Criticisms of Roethke’s My Papa’s Waltz

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Several early critics of Theodore Roethke’s poem, My Papa’s Waltz strongly disagreed on the poem’s tone. For example, one of the earliest essays on the poem by Ronald Janssen states the tone to be negative. He states, “Overall, of course we get a family portrait of a drunken father, angry mother and desperate child” (Janssen). Another critic who believes that Roethke’s Poem has a negative tone is John Ciardi who says, “Despite its seeming lightness, “My Papa’s Waltz” is a poem of terror… because the boy is frightened and hurt by his father…” (Fong). However, other famed critics like X.J. Kennedy argue that “most readers find the speaker’s attitude toward his father affectionate and take this recollection of childhood to be a happy one” (Fong). All of the above named critics were looking at Roethke’s final published form of the poem in 1948. However, John McKenna actually went to the University of Washington’s archives and saw the two handwritten manuscripts Roethke used. In reading and studying these two manuscripts, McKenna discovered the many revisions and changes Roethke made before he published the poem in 1948. McKenna found that Roethke worked very hard to balance the positive and negative elements in his poem. Thus, from McKenna’s research he essentially proved that Roethke intentionally made the tone of the poem ambiguous with both positive and negative wording. The ambiguity of this poem begins in the first stanza “But I hung on like death: such waltzing was not

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