My Papa’s Waltz, by Theodore Roethke and Those Winter Sundays, by Robert Hayden, a personal response:
These two poems honor fathers, in very different ways, although their life circumstances may have been equally constrained by economics, opportunities, personality, education, and perhaps even ethnicity. In My Papa’s Waltz, the figure of the father repels and attracts the narrator when he comes home drunk but exhilerated.
In Those Winter Sundays, the father is a remote figure, whose behavior is masked by a taciturn nature and the burden of responsibility. Each is clearly loved by their child, the narrator, although this love may have come too late to be expressed to the parent. Each poem expresses regret that the relationship was as it was rather than some other way, perhaps easier, smoother, more open, more typical, perhaps.
My Papa’s Waltz signals the problem right in the first line about whiskey breath. This is a father who drinks to excess from time to time, or perhaps regularly. The dirty palm suggests that this dad works with his hands, and works hard, in spite of occasional binges. These clearly cause family problems, reflected in the mother’s scowl.
The mom in My Papa’s Waltz probably knows and fears what comes next, after the boisterous singing passes and the child is in bed. Is this a scene foreshadowing domestic abuse? Will the father beat the mother using the same hand with which he marks time? How can a child deal with such possibilities?
This child hangs on, literally, to his dad’s clothes, and to prolong the event, hungry for whatever attention this father can offer. There is even the very subtle suggestion that this father’s attentions may be inappropriate: is it fun or sinister that the child is danced off to his bed?
In any case, these are ambiguous memories for the narrator of My Papa’s Waltz, although they have been clung to, all the way into adulthood, like the dad’s shirt. These poems are clearly meant to be read as autobiographical – and whether or not they are entirely factual, they draw on powerful memories from a child’s perspective, like the intimate contact of ear and buckle. Perhaps they represent a mix of experiences with different adults at different times.
The images in My Papa’s Waltz seem too real to be entirely fabricated. Such vivid moments in early life can be mined like a gold miner panning for nuggets. In light of this, should we be protected from all negative experiences? This is probably impossible, and probably would leave us all with nothing to write about.
Those Winter Mornings is a sweeter memory, although still painful. The narrator in this poem is also in the midst of domestic disruption. The child fears conflict in the household.
This is a deterrent from early rising even stronger than the bitter cold. However, in spite of the conflict hinted at, the dad is a caring and selfless presence, building fires, shining shoes for church, after going to work in some manual labor every day. He does not express his caring and devotion in words, but in self-sacrifice.
It is possible to imagine that the fire of love has been stamped down to embers in his marriage, and that this sacrifice goes on without the rewards of intimacy. Or, perhaps the austerity the poet speaks of has more to do with the economic pressure on the family. In any case, this is a loving father, whose tokens of affection were ignored by the narrator in their childhood, to their everlasting sorrow and regret
Again, Those Winter Sundays this seems to be an autobiographical piece, with the immediacy of personal experience. Such bittersweet memories can be the source of wisdom later on: perhaps the narrator will behave differently with their own children. Perhaps the poet will learn to show appreciation and love to parents and to children from having missed out, themselves, on such things in their own childhood. Memories of the sort that are shared in this poem are instructive of how to love your family while they are alive.
The father in My Papa’s Waltz reminds me of characters in some TV dramas, such as Criminal Minds and CSI. These are people who are in a lot of pain psychologically, and their behavior is shaped, or warped by that pain. Some of these characters struggle with econonimic hardship.
In some cases, their pain has led them to use or abuse alcohol. Substance abuse or misuse makes it difficult to deal with them. The drug or the booze change their mood in a flash, and with no observable reason! Like the dad in My Papa’s Waltz, one never knows whether a phone call or a visit will reveal someone rational and articulate, or morose and incoherent.
The uncertainty colors all interactions with such people who are in the grip of an addiction: it is scary not to know what mood or state someone is in before visiting or calling. The persistence of the memories in My Papa’s Waltz remind us that kids absorb and remember everything, even if they don’t have words for what they see and hear.
Those Winter Mornings reminds me of the differences in the ways that people show love. In some families, it is ok to express lots of affection and emotion, and in others, such demonstrations of feeling are a bit less encouraged. The narrator in Those Winter Sundays is clearly feeling guilty about their obliviousness while a child, and the way that a father’s love was taken for granted.
It is too late by the time this poem is written to let the dad know how much his solicitude and cherishing care meant to the narrator. This makes me wonder whether I express appreciation for the people in my own life clearly enough.
Both these poems, encourage the reader to cherish the family and the family events that we have. It also encourages us to love family while they are here, on earth, and available to be thanked.