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On Poetry: There are few poems written in praise of our fathers

 

For The Norwich Bulletin

Posted June 12, 2009 @ 08:34 PM

 

Western poetic and dramatic literature has not been kind to fathers. They’ve been portrayed as brutish tyrants and cruel authority figures, deceivers and manipulators, iron-handed rulers and unfaithful husbands.

 

In Sophocles’ play Antigone, King Creon is so arrogant and drunk with power that when his son, Haemon, defies him he orders Haemon to witness hisown fiancee’s execution. In their love for their offspring, Shakespeare’s fathers have been assigned the roles of the tragically flawed (King Lear), the hopelessly misguided (Polonius), or the stubbornly autocratic (Brabantio in Othello and Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Except for a few ancient classics such as Homer’s Illiad and Virgil’s Aeneid, fathers have fared little better in poetry.

 

With the approach of Father’s Day, I’ve been wondering why there are precious few poems written in praise of fathers.

 

Fathers are expected to provide the wisdom and moral compass for their families, and when their traditional roles are not fulfilled they may often see themselves as failures. No doubt this feeling is communicated to their children. Why do we have such high expectations for fathers? They are men who are flawed human beings after all, just like the rest of us, and they will inevitably make mistakes and errors of judgment.

 

Unfortunately, when fathers come up short, when they are unable to go on being the breadwinner or the strong pillar of support, they disappoint their families and bring down the condemnation of an unforgiving society. Because of this disappointment, the great bulk of poetry about fathers is focused on their emotional shortcomings (deservedly so in many cases).

 

Let’s take a look a two examples of this phenomenon in modern poetry. First, the opening and closing stanzas from “My Papa’s Waltz” by American poet Theodore Roethke:

 

The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.

 

You beat time on my head

With a palm caked hard by dirt,

Then waltzed me off to bed

Still clinging to your shirt.

 

In this poem the speaker’s father is depicted in rich images as a working man with a sense of humor and a drinking problem. When he is drunk his behavior is dangerously playful and he is seen by his son as unable to express his love except by ambiguously indirect actions.

 

Sylvia Plath’s anguished relationship with her father is explored in her poem “Daddy” in which she draws analogies between her father’s emotional coldness and the cruelties of a predator. Here are the last two stanzas of this sixteen-stanza poem:

 

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two —

The vampire who said he was you

And drank my blood for a year,

Seven years, if you want to know.

Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

 

Some poets have been sympathetic to their father’s pain. Dylan Thomas, in perhaps his most famous poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” shows some grief and compassion for his father’s suffering and death.

 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Finally, I’d like to close on a more positive note with an excerpt from “Those Winter Sundays,” a poem by Detroit-born poet Robert Hayden, and one of my own poems, “In My Father’s Kitchen.”

 

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

 

My father’s kitchen, sacred as any temple,

was a place where the gas burners

flamed with a Promethean fire.

Never had a high priest

presided over a sacrifice

with greater reverence than my father,

wrapped in his blood-spattered vestment,

prepared the feast for our Sunday dinner.

My mother was his handmaid

and I, on occasion, his humble acolyte.

 

If you’re a poet and you want to bring your father to life in a poem, this is a good time to give it a go, and possibly make a splendid addition to the small but significant body of work about the strong love of fathers for their children.

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The poetry column has been running every other week in the Norwich Bulletin since June 2007. Below is a sample column. You’ll find the current and previous columns archived at  www.nowichbulletin.com. The first 35 columns are now available as an e-book entitled On Poetry, The Mysterious Art. For details and ordering information, send an email to quietcities@gmail.com.
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