Desperate Love in My Papa’s Waltz Essay

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Desperate Love in My Papa’s Waltz

Angry words, punches, and belt buckles each may be thrown when a drunken parent becomes frustrated with his or her child. On the other hand, alcohol can also cause people to exuberantly sing or dance. In the poem "My Papa’s Waltz", Theodore Roethke describes the latter situation in a literal sense. However, a closer look at Roethke’s choice of words, the poem’s imagery, emotions, and irony reveals a painful and confusing encounter between a boy and his drunken Papa.

Roethke chooses specific words in his poem to alert the reader of the violent nature of the waltz. As the boy and his father waltz around the house, the small boy must hold "on like death" (Roethke 3). In this case, many words can
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Moreover, when people are drunk, they often take their frustrations out on others. This appears to be the case when Roethke writes, "At every step you missed / my right ear scraped a buckle" (11-12). In these lines, Roethke shows the reader that for each mistake Papa makes, the boy must pay the consequence as his father lashes him with his belt buckle.

The images in "My Papa’s Waltz" also show emotions characteristic of an abusive family situation. Brian Rickett notes in discussing this poem with his 1102 English class at the University of Georgia, "The boy was disappointed in his father's problems, but loved him through it all" (Rickett, 4/1). Roethke makes this feeling of desperate love apparent when he writes, "But I held on to you like death / such waltzing is not easy" (Roethke 3-4). This emotion is re-emphasized when Papa sends the boy to bed "still clinging to your [Papa’s] shirt" (15). Despite the tension and abuse, the boy does not want to sever the love he has for his father. He desperately tries to hold on to his father throughout the confrontation.

Roethke also uses irony to stress the fact that this waltz differs from most waltzes. Under normal conditions, a waltz inspires joy and is a festive and cheerful event. In "My Papa’s Waltz", the boy’s mother watches as her husband and her son romp through the kitchen, leaving behind them a trail of destruction. The speaker says, "My mother’s countenance / could not unfrown itself" (Roethke 8-9).

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