In the American poet Theodore Roethke's poems "My Papa's Waltz," "Cuttings (Later)," and "Cuttings," ordinary aspects of the domestic environment, like a young child being taught to dance by his father or the routine pruning and cutting of plants, during springtime become life-lessons that I believe are not simply common to Roethke's earliest formative childhood experiences, but to all people. The physical objects and actions of the poems take on great symbolic significance, when funneled through the words of the poetic voice of Roethke. Dancing and pruning become rites of passage and religious actions, rather than everyday occurrences. Through such poetic images, Roethke underlines the fact that all experiences, from dancing to gardening can be both frightening and exhilarating, terrifying and religious, and joyous and important in the life of the poetic speaker.
In "My Papa's Waltz," the normally cheerful act of dancing, especially in a kitchen scene and environment, becomes violent, when seen through the eyes of the young child. Rather than being 'high on life,' the boy's father is intoxicated with another substance: "The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy," begins the poem, as the boy learns to dance. He hangs on "like death" to his father, because, as the first stanza counsels, "such waltzing is not easy," when his father is in such a simultaneously drunken and delighted state.
Although dancing should ideally be an act of social communion, between the boy and his father it also becomes an act of social exclusion. The boy's mother frowns as the "pans/Slid from the kitchen shelf;" due to the violence of the pair's dancing. The father and son form an alliance against the mother, than excludes and destroys her kitchen life and her femininity, through their dancing.
I as a reader may feel sympathy for the mother, but the boy does not. At times, the speaker of the poem seems to be carried away by both the terror-inducing and the joyful act of the dancing, because of or despite the father's carelessness about the mother's kitchen and also his own and his son's physical safety. "At every step you missed / My right ear scraped a buckle." The tenderness of the mother and of the potential of dancing is disturbed by the harsh, scraping and intoxicated state of the father's physical motion. Yet the father has also led a physically careless life himself, careless of his own physicality. This carelessness underlined from the whisky on his breath at the poem's outset and also the fact that "the hand that held my wrist / Was battered on one knuckle."
Thus the poem suggests perhaps the father expects his son to be similarly careless about what happens to the boy's own masculine hands, what delirious dancing does to women's "unfrowning countenances," what whisky has down to his own body, and done to the kitchens and lives of others, especially women who are excluded from masculine and joyous dancing.
What is so interesting about Roethke's selection of dancing as a metaphor to explain his father is that dancing is a traditionally feminine art in many cultures. Dancing is used to socially exclude the mother, and the fact that usually men and women dance together in a gentle fashion, rather than men and boys as father and son, makes the woman even more peripheral to the events that transpire in her home. The boy's papa teaches him this traditionally feminine social device in the traditional female sphere of the kitchen and home, as a kind of insult to injury.
The woman watching is not asked or allowed to participate, and the father goes about his teaching in a fashion that actively displeases the boy's mother: "My mother's countenance/Could not unfrown itself," and the father's actions to some extent seems to nastily exclude her from the "romping" of the son and the father across the kitchen floor. At the end of the poem, the boy is put to bed by his father's care, not his mother's tender arms. "Then [my father] waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your [his father's] shirt." The boy does not care that his father: "beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt." The dirtiness of his father from work, and the harshness of the father's rhythm are endured as fair prices to pay for the father's affection and attention, in contrast to being excluded like the mother.
Does the mother disapprove of her husband's drunkenness? Is that why she is excluded? Would she rather be dancing in some other place besides her kitchen, with her husband, rather than watching her husband dance? These question remain unanswered -- I as a reader can only feel for the mother, as well as take visceral delight in the pleasure of the child, intoxicated by his father's attention and the vehemence of the waltz that the two of the males of the Roethke household embark upon in their noisy pot-and-pan rattling nightly jig.
The connection of filth, violence, and a simple domestic act and setting is also blended in Theodore Roethke's "Cuttings (Later)." The speaker of this poem has been pruning the branches of his garden, an older speaker than the speaker of "My Papa's Waltz." The speaker has been engaged a violent slicing that is necessary to produce new growth. "What saint strained so much, / Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?" The speaker wonders as he surveys his handiwork. Unlike the speaker of "My Papa's Waltz," this speaker of "Cuttings (Later)" is evidently older. He does not merely experience life, going along with a parent's desires, but actively questions his own actions and places them in a larger life and spiritual perspective, rather than delightfully using his actions to exclude another person, such as his mother.
Over the course of "Cuttings (Later)" Theodore Roethke suggests the act of pruning is religious -- like the religious martyrdom of a saint or Christ himself, the cutting down and sacrifice of limbs yields new fruit. Similarly, the violence of the father's intoxicated dance taught the boy a harsh but necessary lesson about rhythm, the sacrifices needed to learn an art even like a simple waltz, and the pain and pleasure mixed in with masculine teaching and love, and the pain and pleasure that can divide two people from one another -- even though they might be the parents of a small boy.
In the poem about "Cuttings (Later)" even the act of planting becomes a kind of a violent dance, but between the author and nature rather than the author and his father: "This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,/Cut stems struggling to put down feet" makes the struggle of greenery to put down new life a desire and struggle of the roots or feet. There is also sadness as the poet "can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,/In my veins, in my bones I feel it," namely the desire of the cuttings for life. Unlike the child speaking "My Papa's Waltz," this speaker is sympathetic an attuned enough to the feelings of something outside of himself, both that of faith and the stems of the plant, to feel sympathy for these green things and even the sticks.
Thus unlike the dance between father and son, the act of pruning becomes a unselfish as well as sympathetic bond, between the poet and nature rather than a contrasting bond between the poet and his father against the mother in the kitchen. In "Cuttings (Later) as "The small waters seeping upward,/The tight grains parting at last,' the garden becomes a place of new life, a traditionally feminine place like the kitchen of the waltz now filled with the gardener's masculine, life-giving energy, but in such a…