Treasure Island

Theodore Roethke

(1908 - 1963 / Michigan / United States)

My Papa's Waltz


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.

Submitted: Friday, January 03, 2003

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  • * Sunprincess * (6/22/2014 8:27:00 PM)

    .......for me the title says this poem is to honor his papa....and I imagine to waltz with one's papa would always be a fond memory.......I loved reading this write....cause the poet kept it real.....truly some papas have to work very hard to provide for their families....their hands are a testament to this fact.... (Report) Reply

  • Lily Gannone (1/3/2013 8:04:00 PM)

    I think this is a complex memory for the author. Yes, this is a warm memory but there still could be some hidden emotions. The father was easily a drinker and a hard man maybe even abusive at times. I think Roethke's point was to make the reader think because depending on what you think the poems about the poem completely changes. I think the readers opinion is based on their outlook on life. This is a very complex and wonderful poem. (Report) Reply

  • Lucy Sanchez (7/3/2012 11:02:00 PM)

    While most of you make very valid points, I've studied Roethke's work for some time. I attended Arthur Hill High School just as he had, but not at the same time. I've been to his home and museum. Roethke's father was, yes, a drinker. But he was a sipper, meaning he had numerous bottles of beers and other alcoholic beverages in little compartments and pots around his garden/nursery. He didn't drink to hide his pain, but just to have the taste and relish the feeling of being slightly woozy. Roethke's family garden was behind his home, so when his father came inside from a hard days labor he was lightly inebriated. It had nothing to do with abuse, Roethke's father simply wanted to be with his children after work and dance. Of course, the mother was upset her kitchen turned upside down. As others have said before, the hand of the father was battered due to the work he does, no doubt calluses as well. But to incline that it had anything to do with abuse, is absurd, but everyone is subject to their own interpretations, I suppose. (Report) Reply

  • Back Bencher Idiot (6/25/2012 9:59:00 PM)

    See, to understand this poem u need to have a little bit acknowledgement of poet's history.Theodore Roethke lost his father at the age of 15 and was an inspiration for writing.His family had their own green house where his papa(father) used to work.
    In this poem he is nostalgic and remembering his father, how when he was small his father used to come home and how he used to be in jolly.
    His father no wonder is drunk here, and as we all know a drunk person tries to be expressive.If he is angry with someone that he'll pick a fight and if he love then he will show / express love.In the poem father loves poet(speaker) and hence wanted to dance with him.
    We romped until the pans
    Slid from the kitchen shelf;
    My mother's countenance
    Could not unfrown itself.
    suggests they went waltzing in the kitchen as as his father was drunk he was moving akwardly and pans from shelf were falling.Mother here is angry too because the kitchen was a complete mess.
    The hand that held my wrist
    Was battered on one knuckle;
    At every step you missed
    My right ear scraped a buckle.
    The hand of his father is battered because he is a manual worker at greenhouse and the buckle is of his belt which scrape speaker's ear because boy is as tall as his father's leg and the moment he miss the move belt would scrape his ears.
    You beat time on my head
    With a palm caked hard by dirt,
    Then waltzed me off to bed
    Still clinging to your shirt.
    first 2 line says his father would tap on his head as a musical beat with his rough hand while dancing and lastly the boy still cling to his father's shirt because he want to waltz more with his father. (Report) Reply

  • Madeleine Cameron (6/4/2012 3:30:00 PM)

    To me, this poem definitely suggests abuse. The father is obviously drunk, and the fact that the boy hung on like death does not suggest to me a positive experience. The slightly confusing tone in the poem is due to the fact that the boy does not understand why his father is abusing him. In his innocence, he discribes all of his pain in the only way he knows how, as a simple mistake or a game. Frequently, children with abusive parents still love them very much, because they do not have anyone else. This explains the end, where the confused boy is fearfully clinging onto his father's shirt as he takes him to bed. This is just my interpretation, feel free to take from it what you want! All in all, I think this is a wonderfully written and meaningful poem. (Report) Reply

  • Francis Perez (1/5/2012 7:01:00 PM)

    ... This poem is actually not meant to have any dark or abusive meaning to it... In fact, it's supposed to mean the following:

