My Papa’s Waltz
My Papa’s Waltz
Theodore Roethke 1948
“My Papa’s Waltz” was first published in 1948 in The Lost Son and Other Poems, a collection in which Roethke traces his growth from childhood to maturity. Outwardly, it is a simple poem: four quatrains of alternating rhyme recalling an incident from childhood. But this simplicity belies Roethke’s complex interweaving of disparate emotions and moods. A fond reminiscence of a comic dance of a father and his son, it is also a critique of the father’s coarseness and drunkenness.
Roethke’s relationship to his father appears to have been a complicated one. A German immigrant who ran a successful floral business, Otto Roethke was a demanding parent who required perfection of the son who idolized him. When the elder Roethke died of cancer when his son was in high school, the boy appears to have been left with many unresolved and conflicting emotions about his father. “My Papa’s Waltz” seems in some respects to be an attempt on Roethke’s part to come to terms with his feelings. In the poem, the father appears as a god-like giant to his son. (The boy’s ear comes up only to the father’s belt buckle.) He comes across as a figure of misrule, drunk, “romping,” disrupting his wife’s kitchen, unable to follow the steps of the dance. While such a figure has its comic aspects, it has a threatening side as well. The boy is clearly overwhelmed; he is made “dizzy” by his father and hangs onto him “like death.” He is injured, scraped by the father’s buckle. The mother looks on with disapproval. We get no sense, though, that the boy sides with his mother. Despite the coarseness of the father’s antics, at the end of the poem the boy remains “Still clinging” to his father. Moreover, Roethke subtly offers some justification for the father’s behavior by pointing out his battered knuckle and dirt-caked hands. These details suggest that he earns his living by physical labor and therefore may be forgiven if he escapes for a while from the hardness of his life through drinking and horseplay.
The son of German immigrants, Roethke was born on May 25, 1908, in Saginaw, Michigan. When he was a child his parents owned a large floral and produce business, and the young Roethke spent much time in the greenhouses among the plants, an environment which would greatly influence his early work. At the age of five Roethke entered the John Moore School, and in 1921 he moved on to Arthur Hill High School. Already Roethke had ambitions of becoming a writer, but a writer of prose, not poetry. When Roethke was in his second year of high school, his father died of cancer, forcing Roethke, the eldest child, to become head of the household.
Roethke graduated from high school in 1925 and wanted to apply to Harvard, but his mother persuaded him to stay closer to the family and attend the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In college Roethke concentrated on literature and language, and began to train himself to become a writer. Upon graduation he entered the University of Michigan school of law, but quickly realized that it was a mistake and withdrew after attending only one class. In the fall of 1930 Roethke headed east to further his education at Harvard Graduate School; however, the Great Depression interrupted his education, forcing him to withdraw from school and find a job before he could earn his doctorate. Roethke began teaching at Lafayette University and later Michigan State College, where students found him to be a superb teacher. Unfortunately, in November of 1935 Roethke suffered a mental breakdown, the first of a number of recurring spells of mental illness which he would endure throughout his life. Upon recovering he accepted a job at Pennsylvania State University and published his first book of verse, Open House (1941). Moving on to Bennington College in Vermont, Roethke continued to produce poetry and became well known in the literary community. Roethke accepted a teaching
position at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1947, and around this time he began to receive recognition for his work, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for his collection The Waking, Poems: 1933-1953. Roethke married Beatrice O’Connell on January 3, 1953 and remained in Seattle the rest of his life, leaving occasionally to study, tour, and teach in Europe. On the first of August, 1963 Roethke suffered a coronary occlusion and died a short time later; he was buried in Oak-wood Cemetery in Saginaw next to his mother and father.
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The first order of business in a poem is to establish situation and mood, and Roethke selects the father’s drinking as the foremost fact to be conveyed. The tone is slightly comic, as the speaker suggests that there was enough alcohol on the father’s breath to inebriate a child. This observation implies that the father had consumed a substantial amount of whiskey, since the smell of it was very potent. These lines also establish a closeness between the two figures. The poem is a direct address from the son to the father, evoking a feeling of intimacy between them.
