The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639

“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.

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“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 boy might hear it from the floor above. The word means “why” in German.

The third stanza presents the third floor—the attic, which contains a trunk referred to as one “whose lock a boy could pick.” Inside are a hat (specifically a “red Masonic hat”) and a walking stick. By the end of the stanza, the reader has not been told to whom these items belong, but there is a strong suspicion that it might be the father, who has until now been absent from the poem. This raises the question of why the objects are locked away. The final stanza recalls how the boy, after pretending to be asleep, sits “bolt upright” in bed and sees his father “flying.” The final two lines are almost surreal: “the wind was walking on my neck,/ the windowpanes were crying.” Obviously, there is a storm, and the boy, with the kind of hallucinatory vision that comes from a combination of darkness and fear and desire, sees everything in a new way. Because wind does not walk and windowpanes do not cry, the reader realizes that the father’s flying is also the product of the child’s imagination. The reader is left to assume that the father’s absence is due to death or desertion and that the boy’s need for a father leads him to the moment when, in the midst of the stormy night, he can actively conjure his presence.

In sixteen lines, “Three Floors” has peopled the house with ghosts: The mother is sensed but not seen, the sister is remembered as a scrap of song, and the few vestiges of the father are locked in a trunk. The small boy is literally caught in the middle between the past (his father’s loss) and the future (his sister’s marriage, his own manhood). The poet re-creates the various claims on his affections as he presents the immediate moment of the poem—the darkness and the visionary sight of his father flying. His private thoughts are depicted as turbulent, guilty, and psychologically necessary. The reader is drawn into the poem’s emotional complex in such a way that childhood itself, with all its confusions, is awakened in memory.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

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 sitting room to attic, then returns, full circle, to the bedroom. The “characters” shift as well, moving from mother to sister to trunk to father. The sight of the mother behind the open slit of doorway gives way to a kind of wild, visionary experience in which the father is seen to be equally real. Inside and outside become one. All distinctions are blurred, much as the moments before sleep blur reality and dream.

A blend of the literal and the metaphorical, “Three Floors” is filled with specific detail (such as the sound of the sister’s playing or the objects in the trunk) as well as the more ephemeral references to each individual parent. The mother becomes a “crack of light” and an “eye,” as though her essence could be summed up in those two images. Similarly, the wind and windowpanes are anthropomorphized so that they seem more human than the actual humans who inhabit the poem. Certain words take on collateral meaning: Both “bolt” and “crack” suggest the storm outside as well as the internal circumstances.

The final couplet creates a sense of closure by returning to the strict meter of the poem and, at the same time, by moving into the realm of fantasy. In this way, the make-believe sleep of the first stanza is contrasted with, and equated to, the wide-awake vision of the last. The poem thus feels complete in its metrical package even as it opens up a strange emotional world where nothing is quite what it seems.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 162

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