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Poetic Devices for Dad




Introduction: Thank you very much Poetry Foundation for continuing to remain a resource for people wanting to do a deep dive into poetry. This blog is in honor of my dad on Father's Day. Our relationships to our fathers go the core of our relationship to the world, love and in my mind, our craft as artists. My father has died, but he is with me everyday. Good or bad, the only metaphor I have for him was that of a mountain. I grew up in Colorado, so we spent many days in the mountains. I remember one extreme backpacking trip where my buddy decided (we were high school dorks) it was a great idea to climb to the top of a peak. We were camping just below the snow line in July. Pretty high up. I was in the dork club. It was an awesome idea. We spent an hour trudging through the snow.


So the dork club makes it to the top. We beat our chests like gorillas and howl at the moon, since we had conquered the climb. We decided it was too much effort to walk back down, so we just sat on our butts and glided (flew) over the icy terrain back to the campsite. His father looked up and wondered if he was going to have to pack a teenager eight hours on his back to a hospital, as he watched us flop over rock outcroppings.


Why does this remind me of my father? Mountains are solid, unmovable, and sometimes unforgiving in the consequences. My metaphor? What I failed to mention about the dork club is that we had no climbing gear. I used my fingers as ice hooks to spear through the snow to get to the top. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Result? I couldn't feel my fingers, due to frostbite, for about a month. I wasn't sure I would ever feel them again. What's to become of that? Did my Dad love me? Absolutely. Was I a dork? Absolutely. Did we understand each other. Most days it was 50/50.


Below is a cursory analysis of poems about fathers that dives into poetic devices. It might get a bit sappy if I end up talking about fathers. I love my children and always wonder about this conundrum between fathers and their children with the complexities of love, the world, and how we view our own lives. Thanks, Dad.


1) The Gift – Li- Young Lee

Hyperbole and Metaphor become an easy device to utilize when translating the emotions of a child. Consider the final line of the first stanza. "the iron sliver I thought I’d die from." I instantly have the image of a toddler, convinced that a crisis is life-threatening with a blood curdling scream. I remember those moments raising my children and watch young families cope with the same hot tears of their blessed children. Li-Young Lee is wise enough to let us know he recognizes that his father of removing said "weapon of death: in the form of a sliver was an act of compassion and love by his father.

2) Those Winter Sundays- Robert Hayden

Thanks to The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, I was able to dig a little deeper into the poetic form of Stanza. Deeply connected to music, this poetic unit comes from an older Italian form that translates to "room." Each gives us a space in the poem. Maybe Hayden intended that or not, when he decides to impress the reader with his father's presence during the harshest of chores and terms of family life. Starting the fire in the family fireplace in a small abode. Taking on the cold. The final thoughts of the editors is that the stanza, while very recognizable from music became the bridge to change in modern poetry. People loved strict rhyme and rhythm. The rules loosened. They just didn't loosen all at once. It's like a couple of poets were children and decided to paint their room a different color. Look at your poems. Check out Hayden.

3) Childhood Ideogram ­– Larry Levis

The Dictionary of Poetic Terms by Jack Myers and Don C. Wukasch put the ideogram as a different way to say ideograph. My study of Mandarin took on the form of studying the various kanji and how different the language is structured from Western languages with their alphabetic segmentation of words. Bottom line? Leaning on an ideogram, like Levis does, makes the central idea of his poem work for Western thinkers. It becomes a subset of imagism, because the Western thinker accounts the kanji of Mandarin or Japanese as more of a picture than a word. Your world experience may differ. Consider that when you use ideograms in your poems.

4) Youth ­– James Wright

Strange bird/ His song remains secret. Personification, many times overtakes the entire poem, but these ironic first two lines, just announce the personality and life experience of Wright's father. Poets rely on our attention span, which may or may not survive the social media induced ADHD of society. Time will tell. The obvious question comes in why would a songbird's song be a secret? Maybe Wright intended a nod to Angelou's poem I know Why the Caged Bird Sings. If so, that has a deeper impact on the reader, because it speaks to the quiet dignity of all the work Wright's father put into his life for his family and sons.

5) Dressing My Daughters – Mark Jarman

This poem thrives in another modern poetic device. Confessional poems, as the device implies, puts the poet in the booth with the priest, and you the reader are the confessor. These are intimate thoughts. They take the intimacy of Dickinson one step further, to let the reader in on the human struggles of the poet. This helps the reader understand the quiet struggle of some fathers who want to love their children, but confess "I am not their mother, and tangle, and then untangle/The whole cloth..."

6) All My Pretty Ones- Anne Sexton

Warned against alliteration from our earliest days as a poet, in a master's hand, like Anne Sexton it can be used like a hot pepper in a dish to burn your pallet enough to wake you up. Speaking in harsh tones to her father, perhaps out of grief, we get "love and legal verbiage..." along with and "solvent but sick." The key to her success is the extreme opposite nature of the words. She doubles down on punching the reader in the face with not only alliteration, but a deep, slicing contrast of meaning.

7) Danse Russe William Carlos Williams

This is quiet praise of fatherhood from a male perspective- "Danse Russe" translates from French as “Russian Dance” implicating the “Nutcracker” suite with lively expressive dancing. The title, therefore, contrasts the poem of a quiet sleeping of family. Williams puts almost a comic contrast between the title, reflecting the father's emotions and intimate absurd dance and the tranquil quiet of his wife and daughter sleeping in the morning. The contrast not only sets up the absurdity of a father's pride, but his quiet love, by offering his off tempo dance in a mirror when the reader might be seeing twenty ballerinas on point and in precision. Consider how you can create such contrasts and if you will need to lean on cultural assumptions like Williams does when he assumes we understand Danse Russe.

8) Child on the Marsh – Andrew Hudgins

A common form in the modern poetry is free verse. For the modern poet, it might seem as obvious as saying, "People drive cars on the road, " but within the history of poetry, forms and conventions have been as strict as rules of geometry and calculus. The prosaic nature of free verse can lend itself to poets offering sound-bytes of prose that may or may not constitute a poem. However, in this poem Hudgins is intentional with the use of the form because the lack of structure communicates the childhood emotions of coping with the chaos present in his life.

9) Men at my Father’s Funeral – William Matthews

Anastrophe is the official term from the Greek, which is where a traditional word order, or figure of speech is changed. You don't need the official term. It is a fun poetic game you can play to punch up your poems. Take common phrases and change the order. Matthews uses this to really smack us with the impact the awkward moments he felt at his father's funeral. I put his changes in word order in bold italic for emphasis. "And I, the glib one, who’d stood/ with my back to my father’s body/and praised the heart that attacked him?/I’d made my stab at elegy,/the flesh made word:

10) My Papa’s Waltz – Theodore Roethke

Rhyme. Music goes to the theme, and mood of this poem. Although a modern poem, this device is used well to communicate his objective. A waltz being very formal dance, is a structured situation, while a drunken father is wandering all around throughout this beautiful piece. This speaks to the formal structures of our childhood minds. It speaks to how, not understanding the chaos and craving the rules, we eventually find order and rhythms of life. Maybe not Baroque waltzes that keep strict meter, but still strict rules and forms of chaos that drive our lives. We dance as best we can with drunken fathers and the rules and rhythms they offer.

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