The sense of closeness is further emphasized in this line. Here it is physical closeness, as the child is said to have clutched onto his father. The description “like death” introduces a note of fear or perhaps desperation. A grip “like death” is extremely tenacious, indicating that the person holding on greatly fears the consequences of letting go. The figure is derived from a personification of death as someone who, once he has grasped onto a person, never lets go. The situation here, then, is quite complex. On the one hand, the boy was afraid of letting go of his father, perhaps fearing he would be hurt by his drunken careening. Or perhaps he feared being separated from his father emotionally. He feared a loss of intimacy with his father if he let go, if he didn’t participate in the dance. The dance thus serves as a metaphor for the overall relationship between father and son: intimate and vitally important for the boy, but also dizzying and anxiety provoking. On the other hand, the description of the boy hanging onto his father “like death” also evokes the image of a death-figure clutching the man. This is particularly resonant if we consider that Roethke’s father died when Roethke himself was still a boy.
This line contains the first mention, outside of the poem’s title, of the waltz. This is the initial indication that the father and son were dancing. Only after clearly establishing the complexity of the father-son relationship does Roethke provide the poem’s circumstance, its central event. The meaning of the word “waltz,” however, is ambiguous here. The waltz is a simple dance, not difficult to perform. In fact, the expression “to waltz” means to do something effortlessly, as in, “The team waltzed through to the finals.” (This will be a secondary meaning of the word when it appears in line 15.) In this line, though, we are told that waltzing with the father was, paradoxically, difficult. What should have been easy was hard. On one level, this suggests that the father’s inebriation made it a challenge for the boy to dance with him. This picture of a small boy trying to match steps with his drunken father is lightly comic. On the metaphorical level of the dance as representing the entire father-son relationship, this line suggests that the relationship was difficult, that the boy found it hard to keep “in synch” with his father. Or perhaps he felt that he could not—to use another figure of speech derived from dancing—“follow his father’s lead,” could not do what his father did, could not follow the example his father had set.
These two lines reveal the boisterousness of the dancing, which seems at odds with the grace of a waltz. Increasingly, the use of the term “waltz” to describe the father’s behavior seems ironic. The verb “romped” carries connotations of exuberance and unruliness, and the vigorousness of the dancing caused kitchen utensils to fall from the shelf. However, “romped” also suggests fun, playfulness, and—significantly—ease of achievement. In this sense, “romp” is synonymous with “waltz.” One could just as well say, “The team romped through to the finals” as say they “waltzed through.”
The mother is introduced into the scene as a rather aloof, disapproving figure. She did not engage in the dancing, and her frowning face indicates that was displeased by it. Curiously, the speaker of the poem addresses the father directly (evoking, as we noted above, a feeling of intimacy), but he refers to the mother with the comparatively impersonal “My mother.” Moreover, he refers not to her whole person but to just her face (“countenance”). This figure of speech in which a part is used to stand for the whole (as in “all hands on deck,” meaning the entire sailors, not just their hands) is called synecdoche. In a synecdoche, the essential aspects of the part is used to characterize the whole. In these lines, the essential aspect of the face is a frown, which characterizes the mother very negatively. A further effect of the synecdoche is to depersonalize the mother: she is one big frown that is referred to with the impersonal pronoun “it” (in “itself”). The brusque dismissal of the mother in two lines stands in marked contrast to the poem’s lingering examination of the father.
Even though the boy and his father have been close throughout the poem, they seem especially so in this stanza. The father’s hand held his son’s wrist. The man’s actions had direct consequences for the boy (his missed steps caused the boy’s ear to be scraped), as if the two were joined. Both figures were injured, the father on his knuckle, the son on his ear. These hurts introduce a note of pain. The father apparently received his from his labor, but the son’s injury was directly caused by his dancing with—his relationship with—his father.
The picture of the father’s hand, hardened by toil, recalls the image of the other one in lines 9-10. This hand kept rhythm on the boy’s head in an odd little gesture, as if he meant, as the colloquial expression goes, to drive it into his son’s brain. The insistent, Morse Code-like tapping seems intended to convey to the boy how the dance was supposed to go, not how it actually did go (with its clumsiness and missed steps). The father-son relationship should have been smooth and easy but in reality was awkward and stumbling.
On the surface these concluding lines impart a breezy finality, almost a flourish, to the proceedings. Literally, they danced from the kitchen to the bedroom, but, in addition, the connotation of ease associated with the word “waltz” suggests that the father “whisked” his son off to bed. However, the image of the boy “Still clinging” to his father has a plaintive quality. Maybe he still felt fearful of his father’s rambunctiousness. Or maybe he held on because he didn’t want the dance (or the relationship) to end. If we recall the earlier suggestion of the father’s death, perhaps we can read the final line as indicating the son didn’t want to be separated from his father by death. In the end, he simply found it difficult to let his father go.
