My Papa’s Waltz

Confessional in spirit, viewing madness as a transforming force, Theodore Roethke’s poetry explores the depths of the self, attempting to achieve wholeness through destruction. His verse is finely-crafted, full of stunning images and chant-like rhythms, which echo the poetry of T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats. From his Modernist masters, along with others such as Gerald Manley Hopkins, Roethke learned to find objects in nature which crystallized his poetic emotions. He drew upon his early childhood in Michigan, where his father owned one of the largest and most beautiful greenhouses in the state — thus his work is rich in natural imagery of the garden. The luxuriant plant life of his father’s greenhouses symbolized for Roethke both abundant life and death — often the wet soil and the curling garden slugs became associated with decay and loss of self, while flowers could spark a mystical sense of oneness in the poet. At the center of Roethke’s universe — as well as his garden — was his father, a rough and stern man of Prussian descent who often grew irate at his son’s delicate nature. The death of the father engendered enormous guilt in his teenage son, and the shadow of the father loomed over Roethke as he experienced nervous breakdowns, perhaps courting madness in attempts to exorcise his inner demons. The aloof and cold father, whose love was never expressed openly, created in the young poet feelings of inadequacy, as well as contradictory desires to reconcile with the father and to flee his burdening memory.Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” captures in dramatic fashion his relationship to his father. In the poem, whiskey has loosened Otto Roethke’s stern demeanor, demolishing his habitual aloofness and moral severity. Thus the poem describes an exhilarating, as well as frightening, moment of union with the father, who has become a drunken whirlwind in the kitchen. Roethke’s poetic style captures the movement of the dance, as …


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