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.


about the poet
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963). Born in Saginaw, Michigan, Roethke was the son of a greenhouse owner; greenhouses figure prominently in the imagery of his poems....(more)

Understanding a poem’s cultural context can often help our understanding of some aspect of the work itself. The social, political, and economic currents surrounding a writer can, and usually do, affect the writer’s literary creation. Sometimes this influence is direct, as evidenced in the title of John Milton’s sonnet "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont." Sometimes it is more allegorical, as is the case for "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats. Sometimes it seems so slight that the cultural context of a work may be important only because it seems reasonable to assume that all writers are to some degree products of their time.

We have collected the following documents to help you to broaden and deepen your understanding of this poem. There are interactive questions at the end of each piece some of these refer to previous documents in the collection, so we recommend that you look through them in order.

>Document Collection: “My Papa’s Waltz” as Autobiography

>Document Collection: Draft Versions of “My Papa’s Waltz”

"My Papa's Waltz" from COLLECTED POEMS OF THEODORE ROETHKE by Theodore Roethke, copyright. Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc.

Contributing author: Michelle Ephraim, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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