|One Step Up, One Step Back:
Ambiguous Word Choice and Structure in Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”
In “My Papa’s Waltz” (1948), Theodore Roethke paints a picture of a father-son romp around the kitchen that is at the same time both rough in its play, and tender in its memory. Roethke uses simple words to create ambiguous phrases that can be read and understood in these two different ways. The poem is often ambiguous due to word-choices that can have two irresolvable opposite meanings, or counterpointing a clear meaning with an equally clear but also opposite meaning. Being semiautobiographical, Roethke creates the poem’s images from his childhood memories. In describing poetry’s purpose, he said himself that “poetry is the discovery of the legend of one’s youth” (Blessing 18). But legends are a mix of actual physical truths combined with story telling that paints a picture showing the way we would like to remember the past. The fact that poetry discovers the legend means that the story within the poem has both hard truths and fanciful memories. Roethke’s poem is his own legend of his childhood interactions with his father. Roethke creates his legend by using ambiguity within a waltz-like structure.
Ambiguity arises from words’ connotations starting from the very first stanza:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
The first two lines create a double meaning. “Whiskey on your breath” could mean that the father was an alcoholic—but it could mean that the father had just a sip of whiskey. A sip of whiskey could have made the child dizzy because any child thinks alcohol smells strong. This creates an uneasiness with the father and son relationship. What are we supposed to believe is the true meaning?
Another sense of uneasiness is created by the second two lines. First, the son is waltzing with the father, which creates a sense of fun. Yet this son is only tall enough to reach his dad's belt buckle. With the father being a relative giant to the son, the son would have to cling to his dad using every tiny muscle available to him as he was being twirled around the room. This is the son's memory. From the son's perspective, the interactions are a bit overwhelming. The father is having fun with his son and is unknowingly creating a minor sense of fear in the child. The game was played too harshly for the young boy, as seen with the words “hung on like death” and “not easy.” It was a memory that might have been fun to a certain point, but was taken too far by the father. Without deciding which side the ambiguity leans towards, these two lines support an abusive interpretation.
The second stanza confirms the fact that the father might have taken things too far:
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
Playful behavior between the father and son is suggested from the “romp.” “Pans slid from the kitchen shelf” illustrates the force created by the romp was so strong that it makes a mess of the kitchen. This suggests that the interaction could have been too much for a small boy. In the kitchen the mother is encountered for the first time. Clearly, the mother is not very happy with the interaction, which is seen through the “mother’s countenance” that would not be “unfrown[ed].” Her displeased reaction may hold two different explanations. Either the mother is only dismayed that her kitchen is being destroyed or she is not fully enjoying the rough-housing between the father and son. It may also be a combination of both. But the mother does not stop the interaction. This suggests that the mother is approving of the fact that the father is playing with the son. Yet the fact that she is frowning suggests that she might know, as some mothers seem to know, that rough-housing might end with someone hurt. From the mother’s reaction to the waltz, we still cannot be clear whether the waltz is happy or tense for the speaker.
Touching on the physical aspect of the rough-housing is the third stanza:
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
The buckle scraping the child’s ear illustrates that the child is a young child, and that the father, in a subtle way, is neglecting the child. The child is clearly encountering pain at the father’s hand, and yet the father continues the waltz. Clearly, the father does nothing to stop the waltz as soon as the child is encountering pain. This suggests a sort of negligence.
One might view the act as abusive, especially with the preceding lines, “The hand that held my wrist/ Was battered on one knuckle.” The “battered” knuckle on “the hand” could suggest that the father was in some type of scuffle and might have used the hand as weapon. However, we must consider Roethke’s background and relationship with his father. “Roethke’s father died when the poet was only fourteen, and that loss appeared to impact much of Roethke’s later life as well as his writing” (Byrne). With his writing being influenced by his life, we can further explore what the lines might mean. Roethke’s father was a gardener, and Otto “built his own house… just in front of the greenhouse, so that he would always be nearby to tend his flowers” (Butterworth). Otto’s job was very physically tasking so it is acceptable for a laborer to have a battered knuckle from a hard day’s work. Also, having a father that working a physical labor job, was something to be proud of. In Roethke’s childhood era, it was seen as a source of pride to have a father that does physical labor. “Battered knuckle” could be a note of how proud that Roethke was of his father. However, with these two positive ideas, the idea of abuse or violence cannot be removed.
This roughness leads us to “the hand,” which is referred to in the third person. This suggests that the child was either admiration of his dad's powerful hand, or perhaps fear of it. The speaker’s fear can be drawn from the fact that Otto was “a hard taskmaster, demanding perfection” (Butterworth). Roethke sometimes failed to live up to his father’s expectations and would be demoralized for his failure. This may have translated to his speaker’s voice in the poem. However, a strong sense of admiration can be felt from “the life-giving quality in Otto” (Butterworth). Roethke’s father did hard work, work he loved. Roethke respected his father for his work and would often be in the garden helping his father. This turns the hand into a symbol of admiration that Roethke has for his father’s craft. The interaction continues to be a rough-housing waltz.
