POETRY FROM PARADISE VALLEY

POETRY FROM PARADISE VALLEY
Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley

POETRY FROM PARADISE VALLEY web page

Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.


Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Theodore Roethke: "My Papa's Waltz"

Each year as my students and I discuss twentieth-century poetry, I always can count upon Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” to inspire some of the most interesting and conflicting opinions. Amazingly, examination of this fairly brief and seemingly accessible work usually initiates an elaborate and occasionally emotional conversation that moves beyond the poem’s clever use of rhythm and clear sense of sound into the direction of animated debate about the possible presence of messages covering child abuse and alcoholism.

Rather than reading the poetry as an elegiac tribute by a son to his father, perhaps a belated statement of love by the speaker, many in my classes want to condemn the father for his behavior, especially for the pain they perceive him inflicting upon the young boy in the poem. A few also accuse the mother in the work of acting almost as an accomplice because she witnesses the roughhousing without interfering to stop her husband’s clumsy carousing.

When pressed for evidence of the violence they claim Roethke presents, particular phrases or images are noted. The students begin by citing the opening two lines, which certainly establish drunkenness. In addition, they declare the poem suggests physical injuries to the small boy, whose ear is scraped by his father’s buckle and who feels his father “beat” him. The mother obviously appears upset, the students claim, and they wonder if the father’s battered knuckle resulted from a barroom brawl. Finally, they conclude the first stanza’s allusion to death opens the poem for darker, if not more ominous, interpretation.

When consulting with colleagues at my university and elsewhere, I find this response to be a somewhat common reaction among growing numbers of students as well as some scholars. Indeed, in the last couple of decades, as society’s awareness and alarm over child abuse have increased, and concern over all forms of substance abuse has become more prominent, one can understand why a legion of readers might highlight these issues in their analysis of “My Papa’s Waltz.”

Nevertheless, I find myself repeatedly rising to the defense of the parents in the poem, not so much for their specific actions or inactions, but because I believe we also need to read the piece within the context of its time frame. In the era this poem was authored, the late-1940s, readers would not have shared the same sensibilities about these issues that contemporary readers exhibit. Certainly, the definition of child abuse would not have been as broad as that expressed by my students, and a man returning home with whiskey on his breath after a day of work would not immediately raise great concern since it would not have been very unusual.

If we switch to a different time frame and another frame of mind for the persona in the piece based upon the poet’s autobiography, we would retreat even further a few decades to early in the twentieth century. Roethke was born in 1908 and could not have been very old when the actions might have occurred since the boy’s height only extends to his father’s waist, and that may be with him standing on his father’s shoe tops. Also, we know the father’s work in a greenhouse would have explained the battered knuckle and the caked dirt on his hands.

Therefore, in the current interpretation of this poem by some readers, we see a contrast between contemporary readers’ objections, responding within their own perceptions of proper parenting, and the author’s apparent intention at honoring a more pleasant memory of an enjoyable incident with his father, even if it “was not easy.” After all, the poet refers to his father as “papa,” connoting greater affection. Additionally, the word choice of “romp” reflects a more playful tone. The two dance a carefree version of the upbeat waltz. Indeed, the poet’s use of “beat” pertains to the father keeping the musical beat for their movements, and it possibly foreshadows the poet’s own eventual understanding of rhythm as evidenced in the poem itself, which mostly uses an iambic trimeter line to echo the musical beat in a waltz composition and maybe imitate the swaying of waltzing dancers.

When we remember Theodore Roethke’s father died when the poet was only fourteen, and that loss appeared to impact much of Roethke’s later life as well as his writing, the mention of death seems even more elegiac. In fact, when we find similar lines in the first and last stanzas (“I hung on like death” and “still clinging to your shirt”), we may believe the father’s death is foreshadowed and that the son is unwilling to let the father go despite possible pain, even decades later when Roethke writes the poem.

