Sunday, September 27, 2009


Each year as my students and I discuss twentieth-century poetry, I always can count upon Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” to inspire some of the most interesting and conflicting opinions. Amazingly, examination of this fairly brief and seemingly accessible work usually initiates an elaborate and occasionally emotional conversation that moves beyond the poem’s clever use of rhythm and clear sense of sound into the direction of animated debate about the possible presence of messages covering child abuse and alcoholism.

Rather than reading the poetry as an elegiac tribute by a son to his father, perhaps a belated statement of love by the speaker, many in my classes want to condemn the father for his behavior, especially for the pain they perceive him inflicting upon the young boy in the poem. A few also accuse the mother in the work of acting almost as an accomplice because she witnesses the roughhousing without interfering to stop her husband’s clumsy carousing.

When pressed for evidence of the violence they claim Roethke presents, particular phrases or images are noted. The students begin by citing the opening two lines, which certainly establish drunkenness. In addition, they declare the poem suggests physical injuries to the small boy, whose ear is scraped by his father’s buckle and who feels his father “beat” him. The mother obviously appears upset, the students claim, and they wonder if the father’s battered knuckle resulted from a barroom brawl. Finally, they conclude the first stanza’s allusion to death opens the poem for darker, if not more ominous, interpretation.

When consulting with colleagues at my university and elsewhere, I find this response to be a somewhat common reaction among growing numbers of students as well as some scholars. Indeed, in the last couple of decades, as society’s awareness and alarm over child abuse have increased, and concern over all forms of substance abuse has become more prominent, one can understand why a legion of readers might highlight these issues in their analysis of “My Papa’s Waltz.”

Nevertheless, I find myself repeatedly rising to the defense of the parents in the poem, not so much for their specific actions or inactions, but because I believe we also need to read the piece within the context of its time frame. In the era this poem was authored, the late-1940s, readers would not have shared the same sensibilities about these issues that contemporary readers exhibit. Certainly, the definition of child abuse would not have been as broad as that expressed by my students, and a man returning home with whiskey on his breath after a day of work would not immediately raise great concern since it would not have been very unusual.

If we switch to a different time frame and another frame of mind for the persona in the piece based upon the poet’s autobiography, we would retreat even further a few decades to early in the twentieth century. Roethke was born in 1908 and could not have been very old when the actions might have occurred since the boy’s height only extends to his father’s waist, and that may be with him standing on his father’s shoe tops. Also, we know the father’s work in a greenhouse would have explained the battered knuckle and the caked dirt on his hands.

Therefore, in the current interpretation of this poem by some readers, we see a contrast between contemporary readers’ objections, responding within their own perceptions of proper parenting, and the author’s apparent intention at honoring a more pleasant memory of an enjoyable incident with his father, even if it “was not easy.” After all, the poet refers to his father as “papa,” connoting greater affection. Additionally, the word choice of “romp” reflects a more playful tone. The two dance a carefree version of the upbeat waltz. Indeed, the poet’s use of “beat” pertains to the father keeping the musical beat for their movements, and it possibly foreshadows the poet’s own eventual understanding of rhythm as evidenced in the poem itself, which mostly uses an iambic trimeter line to echo the musical beat in a waltz composition and maybe imitate the swaying of waltzing dancers.

When we remember Theodore Roethke’s father died when the poet was only fourteen, and that loss appeared to impact much of Roethke’s later life as well as his writing, the mention of death seems even more elegiac. In fact, when we find similar lines in the first and last stanzas (“I hung on like death” and “still clinging to your shirt”), we may believe the father’s death is foreshadowed and that the son is unwilling to let the father go despite possible pain, even decades later when Roethke writes the poem.

In any case, one could contend the competing readings of this poem allow for a richer and more rewarding experiencing of Roethke’s lyrical recollection, and the conflicting conclusions help all conjure a more haunting image. As someone who appreciates ambiguity in all forms of art, whether in a Roethke poem or the finale of The Sopranos, I suggest “My Papa’s Waltz” for this Father’s Day weekend, and I recommend an additional delight by listening to Theodore Roethke’s reading of the poem.


The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Posted by Edward Byrne at Saturday, June 16, 2007
Andrew Shields said...
This is truly fascinating and thought-provoking. Thanks.

June 17, 2007 12:10 AM
Anonymous said...
This post has been removed by a blog administrator.
September 17, 2007 9:13 AM
Anonymous said...
I agree that it is thought provoking. Almost half of this poem I could not understand, this has helped me much thank you!

September 17, 2007 12:12 PM
Tad Richards said...
It's not quite the same thing, but when I show the Marlon Brando movie, "The Wild One," to students today, they always pick up on one thing that we never would even have noticed, seeing the movie in our leather-jacket-dreaming youth: Johnny's (Brando's) father beat him.

