6.28.2009

Post-Father's Day Poems


First of all, congrats to all the dads who contrived to spend Father's Day with their kids instead of celebrating their mistresses' "magnificent parts"--you have demonstrated that you understand symbolic gesture better than the average polithario. (Couldn't Governor Sanford, a father of four, have picked one of the other 51 weekends in the year to go missing for action?)

I meant to do a Father's Day post to honor the steadfast dads I know (including my favorite soccer dad), and maybe even write a mawkish Father's Day sonnet or two, but my daughter's mid-June surgery and recovery (she's fine now) left no time or energy for such frivolities (and here's a shout-out to my dad for coming back east on short notice to help). Besides, when I turned to recent podcasts on fatherhood, I was not moved. All I could find was a memoirist recounting har-har anecdotes of swim diaper apprenticeship while lamenting the bygone days of hands-off dapper daddying. Fathers should know better.

Poets Raised by Stepfathers and Foster Fathers
Trying to find something more meaningful, I kept thinking of a favorite poem by Ben Jonson, a epitaph titled "On My First Son," first published in 1616. The poem is too sad for Father's Day, but since we are almost in July, I feel I can post it, along with a link to a Poetry Off the Shelf podcast about Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" (1962), a poem that appreciates some of the traditional--even menial--duties that devoted fathers perform without complaint, or mincing after media medals of commendation (scroll down for Hayden audio link).

17th Century Dad Who Loved Too Much
Playwright and poet Ben Jonson (1572-1637) never knew his biological father, but that didn't handicap him from being full of father-feeling toward his own children. His first son, also named Benjamin (which in Hebrew means "child of my right hand"), died of the plague on his seventh birthday. In "On My First Son" Jonson celebrates the boy's life and tries to find faith-based solace in the thought that Benjamin, by dying young, has been spared the harsher aspects of life and longevity. The conceit in the poem is that Jonson's abundant love for his son was the "sin" that provoked God into reclaiming the boy as payback after exactly seven years.

On My First Son

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved 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 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and asked, 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.

Jonson declares his son "his best piece of poetry," in a nice conflation of love and inspiration, the success of which is proven by the enduring appeal of the poem. He also wrote an epitaph "On My First Daughter" for Mary, who died aged six months.

"Love's austere and lonely offices"
The Poetry Foundation's Poetry Off the Shelf podcasts (also on iTunes) are a reliable delight--producer Curtis Fox usually packs a theme, an interview with a poet, and the reading of a poem or two into no more than 20 minutes (average podcast lasts 10 minutes). Poetry Off the Shelf's "Honor Thy Father's Day" podcast (iTunes link) includes a Library of Congress recording of the late Robert Hayden reading his 1976 poem, "Those Winter Sundays," an eloquent poem of complex emotion expressed in accessible language, and which ends with the beautiful lines, "What did I know, what did I know/of love's austere and lonely offices?" Fox discusses the poem with contemporary poet Terrance Hayes, who reads his own poem "For Robert Hayden" afterward. The Poetry Foundation's site has the text of "Those Winter Sundays" online, and offers bio pages on Hayden and Hayes, with links to more poems. There is also a clickable list of 60 Father's Day poems.

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