Roethke & Waltzing Iambic Trimeter

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  • September 14, 2009. I remember making posters when I was a kid. The more I concentrated on the spelling, the more likely I was to get it wrong. It’s not Tetrameter but Trimeter. (This post was originally titled Roethke & Waltzing Iambic Tetrameter.) My thanks to Joy at  Welcome to Way Down Under for catching this mistake. Sometimes we just need a little help from friends.

Theodore Roethke lived from 1908 to 1963. He died the same year as Robert Frost, though much younger when he died – only 55. lives-of-the-poetsThough he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, the Waking, his reputation these days remains overshadowed. Two good books that both offer brief biographies on  Roethke, Michael Schmidt’s the Lives of the Poets and David Perkins A History of Modern Poetry, cite Roethke’s inability to establish his own voice as contributing to his relative obscurity. His style ranges from an early rugged meter and rhyme, to a Yeatsian diction and subject matter mid-career, to a more elemental and Whitmanesque freedom of line and expression shortly before his death (though he never wholly abjures form in poetry). Schmidt writes: “His dependence on other poets for structure, mythology, and actual style shakes our trust in the poet; but no one can deny the original power of the poems that seek to make him whole.”  On the other hand, what Roethke generally did not adopt, unlike some of his contemporaries and successors, was the “abandoning of traditional forms and the contingent world in favor of the seductions of the unconscious and of dream.” Reothke’s best poems are strongly grounded in the real, present and natural world.

My Papa’s Waltz

Roethke - My Papa's Waltz

My Papa’s Waltz may be one of Roethke’s best known poems. It’s written in an Iambic Trimeter that Roethke skillfully varies according to the subject matter of the poem – a counterpoint unavailable to free verse poetry.

I’ve bracketed the first and third quatrains (or stanzas) because they offer something very deliberate. The feminine endings of dizzy and easy (slant rhymes), in the first stanza, and knuckle and buckle, in the third, masterfully reproduce the halting and drunken rhythm of his father’s waltzing. (Without being limping iambs, the lines create a similar feel.) The words themselves both reinforce and are reinforced by the meter – dizzy in the first stanza; the painful interruptions of knuckle and buckle in the second.

The other reason for bracketing both stanzas is that they are both strictly about Roethke’s dance with his father.

Another metrical touch is the trochaic foot in the second line of the second stanza:

slid-from

The trochaic foot skillfully emphasizes the disruption of the pans as they slid from the kitchen selves. This isn’t an easy waltz, things are backwards and upside down. The trochee in the second line is echoed by the near-spondee of the stanza’s fourth line:

could-not

As with his mother’s countenance, the meter too is disturbed.

Before the boy is whisked off to bed, the metrical pattern of the poem is disrupted one last time:

you-beat-time

The second foot of could be read as an out and out spondee:

you-beat-time-spondee

theodore-roethkeIn either case, the meter disturbingly echoes the slap of his father’s palm on the boy’s head, disrupting the meter of the poem, the waltz, and any joy the boy takes in the father’s drunken attention. The only real anapestic variant in the poem occurs in the second line of the poem’s final stanza – with a palm. Though I shy away from giving poets too much credit for qualities (such as vowel & consonant sounds) inherent in the English language, I think that Roethke’s anapest, in this stanza, was deliberate. He could have written – With palms|cracked hard| by dirt. I think the line would have worked that way. My reading is that the anapest nicely reproduces the hard, swinging whack of the father’s palm on the boy’s head.

And yet, through all these things, the boy still “clings” to his father’s shirt when he is waltzed off to bed. Even the rough attention of a drunken father is a “love” that the boy clings t. This is perhaps the most poignant, to me, conclusion of the poem. Despite the hard and painful dance of his father’s waltz, it’s not a dance that the boy wants to surrender.

Be sure and let me know if you enjoy these readings.

8 responses

  1. Pingback: A Little About Theodore Roethke | rebeccaregr5's Blog

  2. I was reading this poem for my AP English classes focusing on how sound devices reinforce theme for a socratic circle in class and I was completely lost until I found this website. You did a fantastic job of clarifying to me which syllables are stressed and which are unstressed as well as the purpose of the poet’s departure from iambic trimeter. One thing I did discover that I thought was neat is that a waltz is a dance that features 3 steps per measure which is similar to how this poem features 3 iambs per line. Thanks!

    • Thanks so much for commenting. Responses like yours make the effort worthwhile. :-) And you’re right about the 3 step measure matching the metrical count. I’m sure this was intentional on Roethke’s part.

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