This is a one-stanza poem about a happy memory that reveals the bittersweetness of life and our memories in the process. Using imagery, figurative language, and diction, the author depicts the very human nostalgia we have for our seemingly happy past. Revealing just how complicated and fogged our relationship with our own history can be.
Explore The Dancing
In ‘The Dancing’ by Gerald Stern the speaker remembers with intense bittersweetness a moment of celebration with their parents.
‘The Dancing’ is a poem about navigating the often complex relationships we have with where we find ourselves growing up, seen through a speaker reliving a memory of Pittsburgh during the latter half of the 20th century.
It opens with a few scattered images of the discarded items seen within the city’s “rotten shops,” cataloged by the speaker (with an air of resentment) to point out he’s never before found a “postwar Philco” (a type of radio) within any of them. The reason for this seemingly obscure observation is the fond memory it inspires for the speaker: of listening to Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro” back in 1945 inside the “tiny living room” of their childhood home. There, he danced with his mother and father — possibly celebrating V-E Day and the end of World War II. But that blissful memory is punctured by bittersweetness and entangles itself in the speaker’s equally complicated relationship with their hometown (“beautiful filthy Pittsburgh” they call it). He further underscores that feeling by juxtaposing two images of the city’s complexity, one that’s both home to the “evil Mellons” (a family known for its monopoly on aluminum during the war and as violent strike breakers) and this reinvigorating memory of the speaker’s family.
The final few lines allude to a similar dancing going on in Poland and Germany (where Stern’s parents emigrated from), ending on an ambiguous invocation of God that seems to be both a lament and an expression of gratitude.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘The Dancing’ is written in free verse and composed of nineteen lines in a single stanza without any definite rhyme scheme. Its line breaks contain examples of enjambment as they continue without a pause into the next line.
‘The Dancing’ uses a number of literary devices, including imagery and figurative language, to create an impression of the complex emotions that overtake the speaker. The images that open the poem create a depressing mood as the speaker peruses the objects within the shops, his diction emphasizing their view of the items as discarded rubbish. While the oxymoron “beautiful filthy Pittsburgh” also highlights the speaker’s complicated view of the city.
These feelings contrast with the memory inspired by the missing Philco, which begins the section of the poem that tries to recreate the joy of listening to Ravel’s music. The kinetic imagery of the family dancing (“hair streaming,” “red with laughter”) helps the reader visualize all the passionate and joyful sentiments the speaker has in regard to the memory. While the auditory imagery contained within phrases like “half drum” or the family’s “singing” and “screaming” alter the mood of the poem as it’s filled with emotion, movement, and music.
In this way, the memory and the dancing itself are symbols of the pined-for past that the speaker is remembering. Not only is it a fond memory of his parents, but it also coincided with V-E Day, a day on which much of the world was also celebrating (including the countrymen his parents left behind when they immigrated to the U.S.) and, as a result, signifies a period when all at least appeared right in the world. Although, like their bittersweet feelings towards Pittsburgh, the memory also drifts in thinking of the harsh realities of the war and the Holocaust. Highlighting one of the poem’s central themes that memories — although reliable and necessary to hold onto — are not always so much more perfect than the dreary present.
In all these rotten shops, in all this broken furniture
and wrinkled ties and baseball trophies and coffee pots
in 1945 in that tiny living room
The speaker is describing what they see inside the shops of a postwar Pittsburgh. But in viewing all the depressing junk, they explain that it’s what they don’t see that’s conjured up in their mind’s eye. In particular, a type of radio colloquially referred to as a “Philco / with the automatic eye.” It’s this item that stirs a memory for the speaker: of listening to composer Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro” back in 1945.
Imagery is important to ‘The Dancing,’ especially the diction used by the speaker to describe the items in the poem’s first few lines. In describing the shops as “rotten,” the furniture “broken,” and the ties as “wrinkled,” the reader gets a sense of the speaker’s tone of apathy towards everything in front of them. The source of the speaker’s discontent is rooted in what the radio and music symbolize for them: a simpler time in their childhood.
on Beechwood Boulevard, nor danced as I did
then, my knives all flashing, my hair all streaming,
my mother red with laughter, my father cupping
his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
In their home on “Beechwood Boulevard,” the speaker remembers dancing (“my knives all flashing, my hair all streaming”) with their mother (“red with laughter”) and father (“doing the dance / of old Ukraine”). The family is in a moment of celebration — most likely over the announcement of the end of World War II — which they no doubt just heard over the same radio.
The speaker says that they’ve never “danced” as they did on that day in 1945, which further reinforces the themes of bittersweet nostalgia that flood this memory. At the same time, the kinetic imagery of the scene emphasizes the speaker’s youthfulness, their mother’s joy, and their father’s pride in his Ukrainian culture. There’s even some auditory imagery found in the descriptions of the father’s skin as “half drum” (another word for the pair of timpanis used in Revel’s piece), as well as the singing and screaming of the family. There’s also the symbolism of “the world at last a meadow,” a metaphor for the way the second World War has finally come to an end. Stern also describes the family’s joyous actions in paradoxical ways (“as if we were dying”), which highlights the horror of the war and is another example of how the speaker entangles moments of happiness with those of despair.
as if we could never stop—in 1945 —
from the other dancing—in Poland and Germany—
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.
The reminder that this memory also took place in Pittsburgh stirs up a bittersweetness in the speaker. Their disdain for the shops and their items at the beginning of the poem already hinted at some negative feelings within the speaker directed at the city. But then they refer to it as a “beautiful filthy” place, perhaps because of the memory of the dancing but also because it’s the home of the “evil Mellons.” Then the speaker’s mind drifts “5,000 miles away” to the “other dancing” going on in both Poland and Germany — another allusion to the end of the war and those celebrating it. A thought that elicits an ambiguous cry from the speaker (“oh God of mercy, oh wild God) that’s one part prayer and one part lament.
The use of the oxymoron “beautiful filthy” emphasizes the complicated relationship the speaker has with the city they call home. On the one hand, it’s associated with people like the Mellons. But on the other, it’s also where such fond memories by the speaker live as well. The poem’s final line is an expression of the bittersweetness they find themselves wrestling with, though it’s stretched to encompass more than just the speaker’s personal feelings towards a city. In thinking of the celebrations taking place in Europe, it’s possible the speaker is also thinking of the atrocities inflicted on the Jews of Poland and Germany. Not to mention the fact that his parents emigrated safely from there to Pittsburgh and escaped the horrors of the Holocaust because of it — leaving the speaker free to wander its streets, scorning its wares and reminiscing in its memories.
The theme of the poem is the complicated relationship between ourselves and the memories we have of our past. For the speaker, it’s a desire to revisit a familiar and happy moment that creates this poignant impression of bittersweet memory.
Stern grew up in Pittsburgh so there’s a good chance the speaker is informed by his memories and experiences. He probably wrote the poem to contend with his own paradoxical feelings of sadness and happiness that come from remembering his youth and the seeming simplicity of it.
The tone of the poem alternates between this severe bitterness and a moving joy. Much of their negativity is directed at the city of Pittsburgh itself, yet when remembering the memory of dancing with their parents, the speaker is far more enthused.
- ‘The Dance‘ by William Carlos Williams – a lively poem about the dancers within a famous painting.
- ‘The Tropics in New York‘ by Claude McKay – a poem about feeling homesick
- ‘The Sea and the Hills’ by Rudyard Kipling – a poem dealing with journeying across the sea to new horizons.