These poems provide a heartfelt chronicle of a father-daughter relationship in the final phases of a parent’s life. The primary mode of the manuscript is one I would describe using the slightly pretentious term impending elegy: the loved-one has not yet died, at least in the present tense of the poems, but the work of remembering them is already beginning. This creates a nice balance between direct observation of a still-living but waning presence and the speaker’s remembered experience of their father in younger days. We need that point of contrast because without the memories, the father would lack a crucial human element, yet without the present-day depiction of the speaker’s caring responsibilities and the father’s aging body, the memories might seem merely sentimental. It’s that push and pull – the awareness of mortality and passing time – that generates emotion and interest in the poems.
Expecting ‘interest’ in poems that are clearly deeply meaningful and humane might seem presumptuous, but this is precisely what you ask about in your covering note, so I want to address the matter openly. You put the question more plainly than I would when you say, ‘really I want to know whether these poems stand any chance of being read and enjoyed by others, or whether they’re the sort of thing that should be read at the funeral and then kept in the family as a keepsake’. As I say, that’s perhaps too stark a way to frame the matter, but I think you’re asking the right sort of questions.
I can’t ultimately offer any guarantees about your work finding a wider readership, but I do think I can say, hand on heart, that these poems stand a fair chance of ‘being read and enjoyed by others’. I read them, for a start, and was moved. I do think that there are things you could do to improve them, though, and to make them sing for an audience that has no personal connection to your father. (Again, I feel encouraged to make this identification by your covering note, which is candid about the fact that the work is drawn from life.)
In the feedback on individual poems that follows, several recurring themes will crop up. I’ll run through them here briefly in overview, as I’ll probably dip in and out of them in my readings of the poems.
1. Complexity of character. Occasionally your portrait of your father can feel slightly one-dimensional. He is depicted as a gentle, trustworthy and taciturn man – the last of a dying breed. I absolutely believe that this is a faithful account, but it would be good to hear a little about more difficult or complicated aspects of his character.
2. Language. A catch-all term, but there are times when I wanted the language to be more fresh and unexpected.
3. Form. I’d urge you to experiment with more structured forms. At present, the stanzas are fairly long and uneven, which can certainly work (look at the poetry of Sharon Olds, for instance), but it runs the risk of seeming a little scrappy and uncrafted, especially when combined with a nostalgic tone.
I’ll try to illustrate what I mean with these points by picking some representative examples in the next section of the report.
This is a poem that works nicely with the counterpoint between past and present. We start with a poignant depiction of the father’s present-day hands that opens out onto a memory:
The veins are almost bigger than his wrists.
He waves at me so weakly as I walk into the room
and trembles as he reaches for my hand
which used to fit in his just like an acorn in its shell.
I’m persuaded by every line in this opening stanza. There’s an appealing quality of understatement to the opening line, which makes a vivid and sad comparison while steering clear of hyperbole. The middle two lines are simple but effective, and the simile of the fourth feels tender and well-judged. Again, there’s a type of restraint at work, as we expect the speaker to reach for a larger object to evoke the father’s larger hands in days gone by. An ‘acorn in its shell’ suggests that he was never a massive or physically imposing person – just a father who had the strength to offer security and reassurance. The acorn image also hints at the idea of the speaker growing up and blossoming under the father’s care, without hitting us over the head with it. Good stuff.
Stanzas two and three are also effective, though I’d suggest that the litany of description goes on a couple of lines too long. Once the ‘blotchy liver spots’ have been evoked in addition to the protuberant veins, the elderly hand has been sketched in all the detail we really need. Those ‘brittle fingernails’ and ‘wrinkled palms’ gild the lily, with the build-up of two-syllable adjectives (blotchy, brittle, wrinkled) taking the poem into the realm of a detached study rather than the deeply felt, primary experience that it obviously is. Trust to that power of understatement that you summoned in the opening stanza and pare things back.
Despite suggesting a few cuts, I would urge you to stick with a regular stanza shape. Working within these four-line boundaries highlights the virtues of your work (simplicity, emotion, truthfulness) and guards against some of the more unfocused writing that we find in the long, prosy stanzas of ‘Waking with the Sun’ and ‘While I Have You’. There’s even an opportunity to have your cake and eat it by keeping the regularity of set stanza lengths while introducing elements of ambiguity and tension to the language with different line breaks. The opening, for instance, could be rewritten as a six-line stanza with slightly shorter lines that break in less familiar places:
The veins are almost bigger
than his wrists. He waves at me
so weakly as I walk into the room
and trembles as he reaches
for my hand, which used to fit
in his just like an acorn in its shell.
That’s something for you to consider, anyway, if the suggestion feels natural and right, as a similar process could be adopted throughout the poem.
Another place where I’d like to introduce more ambiguity and tension is the reminiscence about the father’s former hands that occupies stanzas four and five. There’s nothing much wrong with the quality of the writing, as such; I just think it drifts into flattening his character slightly.
I remember how those hands would comb my hair
with perfect firmness so the knots would come out straight.
How they were chapped and rough from working all the time
though he’d never touch you roughly in his life.
