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A Toast for the Fathers

By Annie Finch

royfinch1
Roy Finch at Sarah Lawrence College, mid 1960′s

Father’s day came and went, and I’ve been wanting to say something about my dad, and all my poetic fathers, after all the talk about mothers. I want to thank my dad for a lot of things. For reading “The Night Before Christmas” aloud every year until I got addicted to triple meters. For telling me women couldn’t write epic so obnoxiously that I had to write one. For bombarding me with so many books about Dickinson that I ended up writing an essay called “My Father Dickinson.” For dragging me to Horace Gregory and Marya Zaturenska’s house where I was more-or-less inoculated against poetry gossip and exposed to the first library I ever saw that was entirely poetry. For taking me to Assissi and Lourdes and Delphi and Santa Sophia and Jerusalem. For typing out one of my earlyish poems on his old Royal typewriter that smelled of oil so that he could appreciate it better. For having an old Royal typewriter that smelled of oil, and keeping his thousands of draft manuscript sheets about Wittgenstein in neat stacks, and typing again on their backs. For his desk drawers (but I have written about those elsewhere).

For all the fathers he, in turn, gave me: For showing me D.H. Lawrence’s house and Shakespeare’s birthplace. For talking the merits of Eliot vs. Stevens or Stevens vs. Crane or Crane vs. Yeats over decades worth of cups of coffee. For his library shelves dripping with yards of Blake and Valery and D.H. Lawrence and Dogen. For intoning Hart Crane’s “Voyages: II” in tones I can never forget. For xeroxing an entire out-of-print book of Paul Engle’s poetry, cutting and pasting each page to fit the pages of an artist’s blank book, and mailing it to me just after I moved near Iowa City. For listening to LP records of actors reciting Vaughan and Crashaw and Traherne on the couch with his eyes closed for hours, especially in the months before his death, and for thinking a lot about Milton in the weeks before.

For telling me that e.e. cummings had been a very nice and ordinary seeming gentleman when he drove him home once from some event. For having once sat across from Thomas Mann on a train. For tracking down for me every obscure prosody volume I ever needed, even in the days before the internet. For mentioning “Lydia Sigourney, the Sweet Singer of Hartford” so often that I got curious. For saying John Ashbery should “just spit it out in Daddy’s hand.” For going to the Auden lectures where he met my mother.

For finally publishing his book of poetry, Flying Over Ocean City, just in time to see it on his deathbed. For including in it poems about balloons and philosophers, and one that opened, “Athena’s owls are little and friendly / and wise because they’ve made peace with the night.” For looking at a copy of my first chapbook around the same time, and telling me, “These are real poems, so I know people will look after you. I won’t worry about you. You’ll be allright.”

Comments (11)

  • On June 27, 2009 at 11:04 am KateBB wrote:

    That’s so beautiful. A gentleman and a scholar for a father. My father inculcated in me an appreciation for bargain beer, chair sleeping, and good bologna.

    I exaggerate. He was a wonderful worker with wood and gave me a great example of fine craftsmanship. Here’s to the dads.

  • On June 27, 2009 at 2:23 pm Eileen Myles wrote:

    My dad was great too and also to blame for me being a writer. I couldn’t be a poet without all the men I’ve read though you know I wonder about why all our predecessors have to get dubbed family. You know what I mean. History is full of actors to great effect and maybe in some species way we’re all related but I kind of want to be free of the family model. But your piece is really sweet. I don’t mean that condescendingly. I can’t imagine a parent so closely aligned w my interests but it seems like such a gift. I wondered about this: For saying John Ashbery should “just spit it out in Daddy’s hand.”It seemed mean and faintly dirty.

    • On June 27, 2009 at 5:03 pm Annie Finch wrote:

      Eileen, I love your honesty. I think I agree with both of your thoughts and if I do anything with this piece I may change them. You’re right; there’s no particular reason to put family models onto it. I might change that for a time not near father’s day. The Ashbery remark meant he wanted him to get to the point, like a toddler who has something in their mouth they don’t want to get rid of and needs to spit it out–that’s how he explained it at the time, and as a father of five he used that metaphor honestly. But it seemed faintly dirty to me too when I wrote it. In the same conversation he said “Ashbery should say Out! like in a zen koan which says, how do you get the goose out of the bottle? Out!” I was grateful that he read Ashbery because I was reading him in Harold Bloom’s class and going through an anxiety of influence. My dad was not easy to live with, as I have written elsewhere. Still there is probably always much to be grateful for. What was your father like?

