DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. "Lorine Niedecker, the Anonymous: Gender, Class, Genre and Resistances." In Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, edited by Jenny Penberthy. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1996, pp. 113-138. Niedecker, Lorine. "Getting to Know Lorine Niedecker," by Gail Roub. In Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, edited by Jenny Penberthy. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1996, pp. 79-86.
"MY PAPA'S WALTZ" THEODORE ROETHKE (1948) "My Papa's Waltz," one of the most anthologized and recognizable of Theodore roethke's poems, embodies the poet's emphases on introspection and the anxieties of childhood, which were later to influence confessional poetry. Originally published in 1948, the poem is somewhat of a departure for Roethke. Many of his works deal with a return to the origins of life and explorations of the subconscious, while "My Papa's Waltz" is a rather traditional and simple poem. Still it takes as its inspiration and subject matter the overriding concern of Roethke's early poetry: the attempt to connect, through the power of memory, the figures of child and father. For most, if not all, of his life, Roethke viewed his father, Otto—who died while Theodore was a teenager—with mixture of fear and love. The father figure in his poetry, then, is often one of awesome, godlike power.
The great conflict in "My Papa's Waltz" involves the ambivalent feelings the grown son has about memories of his father. The speaker recalls a night when the drunken father "waltzed" about the kitchen with the young boy, knocking the kitchen implements off the shelves. Though the father's whiskied breath nearly sickens the child, he clings to his father "like death." The word choice and imagery reflect violence: The father holds the boy's wrist, not his hand, and taps out the dance beat on the son's head; the action of the dance repeatedly scrapes the son's ear against the father's belt buckle. Yet the violence is counterbalanced in other choices of diction and image: the poet chooses to say "we romped," indicating a more playful intent, and the boy clings to his father as they dance their way to the boy's bed, where he will eventually, perhaps, go to sleep.
The presence of a third person in the scene—the boy's mother—reveals another conflict. As the mother watches the two dance, her frown indicates the anxiety and sadness that affects the entire family. While the grown speaker struggles to reconcile his father's abuse with the awe and respect he has for his father, this image of his mother's unhappiness adds more confusion to the understanding he seeks.
Roethke's use of rhythm is an effective tactic for expressing the ambivalent mood of the poem. The dance is fittingly described using a playful iambic trimeter, or waltz time, rhythm. However, the playfulness of the rhythm serves also to further support the ambivalence—should the speaker remember this violence-tinged scene with such a frivolous dance beat? The poem ends with the seemingly benign image of the boy hanging onto his father as he is put to bed, but, as with his own life, the conflict is left unresolved.
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