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Images of Father: A Look at the Employment of Imagery in Three Poems

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Images of Father:

A Look at the Employment of Imagery in Three Poems

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     Imagery is a powerful tool that can make or break any literary piece. With careful employment, it can translate the exact experience the author wants to the reader. This paper is a brief discussion of the usage of imagery by three authors of varying writing styles in conveying the nature of the rather dysfunctional parent-child relationships seen in their poems. The author of this essay maintains that in all three literary pieces, imagery is the key in setting the mood and the tone of the works; it is likewise responsible for the powerful depiction of the emotions and perspectives that are at work within the matrix of familial relationships.

     Three poems are read and considered in this essay: Suzanne Berger’s “The Meal”, Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”, and Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”. As aforementioned, there are two relevant similarities seen by the author in all three works: (1) the depiction of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship, and (2) the effective use of imagery to portray the nature of such relationships.

The following paragraphs in this essay are devoted to exploring the imagery in the poems individually, beginning with Berger’s “The Meal”.

The imagery in the poem “The Meal” is very powerful, in the sense that the reader is taken to the world of the family itself, and becomes almost a voyeur. The feeling is strongly reminiscent of the “fly-on-the-wall” approach to prose, where the reader becomes an observer, and the characters become objects of study. That said, the poem is more a description of a family that has seen happier days than anything else: “They are waiting for a happiness to lift their eyes, / like sudden light flaring in the trees outside.”

The language employed by the author evokes the sense of sight primarily, what with the author’s vivid presentation of the children, as seen in most lines of the poem:

They have washed their faces until they are pale,

their homework is beautifully complete.

They wait for the adults to lean towards each other.

The hands of the children are oval

and smooth as pine-nuts.

     The role of imagery in this particular poem is two-fold. First, imagery is employed by the author to depict the absence of happiness in the family. Berger did this by painting an image of a family sharing a meal on a Sunday, sans the positive emotions people usually associate with it. In contrast to the loud chatter and the laughter one normally assigns to Sunday family get-togethers, Berger offered this bleak picture of the children:

Their forks move across their plates without scraping,

they wait for the milk and the gravy

at the table with its forgotten spices.

     Imagery was likewise used not only to describe but to highlight the dysfunctional nature of the relationship between the parents and the children. This function is seen most in the following lines: “The white miles of the meal continue, / the figures still travel across a screen.” Not only did Berger use imagery to show the lack of warmth in the family; she highlighted it by making use of a phrase that evokes ideas of distance and non-interaction.

     Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” differs from the two pieces under scrutiny in the sense that it does not provide – or evoke to the reader immediately – a direct image of a dysfunctional relationship between a father and his child. What is present is an undertone of violence underneath the sweet pretense of a waltz, a glimpse of which is given to the reader by these two lines: We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf.

     In a sense the reader is taken on a journey of contradiction. The author has masterfully played not only with words but with the reader’s mind: there is a waltz, and there isn’t. What is meant by this? Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” evokes images of dance and violence. With regard to the former, the elements of the dance come into play in the entire poem – the holding of the hand, the image of the child holding on to “daddy” as he/she is “waltzed off”, the sly use of the word “beat” in the last stanza. And yet, there are snippets – fragments of imagery – that evoke scenes of violence.

Perhaps, the employment of imagery pertaining to the dance waltz was not meant to tone down the abuse inherent in the poem but to offer to the reader a new, albeit skewed perspective: that of the child, whose innocence acted as a salve that glossed over the image of his drunk father in a fit of violence. The role of imagery in this particular case, then, is to give the reader the opportunity to “see” abusive relationships through the unspoiled eyes of a child.

     Imagery has always played a key role in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, and her work “Daddy” is no exception. Although knowledge of her life and writing style is invaluable in understanding her poem “Daddy” (as it pertains to her relationship with her father at the forefront and her husband in its latter lines), her skillful use of figurative language is enough to afford any reader the same experience that may hold for Plath’s initiated audience. “Daddy” is painted black by images of decay and references to the Holocaust: macabre metaphors classic of Sylvia Plath that convey to the reader a strong feeling of hatred harbored by the child to her father. Plath’s analogy of “daddy” to the Germans and herself to the Jews is one of the more potent conveyors of the ill feelings that reside in the parent-child relationship:

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

     The repercussions of a dysfunctional relationship even after the death of the father in the poem was likewise explored by Plath: in the poem there were references to her own failed marriage and, more importantly, to her own troubles in life.

     In conclusion, imagery is a potent tool that when used skillfully, can evoke in the reader memories – as seen in Berger’s “The Meal”; offer new perspectives, as in “My Papa’s Waltz”; and elicit feelings, as in “Daddy”.


Cite this Images of Father: A Look at the Employment of Imagery in Three Poems

Images of Father: A Look at the Employment of Imagery in Three Poems. (2016, Oct 15). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/images-of-father-a-look-at-the-employment-of-imagery-in-three-poems/

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