Theodore Roethke

(1908 - 1963 / Michigan / United States)

My Papa's Waltz - Poem 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.

Topic(s) of this poem: dance

Comments about My Papa's Waltz by Theodore Roethke

  • (3/31/2018 8:14:00 PM)

    Whoever says this poem is about abuse has some unresolved issues. Seriously, get a therapist. (Report) Reply

    2 person liked.
    2 person did not like.
  • Sandra N Sneed (11/29/2017 5:19:00 PM)

    I really like this poem because it can be interpreted so many ways by the readers own perception of what Theodore Roethke poem, My Papa's Waltz is really about. (Report) Reply

  • (7/12/2016 5:02:00 PM)

    I think this poem is complex and could be about abuse. There are several indications to me beside the whiskey. Pans sliding off shelves, frowning moms and battered hands and beat heads and being marched off to bed. I don't think its about music. (Report) Reply

  • Terry Craddock (9/22/2015 9:29:00 PM)

    Misty Memories Of My Father's Waltz

    the father was drunk on drink drunk on malt whiskey
    for a temperance committee the sight would not be pretty;
    in a child's idolizing eyes his father danced a pretty ditty
    for a father drunk on drink, to waltz music he stepped smartly;

    the father was drunk on drink drunk on rare treat whiskey
    for a hard working poor loving father money came not easy;
    he was finally in his home his castle celebrating his son's party
    for a loving hard working parent, love for his son shone brightly;

    the whiskey on his breath made a small boy dizzy
    but his son hung on like death in a love hug tightly;
    around the room they romped, till pans skid fell from kitchen selves

    his mother's countenance was not deadpan locked in rigid frowns;
    father's hand that held his son's wrist was battered on one knuckle
    at every step father missed, son's right ear sore scraped a buckle;

    but in a small son's eyes adoration adored the father's smiles
    father beat time on son's head with a palm caked hard by dirt;
    then waltzed the son off to bed still clinging to his Dad's shirt
    father is drunk with love, for music the waltz the child smiles;

    sharing the moment which speaks of dusted off childhood memories
    a child idolizing a hard working loving parent always caring giving;
    who even though drunk walks his son off to bed still forever loving
    ritually waltzing his son to his bedroom, in father's waltz memories;

    style smiles in malt tones make this golden gilt framed moment
    a rare treasured precious occurrence not a common nightly event;
    as enigmatic as enduring adoration a lapdog faithful loving child
    is relating at every step missed, a dreamlike memory reality held;

    Copyright © Terence George Craddock
    Written in September 2015 on the 21.9.2015.
    Inspired by the poem 'My Papa's Waltz' by Theodore Roethke.
    Dedicated to the poet Theodore Roethke.
    (Report) Reply

  • Terry Craddock (7/2/2015 11:22:00 PM)

    The father is drunk but the love for the music, the waltz, the child sharing the moment, speaks of a child idolizing a hard working loving parent, caring; who even though drunk still lovingly ritually walks the child off to bed, waltzing to the bedroom. The style and tone of this poem, make the even more like a rare treasured occurrence than a common nightly event. But then

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

    is as enigmatic as the enduring adoration of the lapdog faithful loving child relating At every step you missed/
    My right ear scraped a buckle. Such lines seal a wonderful poem in dreamlike memory reality.
    (Report) Reply

  • (7/2/2015 12:41:00 AM)

    confident enough to hang on to the scary thing (Report) Reply

  • (12/12/2014 1:51:00 PM)

    This poem isn't about abuse, I know what abuse is like, and this is overall just the relating of a good memory. Even when a parent is abusive you do have some good memories of them long after they are gone; so regardless of whether or not Roethke was abused (personally I don't think Roethke was abused) , this is a poem about a good time in his life he shared with his father. (Report) Reply

  • (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

  • (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

  • (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

  • (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

  • (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

  • (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

  • (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

  • (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

  • (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

  • (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

  • (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

  • (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

  • (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

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Read poems about / on: mother, death, time

Poem Submitted: Friday, January 3, 2003

Poem Edited: Thursday, December 25, 2014

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