- Kunitz, Stanley, On Theodore Roethke, 1 cassette, New York: Jeffrey Norton Publishing, 1966. Poet Kunitz talks about his friend Roethke’s life and character, especially his lyrical gifts and passion to succeed.
- In a Dark Time, motion picture, San Francisco State College Poetry Center, Contemporary Films/McGraw-Hill. Roethke imparts his views on the sources and functions of poetry and his approach to writing. He reads to illustrate his belief in confessional poetry and discusses his life. Set in his home.
- Untitled, 2 tapes, Seattle: University of Washington Health Science Auditorium, 1959. Humorous, informal reading with comments on poems read, including “My Papa’s Waltz.”
The Lost Son, which was published in 1948, the year Roethke turned forty, is a collection of poems in which the writer examines his childhood and adolescence. “My Papa’s Waltz” looks back at Roethke’s experience as a child, dancing with his now-dead father in the family’s home. The title seems addressed to an audience and refers to the father in the third person, as if to say, “Here is a poem about my father and a dance he used to do with me.” The poem itself, however, is a first-person account directed by a child to his father. This distinction corresponds to a division between Theodore Roethke the objective observer of the past, the poet who records the experience and labels it (gives it a title), and Theodore Roethke the child who subjectively experiences the dance and speaks to his still-living father.
The poem is permeated by the child’s sense of his own smallness and weakness in comparison to his father. A “small boy” made “dizzy” by the alcohol on his father’s breath and scraped by the father’s belt buckle, the child found that waltzing
Topics for Further Study
- The triple-time rhythm of a waltz can be simple or grand in its effect. “My Papa’s Waltz” uses the dance informally as the father and son move about the kitchen, but its formal grace springs from the content of the poem—the relationships between family members. If a poem could be written for Roethke’s mother, how might the rhythm and language differ? Why?
- “My Papa’s Waltz” is a what Roethke called his “best dramatic lyric,” in which one character addresses a silent listener at a critical moment, revealing himself and the situation. The character in this monologue is an adult looking back at his childhood. What is his attitude toward this situation? What does he reveal about himself?
with this parent “was not easy.” He was buffeted by the force of his father’s movements, and it was all he could do to simply hang on. These are vivid details, richly evocative of the boy’s sense of inferiority to his powerful father. Even the phrase “waltzed me off to bed” expresses the disparity in strength between the two. It suggests that the dancing was not an activity that was performed by or with the boy, but rather something done to him.
Although the poem is told from the point of view of Roethke as a child, it is, significantly, told in the past tense. If the poem were truly to view the scene through the boy’s eyes, it would be in the present tense and would read something like: “The whiskey on your breath makes me dizzy; but I hang on like death: such waltzing is not easy.” The events would unfold as the boy experiences them. But “My Papa’s Waltz” is a poem written by an adult looking back on events from long before. Through an imaginative use of memory the poet provides us with a dual perspective on the father. We see the awe-inspiring figure the child sees, but we also see the inebriated and rambunctious laborer that the adult observes.
We need not choose between the two views of the father, nor indeed should we attempt to. The poem is not simply about something that happened to a child, it is also about what happens when that event is remembered when the child is an adult. The past becomes part of the present in the process of recalling it. The present is the moment of the poem’s writing, but that moment is suffused with the past.
Order and Disorder
“My Papa’s Waltz” announces its central image in the title: the waltz, a formal dance. A waltz, like other dances, is a prescribed set of steps that organizes movements in time and in space, giving them order. In the poem it was the father who led the dance, who “beat time” on his son’s head. It was he who established the order of the household. The mother was a disapproving but, in the context of the poem, an inactive presence. The boy did all he could just to keep up: “Such waltzing,” he states, “was not easy.” But the poem also shows that the father was a force of disorder as well. He was drunk. He made his son dizzy, caused pans to fall from the shelf, and scraped the boy’s ear. The fact that he missed steps suggests that he could not adhere to the order that he himself had instituted.
There is a sense in the poem that the waltz was not an isolated incident, that it was often repeated. One almost has the feeling that it was a daily pattern, a bedtime ritual. This means, then, that the disorderly dance was, paradoxically, itself a form of order, a regularly recurring event that established a routine in the household. The waltz in the title thus refers not to a dance as it commonly understood, but rather it refers to a regularly performed set of disorderly movements. It was a unique sort of waltz, a unique sort of order that incorporated disorder. It was a waltz created and defined by “My Papa.”