    It is about, likely a small boy, waltzing with his father. Hence, the title, waltz. Also, papa is a term of endearment to one's father. If the dad were hurting and abusing the child, then you would not call him by that name. The hand that held my wrist was battered on one knuckle suggests that the dad had been hurt at some point, and his drinking is likely due to the fact that he is undergoing difficult times. He is likely drinking because of his issues, but the son/daughter, up to your own interpretation, accepts this and still clings on to his shirt, despite The whiskey on your breath. Furthermore, romping is a term for rough play, or energetic play, look it up if you wish. The 2nd stanza merely means that they were dancing roughly and playing around in the kitchen, causing pans to fall from the kitchen shelf, much to the disapproval of the son/daughter's mother at her kitchen being destroyed. The person is likely dancing on the father's feet, so at every step that he missed because of his drunkenness, the right ear of the boy was scraped against the papa's belt buckle. You beat time on my head just indicates that the father was patting the boy's head as if it were a drum, playing around with him, and then took his son to bed. If this were abuse, the son would not be still clinging to your shirt. And he would not hung on like death. It was just a father and son, in my opinion a son, waltzing and roughly playing around, and although the dad is drunk and can slightly hurt his child, the son still understands his trouble and is grateful that he spends time with him.

    This is of course open to discussion. But I just wanted to present my opinion, and my reasoning behind it, as there is ample evidence suggesting that the father was not abusing his son/daughter. (Report) Reply

  • Eric Dearmin (12/1/2011 5:26:00 PM)

    I don't know how this could possibly be anything other than abuse. The tone in the story is so dreary that it has to be abuse. 'My mother's countenance could not unfrown itself' That must be the mother's disapproval of the beating. If that doesn't convince you then how about, ' my right ear scraped a buckle.' This must be his father beating him with a belt. (Report) Reply

  • Jun Kim (7/16/2010 11:29:00 PM)

    I think that the boy actually die. the poem certainly have dark imagery. i really think people can sense dark imagery in this poem and feel something bad and scary. i wonder how people think this poem is innocent when it is clearly not. all of you guys who said that it is innocent ignored about the foreshadowing. 'but i hug on like death' the boy is probably abused but i think he died and the ghost is telling the story. was batered on one knuckle is cleary a blood imagery and i can cleary see somethin abd happen and in the end it said the the father waltzed him off to bed still clnging to your shirt. it can also mean that the father sent the boy to a death bad while the boy is trying cling his father shirt which he is trying to cling life. there is proof to support that but i saw tons of people interpret this poem in many different ways. but what to you guys think. there is proof to supprt though. (Report) Reply

  • Matthew Kang (2/12/2010 10:32:00 AM)

    I think that the poem is actually a girl because it said that it could make a boy dizzy but not the speaker. I think that implies that the speaker is a girl. It could give a negative or positive outlook. It could be that the father is abusing the girl because of his drinking habit. It also could be that the father is having fun with the girl even though he drank. (Report) Reply

  • Keturah Hass (1/25/2010 3:57:00 PM)

    When I read this poem I get the thought of an unpleased little boy who is unhappy with how much his dad drinks alcohol. It states that the fathers breath reaked like alcohol so much that the little boy couldn't handle it and it made him dizzy. I find it very hard to see that it is just a father and son having fun together and having what you call play time. The little boy was used to his father drinking, but did not know how to deal with it. And even though his father drinks, they are still very close. The little boy would not clinge to his shirt unless he trusted his father. I believe that the boy is very confused, loves his daddy very much but doesn't know how to get it through to him, that him getting drunk so bad to where he reaks of alcohol hurts him very much. (Report) Reply

  • Mimi Brown (7/25/2009 7:12:00 AM)