In any case, one could contend the competing readings of this poem allow for a richer and more rewarding experiencing of Roethke’s lyrical recollection, and the conflicting conclusions help all conjure a more haunting image. As someone who appreciates ambiguity in all forms of art, whether in a Roethke poem or the finale of The Sopranos, I suggest “My Papa’s Waltz” for this Father’s Day weekend, and I recommend an additional delight by listening to Theodore Roethke’s reading of the poem.


MY PAPA’S WALTZ

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.



39 comments:

Andrew Shields said...

This is truly fascinating and thought-provoking. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is thought provoking. Almost half of this poem I could not understand, this has helped me much thank you!

Tad Richards said...

It's not quite the same thing, but when I show the Marlon Brando movie, "The Wild One," to students today, they always pick up on one thing that we never would even have noticed, seeing the movie in our leather-jacket-dreaming youth: Johnny's (Brando's) father beat him.

This comes from the line when the vigilante mob catches Brando, and are beating him up: "My old man used to hit harder than that."

Anonymous said...

I have a similar experience when discussing this poem with my tenth graders. While they often have a difficult time with poetry, I find that it is one of the few poems they actually get charged up about, especially when I offer them the alternative meaning. While I disagree with their interpretation, I am pleased with their wholehearted attempt to support it because, without realizing it, they are analyzing poetry! I often follow up Roethke’s poem with "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden and have them compare each speaker's tribute to his father. I find that Hayden's poem helps them to understand the alternative interpretation to Roethke's because they begin to think about how a father displays his love differently than our expectation of how love should be shown. They draw upon their own relationships with their parents and are able to see that fathers often show their love indirectly.

Mary said...

I can almost hear a class debating this poem. It's interesting how many of your students interpret this poem in a negative light. For me, it's a joyous and whirling (if exhausting) childhood memory, but I can understand the alternative explanation. When I re-read the poem a second time, a few things came to mind to support the "happy" side of the fence. These aspects have probably already been discussed in your class, but in case this adds fun to the debate...

In the title, "My Papa's Waltz," it struck me that the word "My" is significant. It seems to speak to the boy wanting to claim this person as his father, in an affectionate way -- and I further take that to mean the content of the poem may be a cherished, happy memory. The word "My" is not really necessary in the title, as it is evident in reading the poem that this is a father/son event. So it does seem to be a tender term used purposely by the author.

Another thing I noted was the "We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf." I agree with you that the word "romp" is significant; but I also feel like the word "slid" speaks to the entire situation being non-violent. It does seem like an actual dancing waltz was going on, or wouldn't the word choice of the pans coming down have been more intense, such as "fell" or "crashed"?

I also paid attention to "my mother's countenance could not unfrown itself." That sounds very much like the description of a mother who is dismayed by a mess being made right in front of her but also trying to be tolerant of it, since she does see the fun the boy is having. Otherwise, I feel like the word choice for her facial expression should have been more upset/dramatic/nervous in nature. It also seems unrealistic that a mother would (essentially) be forever frowning in this situation in a hurt way, yet standing by to watch the violent scene. It seems she would either be upset and intervene (if her son was being hurt) or beat a hasty retreat. Maybe that's not such a great point, but it's how it hit me emotionally.

The last thought I had was the father "waltzed me off to bed." If we can assume the child is literally put to bed, that seems to indicate a fatherly duty. If the poem is interpreted as more ominous in meaning, the ending just doesn't make sense to me.

Those are my 2 cent's worth, but I don't have much experience with poetry, so I know all you true poets will have much better ideas. :)

Edward Byrne said...

Hi, Tad. "Anonymous," and Mary:

I appreciate your notes very much.

Tad: I used to teach that movie in my Film Studies class, and I remember students discussing the character's motives for his behavior, particularly attempting to connect his actions to personal biographical influences or debating the sway of contemporary social conditions of the times.

As "Anonymous" mentions, I also pair "My Papa's Waltz" with "Those Winter Sundays" for examination of the similarities in subject matter and differences in delivery or tone of voice. I second that recommendation.

Mary, those are excellent suggestions, providing wonderful additions that persuasively argue for a more sympathetic reading of the poem based upon the slight perception of differences in definitions or connotations associated with specific word choices, subtly revealing the persona's true emotional mood. If you don't mind, I'll have to borrow those insightful observations in my next class discussion of the poem.

