The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Three Floors” is a short formal poem; divided into four rhyming stanzas, it resembles a ballad or hymn. The title suggests the interior of a house and raises the question of what is happening on each floor. The reader is thus led to expect some contrast or tension.

“Three Floors” is written in the past tense, evoking the memories of one specific night. It establishes an immediate emotional context by opening with the word “Mother.” The mother, however, is described only in metaphorical terms as “a crack of light/ and a gray eye peeping.” Instead of seeing or experiencing the mother, the reader is asked to have the visual experience of a small boy who is lying in bed at night, aware of his mother as a physical presence outside the door. There is a sense of intrusion. The “I” of the poem—the small boy speaking—breathes hard, pretending to be asleep. He refuses to acknowledge her or to respond. He will not allow her to pry into his thoughts.

The second stanza of the poem introduces another “floor,” downstairs, beneath the boy’s bedroom. This stanza begins with the word “Sister.” The house contains, at this point, a family. This stanza further expands the possible relationships, because the sister has a fiancé—a “doughboy,” or soldier—who has recently asked her to marry him. The boy listens as she plays the piano, one sound over and over, Warum. This might be the title of a popular tune of the time, but it certainly uses the device of onomatopoeia, reproducing the rumble of the piano as the...

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Three Floors Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Stanley Kunitz is a master craftsman, writing both formal and free verse. “Three Floors” is formal in that it has regular four-line, rhymed stanzas and a dominant iambic beat. Rhythm is one of the poem’s essential elements—Kunitz’s ear is so skillful that the variations in the strict iambic foot become a part of the meaning. In fact, the first line, “Mother was a crack of light,” is trochaic, opening the poem with a melancholy tone. It is not until the third line, with its rigidly metrical iambic tetrameter, that the basic rhythm of the poem is established.

From this point on, the poem is a study in variation. Alternating between four-and three-stress lines (with slight differences in syllabic count), each stanza is at once familiar and surprising. There is a contrast between the strong masculine end rhymes of “hand/grand” and “pick/stick” and the haunting feminine rhymes of “peeping/sleeping” and “flying/crying.” These variations call attention to themselves and help to establish meaning by forcing the reader to linger over certain words. For example, “whose lock a boy could pick” is iambic trimeter, but the strong beat is muted so that each word must be read in a slower, more measured cadence.

Over the solid warp of the poem—a strict stanzaic and rhythmical structure placed there to support the sweep of memory and imagination—the poem is a sea of shifting images and associations. It moves from bedroom to...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Three Floors Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Busa, Chris. “Stanley Kunitz: The Art of Poetry XXIX.” The Paris Review 24 (Spring, 1982): 204-246.

A Celebration for Stanley Kunitz: On His Eightieth Birthday. Riverdale-on-the-Hudson, N.Y.: Sheep Meadow Press, 1986.

Hagstrum, Jean H. “The Poetry of Stanley Kunitz: An Introductory Essay.” In Poets in Progress, edited by Edward B. Hungerford. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1967.

Hénault, Marie. Stanley Kunitz. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Kunitz, Stanley. Interview by Caroline Sutton. Publishers Weekly 228 (December 20, 1985): 67-68.

Kunitz, Stanley. “An Interview with Stanley Kunitz.” Interview by Cynthia Davis. Contemporary Literature 15 (Winter, 1974): 1-14.

Lundquist, Kent. “Stanley Kunitz.” In Encyclopedia of American Literature, edited by Steven R. Serafin. New York: Continuum Press, 1999.

Martin, Harry. “Warren and Kunitz: Poets in the American Grain.” The Washington Post Book World, September 30, 1979, 10.

Orr, Gregory. Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Ostroff, Anthony J., ed. The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964.

Shaw, Robert B. “A Book of Changes.” The New York Times Book Review, July 22, 1979, 1, 20.