‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano’ by B.H. Fairchild is from his larger collection of poems titled The Art of the Lathe, published in 1998.
The poem uses extended metaphors to draw a contrast between and, eventually, connect a daughter to her father, who operates lathes professionally. Ultimately, sounds and gestures, like those of playing the piano, are the best way that they can communicate with each other.
Explore The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano
‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano’ is a free verse poem about a lathe operator who connects with his daughter by teaching her to play the piano.
The speaker in ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano’ is unspecified. Still, they speak as if they are watching two people, the machinist and his daughter, as they are practicing different skills in separate spaces.
The speaker describes the machinist’s dirty hands in stanza one, emphasizing their roughness and delicate position. Stanza two switches focus to the daughter, who mimics the father’s hand positions while learning to play the piano.
This contrasts the father and daughter and highlights the similarities between playing the piano and turning metal on a lathe.
Stanzas three through five, written in italics, describe the machinist as he loads and powers up the lathe, producing a rumbling, clanging sound. Then, finally, the machinist begins to turn the metal and, meanwhile, lights a cigarette, reflecting on his memories of learning to play the piano.
Then, the speaker compares the sounds and motions of the machinist and the voice and gestures of the daughter, explaining that both people create art in very similar ways.
The speaker closes by explaining that “one night,” the daughter speaks to her father, but she is not talking to him. Instead, she is speaking to an invisible listener who exists between them.
This listener ties the daughter and her father together, and it stands in for the work that both the machinist and daughter do and the audience of the music they create together.
In ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano,’ the most dominant themes are parenting, communication, beauty, and music.
The role of the machinist is to mold or shape metal, but in his relationship with his daughter, he is responsible for molding her into a successful person.
As a parent, the machinist is distant and silent, but the daughter still mimics her father’s hand positions as she learns to play the piano. This emphasizes that the daughter, though she is not working on the lathe with her father, just wants to be more like her dad.
With no verbal contact between the daughter and the machinist, they communicate best with sounds and images, rarely speaking to one another. The hand positions, sounds, actions, and gestures are the only way the father and daughter know how to communicate with each other.
The daughter and the father in this poem live in vastly different worlds. The daughter lives in a world of beauty and gentleness, while the father works grinding iron, where the clangs and ringing sounds of metal fill the room.
The contrast between these worlds creates barriers between the young, female, domestic daughter and her hardworking, machinist father. However, ultimately, it is art, music, and gestures that bring them together.
Form and Structure
Each stanza’s second line is indented, creating an excellent example of verbal imagery.
These lines are staggered like piano keys, with the middle line representing the black sharps and flats on a piano. In addition, they create a shape that resembles a lathe, with the indented middle line representing the chuck — the part of the lathe where you attach the piece of metal you intend to turn.
Stanzas three through five are all italicized, which makes them stand out. This stylistic choice also gives these stanzas more of an elevated style, even though they describe how the father starts to load and turn metal on the lathe.
‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano’ by B.H. Fairchild is from the poet’s book, The Art of the Lathe, published in 1998.
Fairchild’s father dropped out of high school young to help support his parents, becoming a lathe operator in his teens. He continued his career as a machinist for the rest of his life.
As a child in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas, B.H. Fairchild often went to work with his father to watch the lathe run. This poem, as well as The Art of the Lathe as a whole, explores the conditions in which machinists worked in the midwest, pulling on the poet’s observations and experiences as a spectator and as a child.
Regarding his family life, Fairchild is quoted as saying:
Ours was a fairly typical blue-collar family, though my parents worked very hard to pull us up into the middle class, to own their own home, to help send us to college – the story of an entire generation, I think.
Accordingly, ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano’ is loosely based on Fairchild’s father. Beyond its most superficial reading, the poem is about the sacrifices that Fairchild’s father made to support his family and offer a better life for his children – a life in which his children could become artists instead of machinists.
Some of the most notable literary devices in ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano’ are:
- Juxtaposition – The juxtaposition of the daughter and her father creates contrast in this poem, revealing the differences between the father’s bleak life as a lathe operator and the daughter’s passion for music.
- Imagery – This poem is loaded to the brim with imagery. An example is “The brown wrist and hand with its raw knuckles and blue nails” of line one, which creates a vivid image of the machinist’s hand.
- Metaphor – This poem is one of the best examples of what a poet can do with a metaphor. Fairchild uses metaphor to compare playing the piano to carving metal with a lathe. However, he also uses metaphor to compare the machinist to the lathe and compare the daughter to the metal that the lathe carves. Still, there are even more metaphors than that in this poem.
- Simile – Fairchild uses a simile to compare the machinist’s memories of an “impossible counterpoint” to the voice of his daughter (“the polonaise he learned at ten, / then later the easiest waltzes, / etudes, impossible counterpoint / like the voice of his daughter he overhears one night”).
- Alliteration – Fairchild frequently uses alliteration to complement the imagery he creates, as in the phrase “then lugs it into the lathe’s chuck.”
