Roethke, Theodore. My Papa's Waltz. Retellings: A Thematic Literature Anthology. Eds. Clarke, M.B. and A.G. Clarke. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. 67-68
Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" initially bestows upon the reader a scene of a father and child passing by the evening's late hours in dance, and then finally rest. Further investigation of the poem's lines provides quite a few alternate meanings that completely differ from the initial portrait that is painted.
Taking a look at the first part of the poem, we are given the idea of a father who has come home to his family after what seems to be a day of work, and a night out at a bar. "The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy" (1-2) gives the impression that the father has been drinking heavily. "But I hung on like death: such waltzing was not easy" (2-4) - clumsy movements, misguided actions.
The first set of lines doesn't give off much meaning until the second set is introduced.
The second verse brings about a new sense and meaning to the poem. More or less the reader will be misguided by the title and believe the poem to be about a dance of some sort that the father performs. Taking this initial idea and reading through the poem will distort the meaning. As now reading through the second verse you come to question your original thoughts. "We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf;" (5-6). "My mother's countenance could not un-frown itself." (7-8). If the two people in the poem are "waltzing", then how is it that there are items being disturbed is such matter? The mother is clearly upset, as she is not smiling. In normal life a frown can be taken as being stressed or upset.