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My Papas Waltz

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A Drunken Dance
     Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” tells the reader of a small boy’s memory of his father. It explains how his father is intoxicated and the scene that goes along with it, using the word waltz to describe it.
     In the first two lines, it recounts the smell of his father’s breath and the extent to which it reeked: “The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy” (1-2). As the third and fourth lines are read, a picture of a small boy hanging onto his father is instilled in the reader’s mind: “But I hung on like death / Such waltzing was not easy” (3-4). We would not normally associate this particular image with a waltz, a word Webster’s Dictionary defines as a ballroom dance in 3/4 time with strong accent on the first beat and a basic pattern of step-step-close. How can such an elegant dance be used to describe such a scene?
     The fifth and sixth lines describe, sarcastically, a playful incident where pans fall off the kitchen shelf: “We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf” (5-6). Finally the boy’s mother comes into play during the seventh and eight lines. Her facial expression “Could not unfrown itself” (8). This tells us that the mother was displeased but its rather discerning that she made no attempt at intervening. We would normally think of a mother’s love as unconditional and willing to do anything for her son. It really shows the degree of fear the father must have embedded into the mother with his actions.
     The eleventh through fourteenth lines describe actual, bodily harm done to the young boy by way of his father’s acts: “At every step you missed / My right ear scraped a buckle / You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt” (11-14). We can actually picture the boy clinging to his father as his ear scrapes the father’s belt buckle and his watch bumps hard onto the boy’s head.
     I believe this poem tells a rather disturbing story of a boy’s time with his father in a very sarcastic way. I believe the theme to it is the sarcasm itself. It shows how some things that are bad can be described as good.

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It could be pointing out that the boy is so naive as to think that there is nothing wrong with what has happened. It makes me think of some stories of children who have been abused or simply come from broken homes. They don’t know its wrong because they haven’t known anything else their whole lives. This could be the case in Roethke’s poem, “My Papa’s Waltz.”

Work Cited

Roethke, Thomas. “My Papa’s Waltz.” Literature and the Writing Process.
Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X Day, and Robert Funk. 5th ed. Upper
Saddle River: Prentice, 1999. 479



Theodore Roethke had a conflicted relationship with his father. He loved the man, but feared him at the same time.

Roethke grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, a place that influenced his work long after. The greenhouse that his father and uncle owned, as well as the woods beyond, filled the poet's childhood with the wonders of the natural world. Roethke followed his father around as he worked and idolized him.

Roethke's father died of cancer when Roethke was fifteen, and it shook the boy's world. Long after that traumatic event, Roethke struggled with depression and mental illness. Roethke's writing often referred back to his childhood and, as we see in this poem, his father. "My Papa's Waltz" was published in a magazine in 1942, then again in Roethke's book The Lost Son and Other Poems, as well as in anthologies ever since. When you read this poem, keep in mind the title of the first book it appeared in. More than twenty years after his father's death, Roethke still wrote as a "lost son."

This poem shows a moment in the life of a father and son, but we wouldn't recommend sending it to your dad for Father's Day. This bedtime dance in the kitchen seems sweet at first, but it's also scary.

We all have fathers, whether or not we know them, and, pardon the morbidity, there's a good chance that our fathers will die before we do. We can dread the inevitable deaths of our fathers, or of our parents in general, but most of all, we hope they won't die until we're older. Roethke, though, dealt with the death of his father when he was just fifteen years old; it's probably not coincidental that the speaker of this poem clings on to his father "like death."

Even in a poem about a memory of a father that should be happy – dancing in the kitchen, making lots of noise, and annoying mom – death and a little bit of violence still creep in. This poem is actually pretty controversial – some people think it's about an abusive, alcoholic father, while others think it's just a happy memory. We guess that the poem is waltzing somewhere in the ambiguity between extremes, so it's up to you to decide how happy this poem really is.