Wednesday, January 20, 2010

No One Ever Thanked Him (My Favorite Poem)

I posted this on my blog on the Red Room writers' website, but I thought I'd post here too, so those who read it (both of you) might see it too. Red Room had a weekly writing challenge/contest to write about your favorite poem - why it has been important in your life, etc.
Here's my entry:

As a teenager and young college student, I couldn’t have been much more alienated from my father. He was the personification of everything that was anathema to me at the time: a crew-cut gun enthusiast, hunter and NRA member with a strict hand and conservative views. Our relationship for many years was chilly at best. Of course, we both mellowed with age, and things thawed out somewhat. It wasn’t till the last years of his life, when heavy smoking took its toll and he lost a leg to circulatory disease, that I realized he wouldn’t be around forever, and it was time to mend fences. I came to recognize that the estrangement we had developed wasn’t entirely his fault. I don’t know if I completely succeeded in reconciling with him, and I wasn’t with him at the end, so I was left with an unsettling feeling of unfinished business. Maybe that’s why Robert Hayden’s gently magnificent poem, “Those Winter Sundays”, speaks to me. Here the narrator recalls his father who, after working all week, got up early on Sunday to make sure his family was comfortable:

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.

That last sentence, stated so matter-of-factly, is the whole gist of the poem. It made me reflect on my relationship with my own father, and how little I thanked him for providing for my mother, my sisters and me, and the little things that were all but invisible to me at the time.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house…

Boy, did I know about chronic angers of a house! My father was a strict disciplinarian, and that was perhaps one aspect of him that drove me away as I matured. My parents’ marriage was strained, and they separated and divorced after I went away to college. I was elated to leave, and I reveled in my newfound independence.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

"Speaking indifferently” so concisely encapsulates the average teenager’s emotional detachment from his or her parents at that time of life, and I was no exception. But then we’re back to the little things the father did for the narrator – warming the house and polishing his shoes. The last two lines are an emotional wallop – what, indeed, did I know about all that went into parenthood, and how much thankless work and drudgery is a part of that? And most importantly, how much of it was driven by love? My father was not a demonstrative man, so I never really factored “love” into the equation. But now, as the parent of four boys myself, it makes so much sense. “Those Winter Sundays” is one of the most moving poems ever written, yet it moves quietly, like a Sunday morning. All that I have left to say is: Thank you, Mr. Hayden. And thank you, Dad.

Monday, January 18, 2010

2010 Already?

I need to keep this blog from collecting cobwebs! Well, there's plenty to talk about this time. I had a fine holiday season - my wife and family surprised me with my first HDTV and Blu-ray player, and we spent a few days after Christmas in Williamsburg, VA, one of our favorite vacation spots. Oh yeah, and Son #2 got engaged! They're planning a September wedding.

Most recently, though, I attended the 17th Annual Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway in Cape May, NJ, three days of intensive workshops, special events, and assorted fun at the Grand Hotel in Cape May, all organized by the estimable Peter Murphy. I only attended once before, in 2003, so I felt I was overdue to return. The drawing card for me this year was that poet Mark Doty was a featured guest and also was leading two workshops. I just missed getting in (2nd on the waiting list) but I did get into a workshop with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn. It was an excellent experience, as were the workshops with James Richardson and Catherine ("Cat") Doty (a very distant relation to Mark, I learned). I got to hang with poetic friends and acquaintances, and made some new friends too (shout-out especially to Christine), and got a few decent poems to bring home as well. Even the open mic readings were a higher caliber than your average bookstore/coffee bar event. It's just great to immerse yourself in an environment of like-minded creative people for a few days. Oh yes, and I did get to meet Mr. Doty - a real thrill for me. Tomorrow: back to the real world.

In other poetry news, I have a couple of online publications this month: two poems appear in the new issue of Fox Chase Review, and five of my "Holy Tango" poems (see previous posts) appear in the new issue of Sunken Lines.

Music: Not much to report this time - looking forward to getting and listening to new albums by Spoon and Vampire Weekend.

Poem of the Month: Let's call it what it is, all right? This one is just for fun and was inspired by a writing prompt from the Poetic Asides blog:

I Thinks Therefore I Yam What I Yam

I’m havin’ doubts about meself, Doc.
Foist, I seems to have a thing for skinny goils,
I mean Olive looks anor-ex-kic, don’t she?
An’ Bluto – why is he always pickin’ a fight?
Maybe he’s just got anger issues.
I worries ‘bout Swee’Pea –
I mean, who’s his real father?
An’ sometimes I feels real stingy –
I should lends Wimpy some money
fer that hamboiger.

I gotta do somethin’ about these
over-developed forearms,
an’ maybe I needs glasses
to gets rid o’ this squint,
an’ some cos-mextic soigery
to reduce me chin.
I gotta gives up smokin’,
and y know, I’ve been outta
the Navy fer years;
it’s time to ditch the sailor suit.
This cravin’ for spinach –
maybe I just gots an iron defish-cancy.
An’ someday I gotta do somethin’
about me speech impeg-iment.

What’s that? You think I’m right?
I’m showin’ insight an’ great progress?
Well, blow me down!