    This poem is not about abuse, but a childhood memory captured at a later time in life. Daddy, like most dads at the time probably worked in the new world of the industrial revolution, where most men worked six days a week,12 hours a day. Payday was usually Saturday night and most men stopped by their local bar on the way home to remove the grit of poor working conditions from their throats before going home to give their wives the rest of their wages. The mother of the poem isn't upset at the the roughness of the dance, but the truth of it being the day before the Sabbath. She has most likely spent her week cooking, cleaning and raising the children. Sunday is her only respite from the constant grueling work of her 12 hour day too. And now after the dance she must repurify the house for the holy day. As for the child, he is pleased to finally see his father after the long week and a whiskery whiskey dance is most likely the only true physical contact these two have. It is a true depiction of a shared realistic moment of joy. (Report) Reply

  • Wispe Decoteau (6/22/2009 9:23:00 AM)

    many ppl think that Roethke was abused. ther was a big dissusion in my class about that. but i dont belive so becuz compared to other poems i think the father in his poems are playing have fun with his son. this shows that he wasnt an absentee father like many other poems portray fathers to be. (Report) Reply

  • Anne Rhitak (1/27/2009 7:48:00 PM)

    I love Roethke's work, it is so abstract much of the time.
    However, in this poem, it is not about abuse at all. Like Mr. Crouch said, a drink or two before bed in the early 1900s was exceedingly common, which would explain, 'The whiskey on your breath.' As well, his references to the father and how he 'beat time on my head' are not abusive, it shows that his father is a character that does not how to be gentle, but tries. This is supported by the description of 'a palm caked hard by dirt' and how the father's hand 'was battered on one knuckle.'
    The mother's frowning countenance is merely her way of expressing her disapproval at their noisy romp about the house. (Report) Reply

  • Justin Crouch (5/18/2008 9:51:00 PM)

    There is no way that Theodore Roethke was abused. This is a fond memory that he has, and has expressed for the world to see. Drinking before bed, but not getting hammered was a common thing back in the early 1900's.
    It is however, quite possible that Otto Roethke wanted to tire out the boy, and get him to bed. There is noting about abuse in this at all. (Report) Reply

  • Menaly Diietz (3/24/2007 9:38:00 AM)

    Theodore Roethke is one of my favorite poets and although the poem seems to confuse people, it is clearly about children abusing their parents. This child does not want to go to bed, and his father tired and battered from work, and also a little drunk, is dancing with the kid to tire him out. The mother is extremely unhappy about this situation because of the mess the two are making. (Report) Reply

  • Menaly Diietz (3/24/2007 9:38:00 AM)

    Theodore Roethke is one of my favorite poets and although the poem seems to confuse people, it is clearly about children abusing their parents. This child does not want to go to bed, and his father tired and battered from work, and also a little drunk, is dancing with the kid to tire him out. The mother is extremely unhappy about this situation because of the mess the two are making. (Report) Reply

  • Hillary Herbert (2/28/2007 10:41:00 PM)

    Theodore Roethke is my favorite poet, and this is the poem that captured me. I believe that I myself relate to this poem in ways that you cannot imagine. I argue that it is very probable that the child in question was abused. My own experience with abuse has very much so influenced my conclusion on the matter due to the fact that although my father abused me, I was constantly begging for his attention. I believe that it enormously depends on the child and extent of abuse. Therefore, it is still up for debate. But as a young writer, my arguements are void. I do enjoy Mr. Roethke's work, and encourage any poetry lover to read it. (Report) Reply

  • Shawn Delgado (12/11/2006 6:10:00 PM)

    While the debate about domestic violence often becomes a part of discussing this poem, especially with the words 'battered' and 'beat' in the final two stanzas, there is no evidence on the page to indicate abuse. The endearing term of 'Papa' and having both the first and last stanzas end with the boy clutching his father indicate a nostalgia of the speaker for this scene. The boy may be uncomfortable during many parts of the dance (the smell of whiskey, scraping his ear, having a hard hand beat time on his head) , but he endures it to be close to a father he clearly loves. The minute details with which he describes the father's hands also show the close attention he has paid in watching the father. Any sort of abuse would create distance, not the closeness evident in this story. (Report) Reply

  • Jonathan Pond (9/27/2006 11:57:00 AM)

    i really enjoyed reading this peom this year in english, we encountered the conflict on whether the child was be abused or if it was about a child and a father dancing, well i just wanted to say that i really encourage others to read this poem! ! !
    -Jonathan pond (Report) Reply

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