The focal point of the paper is to compare and contrast the two poems, Theodore Roethke’s poem, My Papa’s Waltz and Andrew Hudgins’ poem, My Father’s Corpse. Though the two poems appear to be on the same plain dealing with the death of father, it is an interesting reading to find out that they two differ in mood and presentation and individually looks at the same theme, father’s death, from two very different perspectives.
Theodore Roethke’s poem
Theodore Roethke’s poem, My Papa’s Waltz tells the story of a childhood incident when the poet’s father, in a drunken state, was forcibly waltzing with the young boy in their kitchen, with their mother standing by passively and disapproving of the father’s wild behavior but too timid to complain or protest loudly. On the surface, the poem might be interpreted as a history of childhood abuse at a drunken working class father’s hand, including regular beatings, but the poem, when read carefully, shows that the poet was merely awed by the huge and rough presence of his father and was too scared to protest or stop while his father waltzed with him. However, subconsciously, he knew that his father felt deeply for him and that this dance was a form of release of his affections for the boy, when he became uninhibited with alcohol (Magill 1453) and this is clearly stated in the poem “The whiskey on your breath/ Could make a small boy dizzy (Roethke 126).”
Roethke’s poem has been written in iambic trimester, which is the rhyme that suits the waltz time or the three-quarter measure. The poem begins with the boy’s physical discomfort and dizziness as his father whirls him around the kitchen roughly. However, being an obedient, dutiful son, he cannot break away.
“The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy (Roethke 126).”
The second stanza of the poem focuses on the mother’s frown, as she looks at the drunken revelry of the father and the helplessness of the boy. In stanza three, there are images of violence but it deals with the father’s working class life of hardship. The father’s knuckle is injured and his palm is caked with dirt. He beats time on the boy’s head and due to the comic disparity of their heights, the boy’s ear scrapes on his father’s belt buckle at times (DiYanni 13).
“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, (Roethke 126)”
In real life, the poet’s German father used to work in a nursery in Saginaw, Michigan and the image of the greenhouse comes up in Roethke’s other poems, like “the Lost Son” or “the Geranium”. Thus, the poem is a beautiful evocation of the strong emotional attachment of the son who ‘clings’ to his father’s shirt as strongly as he can, never once complaining till the dance goes on, even though he feels discomforted at times. Roethke had been personally distressed when his father died of a heart attack, the poet then being just fifteen (DiYanni 13). There is also a calm acceptance of the domination of the working-class father who would drink whiskey daily after a hard day’s work and would then proceed to bawl at his family or in extreme cases, beat them up “You beat time on my head (Roethke 126)”.
Andrew Hudgins’ poem
In contrast, My Father’s Corpse has the feel of an elegy, which is given a comic and ironic ending by Andrew Hudgins. Hudgins was obsessed with his family and the idiosyncrasies of his family members, especially his father become the subjects of his autobiographical works and his poetry where he describes his family without shame. His most famous poem is ‘Elegy for my Father who is not dead’ (Kennedy and Gioia 112). In the poem discussed here, there is a humorous account of a memory of the poet’s early childhood, when his father had pretended to be dead and the children had caught his bluff. However, they were primarily shocked at the glimpse of their father’s lifeless body—his ‘corpse’.
“… [my father] lay stone still, pretended to be dead.
My brothers and I, tiny, swarmed over him
like puppies. He wouldn’t move. We tickled him
…. We pushed small fingers up
inside his nostrils, wiggled them, and giggled.
He wouldn’t move (Hudgins 11).”
The poem traces the beautiful and concerned antics of the children who first believe that their father is merely posing as a dead person- playing a game. However, slowly, they get alarmed when their antics do not wake their father. Andrew Hudgins, even as a child, was extremely aggressive and thus, we see his violent gesture to test his father’s ‘dead’ pose (Kennedy and Gioia 113). He narrates that he runs towards his father and…
“…[and] slammed my forehead on his face. He rose,
he rose up roaring, scattered us from his body
and, as he raged, we sprawled at his feet — thrilled
to have the resurrected bastard back (Hudgins 11).”
The father seems to be delighted at this unconventionally violent move of the son, suggesting that he too, was from a brutish background. He roars with the pain of the sudden assault and gets up, shaking the children off his body. The last line where the poet refers to his father as a ‘resurrected bastard’ shows a great deal of affection and familiarity but a certain sense of disgust and anger too at the dominating and rough father- figure. The image of resurrection brings to mind the idea of Christ; ironically, the poet’s father does not qualify for the image. Andrew Hudgins often wrote unconventional elegies for his parents and his autobiographical poems are collected in the famous work, ‘The Glass Hammer: A Southern Childhood’. In his poem, ‘Elegy for my Father who is not dead’, Hudgins wrote about the dreams of his father that his sons had not been able to fulfill, neither did they go into the army nor did they join the church. He asks for his father’s forgiveness when he writes the poem (Kennedy and Gioia 113).
Parents define the world for children. They cocoon their children from the threats of the world and provide affection, support and encouragement at every step, balancing their identity. A world without parents would seem like a nightmare to children. The two poems to be discussed here deal with the focus on fatherhood and the father- son relationship in working class households of America. While Hudgins’ poem is more in the form of an elegy, Roethke’s poem deals with the poet’s childhood and his awed, puzzled adoration of his father, who is an alcoholic father.
DiYanni, Robert. Modern American poets: their voices and visions. NY: Random House, 1987.
Hudgins, Andrew. The glass hammer: a southern childhood. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Kennedy, X., and Dana Gioia. An Introduction to Poetry. Ed. 8. NY: HarperCollinsCollege, 1994.
Magill, F. Northen. Masterplot II Poetry. Vol 4.LA: Salem Press, 1993.
Roethke, Theodore. My Papa’s Waltz. in The Little, Brown reader. Editors Marcia Stubbs and Sylvan Barnet. Ed. 5. London: Scott, Foresman, 1989. pp. 126-127.