Professor Emeritus John McKenna has a critical essay of Theodore Roethke's poem, "My Papa's Waltz", which he analyzes and points out the different ways that people read the poem. According to McKenna, "My Papa's Waltz" is not a complex or long poem, but it has "intriguing ambiguity that elicits starling different interpretations" (1). Roethke's poem is constructed in four stanzas using a precise selection of words that have both literal and figurative meanings. The scene portrays a pleasant memory of a father and son roughhousing before the boy's bedtime. Roethke's selection of words emphasize that the action shows a happy family time. Although Roethke's poem "My Papa's Waltz" can be interpreted as positive or negative, his word choice, imagery, and characters strongly portray this scene as a happy family moment.
Both Roethke and McKenna support the idea that this is a happy family scene through word choice in the title, dance, and physical contact. The title of the poem reveals Roethke's intention to show the boy's love for his father by using the comfortable word papa instead of the formal father. Besides that, he uses waltzing instead of dance to show that even when the father is drunk, he still has some control and direction when he puts his son to bed. Based on McKenna's piece, the word waltz "suggest[s] that the elegant, refined texture of a waltz was what [Roethke] wanted. This allowed him to add a more genteel aspect to the depicted scene" (4). In the fourth stanza, Roethke uses the word beat; although this word could have a negative connotation, in this case it shows that the father is trying to keep time to the music by tapping on his son's head. .
The imageries of the poem are seen throughout their playful moment in the kitchen, the mother's face, and the waltz to the bedroom. In the poem, "My Papa's Waltz," Roethke shows a picture of a playful moment between a son and his father: .