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A Toast for the Fathers
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.”