poem index

Tended Strength: Gifts of Poetry for Fathers


June 12, 2008
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Forget the striped tie and Old Spice this year, and thank your father by sharing a collection of poetry with him instead. Make a gift of your own favorite book of poems, or consider one of these ten collections, each of which explores the myriad confusions, revelations, and entanglements of being a man, illuminating the relationships between fathers and children with humor and emotion, honesty and depth. Of course, if your father simply must have his neckwear, then use that striped tie for a bow around one of these books of poetry:

Yusef Komunyakaa
Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems

This collection of new and previously unpublished poems represents twenty years of Komunyakaa's work. He carefully tempers his poems with elements of biography, myth, and politics, guiding the reader through landscapes equal in beauty and violence. The rhythmically hypnotic quality of his work is perhaps most striking in the poems of Dien Cai Dau, as Komunyakaa presents the harsh realities of the Vietnam War. The syncopation of his poetry masterfully underscores and alleviates the emotional weight of his subject matter, yet Komunyakaa never shies away from larger psychological and emotional issues, as when the speaker of "Songs for My Father" describes a final visit with his father: "I never knew / We looked so much like each other...You were skinny, bony, but strong enough to try / Swaggering through that celestial door."

James Dickey
The Selected Poems

Most famous for his novel Deliverance, Dickey wrote powerfully imaginative poems that move from nature myths to violent southern gothics. The Selected Poems captures the best examples of his broad range, including "For The Last Wolverine," "The Firebombing," "The Sheep Child," and "The Strength of Fields," which he read at the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter, and in which he pleads: "Lord, let me shake / With purpose. Wild hope can always spring / From tended strength. Everything is in that. / That and nothing but kindness."

Edward Hirsch
Special Orders

Hirsch's seventh collection of poetry begins with a poem that reads as a prayer for the impossible. It begins: "Give me back my father walking the halls / of Wertheimer Box and Paper Company / with sawdust clinging to his shoes." Throughout this personal and tightly crafted collection, the poems grapple with the difficult moments of defining oneself and becoming undone with doubt and love. That first poem ends: "Whatever you had that never fit, / whatever else you needed, believe me, // my father, who wanted your business, / would squat down at your side / and sketch you a container for it." In this collection, Hirsch continues his father's work, creating homes for the kinds of memories that are difficult to store and that are worth holding on to.

Robert Hayden
Collected Poems

This long overdue collection of Hayden's work exemplifies a poet working at the top of his form. Hayden's graceful yet unadorned style gives rise to moments of pure beauty and bare truth. His poems deal with race, religion, historical figures, and perhaps most notably, familial bonds, as his famous poem "Those Winter Sundays" recalls how "Sundays too my father got up early" and "in the weekday weather made / banked fires blaze. Nobody ever thanked him."

Li-Young Lee
Book of My Nights

"When my son lays his head in my lap, I wonder: / Do his father's kisses keep his father's worries / from becoming his?" writes Li-Young Lee, who fled Indonesia with his family as a young boy before coming to the U.S. The poems that comprise Book of My Nights are unguarded and urgent, spoken in the common language of private conversation. A poet of gentle sentiments and unique gifts, Lee asks the unanswerable questions: "What have I done with my God?"

Kenneth Koch
Kenneth Koch: Selected Poems

One of the central figures of the New York School of poetry, Koch wrote an irreverent, boisterous, and ultimately American brand of poem. Edited and introduced by Ron Padgett, this collection draws material from Koch's sizable bibliography to create, as Padgett asserts, a sense of the poet's trajectory from a writer of "rambunctious literary fireworks" to one of "a moving lyricism." For all his transformation, however, Koch remained dedicated to delineating the transience of relationships to oneself and others, seeking optimism there, as he writes in "To My Father's Business," "The secretaries clicked / Their Smith Coronas closed at five p.m. / And took the streetcars to Kentucky then / And I left too."

James Wright
Selected Poems

"What did James Wright want from poetry? He wanted truth-telling and passion," writes Robert Bly in the introduction to Wright's Selected Poems. Thoughtfully edited by Bly and the poet's widow, Anne Wright, this volume is a powerful crystallization of Wright's long and celebrated career, containing many of his best-loved lyrics such as "A Blessing," "Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry, Ohio," and "The Minneapolis Poem." Among Wright's themes of America's loneliness and desolation, readers will find a poet with an unbroken, if tortured, sense of piety and place: "Tonight I watch my father's hair, / As he sits dreaming near his stove. / Knowing my feather of despair, / He sent me an owl's plume for love, / Lest I not know / so I've come home."

Pablo Neruda
The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems

This bilingual edition collects fifty of Neruda's poems in translations by eight different writers, including Forrest Gander, Robert Hass, and Stephen Mitchell, and serves as an excellent introduction to one of Latin America's greatest poets. The collection roundly captures what Neruda described in his essay, "On Impure Poetry," as "a poetry as impure as old clothes, as a body with its foodstains and its shame, with wrinkles, observations, dreams, wakefulness, prophesies, declarations of love and hate, stupidities, shocks, idylls, political beliefs, negations, doubts, affirmations, and taxes."

Philip Larkin
Collected Poems

Containing all of Larkin's poems written between 1946 and his death in 1985, this definitive collection is full of the acerbic wit and unapologetic observations that made Larkin one of the greatest English poets of the 20th century. Make a gift of this sharp and memorable work and be grateful that your father did not take Larkin's advice from his infamous poem "This be the Verse," which closes with the lines: "Get out as early as you can, / And don't have any kids yourself."

Martín Espada
Alabanza: New and Selected Poems 1982-2002

Peopled with farm workers, fish peddlers, passengers, and bullies, Alabanza collects twenty years of poems in praise of the unsung spirit and the resilience of human dignity. Brooklyn native Espada ties political humor to lyrical expression in poems with titles like "Do Not Put Dead Monkeys in the Freezer" and "The Florida Citrus Growers Association Responds to a Proposed Law Requiring Handwashing Facilities in the Fields."