Alcoholism in My Papa’s Waltz

Alcoholism is one of the social problems that the world has been attempting to deal with over many years but surprisingly, not a single nation can be said to have crafted a real solution to the problem. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the prevalence of alcohol use in the USA stood at 86.8% of all people in the age above 18 years. 70.7% of those had at least taken alcohol within a year’s event window while 56.4% used alcohol within a month’s period of the event window. Of those people who were investigated, 24.6 % engaged in binge drinking while 6.8% were heavy drinkers. The problem with such drinking problems is that there are increased cases of alcohol use disorders with 7% of those studied having suffered an AUD in 2013. Further, it is reported that over 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes every year with more than 30% fatalities resulting from alcohol-impaired driving accidents.

In his poem titled My Papa’s Waltz, Theodore Roethke gives an account of the problems that he went through as a result of his father’s uncontrolled alcoholism. He gave an imaginative recreation of his childhood memories when he waltzed with his father in the kitchen. His ears got bruised by his father’s belt’s buckle and together they messed the kitchen where the waltz took place (Dove). The mother was always angry with her husband’s drunken behavior and she feared for her son. Additionally, the son saw the bruises on his father’s hands and knew that they resulted from fights that the dad picked in his drunken stupor and for that reason Roethke feared for his father (Dove). This research presents the analysis of alcoholism as thematically presented in the poem and as a social problem in light of how it affects the society at large.

Part I – Literary Analysis

In his poem, Theodore Roethke applied the use of a variety literary techniques that brought out alcoholism as a social problem. The first and definitely identifiable literary technique is the use of irony in the poem. In the poem titled My Papa’s Waltz, Theodore Roethke applied the use of irony by imaginatively expressing the show of compassion and love to his father who was too much overwhelmed by the taste of his whiskey. At the beginning of the poem, the poet stated that the whiskey on his father’s breath was enough to “make a small boy dizzy.” That being the case, it was ironical that the young boy chose to cling to his father’s shirt as the two continue to waltz on the floor of the kitchen. The irony in this section helps bring out the fact that alcoholism does not only affect the abuser but also affects the family and other people close to the abuser.

The use of the word waltz in the article is also ironical (Roethke). By definition, the word waltz reflects a dance that can be described as rather reckless and inconsiderate yet the persona in this poem appeared to enjoy every step of the inconsiderate dance even when it left him with bruises on his ears every time the dad missed a step. The third evidence for the use of irony in the poem is the fact that the persona seemed unmoved by the frowning face of her mother every time he danced with the father. This is because the language in the poem showed that he hated that his father drunk a lot and the persona shared this view with his mother but despite that, he continued to dance with the drunk dad until the persona became dizzy and the father took him to bed. With regard to alcoholism as a social problem, irony in the two examples indicates the father’s continuous abuse of alcohol and convulsive behavior (waltzing) despite its many disadvantages such as hurting the family.

Imagery is another literary technique that strongly helps to bring out the thematic reference to alcoholism as a problem in the poem. The first line in the poem begins with the creation of an image of what it felt like for the young boy to smell the whiskey on his father’s breath and to illustrate the intensity of this bad stench, the persona states that the stench could “make a small boy dizzy”. From this statement, one gets the image of a young boy trying to avoid facing the father directly if only that is what it takes to avoid that bad smell of whiskey that came from the father’s mouth. However, the father would not understand this and for that reason he continued to dance around with the son who indicates in the poem that such waltzing did not make it easy for him yet he held on to it. The second imagery in the poem appears in the last stanza. The poet begins the stanza by stating that the father “beat time on his head with a palm caked hard by dirt.” The reference to time in this poem connotes that the father drunk for long periods over his life and every time he drunk, he probably beat his son with a palm that had been hardened by dirt.

Apart from irony and imagery, the poet also used discrete figures of speech including similes and personification. A simile appears in the first stanza of the poem where the poet states that he “hang on like death” indicating that despite the bad stench that was characteristic of his father’s breath, he hang on to him without letting go. This simile serves two purposes in the poem. The obvious reason for its use is to show the love that persona had for his and that was the reason why he clung to him and persevered through the bad stench ad they waltzed. The second purpose in this poem is the fact that the persona foresaw the death of his father and knew that once death catches up with one it does not let go. With regard to the social issue of alcoholism, this simile directs one to the fact that people lose life to alcohol in the society. With regard to the use of personification in the poem the persona stated that his mother’s countenance could not unfrown itself. By this, the persona gave life to the expression on his mother’s face by literally attempting to delineate it from the mother’s feelings. By so doing, the persona made it look like it could itself irrespective of what the mother felt about the husband’s drinking behavior. Additionally, this personification just helps to indicate the pain and worry that the persona’s mother went through as she saw the husband and son waltzing and for seeing son getting bruised in the process.