  • On June 27, 2009 at 3:14 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    A lovely tribute, Annie. What a guy!

    My dad, Bernard Simon, was a failed playwright — the Writer’s Theatre almost put on one of his plays around 1935 but decided it was too Clifford Odets — and he never failed to tell me poetry wouldn’t pay and to recommend that I write plays instead. At 31 I wrote him a long series of poems grappling with his life and mine which he did read and wrote back to with passion and interest to correct what I got wrong, and which, in 1981, after his death, Shameless Hussy published as a book together with his letters and the other poems I wrote while he was dying.

    My stepfather, John Adler, my mom’s second husband, was a great lover of poetry and would recite Tennyson’s “Ulysses” from memory as well as all monner of light verse my favorite: “Evolution” by T. Langdon Smith). The night before he died I told him about some grant I had to teach poetry in the museums, and he said “you’re really doing it as a poet, Johnny, aren’t you? Good for you!”

    On her deathbed my mother revealed that Bernard Simon was not my biological father. My real father was Don Weisman, a pediatrician in Westchester County. I never knew him, but I have written a bittersweet poem imagining his liasion with my mother.

  • On June 27, 2009 at 5:07 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Wow, so many stories in that generation. Thanks. It’s great to hear about the dads, Kate and John.

    I had a great aunt who used to love to recite Tennyson’s Ulysses also!

  • On June 28, 2009 at 2:23 am Desmond Swords wrote:

    Dad, Jerry Desmond, is a retired businessman who was born to a Macroom county Cork father, one of 12 siblings born in a two room cottage on several acres, and his mum was an Achill island Mayo woman, Winifred Masterson – one of thirteen siblings born in a two room cottage, who emigrated to Canada and married a Polish man called Kopec and had a son to him, Edddie, before becoming widowed and returning to Ireland where she met grandfather.

    They married and moved to Preston in Lancashire, England where dad was born just before war broke out in 1939, living there a short while before moving to Dunblane in Scotland, and then moving to Achill island near the end of the war. He was dyselxic, but in those days it wasn’t known of, you were just considered thick. But he is a genius at practical mathmatics and numbers. With all his moving about and being the son of a labourer, grandad himself having left school at 12 with only basic literacy – a university education was as distant to dad as a life on the shovel would have been for John Ashberry.

    Dad moved to Macroom when he was 13 and at 15 was apprenticed to a carpenter there, which in those days, the father paid the tradesman a set fee to train their son, because for the child of a farm labourer, becoming a carpenter, was like the child of a classroom assistant becoming a university lecturer.

    By the time dad was 17 he was employing his own father, as dad was (and still is) a grafter who has only ever known and measured life by how much physical work one is capable of doing.

    Growing up, with four sisters, i found it difficult at first to accept that i had to go to work in the summer holidays from the age of 14 whilst they looked orward to what mum fully expected would be the same as what she had freely chosena dnall she really wanted, to be a wife.

    But by the time i was 16, i could wield a shovel all day no problem. Took pride in it, because i was proud of dad and wanted to be just like him, once my exams turned to shit after a series of comedic mishaps.

    I played Malvolio at 14 in school, and was a grade A student in English lit, with an unconscious and wholly natural verbal bility i was unaware of at the time, but which translated in being able to say startling things without effort or thinking about it. It just happened.

    At 16 i was having a ball because no matter what anyone said, in the natural way of kids verbally jousting, whatever was directed to me would be returned immediately in that Wildean way of batting back the words delivered by a person seeking to make a smart crack at my expense – with some novel twist that made them look twice as stupid. Using their own words to wound at will, and which brought a reputation (though i didn’t appreciate it at the time) of being the top gob in my generational pool.

    I got an A in the mock Eng Lit O level exam and yet in the real one, got a U

    A B C D E F – U

    Ungradable, worse than rubbish.

