The Messiness Of Parental Love In My Papa’s Waltz
Former President of India and world poet, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, once said, “Poetry comes from the highest happiness or deepest sorrow” (‘A. P. J. Abdul Kalam Quotes’). This narrative and retrospect poem “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke, illustrates the messiness of parental love. This poem is about an adult son’s recollection of “waltzing” with his father as a young boy. This poem holds possible interpretations in two different ways: a happy childhood memory between a father and son and/or a hidden message of parental abuse. In order to see the abuse endured by the speaker, one must see through the illusion that the memory is just in admiration of the father. In 1908, Theodore Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan to Otto and Helen Roethke; a family of gardeners and florists (Baird). Along with his father, uncle, and brother, the Roethke family maintained “a huge greenhouse complex, considered one of the best in the United States and used primarily to grow roses, orchids, and other ornamental plants” (Baird, Para. 1). Following the sale of the greenhouse in 1922, Theodore’s brother committed suicide and shortly after, the father was taken from cancer, leaving Theodore Roethke with a sense of unfulfillment. Otto’s strong influence on Theodore can be seen throughout his work (Chavkin). “My Papa’s Waltz” is about a troubled father-son relationship that represents the poet’s own experience and post war ideas about fatherhood.
The biographical details of all the trouble he has been through with his family suggests something about unresolved feelings. The biography helps the reader understand the conflicted feelings evoked in the final line, “Still clinging to your shirt” (Roethke, l. 16). It is not surprising that Roethke would take on conflicted emotions given that he is dealing with unresolved feelings; this line is perfect for someone who has been through so much destruction. Even though Roethke and his father had a conflicted and problematic relationship, there was still love between them. According to Baird, “Otto Roethke was an outdoorsman and wanted his son to be a ‘man’s man’ and a lawyer. Young Ted was clumsy at sports and outdoor activities, and he preferred books and the life of the mind and imagination” (Baird, Para. 2). The biography helps the readers understand that Theodore Roethke is the perfect poet for this kind of poem as he created it because he comes from a troubled space. This unresolved ending sets up this problem on what it means to use a poem to experience closure; in Roethke’s case, the poem doesn’t give him a sense of closure.
The variation of emotions the speaker feels towards his father are mirrored in the poetic tone. Sophisticated thoughts and feelings are presented rather than naive ones since this is written in the persona of an adult. When growing up, it is common to realize how childhood experiences influence one as an adult. This poem is not just about the abuse of a child. The speaker, however, is illustrating a tender moment that carries traces and feelings that it was not a perfect connection between the speaker and father, evident in the opening line “The whiskey on your breath;” a line that highlights the confusion about what was truly occurring in that moment. A child encountering that sensation is going to have conflicted feelings. The whiskey was the limbo about how he feels about his father in that moment; he wants to enjoy it but he can’t enjoy it.
The most apparent poetic form in this poem is of sound: rhyme and rhythm. The iambic trimeter in “My Papa’s Waltz” makes the poem sound short and sweet. Roethke created this to further trance the reader into believing the tone is lighthearted and spirited. This is deceiving as there is a suggestion of something else in the dissonant sounds. The rhyming words are not completely identical, or half rhyme, as Roethke is also utilizing assonance in the rhyming scheme: “dizzy” (Roethke, l. 2) and “easy” (Roethke, l. 4). The sound of assonance is supposed to soothe us but doesn’t. The unbalanced rhyme of “dizzy” (Roethke, l. 2) and “easy” (Roethke, 1. 4) contribute to the notion of clumsiness as the speaker is hanging on to a drunk father controlling him. In line four, “Not easy” is not iamb and is litote, an ironic understatement, because for the kid it wasn’t actually easy. This assonance and slight imperfections parallel the speaker’s feelings towards his father. Roethke leads the poem with the father being a drunkard implying that this could be the reason for the abuse. The unconditional love the son has for his father cannot mask the imperfections with their relationship, complementing the biographical point that Roethke’s father wanted him to be a ‘man’s man’. Mentioned earlier, Roethke was one for books and imagination while his father was an outdoorsman creating a problematic relationship as Roehtke couldn’t fulfill his father’s expectations (Baird).
