“My Papa’s Waltz” manages to clearly capture a commonplace father-son dynamic without the use of abstractions or explanatory writing. This impressive demonstration of tact forces the poem to remain in the reader’s mind even after reading, and this is what makes the poem, or one may argue any poem, worth reading. In the first stanza, Roethke introduces a scene that the reader can at least sympathize, if not empathize with: the interaction of individuals in a relationship with a destructive tint to it. The line “but I hung on like death:” indicates that despite the embarrassment or physical harm the son risks by being with the father, he decides to keep his father very close to him, and the word choice of “like death” suggests an ominous resolve (note that Roethke’s father died when he was 14 years old).
The poem is written with an ABAB rhyme scheme, which is important as it adds music to the visual of a son dancing with his intoxicated father, and this comprehensiveness significantly aids the poem’s vivacity. The second stanza, which is formatted exactly the same as the third and very similarly to the first and fourth, explains that the mother is disapproving of the son and father’s carelessness and perhaps even aspects of their relationship, but that she is not disturbed enough to intervene. The third stanza reinforces that the son is being physically harmed by his father’s carelessness, and suggests that the father has been abusive, “battered on one knuckle”, to possibly a member of the family as Roethke chooses to use the word “beat” in the following stanza. And finally, and most interestingly, the last stanza indicates that despite the carelessness and alcoholism, Roethke still loves his father as he “clings” to his shirt as his father peacefully and now seemingly carefully takes him off to bed. This is an important ending and what is mainly responsible for the poem remaining in the reader’s mind, because it demonstrates that love can and does exist in destructive relationships, despite it being much healthier for love to be absent.