This comes from the line when the vigilante mob catches Brando, and are beating him up: "My old man used to hit harder than that."

November 29, 2007 5:56 PM
Anonymous said...
I have a similar experience when discussing this poem with my tenth graders. While they often have a difficult time with poetry, I find that it is one of the few poems they actually get charged up about, especially when I offer them the alternative meaning. While I disagree with their interpretation, I am pleased with their wholehearted attempt to support it because, without realizing it, they are analyzing poetry! I often follow up Roethke’s poem with "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden and have them compare each speaker's tribute to his father. I find that Hayden's poem helps them to understand the alternative interpretation to Roethke's because they begin to think about how a father displays his love differently than our expectation of how love should be shown. They draw upon their own relationships with their parents and are able to see that fathers often show their love indirectly.

December 13, 2007 8:07 PM
Mary said...
I can almost hear a class debating this poem. It's interesting how many of your students interpret this poem in a negative light. For me, it's a joyous and whirling (if exhausting) childhood memory, but I can understand the alternative explanation. When I re-read the poem a second time, a few things came to mind to support the "happy" side of the fence. These aspects have probably already been discussed in your class, but in case this adds fun to the debate...

In the title, "My Papa's Waltz," it struck me that the word "My" is significant. It seems to speak to the boy wanting to claim this person as his father, in an affectionate way -- and I further take that to mean the content of the poem may be a cherished, happy memory. The word "My" is not really necessary in the title, as it is evident in reading the poem that this is a father/son event. So it does seem to be a tender term used purposely by the author.

Another thing I noted was the "We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf." I agree with you that the word "romp" is significant; but I also feel like the word "slid" speaks to the entire situation being non-violent. It does seem like an actual dancing waltz was going on, or wouldn't the word choice of the pans coming down have been more intense, such as "fell" or "crashed"?

I also paid attention to "my mother's countenance could not unfrown itself." That sounds very much like the description of a mother who is dismayed by a mess being made right in front of her but also trying to be tolerant of it, since she does see the fun the boy is having. Otherwise, I feel like the word choice for her facial expression should have been more upset/dramatic/nervous in nature. It also seems unrealistic that a mother would (essentially) be forever frowning in this situation in a hurt way, yet standing by to watch the violent scene. It seems she would either be upset and intervene (if her son was being hurt) or beat a hasty retreat. Maybe that's not such a great point, but it's how it hit me emotionally.

The last thought I had was the father "waltzed me off to bed." If we can assume the child is literally put to bed, that seems to indicate a fatherly duty. If the poem is interpreted as more ominous in meaning, the ending just doesn't make sense to me.

Those are my 2 cent's worth, but I don't have much experience with poetry, so I know all you true poets will have much better ideas. :)

December 20, 2007 10:19 AM
Edward Byrne said...
Hi, Tad. "Anonymous," and Mary:

I appreciate your notes very much.

Tad: I used to teach that movie in my Film Studies class, and I remember students discussing the character's motives for his behavior, particularly attempting to connect his actions to personal biographical influences or debating the sway of contemporary social conditions of the times.

As "Anonymous" mentions, I also pair "My Papa's Waltz" with "Those Winter Sundays" for examination of the similarities in subject matter and differences in delivery or tone of voice. I second that recommendation.

Mary, those are excellent suggestions, providing wonderful additions that persuasively argue for a more sympathetic reading of the poem based upon the slight perception of differences in definitions or connotations associated with specific word choices, subtly revealing the persona's true emotional mood. If you don't mind, I'll have to borrow those insightful observations in my next class discussion of the poem.

December 21, 2007 9:51 AM
Mary said...
Of course I don't mind. Wow, the way you detail my suggestions, I sound absolutely brilliant -- thank you for that! :)I would be truly humbled and honored if you wanted to use any of my ideas for class discussion. In doing so, if anyone in class shouts out: "What a lame idea!", you have my full permission to explain that the idea came from a former Valpo student -- just making another run at understanding and appreciating poetry.

December 21, 2007 11:46 AM
Anonymous said...
I'd always read this as a euphemistic poem about, the way kids with bruises on their faces describe them as "little scrapes".

It always seemed to me that Roethke's vehicle was irony in this poem; i.e. by explaining away his father's dragging him as a "waltz". I appreciate, however, the alternate (and probably more accurate ) interpretation. Mine now seems extemporaneous given the time when the poem was written.

May 18, 2008 2:43 PM
Anonymous said...
As a literature undergrad student and, two decades later, physician, I occasionally reflect on this poem. It is my favorite.

I find it interesting that people become so polarized by Roethke's tribute to his father. The roughness and hint of violence is undeniable, but the author's affection for his father lends this poem it's gravity and poignancy. It is a testament to the talent of Mr. Roethke that he could evoke such strong yet contrary sentiments.