“My Papa’s Waltz” follows a loose ballad form. Its four-line stanzas feature an ABAB rhyme scheme—that is, the first line rhymes with the third and the second rhymes with the fourth, as in head/bed and dirt/shirt. The words on each line generally alternate between unstressed and stressed syllables. For example: my MOTH / er’s COUN / tenANCE could NOT / unFROWN / itSELF. Each pair (or “foot”) of unstressed and stressed syllables is known as an “iamb”; so the meter of “My Papa’s Waltz” is called “iambic.” Since each line generally contains three iambs, the meter may more precisely be called “iambic trimeter,” meaning that each line is composed of three (the “tri” in “trimeter”) iambs.
Compare & Contrast
- 1948: As the British mandate over Palestine comes to an end, Israel is recognized as an independent state and opens her doors to the world’s Jewish population.
1997: A peace treaty is negotiated by American President Bill Clinton between Israelis and Palestinians in April, but breaks down within months as fighting resumes.
- 1948: The term “cold war” is coined by U.S. presidential adviser Bernard Baruch to express the tacit conflicts between communist and democratic superpowers, the U.S.S.R., and the U.S.
November 9,1990: The cold war symbolically ends as the Berlin Wall is dismantled. Germany is reunited and the Soviet Union begins its dissolution into smaller entities—in many cases, according to their former ethnic status.
- 1948: Apartheid, the practice of separating the races, is established by vote on May 26 in South Africa.
- 1948: Jackson Pollock begins to paint with splashes of color and line, reducing painting to its basic formal elements. This trend in painting becomes to be known as Abstract Expressionism.
Today: Gender, politics, ethnicity and other art media have entered the arena of painting, which today can only be called “postmodern.”
- 1948: McDonald’s opens its first self-service restaurant in San Bernadino, California.
Today: McDonald’s has more than 15,000 restaurants and 21 percent of the fast-food market in the U.S. Because domestic profits are climbing slowly, McDonald’s has expanded overseas where less competition, lighter market saturation and its already high profile have brought success.
- 1948: The long-play 33-1/3 rpm record is introduced, revolutionizing the music industry as the new medium can hold more music than can the 78 rpm record.
The mid-1980s: Forty years later, the compact disc begins another revolution in the industry, replacing vinyl records.
Roethke varies this pattern considerably, however. Several lines have seven syllables rather than six, and in many places the iambic rhythm is disrupted. Line 14, for instance, has a very uneven pattern; only the last two syllables form an iamb: with a / PALM CAKED / HARD / by DIRT This irregular form of iambic meter is called “ballad meter,” since many ballads have just such variations in their meters. Irregularities often give a poem an informal, conversational feel. This seems entirely appropriate to “My Papa’s Waltz,” with its elements of nostalgic reminiscence. The variations in meter also suggest instability, however, and here they emphasize the father’s unsteadiness. The poem’s departures from the regularity of the iambic meter seem to mimic the father’s missed steps.
The unsteadiness is also brought out by the seven-syllable lines. In several cases, the extra syllables are the result of so-called “feminine,” or two-syllable, rhymes, as in dizzy/easy and knuckle/buckle. Feminine rhymes are often employed in comic verse, as they have a lighter, less emphatic feel than “masculine,” or one-syllable, rhymes. Here Roethke employs them to evoke a sense of uncertainty, a “dizzy” quality that is well suited to the father’s erratic dancing.
The decade of the 1940s can be said to be split into two by World War II. In many respects, the postwar world looked little like that of the prewar period. The war had brought devastation and death to millions of people around the world. Racism, militarism, and ideologies such as fascism had been the causes of brutality and cruelty such as the world had never before witnessed. To many, life seemed absurd after the war; traditional religions and moral codes seemed inadequate to account for the horrors of the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World capitals lay in ruins and once-dominant nations were exhausted. Two nations, the United States and the Soviet Union, rose to the status of “superpowers” in the postwar years, and they established new opposing alliances based on mutual distrust and hostility.
Many people—especially in countries such as Germany, with its record of Nazi atrocities—needed to come to terms with their past. New national as well as individual identities had to be forged from the cultural ruins of the war. In America, which had largely escaped the devastation, this process of redefining oneself took several different forms. Some rejected the past and looked instead to the present moment or to the future, seizing an opportunity to reinvent themselves as America was reinventing itself as a superpower at the center of world politics. The postwar period in America saw the emergence of improvisation and experimentation in artistic pursuits such as Beat poetry, be-bop jazz, and Abstract Expressionist painting. Others in postwar America sought to reexamine the past and to recuperate what was valuable and worthy of preservation.
