ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
When Roya Hakakian emigrated from Iran to the U.S., she didn't think any poet in her new country could top the ones she grew up with. Then she discovered Theodore Roethke. For our series You Must Read This, she tells us her story about Roethke's poem "My Papa's Waltz."
ROYA HAKAKIAN: An immigrant's arrival in America has a distinct physical beginning, marked by the landing of one's plane. But there's another arrival: the cultural one. Of the latter sort, the most memorable for me occurred nearly 20 years ago. I was still a new refugee, my heart's gaze fixed upon all that I'd left behind, upon Iran and the beloved language which, to the fledgling poet in me, meant everything.
My encounter with America had dwarfed me. Everything here was bigger, better or, as displayed on every shampoo bottle, at least 20 percent more. Except - and this was my sole consolation - for the treasury of poetry I carried in my head. Persian literature, with its ancient tradition of verse, was how I cured homesickness.
When feelings of inadequacy arose, I fought them, knowing that America, however great, could not match my country's peerless poetry. I'd rested in that certainty when a poem by Theodore Roethke unsettled me. It was called "My Papa's Waltz." It's a short poem, all of four stanzas. The first begins: The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy, but I hung on like death. Such waltzing was not easy.
The verse is spare and simple, as if the urgency of their meaning makes the use of every trope and device a hindrance. It is the absence of the ornate that lets the tragedy at the core of the poem shine so brilliantly. The effect of a great work of literature is often to unhinge its reader, to strip her of all previously cherished beliefs down to discomfiting nakedness.
Roethke's "Waltz" did just that. It abruptly unveiled to me everything that centuries of Persian poetry had not, to shift the focus from the outward life to the life at home. To portray the father, the most revered figure in the culture I knew, in a negative light - in essence, to question his credibility, his authority - Roethke had pulled the pedestal from beneath the taboo.
To me, someone whose most formative adolescent experience had been the Iranian Revolution of 1979, what Roethke had done was to conduct a revolution on the page, something that generations of Persian poets, who had elegantly written against the tyranny of their rulers, had never challenged.
Once, I arrived in America on an airplane. Later, I arrived deeper yet on the wings of Roethke's verse. Suddenly, I knew freedom in its most tangible and consequential way.
SIEGEL: The poem is "My Papa's Waltz." Roya Hakakian is the author of the book "Assassins of the Turquoise Palace."