Theodore Roethke is one of the most influential poets of the postmodern era. A student of the Modernists, who ultimately outgrew their poetry, Roethke’s world is filled with contrasting images of nature and industry that create a sense of hope that distinguishes him from the Modernists, and a sense of insecurity that seems aptly suited to the middle years of the twentieth century. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and two National Book Awards, Roethke is frequently remembered as a teacher, and the work of his own students often obscured the work of the master. The centenary of Roethke’s birth in 2008, however, brought renewed attention to his poetic career.
Roethke’s earliest works of poetry are restrained and spare, as the last lines of “Cuttings” (1948) demonstrate:
One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Pokes through a musty sheath
Its pale tendrilous horn. (5-8)
Even in these short lines, however, Roethke’s gift for the lyric is clearly visible with the repeated opening sounds of “nub” and “nudges” pushing the reader to the end of the poem. At the same time, the sounds and rhythms of Roethke’s poems, with their short lines and broken rhythms, evoke images of constraint and hesitation.
The selection from Roethke included here, “My Papa’s Waltz,” also from 1948, takes us from the world of hothouses into the hot and enclosed houses of American life. Much like the young plants struggling to grow in “Cuttings,” the young boy in “My Papa’s Waltz” struggles to grow in his home environment. Arranged in broken three-quarter time, “My Papa’s Waltz” evokes contrasting images of playful roughhousing and domestic abuse. These contrasting images often lead to heated discussions among readers who are divided by their interpretations of this poem as one of joyous abandon and one of repeated brutality. Just what is the nature of this waltz that the boy and his father engage in, and how can it be wondrous if the mother’s gaze is so disapproving? That Roethke’s poetry invites such disparate responses is both a testament to his craftsmanship and a reaction to his deliberate ambiguity. Like the other postmodern poets in this section, Roethke’s poems reveal the many shadows of modern life.
6.8.1 “My Papa’s Waltz”
Please click the link below to access this selection:
6.8.2 Reading and Review Questions
- Describe the scene in the kitchen. Is this a happy occasion or is there a darker meaning here?
- Describe the speaker’s attitude toward the mother and the father.
- What does the poem suggest about a father’s responsibilities?