My Papa's Waltz Poem by Theodore Roethke

My Papa's Waltz

Rating: 3.9

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.

Friday, January 3, 2003
Topic(s) of this poem: dance
Francis Perez 05 January 2012

... 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.

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Eric Dearmin 01 December 2011

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.

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Madeleine Cameron 04 June 2012

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.

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Lucy Sanchez 03 July 2012

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.

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Jun Kim 16 July 2010

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.

27 93 Reply
Sylvia Frances Chan 27 August 2021

Great images here from a great poet. How amazingly written this child's memory!

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Sylvia Frances Chan 27 August 2021

Very interesting poem Congrats being chosen as The Classic Poem Of The Day

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Rose Marie Juan-austin 27 August 2021

A child's memory so vividly depicted. A wonderful poem embellished with nice rhyme and great images

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Very interesting poem 27 August 2021

Sylvia Frances Chan

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Chinedu Dike 27 August 2021

Well articuated and nicely embellished with poetic rhyme and rhythm. A beautiful creation.....

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Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke

Michigan / United States
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