The summer months offer several opportunities to practice occasional poems. First Mother’s Day, now Father’s Day … and coming soon is Independence Day.
Occasional poems–meant to be read, not perused–usually are light on structural elements and heavy on powerful details and emotional points. Clever ideas–like a time progression–can resonate with our audience. The strongest time progression is Past > Present > Future.
Fathers, like our mothers, connect past to present to future. On the 5th, we had a close examination of a traditional poem by Robert Haydn—the famous “Winter Sundays”—and a free verse from Li Young Lee—“The Gift”.
Here are two more, without the involved examination. All four poems–just as the Mother’s Day poems–offer practice opportunities for new poets. Without concentrating on a complicated structure, we see powerful details. Those details create lingering memories for us.
Fathers Must Let Go of the Past to Give us our Present
Father’s Day poems usually provides the child’s perspective. Cecil Day Lewis’ “Walking Away” provides us the father’s perspective.
This link comes from Genius.com and offers two annotated explanations.
Fathers Give Us the Future Because of What They Lost
Jan Beatty presents “My Father Teaches Me to Dream”, a soft-sounding poem until we meet the strong voice of the first lines. The link connects to an archive of The Seattle Times, with a bit of information before and after to explain the father’s viewpoint.
We can hear Jan Beatty asking her father what work is like. How many children and teenagers have wondered the same thing? We see work as the money we earn and what independence that we think that money will give us. Instead, in the father’s hard voice, we get the harsh reality.
The short lines, staccato hard, give us a painful truth–“same thing again. / Nothing more. Nothing less. … All this other stuff you’re looking for — / It ain’t there. / Work is work.”
Once we’re past those sharp words, those of us who have worked years will laugh—and then nod, realizing the truth the father gives his daughter..
Look again at Beatty’s title. Through those words “My Father Teaches Me to Dream”, 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 $$$.
That gift of the future dream, the gift of MORE than the humdrum work world, is the greatest gift our fathers can give to us.
Practice Occasional Poems
Both poems offer memories, just as did Haydn’s and Lee’s poems. In searching for a subject to practice your occasional poems, look into your memory. The details that create your strong memory strongly will transfer to the page and to your audience.
On the 25th, we are past Father’s Day and looking toward the next big occasion of the summer months >> Independence Day.
The day that we honor our fathers rapidly approaches. It’s a perfect opportunity to write poems for Father’s Day.
As practicing poets, we might think that writing poems for our fathers is easy. That is, we think that until we crack open the laptop, fire up a Word app, then realize we can only think of pablum.
We don’t want to give our fathers bland, tasteless, emotionless words.
Unlike Father’s Day, poems for Mother’s Day flood the world. Unfortunately, most of those poems are line after line of overblown sentiments better suited for greeting cards. Or cutesy little poems trying for loud laughter.
Occasional poems should awaken the mind and tug at the heartstrings.
Avoiding the overblown and the cutesy are the two pitfalls for all Occasional Poems, most especially for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. We need our poems to be real, to be personal, and to be touching.
Father’s Day offers another barrier that we stumble against. We don’t think “sentiment” when we consider writing for our dads.
Yet tossing in emotion after emotion never works. Both Mom and Dad deserve truth instead of watery pathos.
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. Remember those? Powerful Lines. Strong Imagery. Heartfelt Message. Clear Communication.
3] Keep a focus on structure to stand out from the multitude of other poems swimming in the universal current.
(**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.)
How can we achieve truth in our Poems for Father’s Day?
Consider the role that your father plays in your life. Look to the character archetypes to determine which role we want to celebrate. From there, we ask “What does that role require?” Once we know that answer, we find specific images (especially a dominant image) to represent the role.
Two Views of Fathers
Fathers as Protectors
Robert Hayden gives us the sadness of missed opportunities to express to his appreciation to his father for his sacrifices, sacrifices that were unknown and unrecognized by arrogant and selfish youth.
Look at the harsh reality of the first stanza: blueblack cold, “cracked hands that ached from labor.” Strong alliterative B’s and the hard K sound of the C’s emphasize those winter Sundays when everyone else is sleeping, everyone else is free from work, and everyone else snuggles just a little deeper under the bedcovers–because someone else will do the hard thing … just as Haydn’s father did.
The second stanza presents the frozen reality of the world–from the weather, from the difficult emotions between father and son as the son challenges that the father wants … because the father sees his world and doesn’t want that world for his son.
The father drove out the cold of the weather … and the world by giving his son the ability to do more than that hard labor that cracked the father’s hands. And his son can go into the world with newly polished good shoes, putting a shiny clean face on his future … because of his father’s “austere and lonely offices”.
We have fourteen lines in this poem–5 in the first stanza, 4 in the center, 5 in the last. A hidebound traditionalist wouldn’t call this poem a sonnet because it breaks the common sonnet structures. Yet what does a sonnet do? It presents an argument, provides evidence, then through a Volta (a turning viewpoint) it reaches a truth.
Haydn argues that his father loves him–even though the house was filled with “chronic angers”. He gives several details as evidence. Then, in the last two lines (where Shakespeare always turned his Volta to achieve his truth) Haydn gives the rhetorical question “What did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
The question is rhetorical because we know the answer. None of us know about “love’s austere and lonely offices”, not until we have years between event and emotion, years to reflect on what actually occurred, and the wiser understanding of those years to see.
Fathers Teach Lingering Lessons
Li Young Lee, who had an example of a Mother’s Day poem, also presents his father’s love in a rather oblique way, via Lee’s relationship with his wife. Find “The Gift” here on Poetry Foundation.
The poem opens with Lee’s memory: his father draws out a splinter, distracting his son with a story. The second stanza gives us the details of his father’s love: “his voice … a well of / dark water”, his hands “two measures of tenderness / laid against my face”, and “flames of discipline” similar to Haydn’s father with the “chronic angers”.
In the third stanza, Lee moves us from past to present. He invites us into the poem as well as he moves from the literal “planting something in a boy’s palm” to the figurative, for Lee’s father did plant something in his son–the ability to be tender when a necessary hurt must occur. He reinforces this with the repetition of details from the first two stanzas. The “silver tear” is the “well of dark water” as well as the tears on the little boy’s face as he confronts a painful splinter and its withdrawal. The “tiny flame” is the memory of those “flames of discipline”, reduced by time.
Using his father’s technique, he performs the same splinter withdrawal. Then Lee shows us his mark–humor mixed with memory … “Metal that will bury me” and “Little Assassin”, the extremes of childish thought. And he charges the poem with further emotion when he thanks his father with a kiss, doing “what a child does / when he’s given something to keep”.
A memory of his father.
Two more views of fathers, just in time for Father’s Day.