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2nd Draft: My Papa’s Waltz (Unique Loving Bond)
‘My Papa’s Waltz’ is a short yet complicated poem, written by Roethke, which has layers of meaning hidden behind its seemingly simple verses. There is an intriguing ambiguity associated with the poem, which has attracted various interpretations over the years. While a faction argue that the poem is about a drunken dad who abuses his son, others argue that it is a realistic portrayal of a father’s sincere, if a bit rough, love for his son. Through a chaotic experience, the poem elucidates the unique loving bond shared between the son and the father.
My Papa’s Waltz, first published in 1942, describes a night time dance performed by a father-son duo. It talks about how the father, coming home from work, engages his son in a romp across the house and waltzes him off to sleep. Although dance is usually a fun exercise, this dance is described using some poignant words like “The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy.”
The poem also contains some imagery about some of the physical discomforts suffered by the child, which has led to the interpretations about parental abuse. The descriptions about the small boy becoming dizzy, his ear scrapping a buckle and the father beating time on his head are all considered to point out that the child is being abused by a drunken father.(“You beat time on my head with a palm caked hard by dirt.”) These verses are taken to be an indication of the child’s discomfort in keeping up with his father and even as an act of violence by the father.
On a closer look, it can be found that, though the dance is rough and the child is finding it little hard to keep up with his father, it is indeed an act of bonding between the father and son. The son, in this poem, recollects a childhood event, which was a warm memory of a playful dance. “We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf;” Though there are words that indicate the fear and discomfort of the child, there are no words that indicate he hated this dance routine.
The mother’s disapproval may well have been due to the ruckus created by the dance bonding. Thus, her disapproval cannot be taken as an indication of violence performed by the father. Waltz is a fast-paced dance, and the dance made the pots and pans slid from the cupboards, which explains the frown in the mother’s face. My mother’s countenance could not unfrown itself”
The mother’s silence is another indication that there was no violence involved in the scene. If we assume that all such words as ‘ear scraped a buckle’ and ‘you beat time on my head ‘to be indication of father beating a son, the mother would have done more than just frowning. The mother, in the poem, is a passive witness throughout the entire dance routine and this is a clear indication that the anger could be only about a minor incident, which, in this case, is the chaos caused by the dance.
The dance, explained in the poem, looks more like one performed by an exuberant father after a few drinks, rather than an abusive father. He is rather inconsiderate about the fear of the child, but that action does not seem to be deliberate. The father’s ways of bonding are unsophisticated, but this rough dance is more an indicative of his personality and not an act of violence. The son says that the father, “Then waltzed me off to bed.” The father do not hugs and kisses his son to sleep like normal fathers do, yet he makes sure his son has a good time in his own way. It is the bonding of a rough farmer, who tries to connect with his son in the only way he knows - a rough physical activity.
The poem is an attempt by the poet to paint the image of a father who is unique in his way of bonding. The little details he shares in this brief poem, completes the picture of the father in the minds of the reader, and that is what the poet is trying to achieve. He wants to convey that this is not a blue collar worker who comes home and has a friendly banter with his family. It is a farmer with a palm caked hard by dirt. He is drunk, tired, but still wants to put his son to sleep and in the process engage him in a rough manly activity.
If the poem is read as a memoir of the poet and as a depiction of his own childhood, it is clear that the father is just trying to engage his reluctant son into a manly dance. The dance routine takes place after his father has put on long hours in farm work, as indicated by the words such as ‘Was battered on one knuckle’ and ‘With a palm caked hard by dirt.’ After a hard day’s work, he unwound from his work with the help of whiskey, and he says goodnight to his son in the way of a rough romp across the house rather than a gentle hug or a kiss. This reveals the unpolished ways of a farmer rather than a child abuser.
Waltz is a dance which celebrates bonding and happiness. But for a young boy, it might be hard to keep pace with the fast movements. Thus, waltz as a metaphor is used by the son to indicate the sometimes pleasurable and sometimes painful relationship he shared with his father. The words, that the child hung on to his father like death (But I hung on like death) and he went to sleep still clinging on to his father’s shirt, indicate that the child was not averse of his father.
If a reader is looking for evidence of violence in the poem, the poem seems to offer many in the form of its rather distressing verses. In recent years, as society’s awareness over child abuses have increased, readers are little sensitive to incidents that seem violent. This indicates why a legion of readers has a rather grim analysis of this poem. The poet talks about the smell of the whiskey in his father’s breath, the frown in his mother’s countenance, and the battered knuckle of his father. He even says, “My right ear scraped a buckle”, which is considered to be clear indication of violence.
However, on a closer scrutiny such sentences paint the picture about a tired father worn out by his work and the difficulties of a fast- paced dance, rather than a violent act. The poem needs to be placed in the context of the time period it was written. The readers’ sensibilities were different then and the definition of child abuse was not as broad as today. “You beat time on my head” would not have been accounted for an accusation against the father, during that time period. If the reader judges the father’s actions by the current standards of ‘proper parenting’, then he is likely to miss the central theme of the poem, which is a spontaneous expression of love from a simple farmer.
The verses like “But I hung on like death:” is seen by many as the depiction of the child’s fear. They opine that the use of such a grim word, death, can only indicate fear. However, the poet, who lost his father at the age of 15, was more scared about losing a father rather than the pain a dance could inflict. The child, here, hung on to his father because he did not want to be separated from him and not because he feared violence.
In essence, the poem is about a fun play time which includes dancing, making noise, and lot of commotion. It is not a gentle night time tucking-in act, but a physical celebration of love. The child says the father “then waltzed me off to bed”, thus indicating that the father’s intention is to put the child to sleep. He is a man who showed his family that he loved them by working hard to provide for them. It is reflected in the manner in which he says goodnight to his son. Waltz is his form of expression of love, and it is wrong to judge him because he chose an activity that made his young boy dizzy and tired.
Everything about this father is physical. The picture painted by the poet is not of a man who is able to convey his feelings by gentle acts. His skills are physical and it is reflected in the profession he chose – a farmer. His hard work is reflected in the description- hand that held my wrist was battered on one knuckle.’ So, he expressed his love for his son in the only way he knows, through a hard physical activity. Though he did not fully comprehend the physical stress he would put on a small boy by engaging in a fast waltz, his intention was not to inflict physical discomfort on the child.
The entire poem reflects the dynamics that the boy shared with his father, which has doses of fear and misgivings, yet laced within it is an undeterred love and admiration. The young boy loved his father very much and wanted to be with him. He might or might not have enjoyed the waltz, but he definitely loved his father and hung on to him in spite of the rough dance. In the same way, the father, although rough and unsophisticated in his way of bonding, tried to express his love for his son and did not want to hurt him. While the dance is tough on the child, it is not an act of violence and the poem captures the delight from a child experiences while playing with a parent.
Roethke, Theodore. My Papa’s Waltz. 1942. Web. 8 February 2015.
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