Theodore Roethke published this poem in his book called The Lost Son… His father died when Roethke was only fifteen which left him depressed and disturbed. In his poetry, he often refers to his childhood memories, and “My Papa’s Waltz” is no exception.
There are varied analyses of the meaning of the poem from a pleasant experience to child abuse. As one reads the poem, it is necessary to look at several aspects of the metaphor that the poet employs.
The setting of the poem is near the kitchen and in the kitchen. The kitchen usually is a place of safety because there your mother works to feed and take care of her family. In addition, children often sit at the table to do their homework knowing that their mother is near to help. This is not the case in this poem.
In this wild waltz involving the father and son, the mother stands by in the kitchen frowning. Certainly, she does not like them knocking off the pans from the shelf; however, she does nothing to intervene in the dance. The safety net is broken because the mother allows this dizzying waltz to continue. Why would the mother in her own kitchen not say something to the father to tone down the dance? It might suggest that she is afraid of the father and his reaction to her intervening. The mother does not do anything to help the boy. The father has been drinking, and he is taking his son on a wild ride around the rooms.
The kitchen is the metaphor for the wildness and loneliness of the boy despite him dancing with his father and being observed by his mother. Look at the words that the poet chooses to use to describe the dance: death, dizzying, scraped, beat time. None of these words used in the context of the poem imply that this was a great time for the boy as he had no choice to stop or slow down the experience.
The relationship between the three characters and the setting of the poem simply move forward the idea of the waltz being an unpleasant memory for the boy and his mother. Apparently dad has worked all day, stopped off at a bar and drank a good deal, and then come home in a drunken stupor. He sees his son, and in his alcoholic state, he decides to give his son a dance. The indication may be that the experience never happened but was only a mask for the abuse that both mother and son received when the father was drunk.
Dancing around with a dizzying circular pace, the father stomps so hard that he actually knocks the pans from the wall. The mother says nothing but frowns, yet the father does not notice her at all.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
His hands indicate that he has hurt himself or that he has been in a fight. Obviously, this is a man used to hard work and possibly violence. Beating time on the boy’s head and scraping the belt buckle on the boy’s head at every movement cannot have been a pleasant experience, but the boy says nothing to deter or change or stop the dance. He clings to his father’s shirt. In a different poem, the word could have been held, hugged, embraced, and enfolded. But the boy was holding on for “dear life.” As the poet says, the waltzing was not easy.