The brown wrist and hand with its raw knuckles and blue nails
packed with dirt and oil, pause in mid-air, the fingers arched delicately,
Stanza one of ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano’ opens with a description of the machinist’s hands, which are tough, rugged, and filthy.
Though the speaker seems to be watching the machinist, they never get a name or give away anything about themselves. Instead, they are in the middle of everything, as if floating around and focusing the listener’s attention on what matters most.
In stanza one, the listener also gets a glimpse of the importance of line division and punctuation in ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano.’
As the machinist’s hand pauses in mid-air, the poet inserts commas and a line break, placing a verbal pause right as the hand stops. In addition, since the hand pauses in mid-air, the poet introduces a line break to create distance between the floor and the machinist’s hand.
These stylistic choices create the dynamic imagery at the heart of this poem.
and she mimics him, hand held just so, the wrist loose,
She lifts her hand and tries again.
In stanza two, the speaker shifts their focus to the machinist’s daughter, who tries to make the same shape with her hands as her father. However, she messes up and tries again.
By placing the daughter in stanza two and describing the motion of her hand as “swooping down,” the poet manipulates the words so that the daughter seems lower in position than her father. Following the emphasis on imagery and position in this poem, the daughter looks up to her father, both literally and figuratively.
She replicates his hand positions but is so focused on the shape of his hands that she strikes the wrong chord. This stanza, then, illustrates how concentrated the daughter is on her father and how she wants to be like him.
Drill collars rumble, hammering the nubbin-posts.
then lugs it into the lathe’s chuck.
Stanza three of ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano’ introduces an italicized section of stanzas that focus directly on the machinist as he works at the lathe. These stanzas function like a flashback, or a flash-aside, to a day at work for the machinist.
Here, drill collars make a rumbling sound, hammers strike pieces of material onto the faceplates of the lathes, and a helper, or a crane-like structure that lifts heavy materials, slides around to place a piece of material onto the lathe for turning.
However, many of these details of how the workshop functions are left out. Instead of naming the material that the machinist is working with, it is “one” or “it.” It also seems as if no one is working these machines. Instead, “the helper lifts one,” as if the device was human and could do the work by itself.
This vagueness makes the entire workshop come alive as if the machines are at work around the machinist. Instead of speaking, they “rumble” and make “hammering” sounds to communicate.
Additionally, there’s no use in trying to speak words in this workshop. The machines are far too loud already. Thus, the machinist remains silent.
These machines are the third ‘character’ in ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano.’ While the daughter emulates the machinist, the machinist emulates these machines in many ways.
The machinist’s “brown wrist and hand with its raw knuckles and blue nails” are similar to the “nubbin-posts” and metal “drill collars.”
The way he “pause[s] in mid-air, / the fingers arched delicately,” in stanza one is similar to how “The helper lifts one, turning it slowly, / then lugs it into the lathe’s chuck.”
The bit shears the dull iron into new metal, falling
and the machinist lights a cigarette, holding
In stanza four, the speaker describes the sounds and motions of the lathe as it spins and slices away the iron. However, following the comparison between the machinist and the workshop in stanza three, this section focuses on how the father sees his child.
Just like how the lathe “shears dull iron into new metal,” the machinist’s daughter molds her hand into the shape of her father’s as he teaches her to play the piano.
In this metaphor, the “dull iron” is like the machinist’s battered, dirty hands. The daughter, however, by mimicking the shape of her father’s hand, is the “new metal, falling / into the steady chant of lathe work.”
The verb “falling” also parallels the daughter’s motions, “swooping down to the wrong chord.” By creating this similarity here, the poet implies that “the steady chant of lathe work” is the “wrong chord” for the machinist — and for his daughter.
This implication reveals that the machinist is unhappy with his work at the lathe. It seems that he is not satisfied with this life, but it is a ceaseless grind that he cannot quit, like a repetitive chant or a lathe spinning without end.
The stanza’s last line, “the machinist lights a cigarette, holding” deliberately cuts the statement short. Whatever he is holding is already far away, as the stanza break implies.
in his upturned palms the polonaise he learned at ten,
etudes, impossible counterpoint
In stanza five of ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano,’ the machinist’s empty hands still hold the memories of when he learned to play the piano as a child.
Interestingly, the machinist first remembers a polonaise he learned and the easiest waltzes. Both of these styles of music are written to a ¾ time, similar to how each stanza has three lines.
Then, the machinist remembers the “impossible counterpoint” of the etudes he tried to learn.
Etudes are collections of music written to help teach people the piano. Each composition increases in complexity, offering a guidebook for mastery of the piano. However, by noting that the counterpoint was impossible, the poet reveals that the machinist had difficulty playing two separate melodies simultaneously.
This counterpoint is not only about music. It is also about how the machinist struggles to work with other people and connect with his daughter.
like the voice of his daughter he overhears one night
to herself but not herself, as in prayer,
In stanza six, the speaker compares the voice of the machinist’s daughter to the machinist’s “impossible counterpoint.”
