The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “My Papa’s Waltz,” Theodore Roethke imaginatively re-creates a childhood encounter with his father but also begins to attempt to understand the meaning of the relationship between them. The poem may be read as a warm memory of happy play, but when one is familiar with the rest of Roethke’s work, a darker view of the event emerges. Although the poem is only sixteen short lines, it is one of Roethke’s most moving and most frequently anthologized poems.

Theodore Roethke was born and grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, where his father and uncle operated a large and successful greenhouse. Sometimes Roethke’s father would stay up late into the night watering and otherwise tending to his plants. After a drink to relax, he would swing his son Theodore around the kitchen in a bearlike dance and then carry him off to bed. Roethke stated in an interview that his father would hook his son’s feet through the father’s rubber bootstraps and, with Theodore’s feet thus trapped, haul the youngster about.

Roethke’s poetic description of this scene conveys both the father’s love for the son and the son’s fear of this overpowering event, a combination which explains why the poem has haunted so many readers. At first the child finds merely the smell of the alcohol on his father’s breath overwhelming, but he endures the experience and hangs on to his father’s shirt: “Such waltzing was not easy.” The “waltz” is so violent that pots...

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My Papa's Waltz Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Roethke uses a number of poetic devices that reinforce the meaning of the poem; the meter, although it is iambic, sometimes adds an extra feminine syllable at the end of the second or fourth lines, such as “Could make a small boy dizzy” and “Such waltzing was not easy.” The additional foot produces a stumbling effect that adds to the poem’s description of a clumsy waltz.

The poem’s short lines also reinforce the fact that this experience is happening to a child. In his later poetry, Roethke uses nursery rhymes, jingles, and playground taunts to suggest the world of children to which he was trying to return in imagination and spirit. In “My Papa’s Waltz,” however, there is nothing to imagine, since the incident really happened—apparently more than once. Roethke wants the reader to identify with the child, not the adults in the poem, so he not only writes the poem from the viewpoint of a child but also uses the short lines common in poetry written for children (Roethke himself wrote two such volumes) and in the verses that children themselves write. “Papa” is a child’s term for a father; nevertheless, the reader is not allowed to forget that this poem is an adult remembrance of an event from childhood. “Countenance,” for example, is not a word that a child would be likely to use to describe someone’s face.

The diction of the poem also underscores the child’s sense of fright at the experience. Although at first reading the poem may seem funny, with utensils falling in slapstick fashion as the father and child bang around the kitchen, it is clearly not amusing to the child who has to hold on tightly to his father to avoid falling like the pots and pans. Dazed by the whiskey on his father’s breath, he must hang on “like death.” At the end of the dance, he is still “clinging” to his father’s shirt, not embracing his father’s body with warmth. From the child’s perspective, the “waltz” has been something to endure, not to enjoy.

My Papa's Waltz Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Theodore Roethke. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Bogen, Don. Theodore Roethke and the Writing Process. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991.

Bowers, Neal. Theodore Roethke: The Journey from I to Otherwise. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Kalaidjian, Walter B. Understanding Theodore Roethke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Kusch, Robert. My Toughest Mentor: Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams (1940-1948). Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1999.

Malkoff, Karl. Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Seager, Allan. The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Stiffler, Randall. Theodore Roethke: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1986.

Wolff, George. Theodore Roethke. Boston: Twayne, 1981.