Lastly, the use of rhyme in the poem helps in addressing problem of alcoholism in the poem. The poem demonstrates the use of a regular rhyme scheme throughout the poem. 1-2-1-2, 3-4-3-4, 5-6-5-6, and 7-8-7-8 is the rhyme scheme in the poem My Papa’s Waltz. Of critical importance to the alcoholism problem as addressed by the poem is the rhyme in the first stanza in which the word breath rhymes with death and dizzy with easy. The usage of the words are used to emphasize the fact that out of alcoholism a number of social problems are easily born with death being one of them. The use of the words breathe, dizzy, and death connotes that out of alcoholism, one suffers many health problems such as AUD’s which may lead to death at times as alluded in the poem.


Part II-How Alcoholism Was Understood and Dealt With In Society during the Time and In the Place in Which the Poem Was Set

Alcoholism is a social problem that has been in existence since time immemorial and this definitely includes the times and days of the life of Theodore Roethke who lived between 1908 and 1963. The poet was born to a small peasant family which lived at Saginaw in Michigan. At the time of his birth, the region was an agricultural region and his father spent time tending to the crops and tilling the land. The best illustration is probably in the fourteenth line of the poem where the poem used the words ‘a palm caked hard by dirt’ to illustrate the kind of work that his family engaged in. In a nutshell, sources indicate that his father co-owned a greenhouse with the poet’s uncle and it is there that his father spent his days before retiring to the house in the evening. On the other hand, the poet’s mother was a housewife. The poet therefore spent most of the time in the house with the mother as the father worked on the plants all day. As a result of this, the relationship between the poet and the father got limited to the night-time moments when the father returned to the house in his drunken stupor.

Alcoholism during the poet’s time therefore was limited to the after-work moments. The father took his whiskey after a long day at work. This he could do from the house or from a drinking bar away from home. It was taken as a social drink and from the analysis of the poem, it is evident that its use may have been common among the older men with families. Additionally, the abuse of alcohol was characterized by a number of misconceptions that have lasted to date. The first misconception is the idea that alcohol is a stimulant. However, alcohol is a depressant that affects the brain causing lower inhibitions and can change the user’s mood. It was for this reason that the father continuously beat up the son over and over again yet the son continued to hang on him.

From past statistics, alcohol and alcoholism was recognized as a social problem during the 1940’s and alcohol was recognized as an illicit drug. The best indicator for this problem includes the prohibitions that were legally instituted in the United States over the 1920’s with massive support of the prohibition from women temperance movements. However, there were not as many studies reflecting on the social problem as there are today and for that reason, there lacks enough information to fully describe the recognition of alcoholism as a social problem at the time when the poem was first published. Nevertheless, the available information indicates that the abuse rates were lower than the rates recorded today and in addition, the abuse was restricted to older generations and social events.

Part III-Alcoholism in the US Today

Alcoholism gets considered among the major problems in the United States today. According to statistics from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), alcohol stands out as the most commonly abused drug substance. About 17.6 million people in the adult population in the United States suffers from this problem. This is equivalent to an abuse rate of one person in every twelve adults. Additionally, the abuse has moved from a scenario in which the abuse was basically on the male population and today, the abuse of alcohol appears to skew normally for both men and women (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD)).

One of the problems of alcoholism that differentiates today’s situation from what it was in the 1940’4 when My Papa’s Waltz was first published, is the fact that the abuse is most common among the youth population than it was then. The abuse is more rampant among students aged between 18 years and 25 years. This results from early introduction of the children to alcohol alongside the infiltration and influence of the media which encourages alcoholism either directly or indirectly. Nevertheless, the problem seems to subside as people grow older with lower rates of abuse recorded as the population reaches the age between 27 years and thirty years.

In the former situation as presented in the poem, alcoholism resulted in broken families in addition to the allusion to deaths of those who abused the drug. It resulted into stained father-son relationships and it aggravated violence as illustrated where the poet indicated the persona was beaten over and over again. To date, the problems related to alcoholism have been sustained. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) records that alcoholism and the abuse of alcohol gets blamed for many crimes committed in the United States. In 2011, for instance, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) recorded that at least 40% of all rape cases were blamed on drunkenness as was the case with 15% percent of all reported robberies. Additionally, abuse and assault torts were aggravated by the use of alcohol at the rate of 27% percent while at the same rate, domestic rows and divorce cases increased because of alcohol. The major problem however, is the fact that about 30% of all the road accidents in the United States were blamed to drunken driving hence blaming the lost lives on alcoholism.

In conclusion, the same problems of alcoholism that existed at the time when My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke was first published are affecting the United States to date. In any case, the problems have been aggravated by the fact that unlike in the past, nowadays there are more youths and women abusing alcohol than there were in the past. The abuse of alcohol is also increasing among children who have not yet reached the age of the majority and as a result dependence and related crimes have increased. The problems in the present age get linked to increased exposure of youths and children to alcohol through the media. These problems are still linked to the myths that alcohol works as a stimulant which then attracts the young to this drug. Despite vast research confirming that alcohol is actually a depressant, many youths in the United States still think that is a stimulant especially based on the little excitement derived from the use of alcohol. Therefore, there is a need to sensitize and educate the youth and the whole population about alcohol and available recourse avenues.

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