Although it is important to first read a poem as the poet intended it to be read, one must also consider the hidden, deeper meaning of a poem. On one hand, by reading a poem with the poet’s intended meaning one can utilize poetic devices to enhance the meaning of the poem. On the other hand, by searching for other, profound meanings of the poem, one can make use of poetic devices to find complexity in the meaning of the poem. “My Papa’s Waltz”, by Theodore Roethke, is a poem which can be interpreted in two different ways, depending on how one reads it. If one reads the poem as the poet intended, the poem can be viewed as a son’s elegy for his father. In fact, the language and poetic devices used throughout the poem convey a son’s deep love of the memory of his father and his grief over his father’s absence. However, if one searches the poem for a profound meaning, the poem can be interpreted as a father’s mistreatment of his son and the son’s grief over his past. Nonetheless, the language and poetic devices used throughout the poem have reflective meanings and cannot be read at face value.
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The overall tempo and rhythm of the poem gives the feel of a nursery rhyme. The rhyme scheme and use of meter force one to read the poem faster than usual. When the poem is read in this way, the cadence of the poem mimics the actual steps of a dance, such as the supposed waltz the father and son are doing in this poem. Each stanza is organized into four lines of six or seven syllables, and the last word of every other line rhyme. From the very beginning of the poem this structure is evident.
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death;
Such waltzing was not easy. (1-4)
Structuring the poem in this way is what gives the poem its fast and uplifting beat and tempo. Roethke wrote the poem in this way for a very specific purpose. On the one hand, writing the poem like a nursery rhyme adds to the childlike feel of the poem and gives the stanzas a light-hearted, fun feel. The structure paints a picture of a man looking back on his childhood and remembering a fond moment he had with his father. When the son says, “Still clinging to your shirt” (16) he is showing how he could not let go of his father. On the other hand, because of the ambiguity of this line it is unclear whether this memory is truly a positive one.
“My Papa’s Waltz” begins with a son’s vivid imagery of his father. He describes his father through his sense of smell rather than his sight or sense of sound. Roethke’s choice of smell rather than any other sense is significant because it shows how strongly the son’s memory of his father is. On one hand, one can view this choice of imagery as the son’s strong, loving memory of his father; however one can also view this choice of imagery as the son’s strong, fearful memory of his father. For instance, when the son says, “The whiskey on your breath/Could make a small boy dizzy” (1-2), one may have a vision of a man who is slightly tipsy. The son is dizzy with joy and overwhelming feelings for his father. On the other hand, this line can also mean that the son is clearly close enough to the father to smell the alcohol on his breath. The word “dizzy” (2) here may not conjure up positive feelings for the son, but rather feelings of discomfort for what might follow.
The subsequent lines in the stanza serve as an extension of the feelings one has from the first two lines. The son goes on to say, “But I hung on like death/Such waltzing was not easy” (3-4). One may see this as a continuation of the feelings of joy and happiness the son has. The son is hanging onto his father despite the fact that the dancing they are doing is not easy. When the word “death” (3) is used here, one can interpret this to mean that the son is hanging on with all of his strength and would rather die than let go of this father, physically and mentally. However, the word “death” (3) can also be a strong indicator that this poem is not going to be a positive one, especially because death is such an ominous and sorrowful word to use in what is supposed to be a silly and exciting poem.
Each line in the following stanza has six syllables. This is the only stanza in the poem that has the same amount of syllables in each line. This indicates to the reader that the dance the father and son are in is fastest here. Whether it is a dance of love or a dance of fear, it is at its highest level of frenzy at this point. The son begins this stanza by saying, “We romped until the pans/Slid from the kitchen shelf” (5-6). One may see this dance as a dance of love between father and son that is so energetic that the pans are sliding from the shelves in the kitchen. Additionally, the choice of the word “romp” (5) may give one a positive, fun feeling, much like the word “dizzy” (2). Conversely, the choice of “romp” (5) here may be ironic. This “romping” (5) might seem like a father and son “horsing around”, but clearly this word does not match the lighthearted, graceful feel of a waltz. Therefore, one can interpret “romping” (5) to mean that the father is “dancing” so violently with his son that the pans in the kitchen are actually falling off the shelf. The son then continues to tell that, “My mother’s countenance/Could not unfrown itself” (7-8). The image one has in this line is that of a mother who disapproves of the rough behavior between her husband and son, but is not actually doing anything to stop it. She thinks the son should be in bed at this point, but clearly the father does not care. He is too involved in his drunken dance with his son. On the other hand, this line can also provide one with the image of a powerless bystander. The mother may feel too incapable to stop the father and literally stands there doing nothing but frowning.