And so on. This is a lovely tribute to someone who was clearly a lovely man. It is, though, I’m afraid, a classic example where the demands of writing a poem for a eulogy are different from the demands of writing a poem for a wider audience. The wider audience won’t be invested in this person, so the challenge is to write something that grabs their interest regardless. Here, I’m sorry to say, you probably do need to bring in a bit more complexity and contrast to make the father come alive for that outside reader. Hands offer such a brilliant opportunity to explore the nuances of character, because they’ll be involved in the majority of actions a person undertakes throughout their life – the good and the not so good. I’m certainly not suggesting you should falsify your father’s memory (by making him a violent man, for instance). I’m just wondering whether there are any more mixed feelings you could tap into while keeping the basic truth of the conceit.
This is a poem that dwells more on the father’s past life, and the world of manual work that gave him those ‘chapped and rough’ hands, though there are still nice touches of impending elegy. The glimpse of the hospital bedside in the final stanza, where all the noise and activity of the factory floor comes to a silent halt, is movingly handled. I especially like the line where you invoke ‘the ward-hushed quietness’ of the room. That adjective is a fascinating coinage that shows your poetic imagination in full flight, bringing qualities of compression and surprise to the poem’s language.
The passage I’d like to focus on is more uneven. It comes around the middle of the first long stanza and it describes the factory where your father used to work:
This is where he’d clock in every day
with his tupperware filled with sandwiches, his box of fags.
He took his overalls from off the peg
and turned into the man he was to men I never met.
Not Dad or Michael now, but good old Mick.
A right old laugh, the lad who’d spot you
a fiver if you needed, if you asked.
I think about the jokes he told but never brought back home.
The conveyor belt whirred all morning
as he shouted to be heard.
There’s lots of fascinating detail here, and I like how this masculine factory environment is imagined through the eyes of a female child who never saw it. That word ‘never’ crops up in two lines that flicker with energy and poetic interest, evoking a whole hidden universe: ‘and turned into the man he was to men I never met’ and ‘I think about the jokes he told but never brought back home’. The first of these lines is the real jewel, being full of rich and knotty paradoxes, conveyed through a twisty syntax.
I want the rest of this passage to reach that pinnacle, but I’m afraid it falls a little short. The form is a prime example of you breaking lines in the most obvious place, usually to separate the two parts (or clauses) of a compound sentence. It looks quite ramshackle on the page, without enough of the propulsive music that can make uneven, digressive poems tick. It feels rather like chopped up prose, so I just wonder whether you could elevate the language somehow.
The three lines which sum your father up in the eyes of his colleagues fall into that trap of simplifying his character. You even repeat the word ‘old’ in two descriptions that are right next to each other (‘good old Mick’ and ‘A right old laugh’). The staccato sentences are a nice rhythmic contrast but they turn your father into a solid bloke without much depth. The real interest in this poem comes in that tension between the father at home, who rarely reveals his sense of humour, and Mick at work, who’s funny and one of the lads. Maybe there’s an interesting absence to be explored there? It’s a fascinating premise for a poem, so just needs a little work.
By the end of reading this manuscript I felt like I’d got to know your father. That’s surely a mark of success for what you set out to achieve: whatever else happens with this material, you have paid tribute to a fine man. To add to this, there are numerous moments throughout the manuscript where I can see genuine poetic quality, alongside several poems that hang together as complete pieces (‘Setting Sun’ and ‘The Nurse’, in particular). They are traditional and emotive but don’t claim to be anything else. They have a haunting quality that lingers in the imagination.
To come back to your question about whether these poems can reach a wider audience, I would again say that, yes, they could – with the caveat that this is far from guaranteed, so you might need to have an honest discussion with yourself first about what your hopes are. Poetry is a vital resource for many people beyond the relative few who succeed in getting published, and I trust that these poems will live on among those who knew and loved your father. So it’s worth asking yourself what further validation or pleasure you would receive from knowing that they were in wider circulation – a long-term process that would likely involve a fair amount of rejection along the way (as any published poet will tell you!).
If you want to go on that journey, then I would steer you to those three areas where I think the writing could be strengthened: complexity of character, language, and form. These are the sorts of things readers and poetry lovers will care about, and they are all within your grasp. In terms of character, I’d urge you to dig into that gap between the public and private versions of your father. Did his honesty ever lead to hurt feelings in the family? Was there perhaps a withholding aspect to that quietness, as there was for other working-class men of the era? I have no idea what the reality is, but nobody’s a saint and poetry thrives in complex, undecided emotional terrain.
With language, I’m afraid there’s no simple catch-all advice I can give. It might come down to finding a less familiar simile than ‘eyes dark as coal’, or avoiding repetitive sentence structures. But as a general rule, every line in a poem should feel important and fresh because of the words themselves; they shouldn’t just be a means of conveying information or memories.
My advice on form can be a little more direct. Overall, I would try to make the lines more regular and musical. In particular I think you could make line breaks do more work for you. You often break your line after a comma or full stop, so introducing more complex forms of enjambment could add to the essential tension of the writing, and steer it away from the territory of prose. Look at what I did with the opening stanza of ‘Smaller Hands’ for an example.
Tension and complexity is the heartbeat of great poetry and, as I’ve said, it is there to be explored in your material. Moreover, the best parts of your writing show that you can make the leap into writing this way regularly, especially if you continue to read a range of contemporary poetry and look out for trusted readers who can help you to make the key tweaks and improvements that any draft poem needs. Best of luck, and happy writing!