“My Papa’s Waltz” was written by Theodore Roethke in XXXX. Many critics believe that “My Papa’s Waltz” lacks the strength of Roethke’s later works like “The Lost Son” and “The North American Sequence. ” However, this particular poem is one of Roethke’s most well loved, read, and discussed pieces of poetry. The narrator’s ambiguous recounting of his father’s waltz causes drastically different interpretations of the exact meaning of the poem. Many people claim that it is a tender poem of a positive interaction between a father and son and a joyful childhood memory.
While still others believe that it is a sad retelling of the abuse of a child by his drunken father. “My Papa’s Waltz” is a solid example of how poetry can be greatly influenced by the reader’s past. It was Roethke’s goal to create a piece of prose which was not his alone but belong also to the reader and his/her personal experience. He leaves the poem open for interpretation by the use of several literary devices. The duplicity of meaning in “My Papa’s Waltz” is supported by Roethke’s use of meter, alliteration , and juxtaposition of images.
“My Papa’s Waltz” offers such strikingly different responses from readers that often the technical grace of Roethke is overlooked. This poem is short in length it is rich in several traditional and strict approaches to poetry. Alliteration is when the initial sounds of words are similar and place together. In line 4, “Such waltzing was not easy. ” Here the repetition of the gentle “w” contrasts the simile of death used in line 3. The alliteration gives the impression that the waltz peaceful however when combined with the idea of death, it is clear that the waltz is “not easy”.
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“My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself” (lines 7-8) has the alliteration of the hard “c” sound. Compared that hard sound to the joyful stanza it is found in. The “c” becomes a sign of caution and carefulness. In lines 9-10, “The hand that held my wrist / Was battered on one knuckle; “ the placement of the words hand and held together create a soft sound which contrasts the image of the “battered knuckle. ” The use of alliteration allows the reader to interpret the actions within the poem as lighthearted or abusive.
Image is another literary device used to create duplicity of meaning. The images of “dancing” together, a positive interaction, juxtaposed by the bruised knuckles is suggestive of violence. This negative interpretation is further supported by the image of the father holding not the son’s hand but his wrist. This is a much more aggressive act than hand holding and gives the impression that perhaps the child is being forced to dance. In lines 13-14, “You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt,” is once again an image of violence.
It is obvious that the narrator could mean “keep time” instead of “beat time”. In which case, the image suggest a father playing the drums lightly on his son’s head. However, the introduction of the word “beat” creates a rough tone to the lines and references in sound the word “battered “ from line 10. Meter allows the reader a choice of what the poem truly means. The true skill of Rothke’s meter is often missed if “My Papa’s Waltz” is not read out loud. Roethke uses patterns of syllables to parallel the actual movement of the waltz.
For example in line 1-2, “The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy;” but should be read with the following emphasizes “The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy”. The meter continues as above and rhyme scheme traditionally known as iambic trimeter. However, in line 11, mid way through the poem and continuing throughout the rest of the poem the meter is slightly different from the waltz. Roethke here is trying to mirror the appearance of a drunk man trying to do the waltz.
In line 14, there is a complete break in the rhythm of the poem because there is an extra syllable. The word “hard” is not necessary at all. Remove hard from the line, and it still makes sense. The interruption of meter which mirrors the units of three that compose the waltz draws attention to that line. The reader must question why is the author giving that line special attention. One conclusion is that the poem is not about a son dancing with his tipsy father but with a child enduring regular physical abuse.
Another viewpoint is that it represents another silly misstep by the father that the son enjoys. Through the use of several literary devices Roethke creates a piece of poetry which is technically perfect and thematically ambiguous. Alliteration was used to create dual meaning by pairing soft sounds with harsh images. Images of tender moments between father and son were juxtaposed with violently aggressive words. The poem parallels the actual steps of the waltz which contrasts striking with the slurred actions of a drunk father.
With the use of alliteration, images, and meter, Roethke allows the poetry to be unclear which forces the reader to make up his own mind about the content and theme of the poem. One of the goals of modern literature and therefore modern authors was not to merely describe their environments or their emotions. But to inspire, evoke, and tempt the reader. Roethke’s wanted to not only reach his audience but include his audience in the creation of the poetry. Certainly, by writing “My Papa’s Waltz” which offers dual meaning, he allows for all his readers to gain a different understanding of his writing.
He effects readers with a great childhood by writing a poem which is lighthearted and nostalgic for their younger years. He also effects readers who have some form of abuse in their childhood’s by assuring them by the retelling of his story that they are not alone in their experiences. The most important influence of “My Papa’s Waltz” is it’s ability to stimulate conversation and debate between different readers. It is in the absence of choice by the author that allows the freedom of choice for the audience.
Roethke’s breathes new life into the oldest theme in literature – appearance versus reality. In life very few things are ever as they appear. People, relationships, and memory are multi-layered and extremely complicated. Perhaps Roethke’s true intention was to create a piece of writing which explores the ambiguous nature of memory and suggests that remembering is neither good or bad and but a simple combination of both.
Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz. ” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 6th ed. Ed. Carl E. Bain, et al. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1995. 769.