Two Poems, Two Fathers, Two Sons
Both Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" and Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" are about a man's memories of his boyhood relationship with his father. Both are about communication, but beyond that, these two relationship could not be more different. Roethke had a strong and positive relationship with his father that couldn't be expressed. Hayden's relationship with his father was also wordless.
It is significant that Roethke's poem addresses the father in the second person ("You"); this is not a distant paean to childhood happiness, but a direct address to a person Roethke loved. The poem recalls a joyous moment in Roethke's childhood from point of view; in it, his drunken father, holding the boy close, is whirling around the kitchen as Theodore hangs "on like death" from his waist (Roethke, line 3). In fact, they become so forceful that "pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf" (Roethke, lines 5-6).
Theodore's mother frowns in the background, disapproving, undoubtedly thinking that her husband is too old for such behavior, and that he is setting a bad example for the child. But in fact he is setting a wonderful example for Theodore, because he is showing his son that one can find joy in the most ordinary moments of life, and that this joy can, and should, be shared with those one loves.
He is also, as mentioned above, cementing a bond between father and son. The point of the dance, of course, is that Theodore loves it. Roethke observes that "at every step you missed / My right ear scraped a buckle" (Roethke, lines 11-12) and "You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt" (Roethke, lines 13-14). Nonetheless, there is spontaneity and delight in this sudden dance, and a real...