“How I Learned to Sweep” by Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez’s poem, “How I Learned to Sweep” feels as if she is sharing how she learned to sweep or she could be talking about the anxiety she felt while watching a war going on in the news which led to her sweeping away death. How Alvarez conveys the true meaning of her poem can be explained through her techniques. To share this story, she uses certain techniques that go against traditional forms of poetry. Alvarez says, “By learning to work the sonnet structure and yet remaining true to my own voice, I made myself at home in that form”, (18). She learned traditional ways of writing poetry, but she was encouraged to find her own voice in her writing by fellow women writers. She uses the tradition and structure of sonnets but infuses her own voice with it.

Alvarez describes her sonnets as “free verse sonnets”. They comprise “ten syllables per line, and the lines are in a loose iambic pentameter with slant rhymes (19). I am unfamiliar with these terms, but when I look them up, they make sense when I read the poem. The iambic pentameter pattern in, “How I Learned to Sweep”, is used sporadically in her poem. It isn’t used every line, but when the poem gets intense, which is where I think the true purpose of this poem lies, this technique is used quite heavily.

Alvarez is handed the broom by her mother, with no true instruction or guidance. She can infer, her mother wants her to sweep because of how she looks at her when she hands her the broom. Alvarez writes,

My mother never taught me sweeping…

She eyed the dusty floor

boldly, and put a broom before

me, and said she’d like to be able

to eat her dinner off that table,

and nodded at my feet, then left.

I knew right off what she expected. (lines 1-8)

So, without much discussion, she proceeds to step and sweep until the floor is clean. This language is clear for the reader to think she figured it out even though she didn’t know what she was doing. There is slight rhyming to the way she begins this poem which is called a slant rhyme; it is not perfect but some of it rhymes.

The sonnet then takes a turn as Alvarez describes what is happening in the news. The news is broadcasting live from the White House as the President talks about the war in the Far East. Alvarez was born after World War II when there was fighting in the Asian Pacific between the British and the Japanese, but being captivated by a news broadcast talking about war is relevant to any age and time period. There is anxiety and curiosity that looms in households as families surround the television to get the latest report. Alvarez expresses this feeling with the iambic pentameter style by writing, “in the Far East our soldiers were/landing in their helicopters/into jungles their propellors/swept like weeds seen underwater” (lines 18-21). This pattern consists of one stressed syllable followed by a long syllable. In this passage I see “their helicopters”, “their propellors”, and “seen underwater” as examples of this style choice. This scene is structured with so much intensity, when read aloud you see the imagery of the soldiers in the helicopters as they land in the jungle. She also compares the helicopter to dragonflies which is an impressive comparison for the reader. I feel the intensity when its read aloud like the sonnet is building up to something. There is also a rhythm to this section of the poem as it builds in tension.

Alvarez next writes that she gets up and sweeps again during this broadcast. She describes the intense way she sweeps coincides with the tension in the news. She says, “I got up and swept again/ as they fell out of the sky./ I swept all the harder when/ I watched a dozen of them die…/ as if their dust fell through the screen/ upon the floor I had just cleaned (lines 26-31). The rhythm in these lines hone in on the anxious feeling of watching soldiers die on screen. This war creates anxiety and terror. These feelings come through as her sweeping becomes harder the more terrifying things show on the television. It is as if it’s now an absent-minded thing. You are so entranced with what you are seeing it now becomes a part of you. The figurative use of the dust coming out of the screen is clever as one’s mind is so intertwined with what it is seeing, it is seeing it as if it is in real life.

Finally, in the poem, her mother comes back into the room, turns off the television, and comments on how beautiful it all looks. Knowing what it took to clean the floor with her intense cleaning directly relating to the watching soldiers die, it is oxymoronic to call it beautiful. She writes about her mother running her clean hand through her hair and over various surfaces in the room. She waits for her verdict and her mother calls everything beautiful. Alvarez uses intensity to close out her poem and sucker punch the reader by writing, “she hadn’t found a speck of death” (39). It should be dust, but considering what she witnessed and the soldiers’ death dust fell through her television screen, its as if nothing ever happened. She wiped all the death dust clean with her new found sweeping skills.

4 Responses to “How I Learned to Sweep” by Julia Alvarez

  1. Anonymous October 5, 2022 at 10:00 pm #

    Hey Jessica, I love your analysis. I too agree with how Alvarez manipulated meter kind of forces this sense of anxiety you spoke of. Thank you for pointing out the “speck of death” line because it did not occur to me to fill in that blank with “dust”. However, I agree that that switch of the words directly coincides with what the narrator just witnessed on the television screen. I can relate with Alvarez with not being taught how to do domestic chores, and this expectation that I should be good at it. I appreciate your thoughtful and insightful close reading of this poem, and for pointing out nuances and details that had not crossed my mind.

    • Anonymous October 5, 2022 at 10:01 pm #

      Hey Jessica, the above anonymous post is me Carl. I forgot to add my name.

  2. Kathleen C October 5, 2022 at 10:21 pm #

    I enjoyed your analysis of “How I Learned to Sweep” and I enjoyed working through this poem this week. It seems to me that Alvarez is equating the speaker’s act of sweeping to the action of the propellors, which I read as signifying the feeling of importance of “women’s work” at home and how the speaker is “cleaning up” the soldiers as they fall. I wondered if this is Alvarez speaking to the traditional role of women taking care of the home and family as the men go to war and it seems like this act of sweeping is working to get at what Alvarez says in her poetic statement when she talks about the domestic arts and housekeeping as “the crafts we women had” before asking: “Isn’t it already thinking from the point of view of the oppressor to say ourselves, what we did was nothing?” (16).

  3. Erin Larsen October 5, 2022 at 11:55 pm #

    This is really cool. I definitely didn’t pay attention to the way the rhyme changes as the poem’s intensity grows. I wondered, too if “learning to sweep” can be seen as a metaphor for learning to work within the confines of poetic form? If so, does that change the way we read the poem–in terms of how its rhyme changes as the the moves from calm to upset at the thought of war? If it is a metaphor for writing formally, what does that mean–does it mean that form should, or does, get stronger through some kind of adversity, or through practice, or through the simple act of focusing on something else and letting the form itself become second nature while your attention is elsewhere? I’m not sure–thoughts?

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