“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke is a poem that is unified at first glance a reader can become overwhelmed by the ambiguities and tensions within the poem. Our narrator feeds us with endless complexity as a means to sort out his own perspective on his father, yet does it brilliantly to help us create our own understanding. Moreover, the reader can interpret the poem falsely by assuming the worst rather understanding the truth of the words. The language of the poem often hinders the meaning. However, the truth behind the words can be more easily determined when taken literally, rather than metaphorically. In fact, the complexity of the poem begins immediately at the literal title: “My Papa’s Waltz.” As a poet and reader, assumptions are irrelevant, in fact, more often than not a poem can be immersed with metaphors and hyperboles that are never taken literally. In this instance, “My Papa’s waltz” begins with complexity, is wound up with ambiguities and is captured through oppositions, but the last line of the poem is our key to literal freedom, to read words for what they are, rather than what they could be.
When introduced to the title of the poem “My Papa’s Waltz,” the reader naturally begins making predictions on what the poem may or may not be about. For instance, a reader may assume that “Papa” shows an affectionate nickname for a father and the “waltz” will show an interpretation of the relationship between the narrator and his father. Moreover, it is immediately assumed that the poem will be told from the narrator’s present tense. Instead, it is told by Roethke as an adult, recollecting the event from is childhood as thoroughly as possible. Consequently, the reader has the liberty of reading dueling perspectives: the memory of the event from an adult perspective along side the innocent point of view of a child who inevitably admires his father. These dueling narrators, both within Roethke himself, struggle to find common ground throughout the poem, providing the reader with great tension on his feeling’s toward his father.
Roethke gives the reader one consistent image to stable and focus their reading on: the waltz. Typically, the waltz is known to be a formal dance, in which two people sway back and forth moving in a circular motion. The reader’s interpretations and emotions follow the same back-and-forth, around-and-around motion as the waltz, and they inevitably become dizzied by the ambiguities of words and perspectives. Although Roethke never shows or states whether he is portraying his father from strictly an adult point of view or young child point of view, he does seem scattered in his thoughts. For instance, the first stanza begins with a description of “the whiskey on [Papa’s] breath,” and how the stench “could make a small boy dizzy.” Immediately we see a more adult description, because a young boy may not pick up on such a scent, nor understand the percussions of alcohol. However, from here, he circles around to state, “but I hung on like death/ Such waltzing was not easy.” In these lines, you see the image of a young boy clinging to his father, frightened, but thrilled enough to continue on with the waltzing. This image also gives us a sense of a young boy who is much weaker and smaller than his father. The narrator’s point of view is intertwined with what he remembers as an adult and with how he felt as a young boy waltzing with his father. His words circle us around in a waltzing motion, bringing us dueling, yet combined perspectives.
Within this first stanza is more than just dueling perspectives. Also, the reader begins forming new conclusions on the father and event. For instance, one may assume that an abundance of drinking has occurred; however, it could merely have been one single glass. A young boy would not understand such drinking, but Roethke as an adult is showing his reader’s that his father was drunk; therefore, leaving them to decide the truth of the complexity.
Considering the first rhymes we read in this stanza are “breath” and “death” it is natural to have a feared interpretation of what may be occurring between the father and son, and it appears that Roethke is fully aware of his implications. The rhymes of “breath” and “death” are then paired with the slant rhymes, “dizzy” and “easy,” consequently, having more weight in our reading. These rhymes set a gloomy tone, yet are paired with an image that is merely about a young boy clinging to his father in dance. Moreover, if the narrator were trying to depict an inadvertent, frightful image then why would he be trying so desperately to hold on tight to his father? Instead, would he not be trying to escape? Nonetheless, the reader is faced with the tension of whether to view the waltz as a metaphor to some kind of abuse or harm, or whether to take it as literal as a dance. Roethke is determined to provide words of ambiguity to show that his father is not as pleasant as he once had thought.
The serious tone that was laid ambiguously beneath the truth of the words in stanza one is interrupted by a lighthearted beginning to the second stanza. “We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen’s shelf” is how the second stanza begins. The word “romp” undercuts the frightful rhymes of “breath” and “death” and leaves the reader with a playful tone. “Romp” is synonomyous with play. Here, Roethke is bringing the reader out of the dizzy state of the waltz perhaps answering our question that the event is playful. The next two lines of the second stanza read: “My mother’s countenance/ Could not unfrown itself.” The slant rhymes of pans and countenance remind us of clumsy flow of the poem and dance, as Roethke uses his words to spin us around in dance. The complexity of this stanza lies in the fact that the dance has caused pans to fall and the mother to be unhappy. However, the ambiguous sentence stating the mother’s frown may be because she is disapproving the actions of the dance, or maybe merely because the pans in her kitchen have fallen. Of course, once again Roethke leaves the reader with the responsibility to decide this for themselves. However, it should be noted that the mother does not seem to reprimand either father or son for any inappropriate actions.
Stanza three opens with “the hand that held my wrist/was battered on one knuckle” giving the reader insight into who the father is. Although it could be assumed at this point that the father is a brute and alcoholic, it is only implied, not declared. Moreover, the reader should assume that this introduction to stanza three is merely insight into the father’s blue collar career. The stanza finishes with “at every step you missed/ my right ear scraped a buckle” which when read quickly can be associated with some kind of abuse that the child is enduring, especially when followed by the description og a “battered knuckle.” However, the knuckle is the father’s and the scrape is caused by missed steps, not deliberate steps.
More ambiguity is present in the fourth and final stanza. Here, there is an exact tension between “beat” and “waltz,” the two words come face to face, as if Roethke is giving the reader one final chance to see the poem literally or metaphorically. Rather than stating “you kept time on my head/with a palm caked on by dirt” the narrator states that “you beat time on my head.” The word “beat” when mixed in with this poem can be taken harshly, and literally, depicting an abusive relationship. However, the poem describes a waltz, where the noun “beat” must be kept for the continuation of the dance. Once again, the reader is faced with an image that shows the father in a dark and tough light, showing his “palm caked hard by dirt.” Nonetheless, despite the image of the father, the child is reluctant when the father waltzed him “off to bed.” In fact, the boy is “still clinging to [his] shirt,” not wanting to let go.
“My Papa’s Waltz” is an extremely ambiguous poem. Roethke does not try to hide the fact that he himself is torn on how to depict his father, although it is apparent that he holds undying affection for his “papa.” The use of a personal name such as “papa” proves that there is a true relationship between father and son. Roethke spins the reader along with the waltzing motion and challenges them to read words, not assumptions. The hard, cold evidence proves that in this poem there is a young child, much smaller than his father, and “clings” to him to continue their “romping.” The father has “battered” dirty hands, and drinks a bit, which are most likely recollections that Roethke is making as an adult, rather than what he noticed as a child. Although the mother seems to frown, it seems to only because her pans have fallen, because she never steps in or reprimands. Also, the boy does have wounds, but they are unintentional, caused by two people carelessly “romping.” Moreover, the last statement of the poem seems to unify the complexities by showing the reader that the “waltz” is something that the child is condoning. In fact, he wishes his time with his father to never end, after all, he is left “clinging to [his] shirt.”