A father should be a role model for his son. Perhaps going to the kitchen with his son to turn the radio to an oldy and waltz together. They have fun as the child romps and tries to figure out what his father’s doing and follow his footsteps. Oftentimes, this perfect world isn’t reality.
Sometimes kids have a father who goes to work, and comes home late after hours at the bar. They go to the kitchen just to stumble around while the father holds onto the son’s wrist for support while filling the room with the scent of whiskey. They’re not a role model but instead give their child a firsthand experience on how alcohol can ruin a family and how opportunities to create meaningful memories can be lost so easily.
In “My Papa’s Waltz”, Roethke relies on irregular iambic trimeter, a conceit comparing a drunk man’s stumbling to a waltz, varying end stop and near rhyme. With these techniques, Roethke shows how a drunk man interacts with his son and that he’s a shell of a father and husband. He sends the message to us all that alcohol addiction is damaging not only to ourselves, but also to those around us who we love the most.
Throughout the poem, Roethke uses a fairly consistent rhythm, although consistently irregular as well. This serves two purposes. He starts the poem by using iambic trimeter on the first and third lines. He also uses this on the second and fourth lines, but here there is an extra unstressed syllable at the end of the line. The reason this is significant is because a waltz is done in 34time signature. This is likely why Roethke chose to use trimeter so like the music which has three beats in a measure, the poem has 3 meters in a line, and this can make the poem seem more musical. He also includes a falling meter every other line to show the exchange between the father and son in the dance. The son is the perfect iambic trimeter while the father is not because the falling meter can be used to show his stumbling from being so drunk and not doing the dance correctly. This same thing can be seen in the third stanza. To further support this is representative of the father’s stumbling, when only the mother and son are mentioned in the second stanza, the rhythm is perfect iambic trimeter for all four lines. This is because neither the mother nor son are drunk so they “waltz” in perfect iambic trimeter. Therefore, by using an extra unstressed syllable, it helps symbolize how drunk the father is and enhances the poem’s meaning.
Another technique used by Roethke is a conceit that starts with the title of the poem. The father’s drunk stumbling is compared to a waltz in the conceit, which is the basis for the entirety of the poem. This comparison is used to juxtapose the two and make the stumbling and drunkenness seem even worse. Another purpose it serves is to show how the son will try to make light out of a bad situation, and see his father for good things instead of his problems. He will pretend his father is waltzing with him to try to create a good memory with his father from nothing.
The end stop as the poem progresses serves two main purposes. Firstly, for each stanza at the end of the third line there is no punctuation. This applies to all the stanzas besides the first. The purpose that this serves is to place emphasis on the word that comes before this colon, “death.” At the end of the first line the word “breath” is used and can be seen as representing life which quickly transitions to death by the third line. It shows if the father’s drinking habit continues, he’ll end up dead and his son will have to get through life without him, and that no matter how tight he “hung on” to his father, his father’s addiction would kill him if he didn’t change.
Another example of end stop that changes occurs in the final stanza. Semicolons are used at the end of the second line for each of the first three stanzas. However, for the final stanza, instead of a semicolon, a comma is used. This allows for the last two lines of the poem to consist of a dependent clause, instead of an independent clause. The last two lines are written to seem as if the son is holding onto his father’s shirt as his father waltzes him off to bed. However, this can be interpreted as the father “still clinging” to his own “shirt” as well. This may be done on purpose to show how the son is still trying to hang on to his father and stay close to him but the father can barely manage to hang onto his own life and is clinging onto it for dear life.
Roethke uses end rhyme that is only near rhyme for some lines as well. This can be seen on lines 2 and 4 (with the words “dizzy” and “easy”) as well as 5 and 7 (with the words “pans” and “countenance”). This is meant to show how drunk the father is because these words can only rhyme when slurred, stretched out, or pronounced incorrectly (due to being drunk). For example, with the words “dizzy” and “easy”, although they are very close to being a masculine rhyme, in order to be a feminine rhyme “dizzy” must be pronounced like “deesy” which could occur if someone has slurred speech or says it wrong which could happen when drunk. Also, for the words “pans” and “countenance” they do not rhyme because “countenance” is pronounced “countinence.” For the words to rhyme one must say countenance incorrectly which could be symbolic of the father speaking incorrectly while drunk once again.
One line that stands out entirely is line 14, as it is the only line that begins on a stressed syllable. The line reads “With a palm caked hard by dirt.” This may be used to highlight the importance of the line which shows how the father descended so low in life. He was “caked” or surrounded by unsupportive, people who were “dirt” and they may have led him down this path in his life to self-destruction. So he can do nothing, because the dirt is stuck on is hand and has become a part of him, like the negative qualities (like drinking) he may have taken on from these people.
Diction also sometimes holds double meanings in this poem. For example the word “countenance” that “could not unfrown itself” hold two meanings. Countenance can be defined as one’s facial expression, so in this case it quite literally means the mother’s face stayed frowning while the father and son “danced” in the kitchen. But countenance can also mean support depending on the context. Here, countenance can mean the mother’s support for her husband could not fade, even though he was making her life difficult.
When I first read this poem, I just saw it as a father who was drunk and a son who tried to make the best of it. I was unaware at first how Roethke manipulated the end rhyme and timing of the poem until I did a much deeper reader. It is interesting to me how the poem reads like an elegant dance with the iambic trimeter and how we can almost see the two “dancing” and stumbling just through the syntax of the poem. Not to mention it is even more elaborate because we are shown the stumbling of the drunk father through this syntax as well. This was the most interesting aspect of the poem’s construction to me.
Thematically, Roethke attempts to accomplish many different things. To name one, he tries to get the reader to understand how much alcohol addiction can hurt a family. Instead of having a happy night waltzing, it is a night with a mom who could not “unfrown” herself. Although his son is still happy, he is not setting a good example and is not exhibiting the behavior that a good father would show. Additionally, he may want to put the reader in the shoes of a child who lives in a household with an alcoholic. It is not easy and the kids do not grow up normally. Instead of going to a restaurant or to the movies movie or to a beach, they are in the kitchen nearly falling down while knocking over all the pots and pans. It shows us that we must treat each other better, because nobody knows what anybody goes through at home. What that kid experienced was a great part of his day because he got to see his father so we also must be more grateful for what we have, since we all have so much and are often not as thankful as we should be. This has helped reinforce my belief to sympathize as much as possible with people, because although I may think I know people well, there are always so many more things about every person that I do not know about. I should not judge them, because I do not know their story.