The Thing with Fathers
The New Poetry of the New Fatherhood
Jun 17, 2016
9 Min read time
Poetry is offering new candor about the ways men care for their children.
“Women and men are more like each other than chalk is like cheese,” Eve Sedgwick once quipped. The same can be said, of course, for fathers and mothers: they are more alike than two proverbially distant things, and kids are kids—messy, dependent, charming, alarming—no matter the caregiver’s gender. Nonetheless recent American poetry about parenthood often looks different depending on whether mom or dad is writing. The poetry of motherhood has bloomed since the turn of the century, if not since Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day (1982): you can find the results gathered in anthologies such as The Grand Permission (2003) and Not for Mothers Only (2007), taken to smart, uninhibited extremes (Rachel Zucker, Joyelle McSweeney), or turned into new forms from the elaborately reticulated (Robyn Schiff) to the rawly condensed (Carmen Giménez Smith).
The poetry of fatherhood is not so new, in part because more men have been able to publish: practitioners have ranged from Ben Jonson to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“Frost at Midnight”) and that exemplary parent, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Yet the modernist poetry of fatherhood is surprisingly thin. William Carlos Williams wrote well about kids, but not much about his role in raising them. Robert Lowell confessed to incapacity (“I am a vacation father . . . no plum”). W. B. Yeats’s justly admired “A Prayer for My Daughter” imagines his sleeping infant’s adult life, mostly skipping her childhood (and her mom); his later “A Prayer for My Son” asks that “his mother may not lack / Her fill of sleep”—she’ll do most of the caregiving. It’s been left to fathers of our day to write the poetry of minute-by-minute, year-by-year attention to a child, beginning, as F. Douglas Brown called his 2014 book, with the years Zero to Three.
Fatherhood, like motherhood, is an “affront / to all things steady.”
How does that poetry differ from what mothers write? For one thing, attention moves in different directions: poet mothers generally start out attached to kids and then contemplate autonomy, but poet fathers start separate and then seek connection. Jeremy Adam Smith, in The Daddy Shift (2009), argued that stay-at-home dads and purposefully equal parents were “mapping new territory for all fathers,” trying hard “to match mothers’ involvement.” Today’s poetic fathers may try to do in language what Smith’s dads do in real life, though time spent cuddling or cleaning up (as for mothers) still trades off with time writing poems.
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You can find this approach to fatherhood in individual poems from the 2010s (by Brown, Michael Dickman, Craig Morgan Teicher, Dana Ward, Kevin Young, and many others), but the best whole book about it stands among the most recent. Chris Martin, who takes his drifting, low-pressure cadence in part from James Schuyler, has looked since American Music (2007) like a sensibility in search of a subject. Now that he is a father, he has found one. In The Falling Down Dance (2015) he learns to accept in life what he had already half-accepted in his technique: the incomplete, the awkward, the interrupted, that which cannot stand up on its own. The title poem uses Martin’s characteristic line to imitate his toddler’s locomotion:
Sit up, spit up, endlessterror and frontierof the body unfolding, sunand bone, bubblingforth, affrontto all things steady, he thinkshe’ll skipcrawling. He’s falling.
Fatherhood, like motherhood, is an “affront / to all things steady”; Martin’s poetry, like his days, is “awash / in the immense / and candied tedium of being / Dad.” Half the poems in The Falling Down Dance have the same title, “Time,” because once we become parents we learn how little we have, and how unsteadily it goes:
It’s late, it’s early, it’s lesscrying than screaming, word-barrenbanshee at 12:30, 1:15, 2:50, 5:00,6:15 and we’re up, saggybags of face, throbbing reliefand content justto flop on the carpet, donour mixing bowls as hats, halosof acrid urine mistchristening resolve and Atticusblowing raspberries to the sun.
Such observation—and Martin’s halting, overtired way of representing it—belongs to the poetry of parenthood generally; so does Martin’s kid language: “Crumblefoot. / Chubbery bean. Gurgler.” To read The Falling Down Dance from cover to cover—and it’s best read that way—is also to see a dad start separate and strive for connection, catching the baby when he falls down, or feeling like a welcome but slightly distant addition to a maternal dyad. That’s not the subtext so much as the plot of “Business,” in which Martin watches his partner
half-doze, havingwoke somany times to feedthe teething baby, who himselffinally sleeps, his strangely strong armsraised in mysterious victory.
Martin makes the clearest example for the new American poetry of fatherhood, but he’s hardly alone. Brown’s “The Skin of His Skin” zeroes in on the biological connection between birth mothers and children: “Your aunts / and uncles will always know that you fell / out of her.” “A Body Overlapping Another” unfolds an anguished essay on gendered language:
Daddy—The way the word takes up the space in my mouth. . .What if father meant nipple and its spelling came to meanblessed or maybe invited, then what would it meanwhen someone said, Father of Water, or Water-Father?
What if not only the American family, but the Mississippi River, proverbial, powerful Father of Waters, could undergo a daddy shift?
Fatherhood is for these writers an alternative to forms of assertion, power, and independence that constitute traditional masculinity. To represent it well is to represent humility, as in Dobby Gibson’s characteristically seriocomic “What Follows Us Now Must Soon Enough Be Carried”:
I can’t drink beers at 3 p.m. very oftenor anytime soon live in San Franciscobecause I am trying to be a decent middle-class father,which requires living close to adequate schoolsand inexpensive consumer packaged goods.
