Jan 9 Theodore Roethke: My Papa’s Waltz

A quick reminder, as I said on Jan 2nd, I’m working with a textbook at the moment to guide my trip through the poet tree. It is “An Introduction to Poetry” 7th edition and the author (editor) is X.J. Kennedy.

I’ve moved up to the “Listening to a Voice” chapter, under the sub-heading of “Tone”. In the introduction to the chapter, “tone” in poetry is defined as the poem’s attitude – whether it is contemptuous of its subject, happy with it, sad for it or it makes the poet very, very angry (O thou sickled rose). But in order to understand the tone of the poem, a person has to be a bit of a detective, because unlike a person, a poem does not have a face that we can read the expression of, or a person’s body whose language we can read, nor does it have a voice (though a good reader can add that) whose pitch, speed and emphasis we can use to understand the subtext from. If the poem is saying something sarcastically, we don’t have that sarcastic tone of voice that people have in order to understand that it isn’t actually being literal when it tells someone to take a long walk off a short pier. So, instead of all of these human devices, we must use the words that the poet has chosen to understand what attitude the poem has towards its subject.

The example poem is Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” a poem where the poet remembers his childhood with his father. Two very different readings are proposed for this poem. One is that the father was drunken and abusive toward the child and that the poem’s attitude toward the father is that of resentment. The person points towards the use of the words “whiskey”, “battered” and “scraped” and the fact that the “mother’s countenance/could not unfrown itself.” This reading also points to the child’s ear getting scraped and being tossed about, having “time beat on his head” could sound a bit abusive, and a bit fearful sounding phrase “clinging onto the father like death” could be read as not too comfortable.

But the other reading (and the one that I inferred), is an attitude of raucous joy of cherishing the time he had with him, that though the father was a bit of a bumbling fool, he was a joyous and exuberant fool. The whiskey on his breath, makes a small boy dizzy. There are also words like “romped” and “waltzing” , the fact that in the title he is referred to affectionately as “Papa” and the dancing is a scene of fun and frivolity where the pans are jumping from the shelves.

I can kind of see both readings in this, but what do you see?

We should be dancing, YEAH!

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 countencance
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.


child dances with father


About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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