My father was a quiet man. I am told that he grew up fairly affable, good-natured, certainly no prankster but enjoyable to be around. Eleven months in Southeast Asia in 1966 changed that. The man I knew was slow to speak about anything, as if he knew how little import it actually carried in relation to the world around us. My brother and I would scream, fight, punch, and he would be unmoved. Our mother would come to seperate us, glaring at my father, who sat, stone-like, in his recliner.
He seldom laughed at anything. Seldom exposed any emotion at all, save the set jaw whenever a war movie stayed on the television too long. They were strictly verboten, for reasons my mother would explain to us quietly after my father had raged out of the room.
But, for all his seeming lack of emotion, my father loved poetry. He would quote Byron, Service, Rimbaud, and Auden.I do not know where his love for poetry came from; he was the son of a pipefitter and dropped out of school in the tenth grade. He wasn’t what you’d think of as a “poetry guy.” He’d be twenty feet in the air, roofing, spouting The Ballad of Salvation Bill by Robert Service, the so called “Bard of the Yukon,” his favorite poem. A funny, silly poem, my father would recite it with gusto, finish, and go back to inscrutable silence. You never knew when the spirit would move him to burst, suddenly, into The Drunken Boat.
For most of my life I did not understand this part of my father’s attempt to communicate. I could not see how Robert Frost could teach me who he was, how the poetry so far removed from West Texas could color in details about who dad was and how he handled the world. Or how he taught us.
Because the poetry he chose was carefully curated to teach us. We didn’t know it. How could we? But he taught us, nevertheless. It wasn’t an accident that when trouble or heartbreak overtook us, he would give a moving version of Don’t Quit. When we were full of ourselves and arrogant, suddenly, somewhere in the house, The Wreck of the Hesperus.
The power of poetry, for me, then, is the ability to teach and transmit emotions using our human voices. Poetry allows the listener and the speaker and the poet to communicate, share, learn. These are human passions, after all, more than lust or greed or God: we want to connect. Poetry is the wiring that allows us to hear those messages though they come from distant times, places, or fathers.