Meter in "My Papas 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 poems second half, which does not exactly
repeat the first half. A waltz is technically precise;
this fathers 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:
6,7,6,76,6,6,66,7,6,76,7,6,6. 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 hardin other words, the
line would make sense without it. The word hard thus disrupts
the poems otherwise perfect meter, and we should
give it special attention. The speaker has tried to render
his fathers dance in a precise, metrical way, but
his fathers drunken missteps make it impossible
to do so.