Upon first reading the poem titled “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke, a negative opinion could be formed. Due to some of the words in this poem, it is understandable why this kind of reaction could be evoked. Further analysis and critical thinking allows one to better understand what the writer may really mean. In the first line of the poem, “The whiskey on your breath” is descriptive enough to produce an image in one’s mind of a man who is drunk. The words of “Could make a small boy dizzy” further illustrate the strong intoxication of the man. It is often not in good taste when an intoxicated adult presents him or herself to a child. The poem could be interpreted as a depiction of a child’s experience of abuse from his father. “But I hung on like death” seems to convey a child’s terrible feeling from having to face a drunken father. The image painted here is that of a child and his father waltzing around the house with the boy having to hold on “like death”. The word “death” could have been used to emphasize the helplessness of the child against his drunken father. Indeed, a child waltzing with a drunken father could be a difficult task, as described in the line “Such waltzing was not easy.”
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“My mother’s countenance could not unfrown itself” seemed to prove that the action of waltzing with a drunken father was inappropriate and causing a disruption. Breaking down the meaning of “could not unfrown”, one may conceive a thought of a mother who could not stop frowning, meaning the mother is unhappy about the situation and also perhaps about her husband being drunk. In the line “We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf”, this could indicate how the mother disapproves of the situation, for the child could get hurt and also because her kitchen is a mess. “The hand that held my wrist was battered on one knuckle.” The “battered” in this line is often a word that describes abusive situations. “At every step you missed, my right ear scraped a buckle.” The word “buckle” could be related to a belt buckle. This idea could add to the scenario of a father beating his child with a belt. The “beat time on my head” is another line that might lead the reader to think that the father is abusing the child.
The words that Roethke chose in describing the scene produce pictures of a violent kind of waltz. In this interpretation, the waltz was not a joyful one. The poem employs a sad mood and a somewhat satirical tone, suggesting that the person remembering his childhood is critical of his father. The smell of the whiskey, the roughness and the inconsiderate, reckless actions of the father were scrutinized and criticized.
But there is another analysis of the poem that reveals a different line of ideas. The poem for others conveys a message contrary to the first impression that is often formed. The other interpretation of Theodore Roethke’s poem suggests it is a dance, hence the name of the poem, “My Papa’s Waltz.” For other readers, the poem has evoked good, past memories. For example, an older man through the poem remembers his father who was a hardworking employee. A particular scenario could be the instances when his father would walk into their home after a day’s work with scraped hands. His father was a strong and tough man, yet a good man who provided for the needs of the family. For that person, the poem is a particular memory of a child that stood among the rest. This was a story of a boy reminiscing that instance when his father had returned home from work one late evening. He happened to be in a celebration along with his co-workers at a local pub. He excitedly waltzed while entering his home, and proudly picked up his son, swinging him around in a dizzying waltz. Father and child playfully danced and wrestled in the living room, hence making this poem funny for some readers. A kid dancing with a drunken father would make readers think that the child is having fun with his dad. Topping the funny scenario is the expression of a mother getting peeved of what’s going on in her kitchen: “We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf.” The father and son romping typically arouse this kind of reaction from every mother, with her being the lady of the house. This is a positive bonding experience between a father and child and particularly between a father and a son.
The poem is said to employ a winning tone that is light and almost comical. The constant rhythm throughout the poem endows it with a light beat like a waltz. It shows that the child was very fond of his father. Though the poem starts in a serious tone, it progresses into a playful one, reinforcing the caring regard of the child to the father. He really valued his father and the hard work that he did to provide for the family’s needs. The line “With a palm caked hard by dirt, then waltzed me off to bed, still clinging to your shirt” suggests the loving bond between a son and his father.
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Through it all, the poem in its simplicity of delivery has managed to produce two completely different reactions. One either interprets the poem with a negative implication or a poem with a positive implication. A person’s judgment would depend mostly on the experiences, the cultural, social, and psychological background among others of an individual. A boy indeed needs this kind of experience from his father for him to see not just the strong, matured, and responsible nature of his father. It is a joyful experience for a child to see his or her father in a light and playful mood, particularly when he has alcohol in his system. The poem does not explicitly state that the child is being beaten and physically hurt by the father. There is just this free-spirited form of dancing that could bring no harm to a boy. It is funny and sweet to be able to see a father out of his usual tough and matter of fact persona. It brings him closer to his children.
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