Mary said...

Of course I don't mind. Wow, the way you detail my suggestions, I sound absolutely brilliant -- thank you for that! :)I would be truly humbled and honored if you wanted to use any of my ideas for class discussion. In doing so, if anyone in class shouts out: "What a lame idea!", you have my full permission to explain that the idea came from a former Valpo student -- just making another run at understanding and appreciating poetry.

Anonymous said...

I'd always read this as a euphemistic poem about, the way kids with bruises on their faces describe them as "little scrapes".

It always seemed to me that Roethke's vehicle was irony in this poem; i.e. by explaining away his father's dragging him as a "waltz". I appreciate, however, the alternate (and probably more accurate ) interpretation. Mine now seems extemporaneous given the time when the poem was written.

Anonymous said...

As a literature undergrad student and, two decades later, physician, I occasionally reflect on this poem. It is my favorite.

I find it interesting that people become so polarized by Roethke's tribute to his father. The roughness and hint of violence is undeniable, but the author's affection for his father lends this poem it's gravity and poignancy. It is a testament to the talent of Mr. Roethke that he could evoke such strong yet contrary sentiments.

Anonymous said...

Hello,
I'm a 3rd year student of Kuwait University. I'm majoring in English. This course I'm taking American Literature and our book is "The Norton Anthology of AMERICAN LITERATUT". Today's lecture will be about
Theodore Roethke: "My Papa's Waltz". As I read the poem for the 1st time I felt sorry for that boy and I blamed his father for doing such a thing. But after reading your article Mr.Edward Byrne, I have a different opinion about the poem and the situation of the father and his son.
Thank you for teaching us that things should be revised and looked from different angles to avoid mistakes.
from, Amina

Anonymous said...

So I'm 15 and the first time I read this poem I fell in love with it! I was very angry when my classmates thought that the boy was being abused by his father. This poem speaks about a hard working father who came home late at night when it was time for his son to go to bed. He didn't even wash his hands first he just started to spend time with the little boy by dancing. It's a ritual for them. The mother look at them disapprovingly because the father should be getting the child ready for bed but instead he's romping with the child and making him more hyper. But the mother does not intervene because she knows it's how they bond.
To the little boy, it's the only time he gets to spend with his father and he values it very much. Even though it is slightly painful for he he endures it because he loves spending time with his dad. This poem was simply brilliant!!! I loved it! :)

Anonymous said...

There are many pieces of "evidence" in the poem to suggest child abuse; there are no references, only conjecture, that suggest the father just got home from work.

Edward Byrne said...

I believe suggestions are not that the father "just got home from work," since he apparently has been drinking a while. Instead, readers can assume the father is a man who labors hard with his hands and has returned late from drinking after a difficult day of work.

The poem is clearly autobiographical, written about Roethke and his father, who worked in a nursery growing young plants and trees. When the poem was originally published, it was positioned by Roethke in his book beside other similar "greenhouse" poems. In an early draft of the poem Roethke began the last stanza with the following two lines that also explain the condition of the father's hands as a result of his work: "The hand wrapped round my head / Was harsh from weeds and dirt."

However, as I mention in the post, I do not see "many pieces of evidence" for child abuse, especially as expressed in the intent of the author at the time the poem was written in the 1940s about an incident that happened perhaps three decades earlier.

The child's ear is accidentally scraped while the son enjoys dancing with his "papa," a term of affection, and the use of "beat" refers to the father keeping time for the dance, as well as the boy's early learning of the importance of "beat," as in the meter now used by him as a poet, including in this elegy. Indeed, an early draft of the poem used "kept" instead of "beat."

Certainly, the poem contains marvelous ambiguity suggesting pain; however, the real pain for the speaker is not physical. Instead, as in many elegies, the example of pain in the poem may be metaphorical for the true ache of loss and regret--perhaps the pain of sorrow that accompanied the father's early death and the regret that reflects a wish that there had been a greater closeness and even more openly affectionate relationship experienced with the father.

Mandy Olverson said...

