The Interpretation of a Waltz

Glass poured full

Bodies spin shakily

Dance until dark.

Theodore Roethke’s, “My Papa’s Waltz” is a bittersweet poem about a child dancing around the house with their father. This interpretation is hidden and hard to find through diction used in the poem. Words like, whiskey, death, battered, and beat, foster intrinsic feelings of suspicion and fear. The lines, “The whiskey on your breath/ could make a small boy dizzy,” and the lines, “The hand that held my wrist/ was battered on one knuckle/ at every step you missed/ my right ear scraped a buckle,” only seem to underscore the idea that this child is being beaten by his alcoholic father. This is a natural conclusion to come to, only because our society is programmed to associate physical abuse with parents that are heavy drinkers. It is after further examination and different interpretation that this poem takes on a new meaning. Maybe this child is clinging to the fathers shirt because he or she is trying to stay steady while the father sweeps them into a waltz. Even I remember standing tiptoe on my fathers toes, and letting him lead me around the room in a clumsy box-step. When this is the interpretation that is chosen, it is clear that the alcohol only accounts for the clumsiness of this pair’s dancing, and is not the cause of abuse of any sort, that this poem is nothing more than the description of a tender moment between father and child. The 3×3 I composed for this poem is written in a meter used for waltzing, in compliment to the meter that the actual poem is written in. My 3×3 has a darker tone, really highlighting the role that alcohol plays in this story. I wanted it to be clear that this poem is tricky to read, in that it can have multiple interpretations.

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