"My Papa's Waltz" Theodore Roethke poem RECITED BY POET (he uses "waltz" rhythm when reciting!)





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Published on Jul 22, 2013

My Papa's Waltz

By Theodore Roethke

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

The memory described in "My Papa's Waltz" is mostly positive.

The poem is about a specific type of dance, which is established thrice: by the title as well as lines 4 and 15. The father waltzed with his child at bedtime, a spirited attempt to bring elegance into a humble home. Waltzing is often associated with royalty, emperors dancing in palaces to the music of Johann Strauss II, good living! The verb "romped" in the second stanza is strong evidence that this was a playful activity for both father and son, a bonding experience ("boy" in the opening stanza suggests this speaker is male, but gender isn't important).

The father is not a great dancer. He had been drinking, which probably affects his coordination. With each misstep the young one's ear comes in contact with a belt buckle at the man's waist. But gracefulness does not matter here--the father earns gratitude for being loose, goofy, and carefree. The child is delighted by this roughhouse activity and is even "clinging" in the last line, unwilling to let go. The father's waltzing is like a carnival ride, requiring the young one to hold on "like death." This may be the highpoint of the child's day.

This parent had probably been away all day. The hand "caked hard by dirt" suggests he does taxing physical labor. He did not wash upon arriving home (though he found time to drink whiskey), possibly so happy seeing his child that he started dancing--washing can be done later. The hand battered by a tool or machine during the day now teaches 3/4 time exuberantly to an appreciative student, "3/4 time" being a musical term meaning three beats to a measure--"you beat time on my head." Child and father enjoy spending at least some time together.

The poem is mostly positive. It has complexity because the mother stays somber in the background, a joyless contrast to the boisterous "papa." The formal word "mother" is used for her--not "mama," not "mom." She comes off as stern. Far from playful, she is annoyed that a tidy kitchen is disturbed by horseplay. Her frown and the utensils sliding are in the same sentence, a mere semicolon separating the pans and frowning, so there is clear cause-and-effect. Frowning seems unjustified and petty though "papa" riling up a child at bedtime may also account for the displeasure of "mother."

Waltz rhythm in the poem reinforces its overall happy mood. Most lines consist of six syllables, so creating a "1-2-3" rhythm when saying lines ("the whiskey," pause, "on your breath," pause) is easy, natural. Such rhythm may tempt readers to dance while reciting!


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