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My Papa's Waltz

Theodore Roethke

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one never knows
2005-03-10
Added by: good grief
it seems that none of the previous commentators (okay, i didn't actually read ALL 88 comments...) have heard of the intentional fallacy, not to mention the equally precarious leap of assuming that a poem is in fact autobiographical in any specific way, regardless of what we know about the author. particularly in the case of such a captivatingly, compellingly ambiguous poem. it's allowed to be about abuse. and not be about abuse. it's exhausting that everyone seems to fiercely aligned with their pet school of literary interpretation. so what if it is autobiographical and roethke signed the damn thing with a memo claiming that a) he was horribly abused as a child by his wretchedly alcholic father or b) that that's rubbish and it was a charming bit of nostalgie about an evening in his good ol' working class family. that's just not necessarily the point. it's poetry. it's there to be argued about endlessly with passion and detatchment and never decided or agreed upon in any decisive way.
jeez.
2005-05-23
Added by: Kathy Conrad
This poem is open to interpretation and can be looked at either way. When I first read it, I thought it was about an abusive, alcoholic father who beat his young son when he got home from work. However, after a discussion in my AP English class, we came to the conclusion that the father could also be coming home from a hard days work, getting drunk and then spending time with his child dancing away while the mother looks on. I think this poem is very interesting and could be looked at either way.
"My Papa's Waltz
2005-07-07
Added by: Carrie L. DeFour
The theme of this poem can be equated to what people today call the “quality time” they spend with their children. It evokes the innocence and joy experienced by a boy of about 6 or 7 years old, who is enamored with the antics of his father’s drunken dancing.

That “such waltzing was not easy” (line 4), leads the reader to believe it was a simulated version of a “Tango”, a difficult dance to maneuver. If we picture the father’s right arm outstretched, the boy would be facing him, with the right side of his face against the father’s abdomen. This allows the “right ear to scrape a buckle” (12) with the father’s misstep. We can surmise that it is the boy’s left arm that is outstretched in which the father “held my wrist” (9). The father lightheartedly uses the top of the boy’s head “to beat time on” (13) with his left hand, as the rythymn for their dance.

By using the term “romped” (5), we get the sense of boisterous play occurring in the kitchen, where mother is none-to-happy about her pans being disrupted off the shelves by their wild dancing. Her “countenance” shows her disapproval in the way of a frown on her face.

The use of such phrases as “hanging on like death” (3), the “battered…knuckle”(10), and the “palm caked hard by dirt” (14), leads the reader to believe the father is a gravedigger. It is because of the horrors of his work that he drowns himself in drink at the end of the day, in order to return home and be the lighthearted and carefree person his son loves to play with. The sad reality of the little boy’s need is seen when he is danced off to bed, only to be found “clinging to your shirt” (15), in hopes of having more time with his father.


no alcoholism, no abuse
2005-07-14
Added by: Lara
The dad is not an alcoholic. He is merely a hardworking man who works with his hands (hence the dirt on his hands and the scrapped finger). The mother is frowning because it is night and the child should be asleep and their dancing is causing the pans in the kitchen to fall all over the place. She is sitting by watching this and doesn't step in to protect her son, so it isn't an abusive dance going on here. The son's hitting his head is because he is so short that his head comes up to his father's belt. When the dad misses a step, the two of them run into each other causing the boy to be hit by the buckle.
the big and small of it
2005-07-14
Added by: lisa
I see/smell/feel the steps of dance, the fetid odor of the trapped, the bloody scrapes of desperation and dissipation -- this poetic waltz is a commentary on difficult, fleeting relationships, as well as being a very real vignette. this poem is both wonderfully large and very small.
My Papa's Waltz
2005-07-25
Added by: Crystal
I don't think this poem is about abuse. It is about a father that comes homes drunk and dances with his son. While dancing they knock over pans from the kitchen. The boy was small and when dancing with his father only came to his waist. When his father would stumble his ear would scrap his belt buckle. The line "You beat time on my head with a palm caked hard by dirt," this refers to his father tapping on his head to the beat of the music. HIs hands are dirty and "caked with dirt" from working all day and coming home and dancing with his son before he washed them. When he took him to bed the boy didn't want to stop dancing and is clinging to his father's shirt.
2005-09-01
Added by: A2
Might I add that the father figure of the poem is not abusive, and therefor the parts of the poem in which "The hand that held my wrist" and "Every step you miss, my right ear scraped a buckle" are written, refer to the age of his kid (The buckle is at ear-height, and the hand is too small to be held while waltzing like they did).

Sybolism
2005-09-09
Added by: Liz
This poem sybolizes Theodores's life as a boy, and their life was hard. The palm caked hard by dirt is because the father woked in a greenhouse. This poem is a tribute to his father who died of cancer when Roethke was 15. This is symbolized by "Then waltzed me off to bed/ still clinging to your shirt."
What about incest?
2005-11-02
Added by: marianne
It might seem a little sick here, but I read the theme of incest into the poem. Notice the first two lines: 'The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;'
Doesn't that sound a little like those romance stories where the schoolgirl or any other heroine is practically swooning in the arms of the Handsome Hunk? And the waltz, it brings the image of a 'Sweet Valley High' school prom?
Also, some bits about the buckle and his father beating time on his head do sound a little like the sort of abuse a child would suffer in the hands of a drunk parent.
I am emotional
2005-11-05
Added by: Kris
I suppose this poem is about a drunk father playing with his child who pretends to be fine when in fact feeling kind of scared. Whatever way this poem is interpreted, it reminds me of my Dad, who I forever call the most wonderful person in the world. This poem somehow makes me emotional and find myself thanking the Lord for blessing me a father who has no vice ,wh is so patient and most of all who is a very good friend.

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