‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ is a poem that does not lend itself readily to thematic analysis. In the first place, the poem consists of just a single sentence, and the sentence is not even grammatically complete. Thus, it never really makes a statement. Rather, the poem consists of a series of images. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern the glimmerings of a theme. One theme that links the images is that of old age. The first word of the poem is grandmothers, followed by a reference to old nuns. Later, the evangelist is said to be shuffling, suggesting the slow, hesitant walk of an elderly man. In the final stanza, reference is made to ancient lovers who are dancing. The very topic of the poem, classic ballroom dances, suggests something from another age or another generation. These references to age have a counterpoint in the references to schoolchildren; the nun is said to pull schoolboys by their ears, and a small child is said to be walking to school. Yet Simic never makes an explicit statement about any of these people. The poem simply imagines them engaged in characteristic activities as they go about their lives. The poem ends with an image of sadness, as charity raffles are imagined as taking place on a rainy night in a November that has no end. The reader is left to speculate about the meaning of Simic’s poem. Perhaps the poem is intended to suggest an eternal cycle of people caught in their routine; the routine of the elderly people has long been established, and that of the schoolchildren is in the process of being formed. Ultimately, though, the poem invites the reader to see such people in a new way and to experience their loneliness and perhaps sorrow as they dance their way through their daily existence.
To state that poets and creative writers in general are astute observers of the human condition is to state the obvious. What is unusual about ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ is that it is based entirely on observation, with no explicit commentary. Generally, a feature of poetry is the use of simile and metaphor, figures of speech that make comparisons between otherwise unlike objects. ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ defies this tendency by containing no simile or metaphor. Each of the statements made about the people in the poem or their activities is simply observed and reported, without the implicit commentary of figures of speech. Thus, grandmothers wring the necks of chickens, nuns pull the ears of schoolboys, pickpockets steal from people, an evangelist walks about in a sandwich board, a customer looks into the window of a pawnshop, a child walks to school, and lovers dance. The emphasis is entirely on the person or activity itself, with no comparison to any other thing or activity. The only expression in the poem that suggests a figure of speech occurs at the very end, where November is said to be eternal. Literally, of course, such a statement is untrue, but figurative the phrase suggests an ongoing depressive state, where gloom and chill seem to last forever. With this one exception, the poem merely presents the results of observation. In this sense, theme and style interact. The style of the poem suggests a theme: that the poet, or anyone, can catch people going about their activities, freeze those activities in time, and allow the activities to speak for themselves, without comment. That said, however, it must be recognized that the poem taken as a whole is a metaphor. By labeling the poem ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances,’’ Simic makes clear that he sees a metaphorical connection between the activities he reports and dancing. But rather than browbeating the reader with the comparison, the comparison remains implied by the title of the poem. The goal of the poem, then, is to observe and present experience, then invite the reader to see the experience in a new and starling way.
(extracted from) Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010