Since the genesis of the traditional family unit, parents play an immutable and paramount role in the nurturing of their children and successive progenies. Universally, in most societies, it is widely acknowledged that the father is the figurehead of the family unit. However, the role of the father is not cogently defined, especially in the contemporary society and may vary from one family to another. On one hand, there are fathers who act as the temporal providers to their children till they grow to adulthood. On the other hand, there are those fathers who are actively involved in all details of their child’s development. The dominant and leadership role that the father naturally or culturally assumes engenders a close relationship with the children, particularly the sons, who perceive them as role models. Through his poem, “My Papas Waltz,” the American poet, Roethke, imaginatively reflects through a dance, the complex relationship between a father and a child.
Often considered by many readers as an intimate and personal reminiscence of his troubled childhood and the relationship with his father, Roethke’s poem has sparked a lot of interest among researchers, scholars and readers. In an attempt to dissect it, they interpret and analyze its ambiguous and intriguing meaning. “My Papa’s Waltz” paints a vivid picture of the relationship between a father and a child through the child’s voice. The discourse of the poem, however, has often resulted in ambivalent and controversial views. A considerable number of critics argue that the poem depicts a harsh and abusive relationship between a father and son. Conversely, an equally opinionated group of critics posit the rebuttal that the waltz in the poem portrays the loving and joyous interaction between a father and son with a cohesive bond. Roethke employs imagery, symbolism, tone and word choice to portray the themes of family, admiration and parental love, rather than child or alcohol abuse.
According to McKenna (36), Roethke faced a quandary while deciding the title and tone of the poem during his revisions of the original manuscripts. He revised through six possible titles and had to choose between “My Father’s Dance” and “My Papa’s Waltz,” eventually settling for the latter. If he had not chosen the latter, there would be apparent confusion. From the title, the child’s affection to the memory of his father is explicitly revealed. The inclusion of the word “my” shows a proud possession. The child was clearly proud to be associated with his father. The substitution of the detached and more formal “father” with the warm and informal “papa” shows a close bond. Similarly, the choice of the word “waltz” illustrates a picture of a specific intimate dance between two people, instead of “dance,” which is a broad term.
The poem, “My Papa’s Waltz,” was written fondly in the memory of the author’s father. One may misinterpret the first paragraph, “the whiskey on your breath, could make a small boy dizzy; but I hung on like death: such waltzing was not easy” (Line 1- 4). However, this means that, despite the fact that the father was drunk, he was capable of waltzing with his son, albeit clumsily. He was excitedly frolicking with his son and certainly not pummeling him as some readers may think. Lines in the second stanza, “We romped until the pans, slid from the kitchen shelf; my mother’s countenance, could not unfrown itself,” (Line 5-8) suggest that the child was clearly enthusiastic about the waltz only to the penitence of his concerned mother. To further suggest that the poem is written as a warm nostalgic memory, the author employs a waltzing tune and beat. Critics may argue that the poem is a horrid narration of terror and alludes to child abuse. What is seemingly fun for the father, is fearful for the child and apprehensive for the mother. The reason critics may conclude arises from the choice of words such as whiskey, hung, death, romped, battered and beat that the author uses. However, most of them miss out on the tone that the poem uses and derive its meaning merely from the words. Despite the tone, it is plausible that the child was indeed scraped and bruised since his father was evidently drunk. “I hung on like death,” (Line 3) may give the impression that the situation is dire, but in this case, it implies rest. The line means that it was difficult to hang on, but he would not let go. Consequently, the lines “Then waltzed me off to bed, still clinging to your shirt,” (Line 15 - 16) illustrate that the narrator still wanted to continue prancing with his father instead of going to sleep.
Clearly, if the child was being abused, he would have tried to disengage himself from his father’s waltz and would not be enjoying it. Also, all mothers have the instinct to intervene if their child is being abused, but his mother did not attempt to do so because it was unnecessary. It was unfortunate that the child scraped and bruised himself during the dance. Roethke employs visual imagery to portray a father, who arrives home from a long day of toiling, still dirty, and starts playing with his son in the kitchen. The waltz begins slowly and gradually increases in speed causing the child to feel dizzy. The fact that it is frightening makes it very thrilling for the narrator as would a ride on a roller coaster. Given the opportunity, the narrator would want to experience his childhood memories even with all the bruises and cuts. Although alcohol abuse is known to tear families apart and is directly linked to child abuse and domestic violence, the poem is one of nostalgia and how much he looked up to his father. It is difficult for most readers to deduce the true interpretation and themes explored in “My Papa’s Waltz” due to its tone and word choice. Since the author tried to balance the positive and negative tones of the poem, it acquired its rich ambiguous quality (McKenna (38). In spite of the poem’s true meaning, the reader’s social and personal experiences determine how they interpret it. However, the exceedingly negative deductions that paint an egregious theme of alcohol abuse and family violence should be explained without using spurious conclusions. A father generally devotes his time to work and provide for the family. In this light, it is sometimes a rare and tense opportunity when they get time to play with their child. The child may be uncertain or have little trepidation engaging directly with the family’s authority figure, who reeks of whiskey. Although the situation seems vulnerable for the narrator, drawing the hasty conclusion of child abuse deprives the poem of its ambiguity.
“My Papa’s Waltz” intensely demonstrates the ideas of a typical family, a loving father and an adoring child who admires his father. The narrator reminisces on the nostalgic memories that involved his father during his childhood. In a stroke of genius, Roethke balances the positive and negative tones of his poem to brilliantly converse with diverse audiences. In essence, the poem represents a powerful moment shared between a father and son through dance. For the only thing as exhilarating, as frolickingly playful with your adoring father as a child, is perhaps, being the father.
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