This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
cfm/misreading_my_papas_waltz Misreading 'My Papa's Waltz' No Alcoholism, No Child Abuse, Only Romping Affection © Linda Sue Grimes / Dec 18, 2006
Alcoholism and child abuse are in the mind of the misreader, not in the poem that romps, waltzes, and dramatizes the roughhousing affection between father and son. Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” has been misread even by well-educated professionals. Jeff Greenberg, Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona, offers a typical example of the misreading Roethke’s innocent drama of father and son roughhousing. In the professor’s lecture, titled “The impact of violence on our children: Some insights from Becker and the cinema,” he states the following which introduces Roethke’s poem: “Perhaps most uniquely disturbing is when our security base turns on us, conveying inconsistent values and unpredictable behaviors, and inflicting emotional and physical pain; how then does a child sustain equanimity? Even if brutal and deeply disturbed, the parent is typically still the only basis of security the child knows. Theodore Roethke expresses this problem eloquently.” The professor could not be further from the truth, but fortunately, he says no more about the poem, allowing his mischaracterization to say it all. Contrary to the Professor Greenberg’s misreading, Theodore Roethke’s poem expresses love between a father and son in a roughhousing session that the adult speaker in the poem looking back chooses to metaphorically dramatize as a “waltz.” If the event portrayed in the poem resulted in “emotional and physical pain,” it is unlikely that the adult speaker would have allowed his readers to interpret the event as a special time when the father and son “romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf,” and then the father “waltzed me [the son] off to bed / Still clinging to your [the father’s] shirt.” “Romped” is too playful a word for an emotionally and physically traumatized adult to use in looking back at a childhood event. And if the father were actually beating and abusing the child in an alcoholic rage, the child would not be clinging the father’s shirt, he would be trying to run away from him. The time designations of the poem make it clear that the father and son did this kind of “waltzing” often. It was not just one session that the speaker is recounting. Notice he says, “Such waltzing was not easy.” The gerund “waltzing” signals that every time they engaged in this “dance,” the son was challenged to keep up with the father’s movements. The child enjoys this waltz not being easy, or else it would have become boring. The father challenged the boy to keep up with him as they “romped” around the kitchen making those pans slide off the shelf. Also, if the session were one of abuse and beating by a drunken brute, the mother would have taken a more active role than just frowning. The mother does not even speak, signaling that she is only mildly annoyed by this masculine ritual. There are no indications that the father is abusive to either the child or the mother or any other members of the family. The poem reveals only a speaker who is an adult looking back at a playful time he spent with his father. The alcohol breath, the dirty hands, the clumsy romping, and beating time on the boy’s head are all just innocent challenging features that comprise the metaphor of the waltz, that so impressed the boy that as an adult he dramatizes the event so we can enjoy his challenging dance along with him and his family.
Poetry Craft Lesson: Deepening : Interpretations of “My Papa’s Waltz” http://edwardbyrne.blogspot.com/2007/06/theodore-roethke-my-papas-waltz.html 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.
Poetry Craft Lesson: Deepening : Interpretations of “My Papa’s Waltz” 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. Posted by Edward Byrne at Saturday, June 16, 2007
Poetry Craft Lesson: Deepening : Interpretations of “My Papa’s Waltz” Missed Steps: Images of Imbalance in Theodore Roethke's My Papa's Waltz Poem Examines Father and Son Relationships By A.S.M. Just as society is distrustful of unchecked governmental power and mounting debt, we fear imbalance in our personal lives. Imbalance doesn’t necessarily reflect a physical state, but can also reflect a shift of power in a relationship. In Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”, the images of imbalance within the poem act as a representation of the power on the father’s side in his relationship with his son and his son’s reaction to his father’s actions. Traditionally, in a parent and child relationship, the parent has the upper hand and guides, punishes and instructs the child. However, in the poem, the father and son share a somewhat unsteady relationship; the son feels a closeness and love for his father despite his father’s mistreatment of him. This constant struggle within the son’s mind puts their relationship into a constant state of imbalance. By the end of the poem, the son succumbs to the father and is forced to cling to his father’s shirt as he’s dragged off to bed. The images of imbalance reflect this constant struggle between the father and son and ultimately lead to the inescapable result of the child depending on his father. Right from the start Roethke establishes images that suggest the father’s drunken physical and mental state and the child’s equally unsteady reaction to his father. The first two lines read, “The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy.” Whiskey, a hard liquor, with the reputation of being a strong and unpredictable substance mirrors the parent’s personality and establishes a powerful setting for the poem. So powerful is the whiskey on the father’s breath that the young boy becomes dizzy from his father’s breath alone. This not only creates an image of the child unsteady on his feet, but also the child’s vulnerability in respect to his father’s tough exterior. However, the speaker does not choose a strong word to emphasize the child’s helplessness. Instead, the speaker says that the “whiskey on (his father’s) breath could make a small boy dizzy.” Emphasis on the word ‘could’ and the fact that the statement is more uncertain and less extreme then replacing it with “makes” or “makes me” dizzy, differentiates the speaker’s comment as less accusatory, and instead more descriptive of the father’s physical state. The speaker doesn’t outright accuse his father of being drunk, but instead says that his father’s physical state may or may not be affecting him. This denial, in a way, shows that the speaker feels enough love and affection for his father that he can over look such a problem as drinking. The child’s blameless perspective reinforces the notion of unconditional love towards his father, even when their dance becomes particularly rough. In the second stanza, the speaker describes the father and son relationship, or dance, in more
