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The Somber Dance Essay, Research Paper

The Somber Dance

Theodore Roethke, poet and author, has contributed many well-known pieces to American

literature. Roethke wrote close to 200 notebooks worth of poems. Only three percent of the poems in his

notebooks were actually published. Most pieces, well-known to the public, are collections of poems such

as The Waking, which he won a Pulitzer prize for in the mid 1950?s. The Lost Son and Open House are

two other collections pieces of Roethke. A couple novels also helped this aspiring author and poet

achieve his status among literature; Words for the Wind and The Far Field. All of the works just

mentioned were not achieved by Roethke until he was well into his late 20?s. As a child, he was hardly

one who would have been expected to become a major American poet.

Saginaw, Michigan, 1908, Otto and Helen Roethke welcomed their son Theodore into the world.

Theodore?s future relationship with his parents would not be a considerable special one, especially with

his father. Otto, a floriculturalist and greenhouse owner would have his mood swings with his two sons.

Mood swings increased as Otto?s consumption of alcohol increased. On the outside it seemed Theodore

could handle his father?s awful drunken and abusive side. Years later, Theodore would express his true

pain emotionally and physically in several of his poems. As for Charles, his brother, it was obvious he

could not handle the pain. Charles committed suicide when Theodore was 14. Several months afterwards

Otto passed away of cancer. These two deaths did not stop Theodore in his tracks. He graduated high

school and went onto University of Michigan and later to Harvard for graduate study. Harvard is where

Roethke first began to discuss and write poetry openly.

Theodore?s career began as an English instructor at a college in Pennsylvania. Just a few years

later he became an English professor at University of Michigan. Roethke was a well-liked professor. He

always wanted to be remembered as unique. In order to accomplish being unique, Theodore would

occasionally extend the classroom sessions into a local bar. Some of his former students are well-known


poets now such as Richard Hugo and James Wright. During his employment at University of Michigan,

Theodore began having nervous breakdowns and a slight problem with alcoholism. His father?s problems

with alcohol is reflected in Theodore?s use of it. The nervous breakdowns, however, eventually led him to

the hospital. He tried too hard to be such an outstanding professor by doing too much. His mind was not

able to keep up with his body. Many co-workers did not understand the mental problems Roethke was

having and assumed he was mentally insane and incapable to continue teaching. This began interfering

with his job. Things started looking up however when he re-united with one of his former students,

Beatrice O?Connell. The two fell in love after and became married when Theodore was 45. His

happiness in his marriage did not keep away his mental frustrations though. It was interfering with work

once again and was fired from University of Michigan the same year of his marriage. The newly married

couple decided to drop everything and move to Seattle, Washington. Roethke found a job immediately at

University of Washington as an English professor. Although he and his wife never had any children they

lived a more peaceful life in Seattle.

In 1963, just ten years after his marriage to Beatrice, Roethke passed away from a heart attack.

Before leaving this world though, he left behind an extraordinary poem, ?My Papa?s Waltz?.

My Papa?s Waltz

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.


?My Papa?s Waltz? was written in 1948. The main subject to this poem is a child?s memory of his

abusive, alcoholic father and their love/hate relationship. It takes place at night. This is shown through

the second to last line, ?Then waltzed me off to bed?. The setting is the family?s home due to the

description of a kitchen and heading to bed (The glass house, p29). Due to Roethke?s relationship with

his own father, this poem reflects his own past childhood. An example of his use of similes include, ?The

whiskey on your breath/Could make a small boy dizzy;/ But I hung on like death.? Roethke also uses

imagery and a unifying structure to convey the relationship between a child and his father. These two

elements make it possible to communicate the emotional bond between parent and child to the reader

(Essays on the poetry, p122). ?The hand that held my wrist/ Was battered on one knuckle;/ At every step

you missed/ My right ear scraped a buckle? gives the reader an extremely clear understanding of the

abusive situation (Essays on the poetry, p124). After this picture is successfully painted in the reader?s

mind, the writer does the near impossible. He has conveyed the emotions of a very personal bond that

could not be grasped on our own. Only with the help of imagery and structure do we get a glimpse of the

lives of these two people and feel the emotion that they feel. The entire poem is based on Roethke?s own

childhood life.

Theodore Roethke is extremely important to today?s literature. This is based on the fact of his

ability to use imagery so vividly that the reader cannot help but feel emotional when reading most of his

poetry. I am sure Roethke was able to use this imagery so well because of so many memories stuck in his

mind from his odd relationship with his father. I was able to understand and get into this poem

completely due to the imagery used.

Works Cited

Seagar, Allan. The glass house; the life of Theodore Roethke. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Stein, Arnold Sidney. Theodore Roethke; essays on the poetry. Seattle: University of Washington

Press, 1965.

The Academy of American Poets. Ed. Melissa Ozawa. 1997-2000. 17 October 2000


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