Both rough-housing and love is created with the final images in the fourth stanza:
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
As referred to earlier, the hand is still just a labor-roughened hand and is now clearly demonstrated as a gardener’s hand through the image of “caked hard by dirt.” Admiration can be drawn from this memory to that of the hand from previous stanzas. Contrary to the second line, the first line “You beat time on my head” could create a sense of abuse. If the father was being gentle, he could tap time or pat time. He would “beat time” if the son's head was supposed to symbolize a drum. However, in this poem, it makes more sense that the rough-housing continued, and the "beat time" suggests the vigor of the cadence of the dance. Then the father, like a good parent, takes the child “off to bed/ still clinging to your shirt.” The “clinging” action of the child being taken off to bed can be two things. It may refer to the past waltzing and that the child was in fear that he would be tossed around and was desperately trying to cling on. On the other hand, it can mean that the child loved his father and Roethke uses this last line to ensure we know this. After reflecting on all the images that showed roughness in the play, and the ambiguity that may have been minor traumatizing actions by the father, the father is still shown in a loving image towards his son.
Ambiguity within “My Papa’s Waltz” continues with the rhyme pattern. The poem is not uniform; it contains straight rhyme and slant-rhyme. Inconsistency is seen in the beginning of the poem with a slant-rhyme pattern in the first two stanzas. This slant-rhyme is observed with “dizzy” and “easy,” and with “pans” and “countenance.” Explanations for the slant-rhyme create another ambiguity. First, “dizzy” and “easy,” being slant-rhyme, could emphasize these words’ action. It could create a sense of drunkenness, or that of a sense of carefree fun. Second, the pattern of two slant-rhymed stanzas followed by two straight rhymed stanzas gives this pattern two possible meanings. Slant-rhyme could mean that there might be a resourcefulness that the writer exploits, using words that necessarily would not pair. At the same time, the slant-rhyme creates a sense of strain and unevenness in the work, a sort of clumsiness. This clumsiness can be seen in further exploring the structure of the poem. “Iambic trimeter” creates a waltzing beat that flows through the poem. (Fong) However, this pattern changes where five lines each have an extra beat. This variance, or misstep, could have been written for two very different reasons. One reason could be that the waltz has a carefree feeling and the father doesn’t have to be in perfect step to enjoy dancing with his son. He is playing with his son. Another reason could relate to the whiskey mentioned in the first stanza. The father could be drunk or tipsy and is taking extra steps in dancing. Exploring the structure could provide a more reasonable answer.
Yet the unordered clumsy first two stanzas are straightened out in the last two with a change of rhyme pattern. Structure may be seen through the poem’s straight-rhyme. Only the last two stanzas contain straight-rhyme. Straight rhyme is found with “wrist,” “missed,” “knuckle,” “buckle,” and so on. With straight rhyme, the writer can create a sense of resolve. The writer has a more concrete sense of the work and can translate it in the straight rhyme. On the other hand, the straight rhyme can show a sense of chaos. Human nature uses structure as a coping mechanism. When things inwardly become hectic or chaotic in one’s life, we tend to strive for the outward appearance of neatness and structure. This rhyming pattern may demonstrate the author’s need to keep things in order when writing poetry about his youth, which may be seen as a source of tension for the writer. As one can see, the ambiguity continues to flow throughout the poem, even in the rhyme scheme.
All of these ambiguities arise from differences in meaning that can be taken from the text. Duality within the text can be interpreted as both positive and negative. Pieces of the poem individually taken can support either claim, and either claim is supported through the poem's structure, words, and phrases. On the other hand, the poem taken as a whole may be viewed as an image of a powerful dad, rough-housing with his child, frowned on but accepted by his mother, that leaves us with a snapshot of a loving and tender moment between a father playing with his child. The child remembers the roughness in his memory, but he has a fondness for the interaction. However, the ambiguity of the poem leaves one with only the different inferences that can be drawn from the poem’s word-choice and structure.
Blessing, R. A. (1974). Theodore Roethke's Dynamic Vision. London, Indiana University Press.
Butterworth, K. (1980). "Theodore (Huebner) Roethke." American Poets Since World War II 5.
Byrne, E. (2007). Theodore Reothke "My Papa's Waltz". One Poet's Notes. E. Byrne. http://edwardbyrne.blogspot.com/2007/06/theodore-roethke-my-papas-waltz.html. October 28, 2009.
Fong, B. (1990). "Roethke's 'My Papa's Waltz'." College Literature 17(1): 79-82.