Poetry Craft Lesson: Deepening : Interpretations of “My Papa’s Waltz” playful terms by saying, “We romped until the pans/ Slid from the kitchen shelf.” The use of the word romp, which more commonly means frolic or prance, characterizes their movement around the room as horseplay or a game. However, the speaker does say that their movement makes the pans slide from the kitchen shelf. To make pans fall from a shelf, both must have moved quickly, heavily and violently into the shelf. Even for horseplay, both actions seem particularly rough. The speaker, in this case, possesses an innocent and loving perspective towards their somewhat rough game. Once again, the speaker does not accuse his father of hurting him, and divert emotion by lessening its severity. The fact that the speaker avoids accusing the father further suggests that he will love his father despite his actions and mistakes. In the third stanza, the speaker, through personification, distances the blame from his father by stating, “At every step you missed/ My right ear scraped a buckle.” The speaker continues to reinforce the idea of the father and son sharing a dance. The reference to dancing comes through the father’s missing a step, conveying the father’s clumsiness and lack of gracefulness. The image, also, places the father in a state of imbalance, suggesting that his step seems to falter numerous times. The father shows vulnerability when he misses steps, almost removing blame off of him when the buckle scratches the speaker’s ear. In fact, the speaker, places the blame on his right ear through its personification. By separating the belt from the father, Roethke separates any contact the father makes with his son through his belt or his buckle, thus lessening the action’s harshness. The final two lines of the poem solidify that the father and son relationship remains strong, despite the questionable and rough images of imbalance presented throughout the poem. When the speaker says, “Then waltzed me off to bed/ Still clinging to your shirt,” he is showing an imbalance within the relationship between the father and the son. In this case, the father enforces his power because he waltzes the son off to bed and the son is left clinging to his shirt. The father and son take on traditional roles of the father putting the son to bed, and the son clutching his father as he does so. However, in these lines, the use of the word “clinging” emphasizes the dependency the child feels on the father. Clinging strongly stresses the love that the speaker feels for his father. This concept of true, unadulterated love emphasizes that although the father and son may not have the most stable relationship, there still seems to be a great deal of love between them. Although the child may love his father unconditionally he subtlety hints at his father’s hurting him. However, this is done in such a way that the reader only notices the love that exists between the two. In the line, “But I hung on like death,” the reader sees how dependent and scared the child is of his father. The word “death” is very powerful, especially in this context because it means that the child had to cling to his father. The word, alone, means an end to life and is often viewed negatively.
Poetry Craft Lesson: Deepening : Interpretations of “My Papa’s Waltz” However, Roethke cuts this tension by immediately following that phrase with, “such waltzing was not easy.” In the reader’s mind, the dark, scary image is dulled by the beautiful image of sharing a dance with one’s father. Roethke’s decision to downplay the harsh image shows that although the child may fear his father, he will always love him, because he isn’t always this harsh. The harsh images, followed by the more pleasant images continue throughout the poem. For instance, in the last stanza, Roethke writes, “You beat time on my head/ With a palm caked hard by dirt,/ Then waltzed me off to bed/ Still clinging to you shirt.” The repetition of the harsh images of imbalance, specifically this one in which the son is forced to cling to his father after being beat over the head, followed by an image that is more pleasant has a profound effect on the reader, as well as the son. He knows that at times his father may be harsh with him and it may cause him to fall apart emotionally and physically, but in the end, his father will always do fatherly things, such as “waltz(ing) (him) off to bed.” Roethke highlights the moments of tenderness and makes the bond that exists between the father and the son to come off as strong and ultimately caring. Through the images of imbalance in “My Papa’s Waltz” the reader can see the father use his power negatively in his relationship with his child, yet the child still always shows love towards his parent. The reader also sees that, at times the child will show weakness and be forced to cling to his shirt, thus reinforcing the idea that the child still loves and trusts his father. It’s a prime example of the unconditional love a child feels for his child.
2008 © Associated Content, All rights reserved.
Here are two more interpretations you can find online. http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/Virtualit/poetry/critical_define/deconessay.pdf (deconstructionist reading) http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/Virtualit/poetry/critical_define/readrespessay.pdf (reader response)
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.