Theodore Roethke had a conflicted relationship with his father. He loved the man, but feared him at the same time.
Roethke grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, a place that influenced his work long after. The greenhouse that his father and uncle owned, as well as the woods beyond, filled the poet's childhood with the wonders of the natural world. Roethke followed his father around as he worked and idolized him.
Roethke's father died of cancer when Roethke was fifteen, and it shook the boy's world. Long after that traumatic event, Roethke struggled with depression and mental illness. Roethke's writing often referred back to his childhood and, as we see in this poem, his father. "My Papa's Waltz" was published in a magazine in 1942, then again in Roethke's book The Lost Son and Other Poems, as well as in anthologies ever since. When you read this poem, keep in mind the title of the first book it appeared in. More than twenty years after his father's death, Roethke still wrote as a "lost son."
This poem shows a moment in the life of a father and son, but we wouldn't recommend sending it to your dad for Father's Day. This bedtime dance in the kitchen seems sweet at first, but it's also scary.
We all have fathers, whether or not we know them, and, pardon the morbidity, there's a good chance that our fathers will die before we do. We can dread the inevitable deaths of our fathers, or of our parents in general, but most of all, we hope they won't die until we're older. Roethke, though, dealt with the death of his father when he was just fifteen years old; it's probably not coincidental that the speaker of this poem clings on to his father "like death."
Even in a poem about a memory of a father that should be happy – dancing in the kitchen, making lots of noise, and annoying mom – death and a little bit of violence still creep in. This poem is actually pretty controversial – some people think it's about an abusive, alcoholic father, while others think it's just a happy memory. We guess that the poem is waltzing somewhere in the ambiguity between extremes, so it's up to you to decide how happy this poem really is.