture, which found expression in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”
(1926), published in the Nation, and in the poem “My People.” He also wrote
children’s poetry, musicals, and opera. This poem, “Mother to Son,” expresses
a mother’s advice to her son with its famous refrain, “Life for me ain’t been no
crystal stair.”
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor —
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now —
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Exploring the Text
1. What is the overall message the mother is trying to convey to her son?
2. Based on details in the poem, how would you characterize the mother?
3. The poem’s speaker employs an extended metaphor to explain her life to her son.
What do you think the “crystal stair” symbolizes (l. 2)? Why do you think the
poet has chosen to repeat this image in the final line? What might the details of
tacks, splinters, landings, and corners represent? What does the inclusion of these
images suggest about the mother’s relationship with her son?
4. What effect do colloquial expressions and dialect have on your understanding of
the speaker? What effect do they have on the meaning of the poem?
5. How old is the son being addressed? Does he seem to be at some sort of crossroads? Cite specific textual evidence to support your viewpoint.
6. Is the mother in this poem lecturing, apologizing, advising, pleading, showing
affection, criticizing? How would you characterize the tone of the poem?
7. Even though the poem is presented without stanza breaks, there are “turns,” or
shifts. What are they? Try reciting or performing the poem; where would you
emphasize the pauses? How do these breaks influence or emphasize meaning?
My Papa’s Waltz
Theodore Roethke
Theodore Roethke (1908–1963) was born in Saginaw, Michigan. His early
years spent in the family greenhouse business brought him close to nature and
to his father, who died suddenly when Roethke was fifteen, a loss that looms
large in the poem “My Papa’s Waltz.” After graduating from the University of
Michigan, he did brief stints at law school and at Harvard University before the
Great Depression compelled him to find work teaching at Lafayette College.
He continued to teach throughout his life. Roethke first became popular after
favorable reviews for Open House in 1941. He then won numerous prizes for
his work throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including National Book Awards
for both Words for the Wind (1957) and The Far Field (1964). The meeting of
the mystical and the natural is at the center of his work — a meeting that fascinated such earlier poets as Blake and Wordsworth, both of whom were strong
influences on Roethke’s poetry. “My Papa’s Waltz” is his most famous, and oftinterpreted, poem.
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.
Exploring the Text
1. How would you characterize the relationship between the father and the son in
this poem?
2. Consider the two figures of speech in the poem: the simile of “hung on like death”
(l. 3) and the metaphor of “waltzing” throughout the poem. What do they add to
the story line of the poem? Imagine, for instance, if the title were changed to “My
Papa” or “Dancing with My Father.”
3. How do you interpret the lines “My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown
itself ” (ll. 7–8)? Is she angry? jealous? worried? frightened? disapproving? Why
doesn’t she take action or step in?
4. Manuscripts show that Roethke started writing this poem as a portrait of a daughter and her father. Explain why you think having a girl at the center of this poem
would or would not affect your response to it.
5. What is the effect of the regular rhyme and rhythm scheme of the poem? In what
ways does it mimic a waltz?
6. Some interpret this poem to be about an abusive father-son relationship, while
others read it quite differently. How do you interpret it? Use textual evidence from
the poem to explain your reading.
Those Winter Sundays
Robert Hayden
Born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit, Michigan, Robert Hayden (1913–1980)
was raised both in a dysfunctional family and in an equally dysfunctional foster home just next door. The turmoil of his childhood was complicated by his
extreme nearsightedness, which excluded him from most activities other than
reading. Hayden attended Detroit City College (now Wayne State University)
before studying under W. H. Auden in the graduate English program at the
University of Michigan. In 1976, he was appointed consultant in poetry to the
Library of Congress, a post that was the forerunner to that of poet laureate.
His first volume, Heart-Shape in the Dust (1940), took its voice from the Harlem
Renaissance and impressed W. H. Auden with its originality. Later work continued to garner critical praise, including his epic poem on the Amistad mutiny,