The use of poetic devices is one of the ways a poet creates a memorable and beautiful poem. Unlike any other form of creative writing, a short poem can use theses poetic devices to convey much more meaning and depth of emotion than the length of the piece would typically allow. An emotional poem can be analyzed to determine how each device is powerfully utilized on its own, yet the effect is even more compelling in combination. In his poem “My Papa’s Waltz,” Theodore Roethke (1941) uses symbolism, metaphors and imagery to convey a childhood memory, real or imagined, along with the deep emotional feelings of helplessness, dependence and love that are brought out in the poem.
Use of Imagery
When a poet uses imagery, he is using words in a powerful way to convey a specific image in the readers’ minds. Although it is common to think of this device as only being used to convey visual imagery, imagery can also include sound, tactile feel or even smell. In “My Papa’s Waltz,” Theodore Roethke begins the poem with a powerful use of imagery by saying, “The whiskey on your breath/Could make a small boy dizzy:” I found this imagery, using the sense of smell, to be very effective in setting the stage. Perhaps this is because scientific studies have shown that the olfactory bulb, where smells are processed in the brain, has direct ties to the amygdala and hippocampus, which are two brain areas that play a strong role in memory and emotional function (Lewis, 2015). Anyone who ever encountered a drunken adult has a child can relate to this imagery instantly. It can bring with in an emotional reaction of fear, confusion or sadness that runs deep. This powerful use of imagery continues in later lines, including the last line of “My Papa’s Waltz” where Roethke says, “Then waltzed me off to bed/still clinging to your shirt.” The image here is of a young boy holding on tight to his father. Whether the underlying emotion is fear or love, the imagery of this line is powerful enough to ignite both emotions in the reader.
Symbolism as a Device
Symbolism is observed when an object or a subject in the poem actually represents something else. Sometimes this symbolism can be evident immediately and at other times more thought and insight is required to see it. When Roethke writes, “But I hung on like death,” in the first verse of “My Papa’s Waltz,” he is using the word death to symbolize the strength of his grip using the power of the word death, rather than talking about death itself. The symbolism in this case is obvious and direct. Other lines of the poem may or may not be symbolic. Since we cannot know the poets thoughts, they remain powerful whether or not they were intended to have added meaning.
Meter in Poetry
Meter is a poetic device used to provide a rhythm or beat to the poem. Perhaps even more than rhyming, meter in poetry is what instantly clues in the reader to poetry vs. ordinary prose. There are many different ways that meter can be used to enhance a poem’s beauty and meaning. In “My Papa’s Waltz,” Theodore Roethke seems to be using a fairly simple form of meter, similar to a limerick. In each verse, the first and second lines rhyme, and the rhythm of the poems structure places emphasis on the last word of each line. These words seem to have been deliberately emphasized to enhance their meaning. For example, the rhyming words “knuckle” and “buckle” are emphasized by the meter of the poem, and seem to convey an undertone of violence to the subject. Other verses are structured similarly, with the use of meter consistently pointing the reader towards the emotional meaning of the poem.
Feeling of Helplessness
In reading this poem, it is easy to conclude that the thoughts and feelings of the author were the same or similar to those of the reader. The feelings of helplessness, fear and love are clearly conveyed by the poetic devices and the words themselves. I suppose what we cannot know for certain is whether this poem recounts an actual memory or is more collection of feelings about the author’s father or some other figure from his childhood.
In Conclusion, I think that “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke (1961) is a poem that not only requires the reader to use their imagination to place themselves in the scenario, but skillfully leads them into it through the clever use of poetic devices. By using imagery, symbolism and meter in powerful ways, Roethke is painting a clear picture in our minds. The picture may be very different for each reader, but the universal themes and emotions will produce a similarly memorable reading experience for anyone.
Lewis, J. G. (2015). Smells Ring Bells: How Smell Triggers Memories and Emotions
Psychology Today. Retrieved from
Roethke, Theodore (1941). My Papa’s Waltz. The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (pp. 17). New York, NY: Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group: Edward Hirsch, Editor.