Sunday Poetry: My Papa’s Waltz, by Theodore Roethke

My Papa’s Waltz

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.

- by Theodore Roethke
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Pay attention.

This poem rewards the attention you pay to it with warmth and pain, fear and joy, and a portrayal of rich reality.

At my first reading of this poem, I saw it as a sweet poem of nostalgia for a silly moment of family goofiness. Little children dancing with clumsy fathers, little feet on big shoes – a classic of family moments.

And it is all that. There is nostalgia and warmth in this poem.

But a more careful reading of the poem shows that there is more – the little boy in the poem clings like death to waltzing which is not easy. His ear is scraped and time is beaten on his head by a hard, dirty hand. His mother frowns, and the father’s breath reeks of whiskey. This is not a Norman Rockwell painting.

It’s important that this poem is told from the point of view of the child. What would the poem be like from the father’s perspective? That feeling of being so capable of unintentional pain, of being too big and clumsy to hold the child you love so deeply, the sense of being out of tune with your own family – those are part of the fatherhood experience. You never know what thoughtless quip or accident might ring for decades in your child’s ears.

Roethke dares portray for us a real scene of fatherhood. It’s flawed – deeply flawed. It’s even kind of frightening, while it’s also kind of warm and comforting. It’s a touch of fun in dysfunctional.

If your father was always wise and gentle and strong, you were incredibly blessed. If your father was an abusive monster, you have my sincere sympathy. But if your father was a clumsy man who occasionally scraped or bruised you while wanting with all his heart for you to be happy, think warmly of him this Father’s Day.

2 Responses to “Sunday Poetry: My Papa’s Waltz, by Theodore Roethke”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice choice!

  2. Anonymous says:

    This poem always scared me.

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