Thanks for opening up such a lively debate between my two sons 15 & 17 who are presently being home schooled.They were able to think through the meaning of the poem My Papa's waltz, & explore the relationship between farther & son in more depth & come up with an interesting written analysis.

LittleCatGrim said...

I'm glad to have read this blog and everyone's opinions; they're all insightful.

I just read this poem as part of an English assignment, and I as someone who enjoys reading and interpreting poetry, this one struck me as a bit ambiguous. I am unsure whether to take this literally or figuratively, but I'd also like to do more research on Reothke.

All in all, however, I think his poem makes for an engaging read. The masculine, feminine, and slant rhymes role of the tongue quite well from line to line—just to name one element to the poem.)

-LCG

Anonymous said...

I have bit confussion about the last 2 lines.....
But the whole poem fascinated me.

Prongs said...

I am an avid poet reader and I love to write poems. It's something I do in my free time and I write things taht have happened to me in my childhood, much like Roethke does in "My Papa's Waltz"

Anonymous said...

While I certainly do not object to the majority interpretation of this poem, I can clearly see the abuse angle of the reading. Abused children still love their parents; they depend on them and forgive them over and over. A waltz could certainly be a term used, in a coded way, to talk about a beating. Children, especially between siblings, have terms they used together; my brothers and I called it dancing. Before our beating, we struggled and held on for fear of falling while we were lifted off the ground and bounced against the walls. Off to bed meant he was done with you, give up and hang on. When I read this poem, I took it as the weekly beating, not a happy time. I hope this is not what the author lived through; no one should be treated that way.

Anonymous said...

Um, two generations ago, "waltzing" a child "off to bed" was a widely-recognized bit of familial fun. In a hard-headed Dutchman's physical parlance, it might be the only [friendly] contact between a father and his children. The child places his feet on the father's, and the father dances a step too intricate for the child to have learned. Alcohol may have been a factor (Michigan's state motto).

When I first encountered the New Age mouths-agape incomprehension of this poem (at Bowling Green, in the early 70's, all I could say was "You're not from Michigan, are you?"

Nikki said...

I just read this poem for my Literature class. I read it and wrote a paper on it, before resaerching it. When I read another students interpretation I was shocked. He thought this was about child abuse. It thought it so very neat that two people could have two totally opposite views. I thought it was about a Father's love. After that realization I decided to look on the web to see what others thought. And it seems to be the norm that half think of love and half think of abuse. This is so interesting to me! Very cool, thanks for leaving all your comments! -Nikki

Yulissa said...

We recently just went over this poem in class and we had to express our opinions and all the students in my class agreed that it was abbusive and they were very firm with thier anwers. When i read it i did not think of of it as abusive. I was actually sort of embaressed to read ha i wrote as my opinion because i truly thought it was a specal realtionship between father and son

Anonymous said...

OMG i m turkish and our turkish teacher read it to us and so beautiful poem that s so nice i cant say anything .....

Kathleen Healy said...

Being new to poetry; I too jumped to an abusive conclusion. It was my husband Steve who questioned the fact that maybe, just maybe he and his hard working father were just horsing around.

Anonymous said...

As I am the child of an alcoholic father, this poem speaks to me of the complex, almost indefinable feelings a child has for their fallible parent. At an early age, I knew when my father was drunk. And his mood when he was drunk was one of two things: anger or effusive love. And I often saw one switch to the other without notice. I say this because this is what I see in "My Papa's Waltz." The narrator, the child, clearly states that his father has been drinking--whiskey. On the surface it looks as if the father and son are having fun while they waltz, but there are so many terms that inject an uneasy tone: hung on, death, not easy, battered, knuckle, scraped, buckle, beat. It is hard to relax while reading this poem. One woman whose comments I read criticized people for misreading this poem by way of saying that if the father were abusing the child that the mother would not have just stood there and let it happen. To that I say, she must not have been raised in an abusive household. Quite frankly, the only words that keep one from seeing this as a scene of a beating are the words "waltzing" and "romped." In the end, I see this as a child roughhousing with his drunken father, but I see too that there is a tension not too far beneath the surface and a fear of the unpredictablity of his fahter--two words different and this would be a different poem.