Roethke displays affinities to both of these groups. Throughout his career he employed traditional poetic forms from both the European and the American past, but he reinvented these forms rather than copied or imitated them. His redefinition and synthesis of traditional elements gives Roethke’s work a feeling of an entirely new kind of poetry that has broken with tradition. “My Papa’s Waltz” and other poems in The Lost Son show Roethke engaged in a similar process with the material of his personal past, recasting it and investing it with new meaning as art.
“My Papa’s Waltz” is included in Roethke’s critically acclaimed collection of poems The Lost Son and Other Poems, in which his father, predictably, figures as one of the main subjects. Divided into four parts, the set of poems outline the growth of the poet’s consciousness from childhood to adulthood. “I am nothing but what I remember,” Roethke wrote in his notebook, and “I do not wish a sense of the past; only a sense of the continuous.” It was the continuity of his own life and his evolving awareness of himself experiencing it that served as Roethke’s true subjects. This particular experience, however, was more of the heart and the body than of the mind. Intent on using poetry as a tool for describing the rhythms of emotions, Roethke did not fear the intellect so much as distrust it. In his poem “The Waking,” from his 1953 volume of the same title, he writes, “We think by feeling. What is there to know? / I hear my being dance from ear to ear.” Of Roethke’s poetry Mark Doty says in his article “The Forbidden Planet’ of Character: The Revolutions of the 1950s”:
Thus, with the insistence of one returning to examine a wound or replaying the circumstances of an unresolved conflict, the poems circle around the nature of guilt, identify the anger and loss inherent in the experience of love, and obsessively investigate the poet’s relationship with his father. It is a mark of the poems’ contemporaneity, within their decade, that despite their carefully controlled formal designs they are enactments of the process of coming to terms; they resist easy resolutions, the consolations of distance and irony.
Critic and poet Brendan Galvin notes that Roethke’s contradictory feeling toward his father is rooted in the fact that Otto Roethke died when the poet was only fourteen. “Theodore Roethke … had lost his whole meaningful world at a time when a boy could still believe that his father was more than a man—perhaps even a God.… Who can say how deeply the loss of his father affects a boy of fourteen? There is the possibility that the awakening of sexuality at puberty and the subsequent death of the father were in some way coupled in the boy’s mind. Thus the tremendous guilt and the howling ghost in these poems” [from The Lost Son and Other Poems]. But Roethke’s chronicle of his own movement from innocence to experience in The Lost Son is also a chronicle of his own development as a poet. In his article “Blake and Roethke: When Everything Comes to One,” critic Jay Parini calls the sequence of poems in which “My Papa’s Waltz” appears “tough, sensual, and concrete” and claims that they “recreate the texture of experience in the manner of [William Blake’s] The Songs of Experience. It is only by going back to the roots of his own emotional and linguistic beginnings that Roethke the poet can go forward in his own poetic work.”
What works for one reader, however, doesn’t work for them all. Robert Pinsky, for example, takes Roethke and other romantic poets to task—in his book The Situation of Poetry—for their over-reliance on intuition, for their relative lack of rationality, which he believes should be an inevitable part of poetic activity. James Applewhite, however, notes in his essay “Death and Rebirth in a Modern Landscape” that “We must also remember that intellectual self-consciousness has become, in our time, a potential imprisonment, a bell jar or bottle enclosing the ship of the psyche.… Having fled from abstraction to childhood and the particular, he must assert his ultimate values through symbols rather than concepts.”
Marisa Anne Pagnattaro
Marissa Anne Pagnattaro is a writer and teaching assistant at the Unversity of Georgia, Athens. In the following essay, Pagnattaro provides a stanza by stanza analysis of “My Papa’s Waltz.
Is this a narrative poem about a sentimental joyful romp or a fearful incident of violent abuse at the hands of an alcoholic father? Critics are often polarized into one of these two extreme views of Theodore Roethke’s 1948 poem, “My Papa’s Waltz,” yet neither interpretation adequately captures the full range of the speaker’s emotion. The adult speaker recalls this vivid scene with his father, revealing the complicated interplay between what was nearly an overwhelming experience for him as a child, but is now merely a poignant remembrance.
Although reading the poem as purely autobiographical is too limiting, a few details from Roethke’s life provide an enlightening background. As a child, Roethke’s father, Otto, immigrated from Germany with his parents who had bought land in the United States to establish a market garden. Financially successful in this endeavor, the family eventually started a florist business, which was continued by Otto. Roethke, who lived in a house adjacent to the greenhouse, was powerfully influenced by both the life-giving process of growing plants and his father’s gift of nurturing beautiful flowers. This admiration, however, was entangled with feelings of ambivalence. For instance, Roethke’s stern father held extremely high expectations that were not always possible for his son to achieve. Moreover, Roethke was never able to fully
What Do I Read Next?
