Theodore Roethke’s piece of poetry “My Papa’s Waltz” is created as a tribute to his father to whom he loves dearly, drunk and all, and manifests the appreciation and admiration of the unconditional love that family offers. This piece mingles with society’s boundaries involving children, what they are exposed to, what situations are appropriate for them to interact with, and what effect it will have on them. The poem opens with the detail “whiskey on your breath” that echoes in the tone of each stanza (Roethke Line 1). It is made clear that the father at the center of this poem has consumed a great amount of alcohol, enough to “make a small boy dizzy” (Roethke Line 2). Much of society frowns on drinking or being intoxicated around children and the speaker plays with words to pair the ABAB rhyming scheme with the words “breath” and “death” (Roethke Lines 1 and 4). The use of figurative language “But I hung on like death” at first sounds like the child could be afraid of his father until he reveals why, “Such waltzing was not easy” creating happier imagery of a father and son dancing together (Roethke Lines 3 and 4). In the second stanza, the speaker begins with saying “We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf” painting the picture of a father and son playing excitedly in the kitchen together, unaffected by the ruckus they’re causing (Roethke Lines 5 and 6). They interact as if there is nothing and no one else that matters in that moment, just as children do. The “mother’s countenance” could be from the two of them wreaking havoc on her kitchen or it could very well be because she disapproves of her child enjoying her drunken husband; maybe it is both (Roethke Line 7). She suggestively mirrors society’s stance on children being exposed to a drunk parent by disliking the situation and preferring it not to take place. The detail in line 8 describing that her facial expression “Could not unfrown itself” hints that this probably isn’t the first nor that last time that this commotion happens in their home (Roethke Line 8).
“The hand that held my wrist” initially raises concern as to why it wasn’t the child’s hand he’s holding; sometimes the wrist will be held when contact is unwanted or refused (Roethke Line 9). Then, considering that and adult and child are dancing, it is sometimes easier for an adult to maneuver a child around by their wrist, rather than their hand, when assisting them dancing. The imagery continued to take a questionable turn when the speaker describes his father’s hand “was battered on one knuckle” as this can sometimes parallel an alcoholic’s behavior of violence, maybe caused by punching something (Roethke Line 10). A battered knuckle can just as well be from rough, hard-working hands of a good man, therefore, at this point in the poem, whether or not the father is “good” or “bad” has yet to be clear. As the dancing continues, the boy acknowledges something that most children wouldn’t “By every step you missed” suggests that he is paying attention more than the average child (Roethke Line 11). Some children that deal with a drug abusing parent become more observant of their parent’s behavior because they feel the urge or need to lookout for them. “My right ear scraped a buckle” displays the unconditional love he has for his drunk father (Roethke Line 12). He doesn’t give any indication that he wants the dancing