July 2, 2008 11:49 AM
Anonymous said...
I'm a 3rd year student of Kuwait University. I'm majoring in English. This course I'm taking American Literature and our book is "The Norton Anthology of AMERICAN LITERATUT". Today's lecture will be about
Theodore Roethke: "My Papa's Waltz". As I read the poem for the 1st time I felt sorry for that boy and I blamed his father for doing such a thing. But after reading your article Mr.Edward Byrne, I have a different opinion about the poem and the situation of the father and his son.
Thank you for teaching us that things should be revised and looked from different angles to avoid mistakes.
from, Amina

January 5, 2009 11:56 PM
Anonymous said...
So I'm 15 and the first time I read this poem I fell in love with it! I was very angry when my classmates thought that the boy was being abused by his father. This poem speaks about a hard working father who came home late at night when it was time for his son to go to bed. He didn't even wash his hands first he just started to spend time with the little boy by dancing. It's a ritual for them. The mother look at them disapprovingly because the father should be getting the child ready for bed but instead he's romping with the child and making him more hyper. But the mother does not intervene because she knows it's how they bond.
To the little boy, it's the only time he gets to spend with his father and he values it very much. Even though it is slightly painful for he he endures it because he loves spending time with his dad. This poem was simply brilliant!!! I loved it! :)

February 1, 2009 12:26 PM
Anonymous said...
There are many pieces of "evidence" in the poem to suggest child abuse; there are no references, only conjecture, that suggest the father just got home from work.

March 11, 2009 9:24 PM
Edward Byrne said...
I believe suggestions are not that the father "just got home from work," since he apparently has been drinking a while. Instead, readers can assume the father is a man who labors hard with his hands and has returned late from drinking after a difficult day of work.

The poem is clearly autobiographical, written about Roethke and his father, who worked in a nursery growing young plants and trees. When the poem was originally published, it was positioned by Roethke in his book beside other similar "greenhouse" poems. In an early draft of the poem Roethke began the last stanza with the following two lines that also explain the condition of the father's hands as a result of his work: "The hand wrapped round my head / Was harsh from weeds and dirt."

However, as I mention in the post, I do not see "many pieces of evidence" for child abuse, especially as expressed in the intent of the author at the time the poem was written in the 1940s about an incident that happened perhaps three decades earlier.

The child's ear is accidentally scraped while the son enjoys dancing with his "papa," a term of affection, and the use of "beat" refers to the father keeping time for the dance, as well as the boy's early learning of the importance of "beat," as in the meter now used by him as a poet, including in this elegy. Indeed, an early draft of the poem used "kept" instead of "beat."

Certainly, the poem contains marvelous ambiguity suggesting pain; however, the real pain for the speaker is not physical. Instead, as in many elegies, the example of pain in the poem may be metaphorical for the true ache of loss and regret--perhaps the pain of sorrow that accompanied the father's early death and the regret that reflects a wish that there had been a greater closeness and even more openly affectionate relationship experienced with the father.

March 12, 2009 1:15 AM
Mandy Olverson said...
Thanks for opening up such a lively debate between my two sons 15 & 17 who are presently being home schooled.They were able to think through the meaning of the poem My Papa's waltz, & explore the relationship between farther & son in more depth & come up with an interesting written analysis.

April 6, 2009 10:15 AM
LittleCatGrim said...
I'm glad to have read this blog and everyone's opinions; they're all insightful.

I just read this poem as part of an English assignment, and I as someone who enjoys reading and interpreting poetry, this one struck me as a bit ambiguous. I am unsure whether to take this literally or figuratively, but I'd also like to do more research on Reothke.

All in all, however, I think his poem makes for an engaging read. The masculine, feminine, and slant rhymes role of the tongue quite well from line to line—just to name one element to the poem.)


April 21, 2009 12:43 AM
Anonymous said...
I have bit confussion about the last 2 lines.....
But the whole poem fascinated me.

September 7, 2009 4:36 AM
Prongs said...
I am an avid poet reader and I love to write poems. It's something I do in my free time and I write things taht have happened to me in my childhood, much like Roethke does in "My Papa's Waltz"

September 17, 2009 12:23 PM
Anonymous said...
While I certainly do not object to the majority interpretation of this poem, I can clearly see the abuse angle of the reading. Abused children still love their parents; they depend on them and forgive them over and over. A waltz could certainly be a term used, in a coded way, to talk about a beating. Children, especially between siblings, have terms they used together; my brothers and I called it dancing. Before our beating, we struggled and held on for fear of falling while we were lifted off the ground and bounced against the walls. Off to bed meant he was done with you, give up and hang on. When I read this poem, I took it as the weekly beating, not a happy time. I hope this is not what the author lived through; no one should be treated that way.

September 24, 2009 8:34 AM
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