This poem makes for a more perplexed debate as the poetic language is so precise. The words alone have different meanings heightening the two controversial interpretations. The son starts off the second stanza by saying “We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf” (Roethke, l. 5-6). One perspective of this can be seen as a dance of love between a father and son that is so energetic that the pans are sliding from the shelves of the kitchen. In addition, “romp” (Roethke, l. 5) can also imply a positive, fun feeling. It might seem like a father and son horsing around, however there is another interpretation. “Romping” (Roethke, l. 5) can also be interpreted to mean the father is violently dancing with his son causing the kitchen pans to fall off the shelf. The son then goes on to describe his mother in next line: “My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself” (Roethke, l. 7-8). When reading this, an image emerges of a mother who disapproves of the rough behavior but isn’t doing anything to stop it. This line, however, also provides an image of a powerless bystander as the mother might feel incapable to stop the father and instead just frowns. This lack of agency for the mother isn’t surprising given the absence of any credit or reference connected to Theodore Roethke. During the 20th century, women never got credit for creating great poets as women’s roles remained diminished.
The physical aspect of the waltz is illustrated in the third stanza with the use of imagery. One may view these lines as being done with love, even though the dance being described is a bit rough. To prevent the son from falling, the father holds the son’s wrist: “The hand that held my wrist / Was battered on one knuckle” (Roethke, l. 9-10). Furthermore, the battered knuckle infers that the father may be a blue collar worker. Research shows that the culture of fatherhood throughout the 20th century has changed which details what fathers were allowed to get away with in the past that wouldn’t be acceptable today. According to the Journal of Marriage and Family,
During the first part of the 20th century, fathers were expected to provide for their children and perhaps bridge the gap between the home and larger society. Fathers are now expected to participate in their children’s lives by providing day-to-day care, both physical and emotional. (Atkinson and Blackwelder, 976)
Theodore Roethke grew up in the early 20th century when male breadwinner families was considered the norm. Otto Roethke, being a provider and the head of the household, held power over his son and wife. During this era, blue collar workers would ultimately turn to alcohol after a long and stressful work day as a form of self-meditation. In addition, another study examining father roles in the 20th century concluded, “That in the 1920s and 1930s, the emphasis on ‘providing fathering’ was predominant, but that from the 1940s through the 1980s ‘nurturant fathering’ was the more common theme” (Larossa et al, 376). Having the breadwinner role, the construction of fatherhood during this time left the children largely to mothers.
The line, “My right ear scraped a buckle,” (Roethke, l. 11) makes the reader assume that this is in fact a rough dance, but because of the son’s love for his father, the son does not care. While this may be true, the third stanza also may be one of the strongest indicators of abuse. For instance, there is a feeling of aggression when the son refers to “the hand that held my wrist” (Roethke, l. 9). When waltzing tenderly, the father would be holding the son by the hand, not by the wrist. This line also portrays a sense of unwillingness. Additionally, there is a connotation of violence when the son states that his father’s hand was “battered on one knuckle (Roethke, l. 10). The harsh word choice of “battered” (Roethke, l. 10) is intentional. The reader becomes aware of the height difference between the father and son as the son states, “At every step you missed / My right ear scraped a buckle” (Roethke, l. 11-12). “My right ear scraped a buckle” (Roethke, l. 12) is also unclear because it seems that he is blaming himself when it would be the father’s fault. Contrarily, when the son says, “At every step you missed” (Roethke, l. 11) he seems to be blaming his father for stumbling.
In the last stanza, the son expresses, “You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt” (Roethke, l. 13-14). This proves that the father and son are waltzing in tune with a beat and therefore, can be interpreted as innocent. The dirt covered hand just continues to show that the father is a hard labor worker. The word “beat” (Roethke, l. 13) however, seems inappropriate and would have been a more gentle word if it were truly referring to a dance. The son continues by saying, “Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt” (Roethke, l. 15-16). This reinforces the idea that the father and son have a relationship of love. The clinging can be a display of love the son has for the father; the son doesn’t want the father to leave. However, the term “waltzed” (Roethke, l. 15) also can be that the father is lugging his son to bed forcefully. Moreover, the motif of hand in the last stanza almost symbolizes the meaning of this poem: “beat time” (Roethke, l. 13), “palm” (Roethke, l. 14), and “clinging” (Roethke, l. 16). Hands are effective communicators and can be perceived as either an affectionate or violent gesture.
In the poem, the simile “But I hung on like death” (Roethke, l. 3), reveals the emotion in this poem. Death clings to all as it is the only inevitable in life that one cannot escape. This line confirms a heartrending tone as it proposes a darker outlook. The admiration and animosity between a father and son in this poem are represented in waltz. More biographical details that could be unearthed about Theodore Roethke could help make sense of the complexity of these emotions.