What Endures: the unrestrained joy of a father’s love

One of my favorite poems, one I keep in a binder of favorites, is Theodore Roethke, My Pappa’s Waltz. I like the musicality of it and the intimate scene it portrays. A couple of weeks ago I wanted to post this poem with a few comments. I found out that when you begin to write about a favorite poem you have a lot to say. After ten pages of ramblings, I decided I’d have to take up the topic at another time and space.

Roethke’s poem has made not only my own anthology but a lot of others as well. It is a fine poem. It is a short lyric, a fine blend of traditional and modern forms typical of many of Roethke’s poems.

Though commentators often focus on what is going on at the periphery of the poem, the frowning mother, the alcohol, the father’s roughness, etc., the central theme is too important and obvious to overlook. No doubt life is complicated but the main theme of the poem is the expression of love between a father and son — that often takes the form of rough house play.

Have a look for yourself.

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.

My first reading of the poem some years ago suggested to me an avenue for my own poetry at the time. I was including a lot of rhyming, rhythm and alliteration in my poems as well as an impressionistic imagery that was overwhelmed by personal tragedy.  I needed to find a way to bring in all the turbulence and dross of my childhood without overwhelming the poems with images of personal pain. Roethke did this with panache.

This is what I call a poem of remembrance or heirloom poem. Roethke was recalling an endearing impression of his father, who died of cancer just before Roethke’s 15th birthday. He is also recalling his mother who obviously was unable to take part in her husband’s revere and resulting mess. Some critics make a lot of supposed undertone of violence and domestic unhappiness but I think this is reading a lot into the poem. For me the poem will always reflect a simple truth that of love’s power to survive personal failings or familial hardships. Roethke in this poem shows us what is important and what endures –  the memory of a special  dance celebrating the unrestrained joy of a father’s love for his son.

There is so much more here. The fact the boy hangs on “like death,” the ear “scraped a buckle,” and the being waltzed to bed “still clinging to your shirt.” How hard it is for a boy to hang on to a father’s love. It is inevitable that all fathers end up leaving their sons. All fathers die and sons are left to cling to memories, a photograph or perhaps even a poem.

More on Roethke’s live and poetry here.

I wonder how many of you keep a book of favorite poems or writings by other writers?

Do you keep a notebook of family memories (poems or prose)?

Here is a poem I wrote about my grandmother.

Let me know
what you think.
Leave a comment below.

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2 responses to “What Endures: the unrestrained joy of a father’s love

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