“My Papa’s Waltz” Theodore Roethke 1940 Before: This poem has caused a great deal of argument as there are two different ideas as to what the poem is actually about. So, like a good reader, I questioned the text and was pretty sure I knew what the poem was about, but knowing that there was so much division on that answer amongst other readers of the poem, namely the class I taught it to, I decided I’d better also try to answer the question “What is the poem about?” by going on my own and doing some research! Later in this course, and indeed in other classes and in life, you will find you will need to do research. So, I’ll share with you a bit of insight about finding reliable sources. Let’s begin with an easy one: If I want to find a reliable and informed opinion on the content of a poem, should I ask a fellow English teacher, or a five year old? No brainer, I should say. But, finding reliable sources may not always be that clear. Here are some pointers: While Wikepedia is easily accessible and contains volumes of information, many teachers and fewer, if any, profs will accept it as a reliable source. When using the internet for research, you will usually get hundreds of hits on your search terms. These hits are NOT organized from most reliable to least reliable! Check out who the author is: www.AuntSally’sIdearsonPoemStuff.com may not be a reliable site. Look for facts rather than opinions. Read a variety of sources. I checked out about 12 different sites on my Google search. I checked who the authors were, and scrutinized to wade through opinion (which there was a lot of!) to find facts, or at least educated opinions strongly grounded in the text. Check out this site to read the strongly grounded in the text opinion I found: http://faculty.millikin.edu/~moconner/e232/essay3.html The site with which I was most impressed was: http://edwardbyrne.blogspot.com/2007/06/theodore-roethke-my-papas- waltz.html I have copied it below for you and added my own comments to demonstrate why I found it to be a reliable site. SATURDAY, JUNE 16, 2007 Theodore Roethke: "My Papa's Waltz" Each year as my students and I discuss twentieth-century poetry, I always can count upon Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” to inspire some of the most interesting and conflicting opinions. Amazingly, examination of this fairly brief and seemingly accessible work usually initiates an elaborate and occasionally emotional conversation that moves beyond the poem’s clever use of rhythm and clear sense of sound into the direction of animated debate about the possible presence of messages covering child abuse and alcoholism. Rather than reading the poetry as an elegiac tribute by a son to his father, perhaps a belated statement of love by the speaker, many in my classes want to condemn the father for his behavior, especially for the pain they perceive him inflicting upon the young boy in the poem. A few also accuse the mother in the work of acting almost as an accomplice because she witnesses the roughhousing without interfering to stop her husband’s clumsy carousing. When pressed for evidence of the violence they claim Roethke presents, particular phrases or images are noted. The students begin by citing the opening two lines, which certainly establish drunkenness. In addition, they declare the poem suggests physical injuries to the small boy, whose ear is scraped by his father’s buckle and who feels his father “beat” him. The mother obviously appears upset, the students claim, and they wonder if the father’s battered knuckle resulted from a barroom brawl. Finally, they conclude the first stanza’s allusion to death opens the poem for darker, if not more ominous, interpretation. When consulting with colleagues at my university and elsewhere, I find this response to be a somewhat common reaction among growing numbers of students as well as some scholars. Indeed, in the last couple of decades, as society’s awareness and alarm over child abuse have increased, and concern over all forms of substance abuse has become more prominent, one can understand why a legion of readers might highlight these issues in their analysis of “My Papa’s Waltz.” Nevertheless, I find myself repeatedly rising to the defense of the parents in the poem, not so much for their specific actions or inactions, but because I believe we also need to read the piece within the context of its time frame. In the era this poem was authored, the late-1940s, readers would not have shared the same sensibilities about these issues that contemporary readers exhibit. Certainly, the definition of child abuse would not have been as broad as that expressed by my students, and a man returning home with whiskey on his breath after a day of work would not immediately raise great concern since it would not have been very unusual. If we switch to a different time frame and another frame of mind for the persona in the piece based upon the poet’s autobiography, we would retreat even further a few decades to early in the twentieth century. Roethke was born in 1908 and could not have been very old when the actions might have occurred since the boy’s height only extends to his father’s waist, and that may be with him standing on his father’s shoe tops. Also, we know the father’s work in a greenhouse would have explained the battered knuckle and the caked dirt on his hands. Therefore, in the current interpretation of this poem by some readers, we see a contrast between contemporary readers’ objections, responding within their own perceptions of proper parenting, and the author’s apparent intention at honoring a more pleasant memory of an enjoyable incident with his father, even if it “was not easy.” After all, the poet refers to his father as “papa,” connoting greater affection. Additionally, the word choice of “romp” reflects a more playful tone. The two dance a carefree version of the upbeat waltz. Indeed, the poet’s use of “beat” pertains to the father keeping the musical beat for their movements, and it possibly foreshadows the poet’s own eventual understanding of rhythm as evidenced in the poem itself, which mostly uses an iambic trimeter line to echo the musical beat in a waltz composition and maybe imitate the swaying of waltzing dancers. When we remember Theodore Roethke’s father died when the poet was only fourteen, and that loss appeared to impact much of Roethke’s later life as well as his writing, the mention of death seems even more elegiac. In fact, when we find similar lines in the first and last stanzas (“I hung on like death” and “still clinging to your shirt”), we may believe the father’s death is foreshadowed and that the son is unwilling to let the father go despite possible pain, even decades later when Roethke writes the poem. In any case, one could contend the competing readings of this poem allow for a richer and more rewarding experiencing of Roethke’s lyrical recollection, and the conflicting conclusions help all conjure a more haunting image. As someone who appreciates ambiguity in all forms of art, whether in a Roethke poem or the finale of The Sopranos, I suggest “My Papa’s Waltz” for this Father’s Day weekend, and I recommend an additional delight by listening to Theodore Roethke’s reading of the poem. EDWARD BYRNE Editor, VALPARAISO POETRY REVIEW During: 1. As you read the poem on the next page, make a list of at least four attributes of the father which people would see. How does he appear? 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. After: 2. Quote the line which tells us that the boy enjoys waltzing with his father. Defend your answer. 3. Once one looks beyond the appearance of the father, it becomes clear that this poem is indeed about the love between a father and son. So many times, people categorize us based on what we do or the roles we fill (you are a student, he is a jock, she is a mother). Often, these categorizations only show part of who you are, thus limiting the reality of the entire you. Make a text to self connection by finishing the following sentence stem: I have been categorized based on arbitrary judgment, which limited me when . . . 4. Look back at your Credo. Is there anything you would like to change or add in light of what we have studied so far? Email your answers for “As the Years Go By,” “The Things We Do For Love,” and “My Papa’s Waltz” to your teacher. Continue on to the next poem.
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