Theodore Roethke: “My Papa’s Waltz”

A story contained in sixteen short lines of poetry – that is Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz.” This autobiographical poem tells of a little boy dancing with his drunk father as his frowning mother looks on.

How to read this poem? Is the speaker a man looking back at his drunken father with affection or remembering the fear he felt at his father’s whiskey binges? Love and fear simultaneously?

There is mixed, conflicted affection in the poem. The boy hangs on “like death” and acknowledges that “such waltzing was not easy.” But he also mentions “[t]he hand that held my wrist” and says that his father “waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt.”

Despite the intimacy, however, it’s impossible not to notice the hard, nearly brutal images in the poem. The father dances around the room so roughly that pans slide off the kitchen shelf. The father’s hand is “battered.” The boy’s ear “scrape[s]” his father’s belt buckle. The father “beat[s] time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt.” These images hint of domestic violence – the father toward the boy or the father toward the mother, perhaps both.

However you read this poem, it is a poem of great intimacy – the grown man looking back at what passed for a close moment with his father. While it’s undeniable that the poem reveals the harsh side of the speaker’s father, the poem also reveals a tenderness between the father and the boy, the affection (if conflicted) the boy feels for the father.

Even the boy himself seems to wonder how he was supposed to feel. He’s “dizzy” – a state that can be good or bad. And he says, “Such waltzing was not easy.” As he dances a fragile dance between his father and his mother, he hangs on like death, clings to his father as best he can.

The title of the volume in which the poem appears – The Lost Son – may give us a clue as to how to read the poem, whether a fond remembrance of affection or a terrifying memory of fear. But even when we acknowledge that the “lost son” sounds negative, we are left with two opposing words: “lost” and “son.” Loss, abandonment, pain are acknowledged, but so too is the relationship of father and son. This volume of poetry, published in 1948, was Roethke’s breakthrough book.

The poem is likely based on Roethke’s own childhood. He was born and raised in Saginaw, Michigan, where his German immigrant father, Otto, owned and ran a twenty-five-acre greenhouse. When Roethke was fourteen, his father died of cancer and his uncle committed suicide. The great feeling of abandonment that sprang up in Roethke’s life intertwined with his own alcoholism and his profound struggles with manic depression. Despite this pain or perhaps because of it, Roethke’s poetry has an unusual power and grace.

To learn more about Roethke, visit the Poetry Foundation website, the Biography website, or the Modern American Poetry website. Poet Stanley Kunitz offers an insightful and heartfelt tribute to Roethke, and in an interview, Native American author Sherman Alexie acknowledges his debt to Roethke, saying, “I’ve spent my whole career rewriting ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ with an Indian twist.” These last two resources come from the outstanding Poetry Society of America website.

To explore Roethke’s poetry more fully, check out his collection The Waking, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954. It includes his famous title poem, which reads in part, “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / I learn by going where I have to go.” You might also enjoy The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke and Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke. If you are a writer, you’ll enjoy Roethke’s book On Poetry and Craft.

Listen and Watch:Listen to Theodore Roethke read “My Papa’s Waltz.” You may also want to watch a 1964 film about Theodore Roethke, In a Dark Time, which features footage of Roethke reading selected poems, including “The Waking.”