“The whisky on your breath could make a small boy dizzy;”. This is how renowned poet Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) opened up his poem “My Papa’s Waltz”. A exuberant child, a mother whom is unamused, and a powerfully intoxicated father are just the three characters in this short poem from 1942. The emotions in this poem are nothing short of complex, touching on fear, admiration, and the longing for a young boy to truly know what it is like to be loved by his father. Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” is a brief, but impactful poem about a young boy’s relationship he has with his father.
The term ‘waltz’ is used in irony as the main concept for the poem. In dance, a waltz is a graceful and delicate movement of the body. The waltz Roethke describes is anything but that of a graceful and delicate movement. “We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf;…At every step you missed, my right ear scraped a buckle.” Roethke describes the dance the young boy and his father are having. It is a dance of violent thrusts around the kitchen, a dance filled with emotion. “What was ‘fun’ for the father, however, was fearful for mother and children”. (Fong) Alcohol, for many, is a way to escape a harsh reality and enjoy their poor situation a little more. In this case, Fong is correct when saying the father might have believed the situation was enjoyable, but for the children and mother, it was a much different experience. The father could have perceived the event as some of the best moments he had with his young boy. The young boy however, may one day perceive this as a time of great sadness.
Roethke gives evidence that the father was a very hard worker, and found it difficult to express his love to his son without the assistance of alcohol. “The hand that held my wrist was battered on one knuckle”. Roethke describes the father in this way to have the reader perceive the father as a blue collar, hard working individual. “You beat time on my head with a palm caked hard by dirt.”. Perhaps the father is a construction worker during the day, giving context to his hands that are caked hard with dirt. “These lines, coupled with the preceding stanza, could suggest the speaker’s less-than-consensual engagement in the dance.” (Pagnattaro) In this statement, Pagnattaro believes that the son was not interested in dancing with his father. Other evidence may disagree with him. The son may love this time with his father because, although not quality time, it is perhaps the only time that the young boy has with his father.
For this young boy, these moments can be reflected as some of the best, and worst of his childhood. “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”.(Pagnattaro) It is safe to say that the young boy truly does care for his father very much, and the father loves the young boy, but does not know how to show it sober. “Some of their fondest moments were when ‘papa’ became tipsy enough so that exuberance and love could slip through.” (Fong) The young boy is essentially happier when his father is intoxicated because that is when the father is more open with him. At the same time, the father is not like this with his son all the time. This results in both nostalgic, and sorrowful memories of nights like this one. “Then waltzed me off to bed still clinging to your shirt.”
“My Papa’s Waltz” is a poem that brings up the best and worst memories for many individuals. For some, this poem is relatable because they had a relationship similar to this one in their household This is a poem that touches lives and brings feelings to the surface for the reader. It contines to be a favorite to many, a favorite of mine.
Pagnattaro, Marisa Anne. “An essay on “My Papa’s Waltz”.”Poetry for Students. Detroit: Gale. Literature Resource Center. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.
Fong, Bobby. “Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz.” College Literature 17.1 (1990): 79-82. Rpt. in Poetry for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski and Mary Ruby. Vol. 3. Detroit. Gale, 1998.
Literature Resource Center. Web. 24 Oct. 2016. Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz.” Literature and Its Writers: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford, 1997. 225-37. Print.