In the third stanza, one can see the physical aspect of this “waltz”. For instance, in this stanza the son describes how his father is touching him.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle (9-12).
Although the dance here is a bit rough, one may view it as done with love. The father is holding the son’s wrist so that he does not fall during their “romp” (5). Additionally, the imagery one gets of the father’s battered knuckle shows that the father may be a blue collar worker. Then, when the son’s ear scrapes a buckle, one sees that although this waltz is perhaps a little rough, the son does not care because of his affection for his father. On the other hand, the third stanza may be one of the strongest indicators of abuse throughout the poem. For instance, when the son refers to “the hand that held my wrist” (9) one can see that there is a feeling of aggression here. The father would not be holding the son by the wrist if they were “waltzing” lovingly, rather he would be holding the son by the hand. Based on this line’s word order, there is also a sense of unwillingness. In addition, when the son says that his father’s hand was “battered on one knuckle” (10), there is a connotation of violence. After all, the word choice used in this line is “battered” (10), which is harsh but deliberate. When the son continues by saying, “At every step you missed/My right ear scraped a buckle” (11-12) one becomes aware of the height difference between the father and son. The son is so much smaller than the father, that his ear only comes up to his father’s belt buckle. This line is also particularly unclear because when the son says, “My right ear scraped a buckle” (12) it seems as though he is blaming himself. However, when the son says, “At every step you missed” (11) he seems to be blaming his father for stumbling.
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In the last stanza the son says, “You beat time on my head/With a palm caked hard by dirt” (13-14). On one hand, this line can be interpreted as innocent, especially because “You beat time on my head” (13) proves that the father and son are indeed waltzing in tune with a beat. The father’s hand “caked with dirt” (14) just continues to show that the father is a hard labor worker. On the other hand, the use of the word “beat” in this instance is inappropriate. If this line were truly referring to a dance, a more appropriate and gentle word to use would be “kept”, as in “kept time”. After that, the son continues by saying, “Then waltzed me off to bed/Still clinging to your shirt” (15-16). This reinforces the idea that the relationship between the father and son is one of love, since “waltz” (15) is used here in a mild manner. Moreover, “Still clinging to your shirt” (16) can be a powerful display of the love that the son has for the father. The son does not want his father to leave him, and hangs on to him to stay with him as long as he can. However, one can also argue that the son is not merely being “waltzed off to bed” (15) because he is being childish. Rather, the term “waltzed” (15) is used to show that the father is using force, as if he is hauling his son to bed. One can also argue that while the relationship between the father and son is questionable, the fact that the son is “clinging to his father’s shirt” (16) gives one reason to believe that there is still an underlying sense of attachment that the son has for his father. Furthermore, the vivid imagery of hands that the son invokes in this last stanza is very telling of the poem’s meaning. For instance, the words, “beat time” (13), “palm” (14), and “clinging” (16) all present an image of a hand. The reason for this imagery can be because hands are powerful communicators and can be used for positive reasons or for negative reasons. Therefore, while hands are a natural way for people to communicate with one another, they can be perceived as either an affectionate or fearful and violent gesture.
Due to the fact that “My Papa’s Waltz” is such a controversial and ambiguous poem, it is particularly difficult to side with one interpretation of it. Nevertheless, many people can agree that the word choices made in this poem are intentional, especially because a poet needs to convey meaning behind his poem in so few words. Many people can also agree that Roethke’s poem leaves one with a feeling of unease and disturbance, mainly during the last two stanzas. For instance, while the first two stanzas follow a meter pattern that appears to be repetitive, as one reads the last two stanzas, there is an obvious line break. This line forces one to carefully read the poem and see that the words in the second half of the poem are much harder and rougher sounding. There is hardly a sense of tender nature in the last two stanzas of the poem and that is what causes the uncomfortable and slightly haunting feeling. However, since there are aspects of “My Papa’s Waltz” which provide evidence for dual interpretations, perhaps people can agree that there might be two possible explanations behind this poem. Perhaps, Roethke wrote the poem with a positive and negative, up and down rhythm and tone, for the purpose of showing the various conflicting and complex patterns of a relationship between that of father and son.
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