Friday, September 14, 2007

Poetry Friday- Theodore Roethke: My Papa's Waltz


This is one of those poems almost everyone who's ever taken a poetry class has learned. Usually used to discuss (and debate) tone and/or the writing process (using Roethke's notes and revisions as a guide), there's not a lot more I can add to the chatter. Still, it's a favourite of mine and so I present it here- plus, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

My Papa's Waltz by Theodore Roethke

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.


You can also listen to an audio clip of Roethke reciting this poem here and you can buy his collected works here.

13 comments:

Kelly Fineman said...

I've always liked that one -- how it manages to convey (for me) the boy's joy at dancing with his father and his underlying fear of the mania, and how the mother's frown makes it seem like this isn't a one-time issue.

There's a kind of spinning recklessness to the poem, and the way the words roll around contributes to it. Just my 2 cents.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

I missed this one in my poetry classes. Thanks for posting it. I wonder if that was because I went to a college that was officially "dry."

John Mutford said...

Kelly: I like the dark undertone as well. Though plenty of people have argued that it's not dark at all. Looking over the revisions, it seems that Roethke would have been pleased with the opposite reactions. I think it's just one of the poems many charms.

Akelda: An officially dry college, eh? Interesting concept. With my interpretation though, I don't think this one glamourizes whiskey.

jama said...

John,
I did like this one in college, and found it dark then, as I do now. It is painful for the boy to love his father. But he will take whatever he can get in return. To me this is a poignant waltz.

Rob Hardy said...

I'm interested in the meter of the poem, which by my calculation is iambic trimeter (three long-shorts per line). The threeness of it is interesting, since waltz time is also in threes (3/4 time). But it doesn't scan like a waltz. Especially with the hypermetric (long) lines ("could make a small boy dizzy," "was battered on one knuckle," etc.), it seems to trip and stumble along instead of waltzing. So, yeah, what I like best about it is how the meter reinforces the content.

Rob Hardy said...

Note: change that to three short-longs per line.

Gentle Reader said...

I remember reading this for school--but I'd forgotten it. Thanks for posting it! I always liked the rhythm of it, and the darkness and light in it, too.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I like some of the imagery: "mother's countenance could not unfrown itself" and the "whiskey on your breath" phrase is very powerful and gives a feeling of how simultaneously frightened and excited the boy is.

Mary Lee said...

This poem has always reminded me that underneath my father's clunky and sometimes rough way of showing it, he really did love me.

Dale said...

That's a wonderful poem and I hadn't read it before. I'm surprised at the swing between the darkness and the exhilaration.

Dewey said...

You have no idea how excited I was to see this title in my google reader. Roethke is one of my favorite poets. I especially love his nature imagery. That audio clip is pure gold THANKS.

Bybee said...

I've always liked Roethke's stuff. Thanks for the audio clip. He sounds younger, more vigorous than I'd imagined.

John Mutford said...

Jama: The last line sums up, for me, that need to connect or as you said, "take whatever he can get" and at all costs.

Rob: Not until you mentioned it did I remember also studying the meter. This poem has it all doesn't it?

Gentle Reader: It's so good that even school's don't suck the fun out of it!

Barbara: While it probably means nothing to you, that balance between fear and excitement reminds me of watching mummers in Newfoundland.

Mary Lee: And that would be the more positive interpretation. Personally, I find it a little dark and dangerous, but I don't agree with the positive approach either.

Dale: I think that contrast comes as much from hindsight conflicting with the memory as anything else.

Dewey: I definitely want to look up more of his poems.

Bybee: I've discovered a few clips of poets reading their work lately and I love hearing how it compares with the reading I'd already had in my head.