The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
—Theodore Roethke, My Papa’s Waltz
I always get a strong reaction from my students when I teach Theodore Roethke’s often-anthologized poem “My Papa’s Waltz.” It’s about a drunken father who, much to his wife’s dismay, drags his young son through the kitchen and off to bed in a rambunctious dance. The poem is a Rorschach test on how my students feel about parental intoxication; they divide into partisan factions when I ask them whether this poem is a depiction of child abuse or merely an example of paternal playfulness.
Shortly after his father’s death, Theodore Roethke scribbled down some “accounts about his childhood and of his relations with his father” (23). For some reason, in a sketch titled “Papa” Roethke refers to himself as “John.” And here we find the genesis of “My Papa’s Waltz.”
Sometimes he dreamed about Papa. Once it seemed Papa came in and danced around with him. John put his feet on top of Papa’s and they’d waltzed. He-dee-dei-dei. Rump-tee-tump. Only babies expected dreams to come true (24).
Until I read The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke by Allan Seager (previously discussed on this blog here), I had always assumed “My Papa’s Waltz” was based upon actual events. And Roethke, a great fabulist when it came to recounting the details of his own life, encouraged the false assumption that alcoholism was rife in his family.
While his father regularly took a schnapps or two, he could hardly be called a drinking man in spite of Ted’s later statement that he came from a long line of drunks. And his mother never took a drink in her life (38).
In the essay “Papa” Roethke laments that his father “didn’t like him much” (24). And in a another adolescent remembrance called “Fish Tale,” Roethke further reveals
I was awkward of mind as well as body. I asked thousands of questions. I always imagined myself fearfully hungry. All these things irritated my father who wanted, above all, to make me a wise fisherman and a self-reliant woodsman (25).
The Glass House is a biography written by Allan Seager, a novelist who happened to be an acquaintance of his subject. And Seager often takes the liberty of presenting speculation as though it were fact:
Quite illogically, Ted felt that his father, by dying, had betrayed him, left him far too soon without his love and guidance, and intermittently in those moments when he remembered his father as flawless, Ted was tormented by guilt for even having entertained the notion that a great man like his father could have done anything so base as to betray his son (62).
It’s clear that the death of Roethke’s father, a pivotal event which shaped both his life and his poetry, was the “most important thing that ever happened to him” (104). And Seager suggests that “It is an interesting conjecture whether, had his father lived, he would have been a poet at all” (62). But such speculation merely leads us to the cul-de-sac of a tautology: If Theodore Roethke had lived a different life, he would have been a different person.
Early in Roethke’s career, Rolfe Humphries (“The first poet of ability with whom Ted could have a continuing association”) served as a friend and mentor to the poet (76). In his usual fashion, Roethke attempted to impress Humphries with absurd accounts of his ties to organized crime and tales of women who were “always falling in love” with him (78). Humphries was impressed by Roethke’s talent (“the kid’s good”), but he saw through the bravado (78):
Humphries, however, penetrated the mask. “There was a lot of self-hatred in Ted, you know” he said. Everyone who knew Ted well recognized this eventually, that he was host to a mass of free-floating guilt that made him loathe himself (78).
And perhaps it was self-hatred which compelled Roethke to deceptively claim that he had driven a Stutz Bearcat as an undergraduate, that he had traveled to Russian and Germany, or that he had won a Hopwood Award before there was a Hopwood Award (83;112). But Theodore Roethke, mob associate?
When he was past fifty, Ted liked to say that he had friends in the Purple Gang in Detroit. (“I had such an in with the Purples, they offered to bump off my Aunt Margaret for me. As a favor, you understand”) (58).
Allan Seager is remarkably forgiving about Roethke’s habitual dissembling, concocting various explanations and excuses.
In his later years, as we all do, Ted liked to tinker with his past, rectify it by selections and suppressions, true it up to fit a mature notion of himself or it may be that he was unaware that he was rectifying, that he really remembered his youth in this way (38).
Two factors which may help explain Roethke’s often-strange behavior are alcoholism and mental illness. Today, of course, his bipolar condition could be controlled with drugs, but at the time hospitalization and long periods of rest were the only available remedies for Roethke’s occasional manic episodes. And these episodes could be rather frightening for Roethke and those around him. On one occasion he told Catherine De Vries, the wife of a colleague with whom he often went walking: “I could throttle you and stick you under a culvert and they wouldn’t find you for weeks” (90).
Today some might refer to Roethke’s copious alcohol consumption as “self-medication.” Yet there was a dark side to his drinking. “[H]e would drink heavily and, drunk, he grew wild, broke furniture, and beat out windows with his fist” (63-64). One of Roethke’s psychiatrists surmised that “his troubles were merely the running expenses he paid for being his kind of poet” and another said simply, “You can’t cure a personality” (109).
It’s possible that a prescription for lithium and a twelve-step program would have rendered Theodore Roethke a happier man. We can never know how this might have affected Roethke’s poetry, but Seager suggests that
the very qualities that made Ted a poet seem to have been the ones that made him ill, his sensibility and his energy….His native energy seems to have piled up inside him as a result of the abrasions of his youthful environment, an energy of resentment, rage, and fear, and to have been released by the shock of his father’s death (103)
In addition to being one of America’s greatest poets, Roethke was also a renowned teacher. Not surprisingly, his pedagogy was often unorthodox. Here’s an example from when he was teaching at Michigan State.
He said he was going to give them an assignment in the description of a physical action. “Now you watch what I do for the next five minutes and describe it,” he said. He opened up one of the windows and climbed out on a narrow ledge that ran around the building. He edged around the three sides of the building, making faces through each window, and climbed in again. Teachers do not usually do this (88-89).
Roethke could be remarkably blunt with his students. For example, he once “snarled at a torpid class”
You’ve heard of casting pearls before swine, haven’t you? Come on, you must have. Well, those were metaphorical pearls before metaphorical swine. But what I’m doing is casting real pearls before real swine (114).
Roethke taught in a less politically-correct era when professors were afforded great deference. And he had the temerity to say things that would quickly get today’s college professor into hot water. Seager recounts this episode from when he and Roethke were colleagues at Bennington College:
I was standing in the corridor as he was finishing the last class of a term. He said, “Well, I guess that’s all. Don’t turn into a lot of little bitches before next semester.” The girls, of course, adored him and it was at Bennington that his reputation as a great teacher began to burgeon (136).