- Noted critic and Yale Professor Harold Bloom gathers what he considers “the most useful criticism so far available” in Theodore Roethke: Modern Critical Views(1988). The volume includes essays by Kenneth Burke, Denis Donoghue, James Dickey, and others.
- Karl Malkoff’s book, Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry(1966), provides an accessible, “organic” approach to the poet’s work.
- Roethke is discussed among contemporaries such as Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and John Berryman in a book by Jeffrey Meyers, Manic Power: Robert Lowell and His Circle(1987).
reconcile his feelings before his father’s death; after a long illness. Otto died of cancer when Roethke was in high school. Later, when Roethke was in his late thirties, he wrote “My Papa’s Waltz” as part of a collection of poems titled The Lost Son. In these poems, Roethke seems to be exploring ways to come to terms with his childhood and adolescence. “My Papa’s Waltz,” an introspective look at a young boy’s relationship with his father, is rooted in a continuation of that self-scrutiny.
Even though the title seems to be addressed to a general audience of readers, in effect asserting “I am going to tell you about ‘My Papa’s Waltz,’” the speaker directly addresses his father in the poem. This appears to be a form of tribute to the father, in the sense that it recounts a memory of closeness—albeit fraught with some childhood anxiety. As an adult, the speaker seems to appreciate his father’s rather clumsy attempt to show his paternal love. Emphasizing the father’s awkwardness, Roethke plays with his readers’ notions of the waltz. The overall rhythm of the verse follows the cadence of waltz rhythm, a graceful flowing melody in triple time. The poem begins with a strong first beat, followed by two lighter beats, with the second of these being an upbeat “pushing” into the new first beat. More simply stated, the rhythm is a repetition of: ONE two three ONE two three.
“Roethke seems to be exploring ways to come to terms with his childhood and adolescence. ‘My Papa’s Waltz,’ an introspective look at a young boy’s relationship with his father, is rooted in a continuation of that self-scrutiny.”
By using the waltz steps, Roethke gives his readers a feel for the movement of the dance. There are, however, a few “missteps” in the form of an extra syllable for emphasis. In five of the lines the extra beat interrupts the smooth flow of the dance. These rhythmic disturbances provide readers with a palpable sense of the clumsiness of the actual dance.
The first stanza opens with the vivid image of the father’s hot whisky breath, an odor that the speaker recalls was potent enough to make him feel giddy and confused as a child. Significantly, he “hung on like death” with great dramatic tenacity because “Such waltzing was not easy.” The evening dance is nearly overpowering for the young boy. This is underscored by the second and fourth lines that contain the extra beat. The effect is to slightly throw off the controlled waltz cadence, which effectively conveys an air of the father’s perceptible intoxication. It is unclear how much the father has had to drink, but an inference of at least slight inebriation permeates the poem.
The potential seriousness of the “death” image in the third line, however, is undercut in the first line of the second stanza by the use of the word “romped.” This unmistakably frolicsome term suggests the lively play of children, not a boy victimized by his father. Moreover, the pans “slide” from the shelf, as if unobtrusively moved along the surface from the vibration of their dance as opposed to a reckless drunken careening about the room. The pair cavort in the kitchen, ostensibly the mother’s domain. Oddly enough in a lyric directed to his father, the speaker refers to his mother as “My mother,” creating distance between his two parents. The use of the formal term “mother” stands in sharp contrast to the much more familiar term “Papa.” Perhaps this is indicative of the closeness that the speaker feels toward his father. In any event, the mother’s appearance in the poem adds a brief third-party perspective to the memory. She looks on in clear wrinkled-brow disapproval. Her displeasure presumably stems from a number of sources, including her isolation from the waltzing play, her irritation about husband’s drinking, and her perception that her young son is being dragged about the room. Significantly, she holds back, not intervening and allowing the rollick to carry on.
Throughout the two remaining stanzas, the dance continues as a metaphor for the speaker’s fearfully loving relationship with his somewhat rough father. Like Roethke’s father, the father in the poem makes his living with his hands. One knuckle is “battered,” suggesting it has been subjected to repeated assault at work. Instead of holding his son’s hand, which would be customary with waltz partners, the father clasps his son’s wrist. Unable to follow his father’s unsteady lead, the boy’s right ear scrapes against his father’s belt buckle every time his father misses a step. The use of “scraped” creates a physically painful image, yet the speaker evidences no negative emotion toward his father. He merely reports on the scene and uses the extra syllable in the second and fourth lines in the third stanza to once again prompt speculation that the father’s waltzing ability is impaired by alcohol.
