Daughters in Poetry
There are far too few daughters in poetry. They turn up surprisingly rarely in nineteenth century poems, considering how they crowded into the available fictional equivalents. So it's a relief to start the twentieth century with this big, ornate and controversial poem by William Butler Yeats. In a way it was overdue. He married late. He was well on the way to being sixty when he wrote this poem for his only daughter Ann.
What exactly is it he wants for her? What is it he wants to keep her away from? If a wealthy marriage and Irish politics are the first and second answers here, they still can't shadow or trivialize the beautiful context of the piece. As a complex statement about patriarchy, the poem falters. But as an image of a father on a wild Atlantic night in the west of Ireland, trying to put words between his child and danger, it is memorable. And as an image-system of coastal thrushes, poisoned wells and the struggle against hatred it remains an absolutely compelling poem.
The absence of daughters in earlier poems raises an interesting question. Does a sudden, new and permitted subject matter--or gradually sudden as in this case--discover the poem, or the other way around? Probably the first. Certainly, the idea of daughters--the down-to-earth and vast register of human feeling compressed into the very word--has opened up a wonderful landscape of tone and intimacy and bold subversions in recent poetry, some of which I've tried to include here.
To start with, there's "Morning Song" by Plath. No sonorous authority here. Not only does this first, joyful birth of her daughter Freida in 1960, find Plath in good heart and fine voice. But this is a place where she tries out the anti-narrative she would perfect in later poems like "Balloons." The language is startling and exact. The baby's mouth is as clean as a cat's. The baby is at first a plump, ticking watch but then quickly lets out a bald cry which turns her into a statue, which makes emotion a museum and motherhood a spectatorship. And suddenly, skillfully, the poem has darkened.
Are daughters part of the domestic subject matter which is so often mistaken and devalued in talk about poetry? I would hope so. And the intimacy and grace of Richard Wilbur's beautiful poem for his writer-daughter shows how skillfully he blends those inward and indoor elements: the trapped starling and the old authorities of father versus daughter shimmering and dissolving as one writer listens for the emergence of another.
If Wilbur's poem is narrative, Derek Mahon's is all music. His daughter and her "difficult art" are beautifully lost in the musical effect of memory and regret. But Rita Dove breaks back into narrative in this fascinating poem, "The Bistro Styx," of the unresolved history between a mother and daughter, the mythic loss that takes place in the ordinary surroundings of a meal out being worked out in witty dialogue and implied grief.
I suppose it was something of that tension between myth and ordinariness that drew me into the Pomegranate, with its signature of the Ceres and Persephone myth: the loss of the child, the innovation of the seasons. And for me, the actual, practical experience of a daughter growing up. One of the true human legends.
But legends can darken. Daughters can not only grow up, but away. And then this subject matter, released into poetry, needs to be discovered again with age-old strategies of wit and elegy.
Hold it up to the light against Yeats's poem and Tom Lux's knock-about, turn-on-a-sixpence-syntax just seems wonderful, elegant and funny, until--as Berryman said of Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts"--"suddenly you want to weep."
Jill Bialosky goes a step further in this extract from her strong, eloquent sequence "Fathers in the Snow." The daughter is not just spoken to or about here. She speaks. This is a subversive piece. There are no legends allowed to intrude on the dark, unswerving tone of pain and disruption. One of the interesting things about poetry is that territory discovered by tone, strategy and poetic boldness stays on the map forever.
But finally, I have to admit my own attraction to the lyric moment lurking in this subject. And it seems to me realized in this superb poem by Nan Cohen, a recent Stegner Fellow and strongly emerging young poet who was in my workshop at Stanford. Stumbling on this poem there was like stubbing my toe on a diamond. Here in these plain, bold cadences the subject matter is herded into accurate language and steered back to the lyric moment which, I think--and I may be prejudiced--is always lurking in it.