2 BACKGROUND ON THE POETBorn in Saginaw, Michigan, Roethke was the son of a greenhouse owner.Greenhouses figure prominently in the imagery of his poems.He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Michigan in 1929, where he also earned an M.A. in 1936 after graduate study at Harvard.He taught at several universities, coached two varsity tennis teams, and settled at the University of Washington in 1947.Intensely introspective and demanding of himself, Roethke was renowned as a great teacher, though sometimes incapacitated by an on-going manic-depressive condition.
3 …His collection The Waking: Poems , won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.Other awards include Guggenheim Fellowships in 1945 and 1950, and a National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize in 1959 for Words for the Wind (1958).
4 Not about physical abuse!!! Roethke had a deep, almost religious respect for his father.This respect was religious (in a Christian sense) because Roethke had an admiration for his father’s ability, yet he was fearful of his strength.According to Malkoff, Roethke once saw his father bring a couple of poachers to a halt with his rifle and then go and slap their faces for interrupting his work."Otto Roethke, a Prussian through and through, was strong and firm, but his strength was, for his son, a source of both admiration and fear, of comfort and restriction" (Malkoff 4).
5 …This fear, combined with the love and awe-inspired dependency that a son has for his father, comes out clearly in the poem.
7 The whiskey on your breath Could make a small boy dizzy; LINE 1 & 2Playing aroundViolenceThe whiskey on your breath Could make a small boy dizzy;does not portray him as a stumbling drunkYoung/literally smallslant rhymesIRONYEmphasizes the irony of line 4.METERSpeaker uses three-syllable and four-syllable patterns in the meter to emphasize the waltz: “The WHISkey on your BREATH / Could MAKE a small boy DIZzy.”
8 But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy. IRONY-Speaker’s father presents danger, he “hangs on” for dear life. The word death is thus ironic, it makes the danger of the situation clear.-The waltz should be easy, the speaker is just being swung around by his father. It isn’t easy because their lives together aren’t easy.LINE 3 & 4not "waltzing" in the conventional sense; they are horse-playingBut I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy.SIMILEHe was having fun and did not want to fall offALLITERATIONGentle sound of the repeated “w” contrasts with simile about death in line 3 and with the characterization of the waltz as “not easy.” The alliteration makes the waltz sound natural and tranquil.slant rhymesDICTION (words)More precise ways to describe the dance, a child would not use a more sophisticated vocabulary.
9 But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy. LINE 3 & 4SYMBOLSomeone must lead in a waltz - the father’s dominance over his child. It is not the fact that the child is being led, but instead the way the father is leading that makes the dance “not easy.”But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy.SIMILEIntroduces death to emphasize the danger of the situation or the darker side of the “waltz”. Gives the child a power outside of human agency, which is the only way to have power over the father. Death “hangs on” in the sense that it is permanent, and perhaps the child wants to freeze this moment for fear of what will happen if he or she lets go.
10 We romped until the pans Slid from the kitchen shelf; LINE 5 & 6The word romped here is ironic because it makes the waltz sound carefree, yet the effect of this romping is to cause a violent, crashing disruption in their domestic world.We romped until the pans Slid from the kitchen shelf;To play in a happy and noisy wayslant rhymes
11 My mother's countenance Could not unfrown itself. DICTIONSignal a change in the poem: countenance is an unusual word for facial expression, unfrown is a made-up word.Her disapproval of this scene and her apparent inability to do anything about it except scowl intensify the danger of the situation.There is an audience for the tragedy.LINE 7 & 8Could stop frowning if she chose to – angry because her pots and pans were flying around, but was really trying not to laugh at the spectacle of father and son dancing together.My mother's countenance Could not unfrown itself.ALLITERATIONThe sharp sound of the repeated “c” gives a hard edge to an otherwise graceful-sounding stanza.slant rhymesBrief description of the speaker’s mother is a warning, or signal of danger (like the same hard “c” in the parental command “careful!”)
12 The hand that held my wrist Was battered on one knuckle; LINE 9 & 10Hand holding a wrist more aggressive and domineering than a hand holding a hand.1. difference in size of their hands2. child waltzes unwillinglyThe hand that held my wrist Was battered on one knuckle;Connotes violence. Battered is different from milder words like wounded. The father seems potentially violent.Hand battered on one knuckle because of the hard work involved in running a greenhouse.ALLITERATIONGentle protective sound of “hand held,” in sharp contrast with battered knuckle and scraped ear that dominate the imagery of this stanza.
13 At every step you missed My right ear scraped a buckle. LINE 11 & 12At every step you missed My right ear scraped a buckle.METERSecond half of the poem does not precisely repeat the metrical pattern of the first half of the poem, suggests that the father misses some steps.
14 You beat time on my head With a palm caked hard by dirt, LINE 13 & 14The word beat is rougher than kept (as in “kept time”), recalls the word battered of previous stanza. This hand is not only dirty but hard, more a club than a hand.You beat time on my head With a palm caked hard by dirt,hard work involved in running a greenhouse.MeterWord hard disrupts the poem’s otherwise perfect meter. The speaker has tried to render (save) his father’s dance but his father’s drunken missteps make it impossible to do so.
15 Then waltzed me off to bed Still clinging to your shirt. LINE 15 & 16Then waltzed me off to bed Still clinging to your shirt.SYMBOLWaltzed figuratively and literally, to bed. The poem indicates early on that the waltz is not easy, and yet it ends with the comfort and stability of bed.Second half of the poem (line 9-16) is generally tougher, with short, hard-sounding words and true end rhyme (e.g. dirt-shirt) There are no slant rhymes here; the structure is less relaxed, which leaves the reader feeling tense and uneasy.Breathless and happy after horsing around with his father, does not want to go to bed but desires to stay with him.
16 WORD CHOICE (DICTION)INNOCENTVIOLENTSmallWaltzRompedBedDeathBatteredHardDirtWord order of the poem tends to move from light-hearted words (BEGINNING) to more ominous ones (END) , the poem is too ambiguous to let us pass judgment so easily.The overall effect is to sway the reader’s emotions violently, as in a drunken waltz.