The fourth and final stanza echoes the images already established in the poem. With a palm “caked hard by dirt,” the father repeatedly hits his son on the head “beating time.” These lines, coupled with the preceding stanza, could suggest the speaker’s less-than-consensual engagement in the dance, yet the overall lilt of the poem belies such a harsh reading. The two concluding lines are riddled with the speaker’s ambivalence as the result of differences in his adult and childhood perspectives: “Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt.” The use of the word “clinging” prompts multiple readings. He could be holding on tightly out of fear of his father, in apprehension that he might be knocked to the floor in a misstep. He could also, however, desire to remain close or in contact with his father out of a sense of great attachment, refusing to abandon the connection he feels. In the end, there is something warm about the image of the father dancing his son off to be tucked in for the night.
It is easy for readers to visualize the speaker as a young boy with one hand clinging to his father’s shirt, his other arm outstretched with his wrist clasped in his father’s hand, feet on his father’s feet, in a dangling pre-bed dance. Even though there is a sense of the speaker’s uncertainty about the event as a boy, there is an air of nostalgia in the scene for the speaker as an adult, ultimately producing a loving re-creation of the dance with his father.
Source: Marissa Anne Pagnattaro, in a essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
In the following essay, Fong argues that “My Papa’s Waltz” can aptly be interpreted in a variety of ways and that interpretation of the poem is dependant upon the reader’s own experiences.
Most recent critics of Theodore Roethke’s work give “My Papa’s Waltz” short shrift. If mentioned at all, it is characterized as depicting the father’s “mixture of tenderness and brutality” and the child’s “admiration and fear.” The waltz is at once a “happy and terrifying activity” that, biographically, reflects “Roethke’s vacillation toward his father, registering playful but poignant tones in stanzas of iambic trimeter” [in William V. Davis’s “Fishing an Old Wound: Theodore Roethke’s Search for Sonship in Antigonish Review and Walter B. Kalaidjian’s Understanding Theodore Roethke].
Some of my students are able to perceive the poem as thus holding fear and joy in tension, but mainly these are the ones who see the poem dispassionately, as a play of words on the page where waltzing and romped are juxtaposed with battered and scraped and beat, where the child is “waltzed off to bed” holding on “like death.” The others, however, divide into two camps, united by their common insistence that one emotion predominates, either fear or joy.
One party’s interpretation accords with that of X. J. Kennedy, who argues [in his Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, 4th edition]:
Most readers find the speaker’s attitude toward his father affectionate, and take this recollection of childhood to be a happy one. But at least one reader, concentrating on certain details, once wrote: “Roethke expresses his resentment for his father, a drunken brute with dirty hands and a whiskey breath who carelessly hurt the child’s ear and manhandled him.” Although this reader accurately noticed some of the events in the poem and perceived that in the son’s hanging on to the father “like death” there is something desperate, he missed the tone of the poem and so misunderstood it altogether. Among other things, this reader didn’t notice the rollicking rhythms of the poem’ the playfulness of a rime like dizzy and easy; the joyful suggestions of the words waltz, waltzing, and romped. Probably the reader didn’t stop to visualize this scene in all its comedy, with kitchen pans falling and the father happily using his son’s head for a drum. Nor did he stop to feel the suggestions in the last line, with the boy still clinging with persistent love.
Students espousing this reading have noted that their own fathers were reserved when sober, and that some of their fondest moments were when “papa” became tipsy enough so that exuberance and love could slip through. This “papa” wasn’t the man they knew, so there was some anxiety felt regarding the “stranger,” but he was what these students as children wanted more often from their fathers.
By contrast, the other side’s response is captured by John Ciardi [in his How Does a Poem Mean?], who argues:
Despite its seeming lightness, “My Papa’s Waltz” is a poem of terror, all the more terrible because the boy is frightened and hurt by the father, even in play. “We romped,” the poet says, but the romp is a dizzying succession of painful glimpses; the house is shaking, the mother is frowning, the father’s hand is scarred by violence, every misstep in the dance scrapes the father’s belt buckle painfully across the boy’s ear, and the boy’s head is being pounded by that huge, hard palm. It is a romp, but the boy must cling like death until he is finally dumped into bed.
