Occasional Poems: Father’s Day

The day we honor fathers rapidly approaches.  And poems for fathers seem easy until we sit down to write.

Unlike for Father’s Day, poems for Mother’s Day flood the world.  We write line after line of overblown sentiments better suited for greeting cards.  We design them to tug at the heart or evoke loud guffaws.

Avoiding those two pitfalls are the reason that Mother’s Day poems are difficult to write.  We want them to be real, to be personal, and to be touching.

We have the same trouble with Father’s Day poems.

Father and Son, from Wikimedia Commons

And we stumble against another barrier:  We don’t think “sentiment” when we consider writing for fathers.  We should.

Yet tossing in emotion after emotion doesn’t work for either.  Both genders deserve  truth instead of watery pathos.

Reminder

We have three chief reasons to practice our poetic craft with occasional poems for all**:

1] keep to audience requirements.  Who are we writing for?  Ourselves?  Nyah.  It’s the fathers we wish to honor.

2] keep to the 4 Requirements of Song:  Powerful Lines.  Strong Imagery.  Heart-felt Message.  Clear Communication. 

3] keep a focus on structure to stand out from the multitude of other poems.

(**Occasional Poems for All.  That’s a book, isn’t it?  Filled with all the trite, complacent pathos we could want.  Let’s not fall back on this or on greeting cards.)

3 + 1

For the occasion of Father’s Day, I want to celebrate 3 + 1 poems that present the father in his role as protector.

(And that’s the poetic starting point:  What role of the father will we celebrate?  What does that role require?  What are specific images that represent that role?  Is there a dominant image that we can turn into an active metaphor?)

Robert Hayden: Fathers as Protectors

Hayden gives us the sadness of missed opportunities to express to his father appreciation for his sacrifices, sacrifices that were unknown and unrecognized by arrogant and selfish youth.

https://image.slidesharecdn.com/thosewintersundays-110316232909-phpapp02/95/those-winter-sundays-2-728.jpg?cb=1300318210
Robert Hayden, 1966
Jan Beatty: Fathers Give our Futures

Beatty is all harsh reality, the father’s typical answer to a question when he’s answered it before and is now out of patience.  We laugh—and then we nod, realizing the truth the father gives us.

My Father Teaches Me to Dream

You want to know what work is?
I’ll tell you what work is:
Work is work.
You get up. You get on the bus.
You don’t look from side to side.
You keep your eyes straight ahead.
That way nobody bothers you—see?
You get off the bus. You work all day.
You get back on the bus at night. Same thing.
You go to sleep. You get up.
You do the same thing again.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
There’s no handouts in this life.
All this other stuff you’re looking for—
it ain’t there.
Work is work.

Look again at Beatty’s title.  In giving the title, unspoken is the father’s wish and the child’s realization of how to escape such toil and pursue the career that will create happiness in the slavery of work for $$$.  The gift of the future dream is the greatest gift our fathers give to us.

Cecil Day Lewis: Fathers Let go of the past

Father’s Day poems usually provides the child’s perspective.  C. Day Lewis’ “Walking Away” provides us the father’s perspective.

Walking Away

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

Plus 1:   The Lessons of Fathers Stay With Us

Here is the extra poem, Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift”.  In helping his beloved wife, Lee is reminded of his beloved father and a practical lesson.  Here he writes an eternal Father’s Day poem without making that his obvious purpose.

The greatest gifts for his son are not tangible presents but the intangibles that we carry into the future.

The Gift

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.
I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.
Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.
Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

Next Up ::  Our Last Occasional Poetry Blog :: Independence Day

Occasions: Mother’s Day: When Audience Trumps Poet

May and June and July are jammed with occasions.

  • Mother’s and Father’s Days.
  • Memorial and Flag and Independence Days.
  • Graduation and Wedding and many other types of days.

For poets seeking an audience, these occasions offer multiple opportunities to practice craft.

Poetic Occasions: 2 Chief Reminders

1] For a poet writing an occasional poem, the most important remembrance is that the audience controls the writing.  Occasions require poets to stretch their abilities without causing deliberate offense to the audience.

2] The poet also needs to remember the 4 Requirements of Song. The writing must be heartfelt without being smarmy.  Powerful lines and strong imagery must keep the audience engaged:  a listening-only audience will break attention faster than a reading one.  Rhetorical devices that emphasize points are especially necessary as they help the audience “hear” the ideas through repetition and climactic ordering.

♥ Maya Angelou’s inaugural “On the Pulse of the Morning” and Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright” are perfect examples (one long and sprawling free verse, the other 16 tightly constructed lines).

Here are 2 + 1 poems for Mother’s Day (the 1 is a “just because”) with the reasons they work so well.

Of course, you can always fall back on a greeting card.

Li-Young Lee & the Water of Time

I Ask My Mother to Sing

Li-Young Lee presents the connection of past to present to future, something mothers do for their children almost unconsciously.  Mothers ground their children with who they are and who they come from even as they encourage who they will become.

Lee celebrates this ability.  The women’s joy comes across in the second line—then Lee sidesteps the typical encounter of a poem with a mother in it—much as Langston Hughes did with “Mother to Son”.  The second stanza has the readers wishing that they knew this song.

It’s the third stanza, however, that contains the most power:  waterlilies like a bamboo fountain.  Soothing serenity.

And then Lee has done something wonderful with the title, usually only glanced at, here it is a necessary part, pouring us into the poem, just as the waterlilies into the next and the next and then pour us out of the poem.

Three stanzas, unrhymed, with very little tying the poem together—yet still with a tranquility that draws us back and back.

George Barker’s Occasion for his Mother

Sonnet, Barker announces in the title, and most of us wouldn’t have noticed if he had not announced it.

The first line sounds like the Mother’s Day greeting card.  Surprise comes in the third line.  No woman wants to be described “as huge as Asia”.  “Seismic with laughter”, yes.  Barker gives us the reality of his mother.  He doesn’t gild the lily, for it is not the pretty image that makes up the mother he loves.  She is  a woman who helps the weak and hurt.  She is brash yet alluring, fascinating and courageous.

His mother has her weaknesses, but he bolsters her with “all my love” and a reminder of “all her faith” as she copes with a devastating death, punned into the last line.

By now we are studying the poem, re-reading portions, nodding to ourselves as we picture the woman he describes.  And closer examination tells us that his rhyming is as atypical as the woman herself.

Surprising poems like Barkers draw us back and back—and isn’t that what we want with our poetry?  Readers returning over and again.

Judith Viorst

My plus-1 occasion poem, which actually fits all occasions:  Mothers are known for their advice.  Teenagers think it’s nagging.  Young adults starting their own path to wisdom begin to see the wisdom that flows from the mother.  Her advice may be oft-repeated until we understand the simplicity of the truth.

Some Advice from a Mother to her Married Son

The answer to do you love me isn’t, I married you, didn’t I?
Or, Can’t we discuss this after the ballgame is through?
It isn’t, Well that all depends on what you mean by ‘love’.
Or even, Come to bed and I’ll prove that I do.
The answer isn’t, How can I talk about love when
the bacon is burned and the house is an absolute mess and
the children are screaming their heads off and
I’m going to miss my bus?
The answer is yes.
The answer is yes.
The answer is yes.

Wrapping It Up

Join us on the 25th, just in time for Memorial Day and then Flag Day.  We will look at poems on patriotic occasions.