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
Now the poet can take pride that he has had a hand, almost like Jesus breaking the bread and parcelling out fish, in creating new life and food from apparently nothing, except with the aid and communing with nature, through the act of planting. Although this saint of the common greenery admits that "I quail," as I "lean to beginnings, sheath-wet," as if he is afraid of the power such planting provokes in the soil, after the act of cutting and pruning. The fear of adulthood, rather than the carelessness of childhood has taken hold.
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...