Significant Themes in My Papa's Waltz Poem: [Essay Example], 907 words GradesFixer
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Significant Themes in My Papa's Waltz Poem

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Significant Themes in My Papa's Waltz Poem essay
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An admittedly autobiographical poet, Michigan-born Theodore Roethke draws much of his influence for his subject matter from everyday life. Many of his poems deal with his own self-introspection and quest to find himself through verse. Roethke is a visceral poet whose evocative verse reflects real-life struggles and questions of faith and self-identity and the relationship of the individual to the family. One of his most famous poems, “My Papa’s Waltz,” deals with these themes. A tribute of sorts to his late father, a German-born immigrant, “My Papa’s Waltz” tells the tale of a young boy’s conceptions of his larger-than-life father, who stumbles in sometimes late at night after a long workday and a trip to the local bar. Roethke makes the reader feel the effects of the speaker’s sometimes conflicting feelings toward his father, i.e., part admiration, fear, love, and nostalgia. The poem is evocative of the singular relationship between father and son and captures the interpersonal dynamic between the two. The speaker’s recollections originate from childhood but are related from later in life, which gives the poem a wistful, nostalgic perspective. In “My Papa’s Waltz,” Roethke uses poetic devices, such as regular meter and rhyme scheme, vivid imagery, and diction, to mimic the kind of metaphorical dance that the boy has with his father—a relationship based on the boy’s ambiguous feelings of both admiration and trepidation.

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Arranged in four stanzas of four lines each, “My Papa’s Waltz” reads like a dance. The lines alternate between six and seven syllables of stressed and unstressed iambs. This back and forth meter gives the verse a swaying feel, mimicking a clumsy sort of dance:

The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

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But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy. (Roethke, lines 1-4)

One can definitely gain this swaying feel by reading the lines aloud, where the repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed syllabus comes alive. Roethke also uses regular alternative rhyme scheme (ABAB, CDCD…), which also aids in making the lines read like a dance. In the above passage, Roethke rhymes the ending word of every other sentence, i.e., “breath” paired with “death,” and “dizzy” paired with “easy.” The entire poem follows this pattern, and the effect is very much like an awkward waltz. This poetic rhyming device enhances the reader’s impressions of the poem and heightens the empathetic understanding the reader gains for the boy, who is danced around the kitchen by his drunken father. This empathy tends to have a confusing effect on the reader, who feels the same conflicting emotions—humor, admiration, and an unsettling undercurrent of fear—that the speaker himself likely felt in that situation.

The imagery of the poem also contributes to this ambivalent and unsettling effect. There is something somewhat unnerving about the kitchen scenario. The lines “whiskey on your breath” (line 1), “battered on one knuckle” (10), and “you beat time on my head” (13) all make the reader feel a sense of danger for the child in this situation. At the same time, the poem hugs the line between propriety and impropriety, so it is difficult to fathom whether or not this is a comical bonding scene between father and son, or a case of outright abuse. That Roethke is able to get the reader to feel these conflicting emotions in such a few short lines speaks to his immense talent as a poet. The reader gets the sense that the child admires his father, as he notices the physical traits that prove he is a hard-working man, e.g., “With a palm caked hard by dirt” (line 14). At the same time, one wonders if these images are harmless, or if they point to some deeper trouble within the family structure.

Roethke enhances this uncertain effect by using diction that implies abuse or worse: “hung on like death” (line 3), “held my wrist” (9), “battered” (10), “scraped a buckle” (12), and “beat time” (13). Taken singularly, these word choices might be passed off as merely for dramatic effect; however, taken as a whole, they form a repeating pattern of violence that makes the reader feel unsettled. At the same time, the waltzing feel of the rhyme and meter (mentioned previously) off-puts this effect, leaving the reader uncertain about the speaker’s actual intent. Also, given the fact that the recollections originate from a child but are retold from a man’s point-of-view much later in life makes the state of mind a bit unreliable, since the reader cannot be sure that the recollections are factual or hyperbolized.

The combination of these aforementioned poetic devices makes the reader feel the full effect of uncertainty, likely the same ambiguity the speaker himself felt, both during his childhood and later in life, reflecting back. Still, the entire piece holds a nostalgic feel, indicating that the adult is looking back out of fondness in some respect. Roethke’s skill as a poet allows the reader to feel both what is good and bad in the speaker’s memories of his father. The two emotions seem intertwined in this piece, and perhaps that is the point. The fact that Roethke, in sixteen short lines, can create this wide range of ambiguous emotions in the reader is a telling effect of his skill as a modern poet. “My Papa’s Waltz” is an enduring piece that is symbolic of the uncertainties of childhood recollection. Readers relate to this piece because it feels emblematic of the complexities of the American consciousness.

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