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Finding Alcohol Abuse in a Poem: Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”

 

In an earlier entry, one of our writers wrote a two-part series about the effects of alcoholism on a family, and naturally the first focus was on children. In reading the entry I was most struck by the fact that children may feel guilt; that they might in some way feel responsible for their parent’s or sibling’s addiction. The range of emotions that a child might feel is startling, and the complexity not to be discounted.

Theodore Roethke is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet who writes a lot about childhood, often from the voice of a child. Born in 1908, he suffered from episodic bouts of depression which, coupled with his alcohol abuse, threatened his career as a poet and teacher.

As a student of poetry, I studied his Roethke’s work in high school. One of his most famous pieces – and a personal favorite of mine – is “My Papa’s Waltz,” reproduced below:

My Papa’s Waltz

The whiskey on your breath   

Could make a small boy dizzy;   

But I hung on like death:   

Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans   

Slid from the kitchen shelf;   

My mother’s countenance   

Could not unfrown itself.

 

The hand that held my wrist   

Was battered on one knuckle;   

At every step you missed

My right ear scraped a buckle.

 

You beat time on my head   

With a palm caked hard by dirt,   

Then waltzed me off to bed   

Still clinging to your shirt.

What is most striking about this piece is the speaker; he aptly highlights the emotional complexity a child may experience when seeing his father drunk. There are numerous instances throughout the poem where it is clear that the speaker is unsure if his father’s playfulness – his drunkenness – is to be delighted in, or to be feared.

Inebriated, the father wants to dance with his son. The speaker recalls, “We romped until the pans/slid from the kitchen shelf.” “Romp[ed]” is a decidedly positive word, meaning to frolic playfully. But the idea of “pans/Slid[ing] from the kitchen shelf” is much more difficult to read; picturing it, I imagine a violent and destructive scene. Then of course, there’s the fact that the speaker must “h[a]ng on like death.” The intensity of this metaphor suggests that the child views his father as out of control, that he must hold onto him for dear life or be in danger of physical harm.

The child’s ambiguity over how to see his father – playful or violent, to be trusted or not – persists. When Roethke writes that his father’s hand “[w]as battered on one knuckle,” it is difficult not to imagine that he was in a brawl prior to coming home. But, in tandem with the speaker’s mixed assessment of the scene, it could also be a work injury, a detail meant to be paired with the hands “caked hard by dirt.” The child seems to sense the seriousness of the interaction, but actively tries to soften the image of his father.

The poem’s final line is to me a succinct summary of the child’s complicated feelings toward his father. He remembers how his father “waltzed [him] off to bed/Still clinging to [his] shirt.” The act of “clinging” – just like “hang[ing] on like death” – suggests self-protection, but also love; is the child trying to hold on so he won’t be injured by his father’s crazed dancing, or does he “cling” to his father because he is his son, and he loves him? I think it is a mixture of both, and that Roethke’s poem is a model example of the complex emotions that pain children – and spouses, siblings, parents – of alcoholics.

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