Wednesday, November 9, 2011

“My Papa’s Waltz”


Theodore Roethke
   Roethke's "My Papa’s Waltz” is an intriguing poem which leads people into two distinct lines of thoughts. Despite some may think that there is some kind of abuse going on, others are led to believe that the poem is purely an expression of affection between the son and his father.
   The poem does reveal that there is a certain physical proximity
   between the two but I am inclined to believe that the action is
   purely a manifestation of fraternal love.

  I can see how the father’s behavior could be interpreted as inappropriate especially coming from someone who is nearly drunk. It seems that the father has not seen the son the whole day and he arrives around son’s bedtime.

   Lines fifteen and sixteen validate such a scenario. He probably comes home after stopping for a drink or two with friends and once he gets home he wants to fulfill the role of father and he plays with the child for a little while.

    In “…I hung on like death:” in the first stanza sounds like the boy is simply taken by the moment of excitement and he is having a great time with the father. It does not appear that the boy is struggling or annoyed by such horseplay.

   On the first stanza it seems like the father is holding the child while he makes dance like movements around the kitchen. “My mother’s countenance” and, “Could not unfrown itself” on lines seven and eight, give me an impression that even though the mother is not too happy and comfortable with the fact that the father is a little drunk, she sympathetically observes the father moving around the kitchen holding the boy as if she supports the father and son interaction.

    Despite the “whiskey on your breath” he is not described as being totally drunk and out of control; however, his emotional state seems to be, up to a certain degree, undoubtedly affected by his drunkenness.

By making the use of the word “Papa” in the title, the speaker reinforces that this is an affectionate relationship between the two. If the mother did not interpret such action as an unacceptable behavior she would definitely not just frown and display countenance or approval. Instead, she would be very upset and strongly apprehend the father, if by any reason she realized his actions were viewed as misbehavior.

   This may not be the sort of scene that the mother sees on a regular basis and even though the father caused some disarray in the kitchen she did not interfere with his horseplay because she saw a value in the father’s initiative to play with her son.

    When I read the last stanza I understood that all the fuss is about putting the boy to sleep as he must be very active and it is already late for him to go to bed. On line thirteen, “You beat time on my head”, makes me think that the whole experience is beneficial to the boy as those little things may influence him positively. Such memories would probably be with boy for as long as he lives.

What I gather from reading about Roethke’s life is that he had a great admiration and respect for his father. His literary carrier was largely inspired by his early years of experience working closely with the father at the family owned greenhouse doing different tasks. It seems like this poems reflects largely on such experiences he had in the early years of his life.

    Also, one thing I thought was critical in interpreting this poem is the fact that his father comes from a culture at a different time in history and his behavior may not have been considered as unusual back then.

    I can understand how easy it is for some to interpret “My Papa’s Waltz” poem and characterize the father as an outlier and child abuser in today’s society. I would imagine that it would be very hard for a person to act like he did and not be apprehended in any form if that scene happened today, especially because he was under the influence of alcohol.

    According to critic Karl Malkoff, Roethke’s father was a man who inspired him greatly. He was perceived as a symbol of strength, admiration and respect and such characteristics become evident as one reads though the lines of “My Papa’s Waltz”. That reinforces the theory that the speaker is not describing a scene of child abuse but capturing a moment of interaction between the son and a father.

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.


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