Barbara Hamby used this term at the Ultra-Talk panel I had the pleasure of attending at this year's AWP. "Daddy babies" are poets with whom you cut your poetic teeth on but whom you rarely read or associate yourself with in the present: you cherish the baby, but you've long-ago parted ways with the daddy.
Case in point for moi: Robert Bly. I still enjoy and appreciate Bly's work, but I rarely mention him as a great influence. My connection to him goes back to high school, when I saw him in person at Rutgers University. Soon after I memorized "Surprised by Evening," a poem that, over the years, has very much stayed with me--I think about its images, its craft, and its message almost daily--especially now as my own quiet waters are starting to rise:
Surprised by Evening
There is unknown dust that is near us
Waves breaking on shores just over the hill
Trees full of birds that we have never seen
Nets drawn with dark fish.
The evening arrives; we look up and it is there
It has come through the nets of the stars
Through the tissues of the grass
Walking quietly over the asylums of the waters.
The day shall never end we think:
We have hair that seemed born for the daylight;
But at last the quiet waters of the night will rise
And our skin shall see far off as it does under water.
Since I don't need to read this poem on the page anymore (one of the many perks of memorization!), typing it up for you know I'm surprised by his use of semi-colons. I mean, this is a poem that's otherwise pretty much decided it doesn't need to be punctuated. I tell my students that when it comes to punctuation in a poem, either use it correctly and completely or not at all (but never something in between). But lookie here! Bly is breaking one of my cardinal rules (leaving out commas willy nilly). And those semi-colons! Didn't Richard Hugo ban those in The Triggering Town?
Punctuation aside, I think I'm continually drawn to, astonished by, and enamored of this poem because it is telling us that even in youth there are signs of old age all around us ("unknown dust" = dust to dust), along with all the wonder, danger, and mystery. Listen to that line "Nets drawn with dark fish": four of the five words are stressed. NETS DRAWN with DARK FISH. Pound, pound, pound, pound. Bly is driving home the point that the nets are heavy with dark fish--another clue to the inevitable realization that though we thought we'd always be young, in fact there's something else in store for us. But instead of handing us a bouquet of cliches, he writes "We had hair that seemed born for the daylight." Oh, how that line kills me--I repeat it to myself often. You thought you'd be young forever, didn't you? Fat chance!
But somehow Bly's notion of what death will be like is so very comforting. Our skin shall see far off! How bad can that be, really? I mean, one could do worse . . .
Who are some of my other daddy babies? Gary Snyder. William Stafford. Sharon Olds. Stephen Dunn. A.R. Ammons. Allen Ginsberg. Jack Spicer. Gregory Corso. I mean, I had a love affair with the Beats.
Okay, so who are your daddy babies? Poets that influenced you, that had a big say in your development, but whom you don't read or talk about much in the present?
Our Books of the Dead
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