Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Three Floors” is one of several poems in which Stanley Kunitz mentions his father—or rather the felt absence of his father. The most famous of these are “Father and Son,” published in 1944, and “The Portrait,” which was collected in The Testing-Tree (1971) along with “Three Floors.” In the earliest of these poems, Kunitz searches for his drowned father beneath the surface of a pond, but the father turns a blank face to him. In the two later poems, the need for a father figure is contrasted with vivid memories of the mother—a mother who jealously and even angrily denies the child any access to his father.

Loss is at the heart of this poem. The mother is hardly real as she hovers on the other side of the door. The sister is soon to be lost, and the child is all too aware of her impending marriage. The father has never been there at all; he becomes a mystery to be solved. The child picks at the metaphorical lock of the family, hoping to discover his own identity. In the trunk, he finds only a hat that suggests a secret adult male society and a walking stick, with its implications of freedom and mobility. These powerful absences add up to a very real (if imagined) presence.

In the final stanza, the poem itself becomes a vehicle for the imagination, creating a father for the son. The child adds the possessive pronoun and the lowercase (“my father”—he cannot call him “Father”) as he wills him into being. The father is “flying,” though. Even as he is apprehended, he seems to be leaving. In a frenzy, the child perceives an elemental loss where the external world reflects his own amorphous grief.

Behind loss is a question: Warum—why? The sister plays the song, almost absentmindedly, on the piano, thinking of her soldier and the war. The question, along with its rhythm, pervades the poem, establishing a fatal sense that some things have no reason. The father’s death, the mother’s anger, the child’s internalized conflict—nothing makes sense. Without an answer, the child is fated to ask this question throughout his life. The imaginative act, then, is seen as a way of discovering meaning—of making a divided house, however briefly, whole.