For these students, alcohol is invariably associated with violence, and the mention of whiskey on the breath calls to mind incidents when their fathers came home drunk and “romped” with the family. What was “fun” for the father, however, was fearful for mother and children. These readers see the waltz image and rhythm of the poem as ironic counterpoints to the stumbling brutality of a man who hurts even when he doesn’t mean to. A more extreme reading of the poem takes the waltz entirely as a euphemism for the father beating the child. The child struggles to hold the father, to make him stop, and they lurch around the kitchen to the mother’s discountenance. This “waltzing was not easy,” students have testified from hard experience.
The poem is like a seesaw, where the elements of joy (the figure of the waltz, the playful rhymes, the rhythm), are balances against the elements of fear (predominantly the effects of diction such as whiskey, dizzy, death, unfrown, battered, knuckle,
“In a poem like ’My Papa’s Waltz,’ several different readings do succeed in making their way through. At that point, the ‘preferred reading’ is not found in the text, but in the interaction of reader and text.”
scraped, buckle, beat, hard, dirts, clinging). The ambivalence of feeling extends to the narrative stance of the speaker. As a student recently noted, the speaker is remembering an incident of childhood, and if the child shared in the father’s joy, the adult has learned to understand the mother’s disapproval, for the adult stands with the mother, observing.
The “preferred reading” among these interpretations is not a simple matter of appealing to the text. The New Criticism, with its focus on ambiguity, figurative language, and irony, has not resulted in the narrowing of interpretive possibilities, but rather has provided tools to account for a poem’s elements in a variety of ways and has proliferated interpretations. In the present case, those who maintain a balance between joy and fear in the poem give equal weight to both emotions. Those who see they joy in the poem downplay the diction of violence. And those who see the fear treat the figure and rhythm of the waltz ironically. A seesaw tips easily, and “My Papa’s Waltz” is susceptible to the pressure of personal experience.
This is not to say that one’s personal experience must always be privileged in reading a poem. Following the lead of H. R. Swardson in “The Use of the Word Mistake in the Teaching of Poetry,” there are no hippopotamuses in “My Papa’s Waltz.” As Swardson puts it, “the student who sees a hippopotamus there has made a mistake. I will say that interpretive communities who see a hippopotamus there have, en masse, made a mistake. What I have reported of my students is recurring patterns of interpretation that, in my estimation, account for the various elements of the poem in coherent but different ways. The words of a poem create a series of filters that eliminate possible meanings. In the universe of possible readings, comparatively few precipitate through all the filters. But in a poem like “My Papa’s Waltz,” several different readings do succeed in making their way through. At that point, the “preferred reading” is not found in the text, but in the interaction of reader and text. Students are not disembodied intelligences; rather, they bring to the text distinctive pasts that comprise additional filters screening out possible readings. This essay is a field report on that last set of filters.
At a recent conference, I learned that the poem is used in Jungian psychotherapy to treat alcoholics. W. D. Snodgrass writes [in his essay “That Anguish of Concreteness—Theodore Roethke’s Career”] that in The Lost Son and Other Poems, of which “My Papa’s Waltz” was one, Roethke “regressed into areas of the psyche where the powerful thoughts and feelings of the child—the raw materials and driving power of our later lives—remain under the layers of rationale and of civilized purpose.” The achievement of “My Papa’s Waltz” is that it permits readers to access such potent memories in their own lives in ways consistent with the words and construction of the poem.
Source: “Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz.’” in College Literature. Vol. XVII. No. 1, 1990. pp. 79–82.
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Bloom, Harold, editor, Theodore Roethke, New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Doty, Mark, ‘“The Forbidden Planet’ of Character: The Revolutions of the 1950s,” in A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Jack Myers and David Wojahn, Carbondale, II: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992, pp. 131–58.
Myers, Jack, and David Wojahn, eds., A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, Carbondale, II: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.
Parini, Jay, “Blake and Roethke: When Everything Comes to One,” in Theodore Roethke, edited by Harold Bloom, New York: Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 195–209.
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Stauffer, Donald Barlow, A Short History of American Poetry, New York: E.P Dutton & Co., Inc., 1974.
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Janssen, Ronald, “Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz’,” Explicator, 44, No. 2, Winter 1986, pp. 43–4.
Illustrates the use of the waltz in the poem.
Seager, Allan, The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968.
Biography written by Rhodes scholar and Oxford graduate Allan Seager.
Stricklett, Patrick J., The Psychological and Spiritual Quest for Personal Identity in the Poetry of Theodore Roethke, Thesis, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 1970.
Explores archetypal and psychological elements, and patterns of natural cycles in Roethke’s principal works.