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"My Papa's Waltz" is an intriguing poem, partly because of its ambiguity. It can be read as both a story of a child terrorized by and abusive father and a child having a playful romp with his daddy before bedtime.
Whenever my students read this work, they initially disagree on which interpretation is more correct. One must consider the diction (or word choice) very carefully when deciding how to read this work.
A good mnemonic device (or memory trick) for analyzing poetry is the TPCASTT system.
Title: Ponder the title before reading the poem
Paraphrase: Translate the poem into your own words
Connotation: Contemplate the poem for meaning beyond the literal level
Attitude: Observe both the speaker’s and the poet’s attitude (tone).
Shifts: Note shifts in speakers and attitudes or form
Title: Examine the title again, this time on an interpretive level
Theme: Determine what the poet is saying
After looking at all of these aspects of the poem, most come to read it as a boy's recollection of his father's playful rough-housing--perhaps a bit too roughly after a few drinks, but not in anger. The word "romped" indicates a playful nature, despite boys scraping against his father's buckle or the mother's stern frowning at the pots and pans being knocked out of place. And the last two lines, "Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt," show that the boy was enjoying the staggering dance, since he still clings to his father when it is over.
It's important when reading ambiguous poems that you carefully weigh all the possible interpretations before deciding what they mean to you.
For more in depth discussion of "My Papa's Waltz" check the links below. The one to from enotes Salem on Literature series has some information about Roethke's relationship with his own father that might have influenced his writing of this poem.
There will be different reads as to meaning of the poem. Much of this is based on how individuals interpret that unsettled nature between father and son. The surface meaning of the poem is that a father and son are sharing a dance, in particular, a waltz. The father has been drinking and the opening lines indicate this us, and the subsequent stanzas that detail the disorder and occasional misstep in the dancing also relays this. There is some level of apprehension that the child has towards this dance. It might be due to the fact that the father is slightly off balance and his coordination has been impaired. Others could suggest that this is the undertone of abuse which is present. The difference in perception here lends itself to divergent symbolic meanings. Some might see the story presented as an example of child abuse brought on by alcoholic consumption and that the narrative rendered is one of torment and mistreatment. Another viewpoint is that this is a tender memory of father and son, who share a moment that lingers in the son's mind. Details in the poem help to support either read. For example, the mother's countenance in the second stanza could reflect the upturning of pots and pans in the kitchen or could mirror the feelings she has towards the father abusing his son by forcing him in this dance. The scratch on the ear could be from abuse or scraping against the buckle and the description of the father's knuckles could be incidental and not abuse. In some ways, how we, as readers, understand the poem might reflect more about our own backgrounds than the poem, itself.
One does not often come across literary works that explore alcoholic abuse, or better yet, the consequences it may possibly yield. But this is exactly what Roethke’s poem, “My Papa’s Waltz”, talks about. How the persona of the poem struggled growing up—“waltzing” in fact—to the tune of a life he had to live with parents that are either unhappy or abusive was deeply explored. One may also consider the poem as rumination, or perhaps, to be more accurate, a chronicle of what the persona had to go through his life since his early years, given that he had an alcoholic for a father. This is actually where one may find an irony, though. The poem’s title suggests that the poem is about a certain “Papa”, but in fact, it is an exploration of the persona’s experiences and how the persona faced and braved the harsh reality of living due to “Papa’s” deeds.
The first stanza of the poem suggests a lot of things already—complaints, disgust, sacrifice, respect, as well as the presence and the effects of patriarchal authority on the persona. “The whiskey of your breath could make a small boy dizzy” verifies the fact that since childhood, the persona had to bear the presence of an alcoholic father. He admits that “such waltzing was not easy” and that he “hung on like death.” Simultaneously, there was resistance and there was surrender. The persona, as implied, had to endure smelling the whiskey in his father’s breath. The simile used in the poem, like death, may also imply that the boy probably thought that such behaviors from his father seemingly had no end; it was something he had to endure and fight against as long as he could. At a young age, he realized that it was no easy feat having to deal with an alcoholic. “Could make a small boy dizzy” may imply the persona’s noteworthy strength, but it is also suggestive of the boy’s respect and fear for his father’s patriarchy.
Upon reading the second stanza, one learns that sacrifices the persona had to go through were not limited to fearing or perhaps, battling repugnance each time he smells the whiskey in his father’s breath. One learns that they—father and son—“romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf,” a clear indication of physical exploitation between the father and the persona. Such action from the father may be considered as an aftermath of alcoholic abuse. The drama behind these lines is further intensified by the succeeding “My mother’s countenance / could not unfrown itself.” The picture of a helpless, depressed mother watching a child being abused comes to mind. Such imagery is extended until the last stanza of the poem, only that in the last stanza, with the persona stating “You beat time on my head,” the tone of the poem shifted from a pensive, hurtful one into a tone that is suggestive of prolonged hardship and endurance. It is said that “At every step you missed / my right ear scraped a buckle.” The poem’s persona grew from being the sacrificing one into being a fighting one. A complete metamorphosis of the persona is seen, from naïveté into adult apprehension.
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