Roethke was born in 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan. He came from a family of German immigrants. He was a poet, a critic and an advocate of isolationism. According to him, Walt Whitman and Dylan Thomas were his aesthetic guidelines. Roethke was particularly close to the way they spoke of their tragedies, expressing their inner feelings and reducing them to the level of revelation. In addition, the individual techniques and aesthetic features of Roethke poetry overlap with whose of X. Crane and W. Stevens.
Roethke’s childhood has greatly influenced the formation of his poetic world. His father was engaged in gardening, therefore, this occupation penetrated into his work, becoming an aesthetic background.
Roethke was educated at the University of Michigan (1936) and received a Master’s degree at Harvard. In the late 1930s, he began teaching English and American literature first at Lafayette College, then at the University of Washington (Seattle), where he worked till the end of his life. His collection of poems entitled Open House was released in 1941 and immediately received critical acclaim and public recognition.
The poem “My Papa’s Waltz” was published in the book The Lost Son and Other Poems, but it first appeared in a magazine in 1942. This poem is biographical. To understand it and interpret correctly, one need to know some facts from Theodore’s biography. When the poet was 15 years old, he had lost his father, who was a true inspiration for his writing. The man had cancer, and his death really shook Theodore’s world. This poem is rather nostalgic as Roethke looks back on his childhood and retrieves happy memories from the past, when his dad would come home and spend time with him. From this poem, it is easy to guess that the poet had a conflicting relationship with his papa. He loved and feared him at the same time. Their waltz before the bedtime seems sweet at first but is also rather scary. On the one hand, as was said before, the poem is about a happy memory, father and son, dancing in the kitchen and annoying the mother. Still, a bit of violence and death overshadow this idyllic scene. There is a great controversy about this poem as some people consider it abusive and violent; others think it is nothing but a happy memory of the past. The author leaves it to his reader to decide whether this poem is happy or not after all.