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.