My Papa’s Waltz Poem Theodore Roethke

My Papa’s Waltz” is unquestionably the most anthologized of Roethke’s poetry and a case can be made that much of the reason behind that omnipresence is the room provided within its ambiguity for a multitude of interpretations.

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.

“My Papa’s Waltz” reveals the power of poetry to convey information in an ambiguous way that forces the reader to use higher critical thinking skills in an effort to determine exactly what the writer is attempting to say. In this—and many other of his poems—Roethke utilizes the distancing devices afforded poetry that would never be extended to some other forms of literature to reveal that even poems written from the first person point of view in seemingly direct and almost semi-journalistic language can shield their true meaning beneath the veneer of ambiguity.

Roethke’s choice of an opening line is only slightly more endowed with ambiguity: “The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy” (1-2), and this direct address has the effect of immediately comforting the reader that all forthcoming information will be supplied in in a simple and declarative manner. This element could be another reason for the widespread popularity of “My Papa’s Waltz” since it is makes the poem ideal for study for the novice while at the same the simplicity contributes to the ambiguous nature of the meaning, thus priming it for study by academics.

It is through the mother’s eyes, in fact, that the mystery of meaning is introduced: “My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself (7-8). The combination of an unhappy laborer, alcohol and a nervous mother is every bit as telling as the realization that summer not only does fade, it must fade.

The who-what-where-when-and-why that complement the how in a solid piece of reportage should never be in doubt; ambiguity is simply not a selling a point for journalism. The same cannot and should not be said of poetry where it is not just factual information but the linguistic resourcefulness that brings readers back for a deeper interpretation. Theodore Roethke brilliantly demonstrates the paradoxical power of poetry to leave the reader with an absence of necessary information to determine meaning while also stimulating the desire to return to the literary work again in an effort to piece together the information needed to fill those absences.

That absence in “My Papa’s Waltz” and so many other Roethke’s poems is known as ambiguity and it is a testament to the nature of the form that poems lacking ambiguity seem far less deserving of coming back to for additional study.

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