I’ve written poems for my mother, my sister, my grandfather, friends, my husband—even my dogs. Today I’m aware that this would-be poet has thus far under-achieved when it comes to reflecting on the role of my fathers (yes, that’s plural) in my life. And yet, they’ve been a central, loving, constant presence. I’ve been blessed.
It’s not exactly true that I’ve ignored them. The man who gave me life, I never knew. He was killed in World War II when I was three months old, leaving my mother a 22-year old war widow. In the interest of brevity, here’s a link to the poem I wrote the year that the anniversary of his death coincided with Easter Sunday.
During the subsequent years, we lived with my maternal grandparents and it was easy to call my grandfather Daddy as soon as I decided it was okay to talk. The man was a wonder, a civil engineer for the Los Angeles Flood Control, quiet, brilliant and loving. He sang baritone, and I remember sitting on his shoulders at Christmas Midnight Mass while he sang “Oh, Holy Night” to the accompaniment of my concert-pianist/organist grandmother. Come to think of it, I wrote of him, years ago, as well, here.
Daddy numero trois came into our lives when I was seven and my mother remarried. He brought along a sister my age—both of whom have now left us. When he died, twelve years ago, I was in the midst of a significant health crisis. I put grief on hold, as I did the want to pay tribute to this loving, generous man who became as much a father to me as any DNA could assure. So now I’m on a mission.
In the meantime, I turn to poets of all times who have written works that sing of fatherhood—its tenderness and tulmult, its caring and curse. Though I chose to tell my story in glowing terms, we know that life is not always painted in gentle tones of watercolor. Sometimes the rage of red and black might slash across the paper. Often colder tones prevail. Yet, for most of us, something emerges that stays true and evolves throughout a lifetime, washed with a bit of hope and forgiveness.
Today, let me share three poems (or snippets of the one not yet in the public domain) that cover the role of fathers in our lives.
On My First Son
by Ben Jonson
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou’wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.
In this first poem, 17th century poet, Ben Johnson, writes of the death of his first-born son, Benjamin, who died on his 7th birthday. Note that the Hebrew name, Benjamin, translates as “child of the right hand.” The almost stoic tone of this work is deceptive. Johnson mollifies his grief, keeping emotion in check, deriving lessons on detachment. Yes that second-to-the-last couplet belies the true strength of his loss. Often, less is more effective.
Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden
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…
…What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
Contemporary poet, Robert Hayden, wrote this poem from the point of view of a son who understand, too late, the real meaning of the love his father showed. Because of copyright considerations, I have only quoted small portions of the poem, which I beg you to read in its entirety.
The boy recalls that the father called him when the room was warm, gave him the shoes he had polished. And he remembers as well, “fearing the angers of that cold house.” Every detail in the poem speaks of cold and darkness. He uses monosyllabic words and internal rhyme to create the sounds of almost-alienation, but in the end we have a portrait of love that is silent and devoted to the duties of fatherhood.
To Her Father with Some Verses
by Anne Bradstreet
Most truly honoured, and as truly dear,
If worth in me or ought I do appear,
Who can of right better demand the same
Than may your worthy self from whom it came?
The principal might yield a greater sum,
Yet handled ill, amounts but to this crumb;
My stock’s so small I know not how to pay,
My bond remains in force unto this day;
Yet for part payment take this simple mite,
Where nothing’s to be had, kings loose their right.
Such is my debt I may not say forgive,
But as I can, I’ll pay it while I live;
Such is my bond, none can discharge but I,
Yet paying is not paid until I die.
And I suppose I should end this on a more positive note with 17th century poetess’ Anne Bradstreet’s tribute to her father. Yes, we do own them a debt of gratitude. After all, where where would we be without them. Um, I guess we wouldn’t.
If you want more, I suggest stopping over at The Poetry Foundation’s Website and browsing a bit. I strongly recommend taking a moment to read Dylan Thomas’ well-known Villanelle: Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night, and My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke, also a Villanelle.
If you are reading this on my blog and care to link your own Father’s Day poem, access Mr. Linky at the bottom of this post and add your name and the direct URL of your poem. I will look forward to reading it there, and you may want to browse other’s submissions.
I do hope to write one for Daddy #3—it’s long overdue.