The Sweetest Waltz

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"The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle."
- Theodore Roethke My Papa's Waltz

          It seems as if My Papa's Waltz is a poem open to interpretation. As with any poem, it is up to the reader to make their own personal judgments about the words in front of them. It is important to remember that interpretation is based upon the individual and generally are concluded with life experiences in mind.
          With that in mind, I believe Theodore Roethke was describing a loving moment between a hard-working father and his son. This poem was written during a period in time where it was very common for a father to come home from a body wrenching job, and enjoy a drink or two with dinner. The scent of whiskey on the fathers breath does not necessarily mean he was an alcoholic or even drunk at the time of the waltz. It is common for young children to dance on the feet of their mothers and fathers, and the incredible difference in height can make it difficult to hold on. So saying that "I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy" (3-4) does not have to really symbolize death or pain, just difficulty in the situation.
          If someone was "romping" in your kitchen and it caused pots to fall, would you not think this would cause a mess? This could be the reason for the frown upon the mothers face - her kitchen is slowly becoming messier, and she knows it will be her job to clean it up in the morning! If these lines really indicated abuse, it is more common for a mother to leave the room - then to simply just sit there and frown at the actions of the father.
          As we learned from Foster - it is important to reference time when analyzing a piece of witting. Theodore Roethke died in 1963 - meaning that this poem was written before then. In the middle of the 1900's, what types of jobs were common for men to have? Factory work was still common, but desk jobs were not. So is it out of the ordinary for a man to have rough hands? No. People see the word "battered" in line 10 and they think abuse! But, there are other ways in which someone could interpret that. Lines 11 and 12, where it states "At every step you missed, My right read scraped a buckle" seems to accurately describe what waltzing with a father would be like. You can not expect a father to be incredibly graceful if they were an untrained dancer. And when you again think about height and size - a young boy hold on to his father, could very well be at waist height - right were a belt buckle would be.
          For anyone who has ever taken a dance class before, you know that you dance to a beat. People drum beats with their fingers gently on desks, their foreheads as they try to think, and other surfaces. The father and son were having a fun time together, and the fact that the father is strumming a beat on the child's head still is no direct link to abuse. "With a palm caked hard by dirt" (Line 14) can be related to the same explanation of the battered knuckle seen in line 10. In the last two lines of the poem, it seems as if the father is taking the son to bed - and the boy, tired from all the dancing - is holding on to his father, not wanting the time they just spent together to be over.
          Now, it is impossible to say if this interpretation is correct, or if any other individuals take on the poem is either. It just seems to me, that there is no real unarguable evidence in this poem to indicate anything other than just a bonding moment, late at night, between a father and his young son. It simply comes down to the mind frame in which you decided to read this poem in.

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