Monday, April 15, 2013

My Grandpa and Poetry: A Childhood Recollection

Today’s poem is again one of my favorites: “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke. I have given this poem to students and asked what they think it is about, and inevitably one student (or all of them) suggest that it’s about a boy enduring abuse from his father. While that is a reasonable assumption—whiskey on the breath, hanging on “like death”, a mother frowning, an ear scraping a buckle—I believe Roethke is trying to paint an entirely different picture for us. He alludes to his intent with the title: “My PAPA’S waltz”. This narrator, whom we figure out is a child, uses a term of endearment to refer to his father which, for me, sets the tone of the whole poem.

The reason I love this poem so much is because it reminds me of my own late grandpa. He grew up in foster homes, worked hard all his life, raised 6 kids, and was a quiet and, at times, enigmatic man. He spoke little. Seemed easily irritated by the noise and chaos of small children, of which I was one. But what I specifically remember about him is that during family gatherings when his house (which he built with his own hands) was swarming with several generations (that all began with he and my grandma out in New Mexico), he would quietly walk up to me and with his sturdy hand squeeze my shoulder. He would squeeze right up close to my neck and squeeze hard. It hurt like the dickens! But I loved it. Because, out of the 18 grandchildren scampering like field mice around the place, he chose my shoulder to squeeze. Then he’d let go and walk away. And I was happy. Just as I believe this little boy in the poem is happy to have his papa dancing with him—it might hurt, but that’s irrelevant. His papa has chosen to include him in his waltz.

So hopefully you’ll enjoy Roethke’s poem as much as I do.

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.

It appears I am not alone in my feelings about this poem. The man in this video I think is spot-on in his analysis. And it seems to conjure for him the same kinds of memories. Hope you enjoy!  Happy National Poetry Month!

 above image from:

Follow on Bloglovin 


  1. I agree with made me think of my daddy. he was an alcoholic, but I was his peanut and I remember learning to dance by standing on his feet. sad, yet loving.

    1. This is something about a daddy and his little girl, I agree, Debbi. And there always seems to be a wistfulness that comes with these memories.

  2. Ok, I got chills and tears because we shared the same Grandpa. I was always jealous of the babies because he wanted them the most, so he could hide in a corner in the quiet. I also remember how hard he was on Joel and I when he would come over for Sunday lunch. He would be out stacking wood or cleaning up the yard and was clearly upset that we weren't helping him. But in his words, "If you are not early, you are late." I guess he thought we have precious little time here on earth, let's make ever second count. Work hard and love you family.

    1. Yep, that was him. A difficult man to get close to, which was why I think I sucked up that strange, painful shoulder squeeze. He also used to yell at me when I locked the bathroom door (he was afraid I'd get into mischief and I was afraid someone would walk in on me--I learned to pee quickly in their house when it was packed with people). Lots of bitter-sweet memories.

  3. I've always loved that poem. Thank you for sharing the poem and your memories!

  4. as i am no poetry expert i am fully prepared to be wrong. i think the poem is about the beauty and pain of addiction. the glory of being chosen as the object of affection in a horrible situation. i think people, like the boy take love where they can get even though its fuelled by false pride.

    ps on a lighter note i love the new look.

    1. You could be right, Bev - I've heard many scholars say much the same thing. And Roethke offered no definitive interpretation on his own poem (thanks for nuthin' Theo). But I think that's the beauty of poetry--that it can be interpreted in so many different ways and seen through so many different lenses. I appreciate your perspective. So glad you love the new look! Thanks!

  5. I loved your post, Anna, and I love the poem. Your picture of the little shoes on the big shoes explains the whole thing and the memories of your grandfather. Very nice. :)
    Like the site overhaul, too.


Please, say hi and tell me your thoughts. I'd love to hear from you!