Following this metaphor and simile, the song that the machinist could never learn to play is just like his daughter’s voice. Like the nature of a counterpoint, the daughter has her own distinct melody, while the machinist has his, but the machinist has not found a way for the two of them to coexist.
This comparison creates a stark difference between the machinist and his daughter, further emphasizing how different his daughter’s life is from his.
The daughter is “standing in the backyard” alone, unlike the machinist, who exists in a whirring world of machinery. The daughter is free from all the pressures of work and metal, while the machinist has practically become a machine.
These differences between the daughter and the machinist have driven them apart, as the girl speaks to no one as if she were praying.
the listener is some version of herself,
self-consciously: Chopin, Mozart,
In stanza seven of ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano,’ the listener finally gets more insight into how the daughter behaves and thinks.
She speaks to a different version of herself, referring to the “impossible counterpoint” that the machinist could never learn. While the daughter has a melody separate from her father’s, she also has an alternate version of herself, or an alternate melody, that she can talk to.
This alternate version of herself is a metaphor for her dreams and aspirations, which explains why the machinist could never play two melodies at once. Unlike her father, the daughter can see an image of herself beyond machinery and her house.
On the other hand, the father can only fall into the drone of machinery or look into the past.
She “carefully, self-consciously” names several famous composers to herself as if rehearsing for a speech. These names are a metaphor for the music she plays on the piano, and as she recites them, she expresses her wish for a life where she is a pianist.
Scarlatti., . . . these gestures of voice and hands
that move like the lathe in its turning
In stanza six, After finishing the sentiments of stanza five, the speaker pauses with an ellipsis to show a thoughtful, purposeful shift of perspective, zooming out to look at the scene. Here, the speaker finally attempts to tell the listener what is going on in this poem, but only partially articulates it.
The speaker, like the machinist, will never be able to fully articulate the meaning behind the sounds of the machinery, the relationship between father and daughter, the relationship between the father and the machine, or the relationship between hands and sound.
To both the speaker and the poet, only music can express these things.
Stanza six also formally introduces a simile and metaphor that we have been following throughout the poem, connecting the father and daughter’s “gestures of voice and hands,” the spinning lathe, and music.
The stanza ends with the line “that move like the lathe in its turning,” yet again building up suspense, creating distance, and painting a verbal image with a stanza break. The verb “turning” sends the listener to the first line of the next stanza, rolling their eyes back across the page.
toward music, the wind dragging the hoist chain, the ring
His daughter speaks to him one night,
In stanza nine, the speaker lists some sounds that turn into music. Sounds such as the wind pressing against a chain and the ring of clanging iron get special treatment here, as both reflect the entire web of relationships that this poem explores.
For example, while the hoist chain is a loop that turns like the lathe when one pulls it with their hands, the poet describes the sound of iron on iron in the holding rack as a “ringing” sound.
In these examples of music, the following things meet: hands, gestures, sound, metal, confinement, and circles. While these lines emphasize the cyclical rhythm of sounds in this poem, the speaker still has more to say.
The last line of the stanza, “His daughter speaks to him one night,” implies that the machinist and his daughter rarely speak but that she is breaking the silence between them. In addition, by talking, she is breaking the cycle of the lathe, the ringing iron, and the hoist chain.
but not to him, rather someone created between them,
a master of lathes, a student of music.
In the final stanza of ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano,’ the listener never gets to hear what the daughter says to her father.
Instead, the speaker explains that, although she speaks to her father, she is really speaking to someone invisible. This invisible addressee implies that she is talking to the audience, who has been listening to the music that she and her father have made together during this poem.
However, this audience only exists because the daughter has broken the silence and given someone something to listen to.
The meaning of ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano’ is that music can connect people and express thoughts and emotions better than words. Through the use of sound, Fairchild finds ways to reveal the father’s despair and nostalgia while also expressing the daughter’s freedom and innocence.
The speaker in ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano’ is never specified. The speaker functions a bit like a camera in this poem, focusing, zooming in, and zooming out to push the listener’s attention to the images that matter most in the poem. The use of sound also forces the listener to focus on the music of the poem.
The tone in ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano’ is detached, yet it still conveys emotions of despair, nostalgia, longing, and love between the father and daughter. Through the father’s machine-like perspective, everything in the poem almost becomes a machine, humming and ringing like the lathe. This creates contrast and a sad mood when the father attempts to interact with the daughter.
The third through fifth stanzas are italicized in ‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano’ to create a flashback or a change of setting to the workshop where the machinist works. In addition, the italics elevate the scene and function as a way to illustrate that the sounds of the workshop matter most.
‘The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano’ by B.H. Fairchild is one of hist best-known works due to its masterful use of metaphor and the deep, complex emotions that it conveys through the use of sound.
If you appreciated Fairchild’s style and topics in this poem, you might enjoy:
- ‘Spring and All’ by William Carlos Williams – an American modernist poem about the desolation left behind after World War I.
- ‘I Am In Need of Music’ by Elizabeth Bishop – a poem that describes the calming embrace of music.
- ‘Piano’ by D.H. Lawrence – an emotional poem about how music can remind one of a specific time or place.