Thinking About: Theodore Rothke

Roethke is one of my favorite American poets. I actually wrote my undergraduate thesis at Harvard on him–only to have one of the readers flunk me. Why? Well, this professor was horrified that I had believed “what the poet said about himself” in letters and journals. Apparantly not a valid academic source.
My Papa’s Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

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,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.


Here is Roethke at his most musical–and using an indirect pre-confessional school kind of confession. We can see and understand what the child only senses. When I teach this in the classroom it sadly hits many nerves–the poet is not the only one with a drunken father.
Roethke was given to madness–probably a manic depression. He’d sit naked–huge mountain of a man that he was–look in a mirror in a darkened room, and write.

7 thoughts on “Thinking About: Theodore Rothke

  1. What a great poem. Sorry to hear about the skeptical reader, though. Sometimes I think academics goes a little overboard with stuff like that. Shouldn’t the truth be most pure at its source? And how are they defining truth? From a philosophical standpoint, if someone believes something to be true, shouldn’t it be so for them, regardless of what others experience to be true? Can’t it be that there is more than one truth? I find a certain arrogance in rigid absolutes and the need to ‘prove’ things empirically. It’s much gentler, freer to be relative and open to myriad possibilities and the wonderful surprises they often bring.

    • Defending a thesis can be an intimidating process. And hindsight often comes a day late. But at least it comes. And when it does, we can be freed from our previous experiences and join in celebration at the dance before us. Rock on, Miriam. Your posts are a genuine inspiration! đŸ™‚

  2. I agree with Diana, and so love Roethke!!! Such powerful images that can’t help but bring up childhood and traumas, no matter what one has dealt with!! Thanks for sharing that, Miriam!!

  3. Miriam–thanks for posting this–one of my favorite poems of all time! I love that Rothke sit naked in front of a mirror in a dark room and write; I didn’t know that. Whenever I teach this poem, a few students misunderstand the “You beat time on my head” and think the author is describing domestic violence, although in a way, I suppose that’s what alcoholism is.

  4. Readers at University, critics, thoughtless teachers–the awful things people do in the name of honesty! Thank you for sharing your love of Rothke. This was one of the first poems I came across when I began writing in a serious way. Even though it sets the bar high, it has lived in my psyche as an aspiration. Such dark music, this poem. Thank you, Miriam

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