"My Papa's Waltz," by Theodore Roethke depicts a father's rough behavior towards his young son. After an initial reading of Roethke's poem, one may assume that this is a story of a terrified young boy unable to defend himself against his father's physical abuse, while another reader may view this scene as a depiction of a playful game between father and son. Roethke's use of very strong and powerful language and words such as "death," "beat," and "battered" directs the reader's mind into expecting the poem's content to be violent. At the same time the boy summarizes these events as a "waltz." By using such a delicate word to reflect these events, Roethke may be telling the reader that it is only an amusement between father and son.
The opening line indicates that the father has been drinking or is drunk, which would correspond with the picture of an abusive father. As this is the very first appearance by the father, his drunkenness seems to be highly important, most probably in a negative way. Furthermore, the child does not appear to be enjoying himself at all, as the "waltz" requires him to hang on "like death". The word "death" raises the threatening reminder that child-abuse often has fatal consequences. The hand "That held [the child's] wrist", may be "battered" as a cause of the "romping" in the kitchen. The boy mentions that at every step the father missed, his ear "scraped a buckle." This could represent the father beating the boy with his belt. The interpretation of the poem as a display of abuse requires "waltz" to be a metaphor for a fight, or a beating. Understanding the word "waltz" simply as a description of a dance-like action will direct the reader's mind to another possible interpretation of the poem.
As his selection of varying adjectives have a dramatic effect on the mood of the poem, it is plain that he meant to illustrate the bond between a father and son. Roethke's use of the terms "Papa" and "Waltz" in the title, as opposed to "Father" and "Dance" stand for a relationship that, at its core, is loving and genuine.