Theodore Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ – not over-analyzed – by Kaye Spencer #poetry #firestarpress #poems

My article for May on the Fire Star Press blog is about my favorite poem. Below is the entire article as posted there.


American poet Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) was born today, May 25, 1908.

Although he isn’t my favorite poet, he did write my favorite poem, My Papa’s Waltz, which was originally published in ‘Hearst Magazine’ in 1942.

“Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems: (American Poets Project #16)”

My Papa’s Waltz is a short poem of 16 lines comprised of four stanzas with a rhyme scheme of ABAB. Sadly, this poem has been taken apart, turned upside down and inside out, and analyzed under literary and scholarly microscopes to find the deeper meaning—the true meaning—that Roethke intended beneath the surface.

To literary critics, I say, Sometimes, a dog is just a dog.

(Fair warning: If you are a literary critic or subscribe to that approach to enjoying poetry, the rest of this article is not for you.)

Back to the dog…

What pleasure do we get from poetry if we rely upon someone else’s professional opinion and interpretation to tell us what the poem really means to us? Why do we have to read for symbolism in order to have a poem touch our heart, speak to us in a uniquely personal way, or have a special meaning that is ours alone ? I think literary critics would do well to employ a little less Freud and a little more heart in their literary evaluations.

Poetry is personal. Poetry must be savored, thought about, read and read again, spoken aloud. What shouldn’t happen is poetry analyzed to the point of it being an impersonal list of institutionally scrubbed and disinfected words strung together.

I’m not including links to these literary critiques. Google the poem’s title, and you’ll find plenty.

My Papa’s Waltz takes me back to my happy childhood. For me it is a straight forward, captured-moment-in-time of a playful and loving dance between child and father (or grandfather). I stood on my grandpa’s feet and danced like this many, many times, and my ears did occasionally scrape his belt buckle. When I read this poem, I still smell his whiskey, beer, cigarette smoke, chewing tobacco, garden dirt, and wood working that make up my olfactory memories of him. He was my maternal grandpa who lived just across the pasture and around the pond from me.

Me and my grandpa on my 5th birthday.
Grandpa at Christmas 1956 with me at nearly 2 years old.
Spring 1958. Me and Grandpa on his roof. The backside of his house was built into a dirt bank, so it was easy to crawl up and sit on the roof.










Some interpretations of this poem insist that Roethke was frightened of his father, because of his father’s drinking and violent behavior, which is, apparently, evident in the poem. *shrug* That may well be true, but I don’t read this into the poem, because I don’t have to. It’s not my experience, so the lenses in my world-view glasses have a different color.

I was not scared of my grandpa. He was not violent. He was a carpenter, a gardener, an outdoorsman, a musician, a self-taught scholar, and a teacher of life skills to an attentive granddaughter. He taught me to play the harmonica by ear. He raised pigs and chickens. His hands were often dirty and his knuckles often battered. He was of the blue collar working class.

We sometimes danced around the kitchen and knocked things off shelves, but we had a darn good time. By today’s standards, I suppose he was an alcoholic, but he did a day’s work every day, because there was work to be done. He was an awful housekeeper (widower), but I didn’t realize that until I was grown. When I was 12, he finally got indoor plumbing. He cooked on an old fashioned wood stove that also heated his house.

My Papa’s Waltz is, and will remain, a cherished poem that takes me back to my happy childhood with a grandpa who was a good and decent man, despite the whiskey on his breath…

Here is Theodore Roethke reading his poem, My Papa’s Waltz.


I’d love to hear what your favorite poems are. Sometimes, leaving a comment here is problematic, so pop over to this article where I’ve posted it on my Facebook page and comment there, if you are so inclined.

Until next time,
Kaye Spencer


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