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Essay On Theodore Roethke's My Papa's Waltz - With A Free Essay Review

K. Forbes; S. Howard; Intro to Poetry; 21 March 2012

“My Papas Waltz” by Theodore Roethke

“My Papas Waltz” by Theodore Roethke can be interpreted in multiple ways. The poem could be interpreted as a parent abusing his child due to alcoholism or a child dancing with his father. A child dancing with his parent is the way I interpreted the poem when Theodore describes the evening, I pictured a father dancing with his child and having fun after a hard day at work.

The author’s main character is a young boy describing an evening of dancing with his father and what he as a child is willing to endure from a loving parent. To be able to spend time with his father because of the child’s father working a lot as one could tell by Roethke describing the fingers of the adult male. I see the child enduring the pain of his father’s belt buckle scraping against his ear to be able to be close to his father.

When Roethke describes “The whiskey on your breath”(1), it can be taken as a hardworking man who drinks a little after work to relax, someone does not have to be drunk to have the smell of whiskey on their breath. The boy is small so the smell is going to make his dizzy since he does not drink whiskey at his age, but because his father has drank some it would make it hard for the boy to hold on because it sounds as though his father may be tipsy not drunk.

The sentence “We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf”(5,6), could mean a lot of things for one it could be that the house is not to sturdy and a little bouncing may make things shake and fall. If I was the boy’s mother I to would have a frown upon my face it all my pans had fallen. It could mean that they were not very secure on the wall they had been hanging on as well.

When the author states “You beat time on my head with a palm caked hard by dirt”(13,14), is saying that the father was tapping the boys’ head to make a beat to dance to or there was music playing and he was just keeping time with the music playing. Just because someone taps, the top of a child’s head does not mean he is being mean or abusing the child.

Finally when Roethke writes “Then waltzed me off to bed still clinging to your shirt”(15, 16), he is saying that he was whisked off to bed and he did not want to fall out of his father’s arm as he was being taken to bed. If I was a small child and a parent was whisking me off to bed I surely would want to hang on, since my parent had been tipsy from whiskey, there might be a chance that the parent might drop me.

In conclusion, I feel that this poem was more about a father and son bonding together through dance and having a little fun after a hard day at work, rather than a father being drunk and abusing his son, or a son being afraid of his father and just dancing with him to please him to avoid being beaten. The father is trying to show his son that life is not all about working to make a living but to have fun as well. If all you do is work and do not have fun after work life is just boring and dull.


Essay Review

One obvious possible explanation of the expression "I hung on like death" is that for the child the waltz is a fearful experience. One obvious possible explanation of a hand "battered on one knuckle" is that the hand had hit something - a face, for example. One obvious possible explanation of "at every step you missed / My right ear scraped a buckle" is that the father is acting like a careless drunk.

I begin with these statements about possible obvious explanations of lines from the poem that you do not cite (though you do mention the buckle) because it seems to me that your essay makes an argument in favor of one interpretation of the poem without giving due consideration to a possible alternative interpretation. It will seem strange, perhaps, that I say this about your essay given the fact that you explicitly mention, in your second sentence, that "the poem could be interpreted as [being about] a parent abusing his child due to alcholism," and given the fact that you also explicitly acknowledge and reject the idea that the father's "beat[ing] time" amounts to abuse. The problem, however, is that your essay seems to argue that the poem is about one thing (let's call it "fun" for short) and not another thing (call it "abuse") because it _could be_ about the first thing and so doesn't have to be about the second thing. The father could be just tipsy, you argue, so he doesn't have to be drunk. He could be gently tapping the boys head, so he doesn't have to be beating him. It could be that the house is "not too sturdy," so it doesn't have to be the case that the father's dancing is wild. And, to go back to your second paragraph, it could be that the child is willingly "enduring the pain of his father's belt buckle scraping against his ear to be able to be close to his father" and so it doesn't have to be the case that the waltz is violent.

I think all of these ideas about what could be happening in the poem are more or less reasonable and so they serve well the argument that the poem is _not necessarily_ about alcoholism or abuse, but they don't serve well the argument that the poem really just is about fun. Your essay comes to conclusions that are not warranted by the evidence or analysis that the essay offers.

So if you want to argue that the poem is about fun and not abuse, then you need to explain why you think one interpretation is _preferable_ to another; i.e., you need to do more than show that your interpretation is possible, but also that it is better. You don't, in other words, just get to choose which interpretation you want to adopt. The point, again, is not just to tell us how you picture things (as you do in the final sentence of your first paragraph) but to explain why you think that is the right (and not just a possible) way of picturing things.

Note also that you support your interpretation of the poem by sneaking in a few additional interpretive claims as though they were simple facts. Claims about the child's "willingness to endure" and desire "to spend time with his father" are examples of interpretive claims presented as facts. The poem doesn't actually tell us anything about the child's desire, beyond the fact of his apparent desire not to let go (which, in itself, tells us nothing about his attitude to the father; he could be simply afraid of letting go). The reference to the father as a "loving parent" is another example of an interpretive claim presented as though it were a fact. Pretending claims are facts in order to support another claim about the meaning of the poem as a whole is a very clever strategy, but it is illegitimate (I don't say that this is a deliberate strategy, but it is in effect what your essay does).

So, again, what you need to do is demonstrate why the interpretation of the father as "loving" is better than the interpretation of the father as abusive. Your essay wants a sentence or two that would look like this: "I think the interpretation of the father as a loving figure merely having fun with his child is better than the interpretation of the father as an abusive drunk because X" - where X stands for one or more good reasons for thinking that.

Now since the content of the poem could be taken, as your essay recognizes, to support both interpretations, an easy way out of the dilemma facing a reader of the poem would be to say something like "we cannot decide what the poem is really about." That seems like a weak argument, but in the absence of good reasons (which we haven't come across yet) for preferring one interpretation over the other (joy over abuse, or vice versa), it might be the most defensible, if least satisfying one.

Alternatively, we might try to look at other elements of the poem to see whether they might shed any light on the poem's meaning (the rhythm and meter, the tone, the rhymes). Doing that is actually very difficult. It's difficult to get meaning out of elements that don't reliably convey meaning. But it is possible to note a certain incongruity in this poem, which seems more like a childish song than a grave sonnet, between such elements and the dark interpretation (as concerning abuse) of the poem.

But the challenge then would be to explain this incongruity. It may be that the incongruity is due to the fact that the poem really is about fun. Or it may be (so much hemming and hawing!) that it is due to the fact that the poem is written from a childlike perspective. It may even be (I'm about to tell you what I think, which I probably should not, but you succeeded in getting me to think about the poem, and now I cannot help but write out a thought about it) - so, it may even be that the confusion over the meaning of the poem is itself a product of (or is deliberately produced by a sophisticated poet in order to mimic) the (likely?) confusion felt by a child in the situation described. Might not a drunken father, angry and possibly violent one moment, joyful and wildly entertaining the next, be a source of massive confusion for a child? Might not a child being waltzed madly about find himself lost between elation and terror?

Best, EJ
Submitted by: Rosebud1973

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