W.B. Yeats wrote: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” He was right about that, and yet if poetry rehearses an internal argument, where our individual complexities are encountered anew and brought to the surface, this does not preclude the presence of other, internal sparring partners. Of these, perhaps none are so present to us and in us as our own parents, whose DNA we carry along with an entire catalogue of their personality traits and quirks, good and bad.
“There’s not much you can do/about the odd parents who conceived of you,” Derek Mahon ruefully reflects. This is probably why poems about parents so often combine gratitude with regret.
In Diptych, the contemporary Australian poet Robert Gray writes movingly of how he came to accept his father, a drunkard who, despite his “callousness to my mother … had given, or shown me, the best advice, and had left me alone”. James McAuley, in Because, another beautiful Australian poem about parents, describes an unhappy house in which his father “had damned up his Irish blood … And stiffened into stone and creaking wood”. McAuley asks nonetheless: “How can I judge without ingratitude?” And summarises: “Judgment is simply trying to reject/A part of what we are because it hurts.”
Demonstrating the truth of McAuley’s statement, Sylvia Plath despairingly proclaims: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”, in a poem in which she compares her father – who died when she was eight – to a Nazi, and her own suffering to that of the Jews. For another poet who, like Plath, died tragically young, there is a worse fate than losing a parent, and that is knowing they will lose you. In Apologies, Philip Hodgins imagines his parents coming to terms with the news of his terminal illness: “Their only child will not bury them. /I must tell them how sorry I am.”
Seamus Heaney’s Follower ends on a similarly plangent note. It describes a young boy following his father around the farm as he goes about his daily work, only to find, as he becomes a man himself, that it is his father who now stumbles behind him “and will not go away”.
But poems about parents are not all sombre. Some are very funny indeed, even when the subject is bleak: “They f*!k you up, your mum and dad. /They may not mean to, but they do.” That’s Philip Larkin, whose childhood was no more unpleasant than most other middle-class Englishmen and women who grew up between the wars. It was more pleasant, certainly, than the childhood described by the American Theodore Roethke, in My Papa’s Waltz: “You beat me on my head,/With a palm caked hard with dirt/Then waltzed me off to bed/Still clinging to your shirt.”
Edgar Albert Guest in Only a Dad celebrates the man undertaking the ordinary tasks needed to support his family: “Doing, with courage stern and grim/The deeds that his father did for him.” He is more cutting about his “old man” in Father: “He knows the ins and outs of each/And every deep transaction;/We look to him for theories,/But look to ma for action.”
Whatever the bad traits we recognise in our parents, for most of us they are held in tension with the admiration and love we naturally have for the people who, in the wonderfully alliterative phrase of Geoff Page, have “bred, brought up and boasted” us. Geoffrey Lehmann captures this beautifully in My Father, where he shows how an otherwise unremarkable man, who often embarrassed him to the point where he wanted to “sink down through the footpath”, contained hidden depths (“His greatest love was porridge … Yet in him elemental beauties flash”) and taught the future poet to notice the beauty all around him: the “cliffs and hollows … shaped by wind and waves” and “the detail of those tree tops”.
So there is gratitude here, too, as well as unease, just as there is in Robert Hayden’s Those Winter Sundays, despite “the chronic angers of that house”, where we find a father rising early – on his one day off from work in the week – to prepare a fire for his family, waiting for the room to warm before he calls them from their beds. “No one ever thanked him”, the first stanza concludes, and the poem ends with the poet lamenting his own ingratitude as a boy: “What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
It’s often only as adults (and as parents ourselves) we come to appreciate what our parents have given us. Reading great poems can enhance this appreciation. My father, having worked many Sundays of my childhood, on one Sunday that he did have off in my 17th year, bought me the Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, which contained Those Winter Sundays. A father myself, I understand that poem now. So, very belatedly, thank you, Dad. And happy Father’s Day.
Stephen McInerney is academic director and deputy chief executive at the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.