"It doesn't matter who my father was," Anne Sexton once wrote, "it matters who I remember he was." That memory--of the enormous, perhaps protective, perhaps absent, often mythic man--looms large in poems about fathers. In Mark Irwin's "My Father's Hat," for example, the father seems so big that his closet is like "a forest, wind hymning/ through pines." Or in the famous Sylvia Plath poem "Daddy," the father exerts such a massive influence that Plath imagines that even one of his toes must be "big as a Frisco seal," his head meanwhile dipping "in the freakish Atlantic," an image of a father so huge his body spans an entire continent.
Stanley Kunitz's father committed suicide before the poet was born, and yet the father's absence is still felt 64 years later: "I could hear him thumping," Kunitz wrote in "The Portrait."
Poems about fathers can be poems about work, employment, "bringing home the bacon," or if not bacon, then gum, as in the Suzanne Rancourt poem "Whose Mouth Do I Speak With." Robert Hayden's poem "Those Winter Sundays" recalls a father's thankless labor in the "blueblack cold." And William Jay Smith's poem "American Primitive" reimagines the wonder with which a child gazed upon his father going to work:
Look at him there in his stovepipe hat,
His high-top shoes, and his handsome collar;
Only my Daddy could look like that,
And I love my Daddy like he loves his Dollar.
There's also a comic element to fatherhood. As Robert Pinsky said, "From Polonius to Homer Simpson, fatherhood has sometimes been associated with comedy. Like all notions of dignity, fatherhood, in its dignity, invites the banana peel fall of satire." A good example of this is the William Carlos Williams poem "Dance Russe," where a father, allowed a moment of privacy as everyone else in the house sleeps, dances grotesquely, naked, in front of a mirror, eventually concluding:
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?
Finally, many poets have used poetry as a way to pay tribute to their fathers, to mourn them, or to plead with them through time. In Li-Young Lee's "The Gift," the speaker, while helping his wife remove a splinter, recalls the time his father did the same for him:
And I did not lift up my wound and cry...
I did what a child does
when he's given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
For poems about fathers and fatherhood, consider the following:
Poem 39 in Time by Yehuda Amichai
"My Father's Wedding" by Robert Bly
"The Trestle" by Raymond Carver
"my father moved through dooms of love" by E. E. Cummings
"Inventing Father in Las Vegas" by Lynn Emanuel
"Father Outside" by Nick Flynn and Josh Neufeld
"Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden
"Follower" by Seamus Heaney
"My Father's Hat" by Mark Irwin
"Men at Forty" by Donald Justice
"Memories of My Father" by Galway Kinnell
"The Idea of Ancestry" by Etheridge Knight
"The Portrait" by Stanley Kunitz
"My Father's Neckties" by Maxine Kumin
"The Gift" by Li-Young Lee
"My Father on His Shield" by Walt McDonald
"Parents" by William Meredith
"Yesterday" by W. S. Merwin
"Descriptions of Heaven and Hell" by Mark Jarman
"Daddy" by Sylvia Plath
"Whose Mouth Do I Speak With" by Suzanne Rancourt
"Sometimes a Man Stands Up During Supper" by Rainer Maria Rilke
"Tea for my Father" by Michael Hofmann
"My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke
"Working Late" by Louis Simpson
"Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas
"The Distant Footsteps" by César Vallejo
"Dance Russe" by William Carlos Williams
"On Fire" by Susan Wood