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More Child, Less Poetry

My Front Porch Republic friend James Matthew Wilson has a new book of poetry coming out in November, called The Violent And The Fallen [1]. I’ve seen the poems, and they’re terrific. I am not much of a reader of poetry, so anything good I have to say about anybody’s poems is faint praise, even if I mean it to be something much more forceful. That said, when I read these poems, I kept thinking, “Yes, that’s how it is!” They are the work of a serious, literate, gifted young poet, one whose Catholic faith shines through every line. I encourage you to order your copy now, because they print run will depend on advance orders.

Here’s one of the poems from the collection, about a father, his art, and his baby girl:


There’s little room left in this house for poetry,
Or in this world for any lasting language.
The managers and sales reps in the office
Who’ve ticketed their holidays are childless,
And looking toward five days of sun and liquor. They care for neither old books or a young daughter.

But somehow near me sleeps an infant daughter Who grows still to the cradle sounds of poetry, Eyelids dropped in the promise of sleep’s liquor. It charms her, yet she knows nothing of language; Nor did I, in a way, when I was childless, Preoccupied with filling another office

Than fatherhood. Now crowded in my office,
A crib and chest of pink drawers for my daughter Remind me that this empty room sat childless
Except for those ink-littered sheets of poetry,
When “child” was just a word and my child language, Which I would write and read at night with liquor.

Now she’s born, we have little time for liquor
And my desk’s crammed in a corner of the office, My papers lost beneath the brighter language
Of cardboard colored alphabets for my daughter.
I’m sure I wrote a different kind of poetry
When all my hours were filled though I was childless.

The TV news shows that, because they’re childless, Exercise, and avoid cigarettes and liquor,
Modern consumers live a life of poetry:
Controlled and self-absorbed as fits the office

Of sonnets or sestinas; their only daughter An iPod or such ephemeral techno-language.

I pray, my daughter, speak another language, That in the richest sense you not be childless, Your every act a kind of lasting daughter
More beautiful than bored clerks at their liquor. Though they find no room for it at the office, May you crowd your small corridors with poetry.

My daughter’s teething, needs her gums rubbed with liquor, Which stops my language, calls me from my office.
I go. May I have more of this child, less poetry.

— James Matthew Wilson

“… when I was childless, Preoccupied with filling another office”. Yes. “Another office/Than fatherhood.” I love how the poem turns on his office, as in the room at home where he works, having been taken over by the new baby, who makes him realize that his office (in the sense of “station in life”) he occupies as a father is superior to the office where he labors. That’s how it is! And so beautifully expressed.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "More Child, Less Poetry"

#1 Comment By Ari Schulman On August 21, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

“Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden

#2 Comment By Everhopeful On August 21, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

I think this poem is a sestina, a piece where each line concludes with one of six words. The way it appears on the webpage as I see it obscures that fact. Can you rearrange the poem so it can be read as it’s meant to be?

#3 Comment By thomas tucker On August 21, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

That is very nice. Lovely, in fact. But I have a question that speaks more of my ignorance than it does anything else. What makes this “poetry,” other than the breakup of it into stanzas? If it were written out as paragraphs, wouldn’t it work the same?

#4 Comment By Angela On August 21, 2013 @ 1:22 pm

Thanks for posting this. James is an old friend, and hearing his voice makes this doubly beautiful.

#5 Comment By Joe Magarac On August 21, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

I have loved “Those Winter Sundays” since I read it in grade school. And I think “a Prayer for Livia Grace” is pretty great, too: especially in that I am a father who works in an office.

But at the end of the day, I’m with Thomas Tucker: it’s not poetry unless it rhymes. “Piers Plowman” is the exception that proves the rule.

#6 Comment By Turmarion On August 21, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

Joe, Piers Plowman is written in [2], the norm for Old English, as well as Old German and Old Norse, and also the norm until the last phase of Middle English. It’s not rhymed, but it’s highly structured.

Most unrhymed verse written between the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries or so and the late 19th Century was blank verse (iambic pentameter meter), which is also highly structured. A good example is Willam Cullen Bryant’s well-known “ [3]“.

Modern free verse (of which the above is an example) is a different thing, which came to prominence in the early 20th Century. I’ll leave debates on the merits of free verse to others.

#7 Comment By RB On August 21, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

I love this.

#8 Comment By Tom B On August 21, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

It does rhyme. It is a sestina.

#9 Comment By Turmarion On August 21, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

TomB, I missed that it was a [4]; but sestinas don’t quite “rhyme” in the usual sense. There is a complicated sequence in which end words are repeated at certain intervals; and of course a word rhymes with itself, technically; but that’s not rhyming in the conventional sense we usually think of.

#10 Comment By Tom B On August 21, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

It is not free verse. It is in iambic pentameter.

#11 Comment By Gromaticus On August 21, 2013 @ 8:06 pm

“What makes this “poetry,” other than the breakup of it into stanzas?”


#12 Comment By Annie Finch On September 26, 2013 @ 8:39 am

Yes, this sestina is in iambic pentameter, but a very loose, rough, subtle iambic pentameter– so even if the linebreaks were corrected in the layout (linebreaks should be where the capitalized words are), the meter could be easy to miss.