A poem about a father/child relationship
"My Papa’s Waltz"
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 itelf.
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.
The following is a an analysis of whether or not this poem is about abuse... or fondness.
Theodore Roethke possibly wrote "My Papa’s Waltz" in memory of his fondness for his father. Although the narrator's father may have been slightly drunk, he was still capable of dancing, albeit awkwardly. Enthusiastically prancing around with his son, he surely was not beating him upside the head. The narrator enjoyed himself just as much his father, only to the regret of a watching worried mother. The fact that the poem is being told to a waltzing beat and tune, written to his father, only suggests further that the narrator truly did intend for the memory to be a warm nostalgic tale.
Perhaps the counter argument would best be analyzed first. John Ciardi argued, “’My Papa’s Waltz’ is a poem of terror, all 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.” (Bobby Fong) What could make a reader come to this conclusion? The author did use the following words in the poem: whiskey, dizzy, romped, scraped (on the buckle), and beat. The father also caused an avalanche of pans from the walls, indicating human interference of their static positions. There was also an indication of a wrist being held, not a hand. Does this not mean then that it was forceful? It would not be hard for the reader, at first glance, to come away from the poem with a clinching gut feeling that child-abuse was at play. Another reader said, “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.” (Bobby Fong) However, I agree with Bobby Fong’s opinion, that this reader who he is criticizing, missed out on the tone of the poem.
Besides the tone though, the child clearly received a few bruises and scrapes. The father was not only drunk – but was definitely the cause of the child’s injuries. The line, “I hung on like death,” gives fear to the reader when first read. If life clings on with all its might until the last gasp of air fades, then death holds on thereafter. But death is in fact, rest. So how does one hang on just like death? Perhaps the true meaning of that statement is, however hard it was to hang on, that the narrator would and could not let go. Death is uncompromising, once you’re dead, that’s it. Or even, if he had let go, he may have died? Fairly assessed there is still yet another question, why was the father’s knuckle battered? Did he get injured prior to coming home, or during the dance in accident. Surely the narrator would have pointed out that the knuckle was injured directly related to the father causing him harm, so it is safe to assume that the narrator had no intention of suggesting abuse. If anything the assumption would be that the father’s caked hands were covered in dirt, and that the same hands had been injured in whatever job the father did that so caused him to be dirty. The ultimate question of whether or not the boy was being abused then must still find an answer. Was Roethke teasing an answer at the end of the poem? “Then waltzed me off to bed… still CLINGING to your shirt.”
If he was being abused he would have ran away from his father at first chance, rather, he didn’t want to let go because he actually was enjoying himself! His mother was frowning due to motherly instinct out of fear for his safety, but made no attempts at intervention because it was not necessary. No mother would ever let her child be abused without at least an attempt to stop it first. Further it was only misfortune that the narrator scraped his ear on the belt buckle that was still attached to his father’s pants. For if the belt was off and used as a whip in the hand, it would have been used on the poor chap’s bottom. Instead, pans fell from the shelves, causing comic relief.
The word “beat” has multiple meanings, and if the sentence it was used in was taken separately from the rest, the true meaning can be found. “You beat time on my head with a palm caked hard by dirt.” This is the reinforcing sentence that proves the waltz is in fact a waltz, for all waltzes have a ¾ beat to keep in tune with. His father is emphasizing the rhythm by tapping it on his son’s head, which any adolescent would smile to.
As a substitute for abuse, imagine a father who just came home from a hard day at work still dirty, to find his son wrapped up in his arms upon walking into the kitchen. They began to twirl because they had so missed each other, with his son stepping on his shoes as they pranced around in the kitchen. With this visual image it is easy to understand why Roethke wrote a poem to a beat that described his beautiful memory of his father. He may have even written it in gratitude to his loving father because he wrote the poem directly to his papa. They probably began slow, gradually twirling faster and faster, to the point of being in a blur, causing the boy to be dizzy. It was exciting for the boy because it was frightening! It was thrilling just like a roller coaster ride. Roethke probably wishes he could relive his fond boyhood memory, cuts, bruises, and all. Even though alcohol is associated with violence and child abuse, “My Papa’s Waltz” is a poem of nostalgia. There isn’t anything much more exhilarating than being twirled around as a child by your loving father, except perhaps being the father.
Is there balance between the negative and positive aspects of the poem? Of course. “Evidence from the original, handwritten manuscripts adds support for allowing and validating contradictory interpretations of this poem. The holograph manuscripts of ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ confirm that Roethke himself tried to balance the negative and positive tones of the poem, resulting in its rich ambiguity.” (John McKenna) There are two copies, with the typical chicken scratch here and there, with replaced words and re-replaced words. The gender of the narrator changed from a girl to a boy. The word “right ear” changed to “forehead” only to change back to “right ear.” This struggle of the child’s head facing a particular direction changing the child’s embrace. Nothing but rough tenderness from Roethke.
Regardless of the true meaning of the poem, personal experience has a factor in the interpretation of the poem. My dad always twirled me as a young lad. I loved him so much for it too. There was nothing as exciting as when papa came home and grabbed my hands and circled faster and faster until he himself was too dizzy to keep himself up. We’d fall down to the ground softly, and laugh until we shed a tear of joy. If he had been an abusive father, I would have read the poem with a far different taste. Instead, I am glad I had a positive upbringing where abuse was never in the home.
Sources from a school protected library database. When I find sources available from Google I'll post them.