    I couldn’t figure it out. I mean, i’d played Shakespeare on stage at 14 and ended up the natural centre of actoary gravity onstage, i harboured dreams of showbiz, i had real talent and was straight A all the way, and yet someone (who i am guessing wasn’t playing star Shakespearean roles onstage at 14) judged me to be worthless.

    It took me twenty years to figire out, an adult with a bad hair day, acting as a child, got jealous of a precociously talented child by reacting in the way they did, when they collided with my writing, they acted like one of the mad- young and competitive profs here do when Brady’s on form. Nope, your rubbish, ha ha ha, think yer clever kiddo, well i’m god today boyo !

    sad really, adults behaving like children.

    The other mishap was forgetting to attend my Modern History exam. I had secured a job on a building site in the exam period, hit the ground running, exiting school on a roll, working in the real world as soon as possible, looking forward to going to college in September with at least three qualifications needed to be able to study the minimum two A levels needed to enter university and study drama for three years which, by the time that was over, at 21, Steven S, La La land, ye hey woo !!.

    It was nailed on, i had english, maths, english lit, history and possibly chemistry, in the bag, a minimum of four, worst ways three, either way, i knew i was passing with one to spare and enough for my 16 year old dreams and plans of starring in movies, to become reality.

    But being a bit dreamy, an arty bore at heart, i went to work one day and when i went into town to buy the chaps the lunches, saw a gaggle of school pals, in school uniform, approaching me and laughing. I was confused, as there were no exams that day, because if there was, i would have been there. Then the ghastly truth emerged, i had fixed the wrong date in my head, a plain mental error costing me the History exam, which coupled with the bizzare English result and a lower performance in the chemsitry than i had hoped for, and one mark shy in two papers to getting the all important pass grade – that was me with only two O level qualifications instead of four.

    If i wanted to study the two A levels, it meant a year studying one A level whislt re-studying the one i failed becuase i weas a bit too good, too talented and the one i forgot top attend 0 which i did, getting a good pass.

    But the momentum was gone. My pals were a year ahead, i was not in their race in the respect of being paralell with my freinds. The race i was starring in until fate happened – and being an all or nothing kinda person, after a year when i got the necessary O levels, i decided i didn’t fancy being a year behind, i would go compete in the real world like dad, go do some real work, with my hands.

    ~

    Eventually 20 years later when i learnt the hard road and fell back into studying, i stayed with dad (and mum) in their detached house dad had worked his way up to over the years of using his hands and brains to become a very respectable local businessman, because the university was in the hioe town of Ormskirk Lancashire. But dad was very resistant, not to me getting educated but all this airy fairy arty writing lark, very very resistant.

    He couldn’t understand it, his only son a total failure in life, and look at him now, gone stone mad. As i learnt more and got further in to poetry, dad became more and more resistant, and the word Poetry was not tolerated in the house. It was vorboten, only mum was wanting to hear my dreams.

    It was all too strange and different and disturbing for dad, his son, a poet. I think it confirmed his worst fears, about being one of them, you know, not a real man, which a few comedic scenarios over the years had placed in his head, and now this was just proof, because real men didn’t get carried away with pretending. Pretending was for weirdos who can’t do proper work, was dad’s take on it.

    I remember the apoplexies of rage he would go into when i was unable to conceal my love for poetry:

    “Do not be speaking about poetry when Bob comes round” – dad would say, very very angrily through gritted teeth when we were doing an extension on my youngest sister’s house, who had stayed in the area and was herself now a very sucessful local girl made good, her own detached villa opposite the cricket ground, five years younger and me, a bum.

    Now, five tears later, everything between us is cool, because poetry has led me to somewhere a Desmond has not been since the Fitzgerald Munster Earls of Desmond where dispossessed by Liz 1 and the final Earl, Gerald, got his head cut off and it was sent to London for a 500 pound head price in 1583, where it got spiked on Tower Bridge as a warning to anyone who thought they could mess with Liz.