Anonymous said...

so wha does he mean by I hung on like death? And what does the image of a waltz symbolize?

Laura said...

I think that the poem is intended to be ambiguous, although I lean towards the interpretation of abuse. For a child so young he only reaches his father's belt buckle, his parents are all he knows. Just because a child is being abused by a parent doesn't mean that they don't love them and hold reverance for them; young child don't often understand that their home life differs from others. And keeping the time frame in mind, it was considered perfectly acceptable for a father to administer physical punishment, making it hard to determine where the line is drawn between discipline and abuse.

It's not the "whiskey on his breath" that I think is most incriminating. It's the lines "The hand that held my wrist / Was battered on one knuckle[.]" Why is the father holding his son's wrist, not his hand? Grabbing someone's wrist is very often a gesture of violence. And why did Roethke choose specifically the knuckle? He must have been aware that battered knuckles are also associated with violence. If he intended the poem to be perfectly innocuous, why did he consistently use terms that conjure up violent imagery?

As for the mother not interfering, as a poster above mentioned, a lot of women in abusive relationships feel helpless to stop it. This is true even today, and I imagine it would be been exceptionally more so in the early 1900s, when the societal expectation was that a woman would conform to her husband's "better judgment".

I really need to be to bed.

Anonymous said...

As a teacher of English and literature for almost 30 years, I am fascinated by this discussion and the poem itself. I have to admit, that before reading this poem on this website a few days ago, I had never read it before. My first reaction was one of abuse, but after reading it several times I went the other way. I think it is a heartfelt homage to a father from his son. However, I can certainly see the other side as it was my first reaction. Very fascinating indeed!!

Anonymous said...

I don't think Roethke meant to portray his father as an abusive man, but as many have pointed out,a hard working man "romping" with his son. My perspective as the former spouse of an alcoholic is that the poem is a window into the unpredictability of life with an alcoholic. Drunks can be fun, and many children adore their alcoholic parents, but the chaos and uncertainty deplicted in the poem are easy to understand if you live with alcoholics. Their intention may not be abuse, but often their behavior feels abusive to those around them.

Anonymous said...

It is always the case that we bring our own lives and experiences to the table when we read and interpret literature. I used to dance on my father's feet in the kitchen when I was this height (and he was also an alcoholic--though not abusive) and see this poem as a warm memory from childhood, as my similar memory is for me. Abused children (above) see an abusive subtext because the poignant and vivid childhood imagery so well-written by Mr. Roethke triggers their own childhood memories. My personal connection aside, intellectually, I agree with Mr. Byrne's analysis. The historical background and biographical information Mr. Byrne presents perfectly illustrate why we understand literary works far better when we study them within their own historical and cultural contexts than just read them on our own with our personal baggage as the main filter on our analysis. (I looked this up because, at a teacher professional development training today, our presenter told us that he's seen PhD'd professors argue the dual interpretations of this poem vehemently and uncompromisingly.)

Anonymous said...

I believe that this poem may or may not be about Theodore Roethke's own childhood. I cannot personally say whether I think it is about an abusive father or just a nightly father and son "playtime". It is however clear that people agree that this poem is a good one no matter their interpretation.

Anonymous said...

The first time I read it, my thoughts were of abuse, because of my personal experience and my own papa's waltz. The fact that the mother seems not to interfere also could be of fear, those days woman had little voice and also subjected to abuse. My mother saw abuse in my house and I remember she didn't do much. Maybe the father faked playing with the kid when she was around, but then dragged him to bed when she turn her back. This poem is very good and can be interpreted in many ways. Kids at that age are very forgetful and playful in reference to the word "romped" and didn't understand till he was older that his papa was actually hurting him, but still he misses him and expresses afection for his papa "still clinging to his shirt like death".

bstova said...

