How does line 3 in Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" reveal a deconstructible relationship between the 'you' and the 'I' in the poem?

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Michael Otis | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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The Formalist school of literary theory acknowledges that a text may contain unintentional ambiguities, but despite this, they serve a demonstrable purpose harmonized with the whole meaning of the poem. The Deconstructionist school claims the opposite: An ambiguity or contradiction in a text cannot be resolved to one of its possible meanings. It simply retains its unresolvability. Thus, a deconstructive critic is more attuned to the heterogeneous character of a literary work than is the formalist. Line 3 in Theodore Roethke's My Papa's Waltz  - "But I hung on like death" - is tailor-made for the deconstructive thesis. The line occurs in the first of the two mirthful stanzas of the poem: In word and meter, the poet presents a warm domestic memory of a clumsy but playful waltz with his inebriated father. Yet the ambiguity of line 3, whether placed intentionally or simply allowed to stand, casts an interpretive uncertainty over the whole poem. Are the father and the son - the 'you and I' intimated in the line - engaged in loving horseplay, as typified by the ordered steps of the waltz? Or is their 'dance' a kind of one-sided drunken brawl, reified in the simile "like death", where the father "beats" time with a "battered" hand on the boy's head? The formalist would answer that the ambiguous language is resolvable in the larger homey meaning of the poem. The deconstructionist would answer that too great a gulf exists between language and meaning - reified by numerous ambiguities and omissions - for the reader to come to any certainty about the ultimate meaning of the poem.      

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