    Dad’s family, the remnanats of the Fitzgerald Desmond Earls, generation by generation, over the three hundred and fifty years from Gerald the final 15 Earl to my dad Gerald, no more than 15 generations, probably 10-12, each generation until a few before grandfather, Cornelius Desmond, life for the Desmond families then, the pocket of them in Macroom and Cork, had a long shadow cast across them because they had gone from the most important aristocrats to farm labourers in one generation, and all that history, doesn’t get worked out in a few generations.

    Land confiscation, Penal law, famine, geneartiuon after generation and none of us getting educated, till grandad grafted his way to send his son to be a carpenter and his son the carpenter found enough peace and prosperity for his own son, me Kevin Desmond, using my mother’s maiden name of Swords because i love her more than anyone lese in the world – to get educated and know now, what a gift real knowledge is, what power it is, how it can enoble one. How one can find Joy in remembering the sacrfice those who had nothing, came from nothing, who once were kings, the prince and the ploughman, the slave the freeman, we all find our comforts in old john o dreams.

  • On June 28, 2009 at 2:38 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    My father died at the age of 89 in Bath, Maine. That was 18 years ago.

    Before that he gave me a baby sister at the age of 83. Then he gave me another at 86.

    He taught me everything he knew which is why my life has been a series of dramatic descents from very high altitudes.

    I wrote this poem about what he taught me.

    DAEDALUS BRIEF

    If you jump high enough to know
    exactly how to stay afloat

    if you suspend your breath
    just at the point the next begins

    and spread your shoulders
    gently out like this and this

    feeling each porous blade
    expand with gently harnessed air

    your altitude a little lower than
    the height which makes you think

    but higher than the space below
    while having nowhere else to go

    then you, my son, will never have
    to stretch for some new stunt to please

    or words to pray
    or be.

    • On July 2, 2009 at 11:16 pm Wfkammann wrote:

      I didn’t call Sunday and Wednesday morning my sister answered to say the old man had fallen into the bushes outside the bingo hall and had been helped home in a golf cart. They called Kathy and she had spent the night. The next day it was afternoon before she could talk him into going to the doctor. “I saw Dr. Smith Too many bad memories with Dr. Mahdi.” Dehydrated with a nasty URI they gave him pills and sent him home. When I called Saturday he said “I thought I was just fighting the flu.” Just the flu?? At 93 the flu might be reason enough to see a doctor, I mentioned. Miriam died 2 years ago this May and he still hasn’t cleaned out her closet. You miss a mother but a wife of 61 years is more. I remember his leadership around the death bed. When she died I went in first for some time alone with her; he went last. Never spoke much with him; now it’s once a week. He likes the symphony and jazz concerts at UCI. Bingo. If he wins like he says he’s the luckiest man in California. He’s been to visit in Mexico twice since she died. This year we’ll stop there on the way to Chaing Mai.

  • On June 28, 2009 at 6:06 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I wrote this poem shortly after my father died. I was helping George Whitman at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, if helping is the word for it—for George Whitman was as difficult to help as my father, and looked like him. I read the poem at the ‘Fire Reading’ during which we tried to raise money to help him out after the great fire. George sat in the front row glaring at me and looking at his watch, which he did a number of times even though the poem was so short.

    Maybe you’re looking at your watches too.

    Difficult fathers like mine and Desmond’s have perhaps more to give even than the understanding ones. My Father taught me I could do anything, including flying, and not to care too much how hard I fell. I did care anyway, of course, but I survived most falls—though I’m not sure how I’m doing in this poetry one.

    I8 years ago I started writing the poetry I’m talking about. In another 18 years I will be the same age my father was when he died. Perhaps in another 12 years I will marry again as well and have two more children.

    I suspect I will not go gentle into that goodnight either.

    Christopher

  • On June 28, 2009 at 2:48 pm duane sosseur wrote:

    you must have made him feel proud…..
    great article!
    ..duane

  • On July 12, 2009 at 4:04 pm Prem Nizar Hameed wrote:

    Royal typewriter crackles,
    Oil smell permeates,
    Yes the fragrance of nostalgia;
    Father is nearby you
    If God appears before you
    Never hesitate to ask a boon:
    Chance to return to childhood
    Ho! none defined that sweetness yet.


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, June 27th, 2009 by Annie Finch.