Saturday, April 28, 2012

Two Poems about Father: a comparison

I am reading Helen Vendler's introductory text "Poems, Poets, Poetry". It is my belief that every poet needs an anthology, and this one has the added benefit of having Helen's clear instruction woven throughout. The opening chapter includes several poems exploring the relationship between child and father and I was struck by the difference between two of them.

The first is by Robert Hayden entitled "Those Winter Sundays":

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.
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,
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? 

Notice the incredible economy of language. The "too" in the line "Sundays too my father got up early" implies that his father gets up early *every* day, not just on Sunday. That one word changes the description of his father's early rising significantly, from something exceptional to something routine. It's the end of the first line, and I already have a rich portrait of his father's character. 

The emotional tension in the poem comes from the poet's two contrasting perspectives on his father. At the time he is writing about, the poet had a cold relationship with his father, "speaking indifferently to him" and "fearing the chronic angers of that house". But looking back in retrospective, the poet realizes the strength of the love shown by his father's labors for the family's comfort, waking up early to heat the house. "No one ever thanked" his father at the time, and now that the poet recognizes his father's love he regrets not having the opportunity to give thanks.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I don't like this poem near as much. The opening stanza is one of the best *sounding* stanzas in all poetry, and the poem is rightfully remembered as a classic due to the incredible consonance, assonance, and rhyme. 

But in comparison to the intimacy of the first poem, this one is very abstract. It ends with the author's reaction to his father's dying days, but in the middle it detours to discuss "men" in general facing death (wise men, good men, wild men, and grave men). The resulting poem feels a lot less genuine, more contrived. And the imagery is hard to parse - "Because their words had forked no lightning"  is opaque, and lazy. There is no thematic unity to the images chosen, each stanza is disjoint: lightning, a green bay, catching the sun and singing(?!) it, meteors, a sad height. It is as if Thomas came up with two brilliant lines for the refrain and then phoned it in. 

This illustrates how poems can be great in different ways. Robert Hayden paints a vivid intimate, personal narrative that portrays the change in his emotional relationship to his father over time. Dylan Thomas makes some of the most musical lines in all poetry. 

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