Little room for doubt exists over which of Theodore Roethke’s poem is the most famous or, at the very least, the most assigned in school classrooms. “My Papa’s Waltz” is unquestionably the most anthologized of Roethke’s poetry and a case can be made that much of the reason behind that omnipresence is the room provided within its ambiguity for a multitude of interpretations.
Whether Wall Street Journal headline or limerick, one of the inarguable purposes of literature in all its forms can be accurately described as the conveyance of information, but a newspaper article is not a poem and therefore a reader should not expect to receive information in identical ways from each form of literature. “My Papa’s Waltz” reveals the power of poetry to convey information in an ambiguous way that forces the reader to use higher critical thinking skills in an effort to determine exactly what the writer is attempting to say. In this—and many other of his poems—Roethke utilizes the distancing devices afforded poetry that would never be extended to some other forms of literature to reveal that even poems written from the first person point of view in seemingly direct and almost semi-journalistic language can shield their true meaning beneath the veneer of ambiguity.
By couching the true meaning of the poems in ambiguous ways, Roethke succeeds in elevating the poetry to a level of literature more artistic and creatively demanding than journalism and by doing so ultimately exposes poetry’s power capacity to deliver connotation to the reader on a more meaningful level than the mere dissemination of facts.
The speaker in “My Papa’s Waltz” forthrightly divulges himself to be a singularly unique individual with something to say that is of tremendous significance; the identity of the narrator thus becomes the only element of the poem lacking a sense of ambiguity. This direct address to the reader is important for understanding the power of poetry to reveal information subtly behind the mere facts because the farther away from direct address and the more obscure the perspective, the more difficult it becomes to get to what exactly a poem is trying to say. Roethke’s choice of an opening line is only slightly more endowed with ambiguity: “The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy” (1-2), and this direct address has the effect of immediately comforting the reader that all forthcoming information will be supplied in in a simple and declarative manner. This element could be another reason for the widespread popularity of “My Papa’s Waltz” since it is makes the poem ideal for study for the novice while at the same the simplicity contributes to the ambiguous nature of the meaning, thus priming it for study by academics.
The journey through “My Papa’s Waltz” leads from the ease of that initial confidence delivered as a result of an almost prose-like use of poetic language straight through the promise of an easily followed narrative to a destination in which all that simplicity will eventually be upended through the tricky qualities afforded by its ambiguous qualities.
Structural difficulties slowly begin to weaken the direct assurance of a simple narrative approach in discovering meaning in “My Papa’s Waltz.” Roethke’s poem moves toward a clear delineation of the distance between the memory and its occurrence and soon enough the revelation rises into view that the poem’s meaning is inextricably linked to recollections about a father from the viewpoint a child unable to completely grasp the significance of all those sacrifices that his father made in order to dance that titular waltz.
The structure undermines what appears to be merely a nostalgic evocation of a favorite moment in time right around the point that the speaker describes the father as having a hand "battered on one knuckle" (10). Not right at that point, but merely around it because, in reality, the structural composition has already started to become ambiguous in the lines preceding the understanding of the workplace world of the father. It is through the mother’s eyes, in fact, that the mystery of meaning is introduced: “My mother's countenance / Could not unfrown itself (7-8). The combination of an unhappy laborer, alcohol and a nervous mother is every bit as telling as the realization that summer not only does fade, it must fade. The structural composition of both poems allows for the literary devices at play to slowly make what had at first appeared very direct to gradually become more complicated.
“My Papa’s Waltz” reaches its conclusion with the reader finding himself looking at things from a perspective that has shifted slightly as a result of the meaning it delivers having also slightly shifted through the introduction of more ambiguous information. Roethke takes the reader on a journey to a destination that seems farther away than it did when they read that opening line. . The lines that bring “My Papa’s Waltz” to a conclusion are every bit as direct and unambiguous as those first lines, but in the journey made to get there the images of an alcohol-infused dance that results in cooking being knocked loudly to the floor and the face of a mother expressing concern about something leads to a question of whether the sense of nostalgia that seemed manifest is misplaced. The reader is forced to question what, exactly, may have happened during those staggering, lurching dances in the kitchen amid the clanging tones of pans and worry?
How many people have ever picked up a newspaper article to determine the information the writer was trying to convey after a day or a month or a year? The who-what-where-when-and-why that complement the how in a solid piece of reportage should never be in doubt; ambiguity is simply not a selling a point for journalism. The same cannot and should not be said of poetry where it is not just factual information but the linguistic resourcefulness that brings readers back for a deeper interpretation. Theodore Roethke brilliantly demonstrates the paradoxical power of poetry to leave the reader with an absence of necessary information to determine meaning while also stimulating the desire to return to the literary work again in an effort to piece together the information needed to fill those absences. That absence in “My Papa’s Waltz” and so many other Roethke’s poems is known as ambiguity and it is a testament to the nature of the form that poems lacking ambiguity seem far less deserving of coming back to for additional study.