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

  • carlye (9/4/2019 11:06:00 AM)

    from the first line we see " the whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy(Report)Reply

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  • Wanda (2/17/2019 9:37:00 PM)

    This poem is not about abuse. It is about a child sharing rare moment of closeness/affection with a hard-working father. The author himself shared this many times.(Report)Reply

    2 person liked.
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  • Pat Smith (7/10/2018 9:07:00 AM)

    At every step you missed could mean the mistakes or regrets in the father's life. Hence the transfer of anger to the buckle symbolically. But like all good poetry, the reader brings their own experience to the poem, and it could be interpreted several ways. If that is Theodore Roethke's comment below, it seems he was beaten.(Report)Reply

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  • IT''S COMING HOME, IT''S COMING HOME, IT''S COMING (7/10/2018 4:35:00 AM)


    2 person liked.
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  • Gareth Southgate (7/10/2018 4:34:00 AM)

    I get the feeling that this poeam is portraying that ITS COMING HOME(Report)Reply

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  • Paul McCartney (7/10/2018 4:34:00 AM)

    I'm not sure I'm alive either(Report)Reply

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  • Theodore Roethke (6/20/2018 3:33:00 AM)

    daddy beat me not good(Report)Reply

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  • Silvervixen (3/31/2018 8:14:00 PM)

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

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  • R Brownfield (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

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  • Terry CraddockTerry 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

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  • Terry CraddockTerry 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

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  • Douglas Scotney (7/2/2015 12:41:00 AM)

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

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  • Nathan Beery (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

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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

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  • 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

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  • 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

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  • 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

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  • 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

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  • 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

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  • 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

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Read poems about / on: mother, death, time

Poem Submitted: Friday, January 3, 2003

Poem Edited: Thursday, December 25, 2014