Poetry: My Papa’s Waltz

My favorite poem is Theodore Roethke’s “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.

I first read this poem in an English class during our unit on poetry. When asked what we thought the meaning of it was, everyone in the class felt that the poem described a child terrorized by an abusive and alcoholic father. I didn’t, however. When I read this poem, I pictured a child dancing around the kitchen with his daddy before bedtime. It was interesting to me that the poet used words like death, whiskey, dizzy, frown, battered, scraped, beat, etc. While these words on their own do have negative connotations, I perceived it to be ironic given how I interpreted the poem. The reason I like this poem so much is because of its dual meaning. I would like to investigate other poems with the same characteristic, where the meanings could be interpreted two completely different ways.

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Photo ©2010 by Tyler Nienhouse [CC-by-2.0]

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