Gibson’s three-page poem addresses other male poets who lead more adventurous lives: he has left their Romantic, manly tradition.
Other poetic fathers see themselves as joining a tradition, not necessarily a worthy one. In Dan Chiasson’s “The Flume” a paternal line is no better than an amusement park ride, “the future doing its usual loop-de-loop, / The sons all turning into fathers / Until the absentminded men take the ride down.” Chiasson’s own father left the family when he was small; much of Bicentennial (2014) reacts to his death. The disarming title poem presents Chiasson himself as a father: when he and his sons ride “an enormous Ferris wheel” the moments they share belong to
the childhood these childrenAre having, which is something I remindMy own children, all the time—I say,You are having your childhood now,And they say, yes, Daddy, and I say,Jokingly, but not really, how do you feel it is going,And they light up and they say, GreatWhich is just what I would have said as a kidIf someone—though who would it have been?—Had asked me this very same question.
Chiasson’s cadences echo Robert Pinsky’s An Explanation of America, addressed to Pinsky’s daughter; fatherhood itself is what Chiasson tries to explain. Even this tender, affecting poem insists on some unknowability, some cognitive distance, between father and kids. Like Gibson, like Martin, Chiasson sounds almost surprised by how humble, how powerless, fatherhood makes him.
But what about parents who don’t want to be men? What about trans parents?
Yet responsible fatherhood can also imply the exercise of power—not the toxic power of macho violence, but a kind of strength and self-control historically associated with men. “‘You will have to man up,’ we tell our sons. ‘Anyone can make a baby, but it takes a man to be a father.’ This is what they had told me all my life.” That’s Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me (2015), presenting at once some demands specific to African-American masculinity and a subtext many other fathers receive. To find attractive ways to be a father—attractive in writing, as well as in life—might also mean finding good ways to act like a man.
“My daddies have voices / like bachelors, like castigators & crooners,” begins Terrance Hayes’s “Ars Poetica #789” (from Hip Logic, 2002). “Each of my daddies asks, ‘Are you writing / another poem about me?’” Hayes has not often written about his own children directly, but he writes about fathers and fatherhood, men and masculinity, all the time. Hayes’s biological father, as many poems explain, was not the man who raised him; a key early poem, “The Same City,” honors the latter, James L. Hayes, who once rescued the teenage poet, the poet’s then-girlfriend, and her infant (not his child) when their car broke down in the rain. “If you ever tell my story,” Hayes concludes, “say that’s the year I was born.” Successful fatherhood, for Hayes, is successful effort at connection, responsibility felt but also consciously assumed. If for Martin and Gibson fatherhood represents a humbling abdication of male strength, for Hayes it is an extension of that strength: a way to give birth, as it were, fit for a man. Fatherhood feels unlike motherhood in the work of these poets not only because of biology, but also because of culture. Gendered expectations, reinforced from childhood into maturity, tell mothers and fathers that we ought to play different roles. The new poetry of fatherhood asks which of these roles to reject, which to accept, and which to reconfigure, and it shows how it feels to answer such questions.
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But what about parents who don’t want to be men? What about trans parents? What about me? Sedgwick’s quip about chalk and cheese is from Tendencies (1993), but it gets quoted in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), one of several fine new books of prose about trans or gender-variant parenthood; others include S. Bear Bergman’s Blood, Marriage, Wine, & Glitter and Jennifer Finney Boylan’s Stuck in the Middle with You, both from 2013. When Boylan began her gender transition her young son decided to call her “‘Maddy.’ That’s like, half Mommy, and half Daddy.” How would a poetry of maddyhood sound?
We are starting to find out. Most of the poets in the anthology Troubling the Line (2013) and in Vetch: A Magazine of Trans Poetry and Poetics (begun in 2015) do not write about parenthood. One exception is me. Another is Jordan Rice, who imagines in Constellarium (2016) that someone will see her transition as irresponsible, like being a deadbeat dad: “Say I am sorry. Say again I had no choice. / I lost one self to this other & killed our child’s father.” In Joy Ladin’s Coming to Life (2010), “The lost father smiles down / From the snapshot summer / Where his children can always find him.” Ladin would later reject such attitudes: “Unmourn, unmourn, unfather, unson,” she tells herself in The Definition of Joy (2012), asking with conscious awkwardness that her former self stop “being the ghost / in whose lap your kids—now mine—squirmed.” His kids are now hers, but can she draw, as a poet, on the habits and expectations that Zucker or Smith or Schiff are able to use? Can other writers—fathers, mothers, parents who are or have been both or neither—create new habits instead?
It’s no wonder that poets are still catching up to experiences for which the right language is new or does not yet exist. Those relatively new experiences include not just raising a family with trans and trans-friendly people, but also raising a family committed to truly equal—if not necessarily identical—parental roles. Those roles and that language cannot come too soon. We can work to create it, but we should also see what we already have. The poets above—the parents, the fathers, the mothers, from Mayer to Ladin to Hayes—have given a lot; they have given our century more reflections, more representations, of parenthood as work, as embarrassment, as humility, as responsibility, and indeed as connection, than we have ever had before.
June 17, 2016
9 Min read time