This can be demonstrated through an examination of subject and word choice in Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz.”
In the poem, the poet presents what first appears to be an innocent story about a young boy enjoying a moment of bliss with his father as the two of them dance about the room just before bedtime. Roethke begins by talking about how waltzing like this with his dad is not easy, bringing to mind the half-remembered days of standing on the tops of a father’s shoes as he clumsily danced about the room with an additional several-pounds’ child standing on his toes and clinging about his upper thighs: “The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy; / But I hung on like death: / Such waltzing was not easy” (1-4). That the dancing is exuberant is illustrated in the second stanza as Roethke mentions how they “romped until the pan / Slid from the kitchen shelf” (6). Their closeness, already hinted at by the boy becoming dizzy in the fog of his father’s whisky breath, is again encountered in the third stanza as man and boy hold hands and “At every step you missed / My right ear scraped a knuckle” (11-12). Finally, the poem ends as the boy is waltzed off to bed with the reader’s imagination finishing the dance in a flourish, swinging the boy around in the air until his clinging hands come loose and he lands squarely in the center of a soft mattress and comfortable sheets.
However, as the poem is read through, the reader is left with an uneasy sense of things being not quite right, as if there is something much more sinister occurring within the lines of the poem than this surface impression reveals. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that this sinister element emerges as a result of the specific words Roethke uses to build his imagery. He talks about how the boy “hung on like death” (3) and