Interesting. A friend of mine was analyzing this poem with her college literature class, and all of her classmates felt that it was about violence and abuse, yet I responded very differently. I feel as though the tone in this poem is overwhelmingly nostalgic. Roethke is looking back on a memory with his father, with fondness and sadness. I think that it is important to take into consideration the context of any piece of literature. Much of the intentions of this poem can be understood by knowing more about Roethke's background and his relationship with his father. While phrases such as "hung on like death" and "beat time on my head" do carry with them a sense of death and may evoke images of violence to certain people, I think that they convey more of a sense of urgency than anything else. Roethke wrote this poem after his father's death, who died when he was just fourteen years old, which explains the lingering presence of death in not only this poem, but in many of Roethke's other pieces. The overall tone of this piece is that of the love between a father and son in a fleeting moment remembered forever. Roethke had a good relationship with his father, and even use of the word "papa" in the poem's title implies a sense of love, as "papa" is often used as a term of endearment. His father worked in a greenhouse, which explains the dirt on his palms, and the whiskey on his breath certainly implies drunkenness, but not belligerence or violence. Words such as "romped" give a sense of playfulness and the use of the "waltz" and even "beat" give the poem a melodic rhythm similar to some of Roethke's other works.

Anonymous said...

The poem captures, I think, the pleasure and slight trepidation felt by children when romping with a tipsy parent - mostly pleased at the holiday atmosphere, and a little wary at the possible clumsiness. Our modern take on child rearing is probably safer for children, and most likely better, but some ambiguity and complexity has been lost.

Anonymous said...

Continuing from above - my own husband was an alcoholic, and this brings back memories of him with our children. He was never abusive to them, but sometimes they would get bumped around just because he was drunk and clumsy. An earlier commenter uses the word "tension" and I think that describes it - I would be standing nearby, not wanting to interfere because the children (and my husband) were enjoying the roughhousing, but also watchful in case it got out of hand. Pleased that they were having this positive interaction, angry that here he is, just home ("from work", sure I've heard that story before) at bedtime, getting them worked up so they won't go to sleep, worried in case of a slip or gesture out of control. The mix of love and fear and joy and anger in even a non abusive alcoholic home is so complex and interdependent ... My feeling is that the poem deliberately invokes both the fun and the fear - it's not one or the other, but both.

Lindsay said...

I'm a current high school student, and I can say personally I read into the poem with the abuse mentioned here when I first read through it. Of course, I soon realized that wasn't what the poem was saying before I got here (which I technically shouldn't be Googling the poem anyways, but shh don't tell...I got it on my own =)

I can almost guarantee half my AP Lit class took this poem into the abuse path - but I loved what was written here about the elegiac nature of it! I certainly saw the memories, and the feeling of fun and enjoyment despite the few hardships - what are memories without a little hurt anyways? - but I didn't see until now how the remembrance I read into could be taken as an elegy of sorts...thanks =)

Michael said...

I read this poem and saw abuse. I read it again and saw playful roughhousing with a decidedly blue collar (and definitely tipsy) father. Then back to the abuse, then back to the clumsy affection. It's very much like the optical illusion picture of the young stylish woman and the old crone; they are BOTH there, and while some of what we see reflects our inner landscape, the ambiguity was by design. To have accomplished this in four quick stanzas truly sets this work apart as masterful!

Anonymous said...

I just read this for my lit class. What jumped out for me was the abuse part. But in addition to that was the child's need/want for a father figure albeit a drunken and abusive one. I believe at the end of the story, "Still clinging to your shirt." refers to his role as the father figure. A shirt is something you wear, just like the role of fatherhood. The boy needed that even if his father was abusive.
"You beat time on my head" means that this was a regular occurrence, presumably after his father had been drinking.

karamazov said...

To "beat time" is a fixed expression in English meaning to measure or regulate time in music.

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/_/dict.aspx?rd=1&word=To+beat+time

The papa does not beat the boy, he beats time (with his open palm) on the boy's head. There is no indication in the poem of the papa giving the son a "beating." In fact, if the English expression were "tapped time" instead of "beat time," the so-called evidence for abuse would be even weaker than that which some people read into the work...nowhere in the poem does the papa inflict pain on the boy, except accidentally when he misses a dance step.

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