Meter in "My Papa’s Waltz"

The meter of a waltz is 3/4 time. There are three beats to a measure, but it requires four measures to complete the phrase. Roethke ingeniously plays with threes and fours as the units of emphasis in the poem. Yet there is a disruption in the metrical pattern in the poem’s second half, which does not exactly repeat the first half. A waltz is technically precise; this father’s waltz, however, is not, just as its representation in the poem is not.

- lines 1-2 - "The whiskey on your breath/ Could make a small boy dizzy"
Read the poem aloud to gain a sense of how the speaker 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."

- line 11 - "At every step you missed"
The fact that the second 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.

- line 14 - "With a palm caked hard by dirt"
Based on the units of threes and fours that comprise a waltz, the syllables in each line follow this pattern: 6,7,6,7—6,6,6,6—6,7,6,7—6,7,6,6. Note that line 14 breaks what would otherwise be an exact repetition of the first half of the poem. The one dispensable syllable in this line is the word hard—in other words, the line would make sense without it. The word hard thus disrupts the poem’s otherwise perfect meter, and we should give it special attention. The speaker has tried to render his father’s dance in a precise, metrical way, but his father’s drunken missteps make it impossible to do so.

Questions for response
1). How does this examination of meter change your understanding of how the poem works as a whole?

2). Although the poem’s meter is fairly regular, does its pace nevertheless shift?

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