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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Daddy Babies

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?


David Graham said...

One of my most prominent Daddy Babies was a Daddy Mommy--Denise Levertov. My first "real" poetic love, after I outgrew Richard Brautigan. . . . I still admire her, but honestly don't re-read much. And over time, her utter lack of humor has been increasingly a problem for me.

Bly's a big Daddy Baby for me, too, along with most of his posse of the 1960s--James Wright, Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall, et al.

And hey, thanks for the link to my essay!

Martha Silano said...

Hi David,

Wow, Levertov. Never, ever would have guessed it! I read her too as a young-in, and Wright was a fav a little later on for me, too. And Hall, and Kinnell -- tho interestingly these are not the fellows whose new books I run out to buy (though I did enjoy Kinnell's recently-released collected).

You're welcome on posting your essay; it does the best job w the Ultra-Talk genre than any other I've been able to find.

David Graham said...

Later on, in grad school, a big Daddy Mommy for me was Marianne Moore. I'm guessing that *no one* has ever linked my style with hers. . . .

But I suppose that it's common to admire greatly & be inspired by poets one is not influenced by, stylistically.
With Moore I think I can see some influence, but probably only I can. Mostly to do with handling of syntax--something I also go regularly to Robert Frost for.

jeannine said...

E.E. Cummings, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent...there are a lot. Good topic.
PS I love semi-colons, and I will use them forever! Mwuahahhaaha (evil laughter...)

Maggie May Ethridge said...

oh what a funny phrase!

hmmm let's see.

my first books of poetry were Robert Frost, Emily Dickenson..Pablo Neruda and Edna St Millay.

i have to say i have 'rediscovered' ED. she is great in a way i just could not appreciate when i read her in my teens.

Martha Silano said...


I spent a lot of time cuddled up w Moore's collected poems when I was in grad school. Sometimes I can sound very much like her (or at least it feels that way to me), though to others I'm sure it's pretty well disguised. I also forgot Adrienne Rich. I read her as as a teen.

Martha Silano said...

Hi Jeannine,

Maybe I would have guessed Edna for you, but not Sandburg or e.e.! Long live the semi-colon.

Martha Silano said...

It sounds like you started in a very good place w those writers.

I didn't mention Dickinson as a daddy baby b/c I figure you can hear her echoes in my work (and b/c I still love her and read her); same goes w Plath and Sexton.

Andrew Shields said...

Merwin is someone I read a lot in the eighties, but don't read much anymore. And Creeley. I kept reading Merwin until around 2000, when his verse novel "The Folding Cliffs" was rendered nearly unreadable by his insistence on still not using punctuation in a 300-page poem! Creeley I still turn to, but only little bits now and then, and always the same bits.

Levertov was my teacher at Stanford; I absorbed her work thoroughly. And she had the most wonderful laugh! So I'm surprised at the idea that she has no sense of humor. But I have to admit I do not turn to her work much anymore either (although I've been pondering doing a re-read of a bunch of it, and wondering why nobody has done a Collected yet).

Maggie May said...

please excuse my spelling! i'm entirely self taught when it comes to literature (minus high school) and sometimes my spelling and or pronunciation reflects the casual way i have drunk in poets and novels over the years:) i only this year learned how to pronounce Proust!-- which still doesn't sound right when i say it...

Martha Silano said...


I have also learned a great deal from Merwin and Levertov. Levertov's "O Taste and See" is my favorite of her books . . . not at all somber, and w a good bit of humor.

Andrew Shields said...

That's a good way to put it: there's a lot to learn from Merwin and Levertov!

David Graham said...

Fascinating discussion. I need to pull my dusty Levertov books off the shelf, obviously, but in the meantime, could someone point me to a few of her *humorous* poems? I honestly can't recall a one.

Martha Silano said...

Okay, Levertov and humor. Maybe I went too far. I am thinking of her line "the joyfulness of joy" in a poem in O Taste and See. Scratch direct, full- on humor, but replace with playfulness with language, refreshing earnestness, and an utter lack of irony.

Martha Silano said...

Andrew: did my "a lot to learn" come off as a put down? I meant that comment sincerely, not snidely.

I take from Merwin his dreaminess, his brushing elbows w the best of the surrealists (as in "Night of the Shirts," my favorite poem of his, and one of my all-time favorite poems). From Levertov, the freedom to, well, be earnest, to wax about joy (I have a poem titled "Ode to Joy," though it's under lock and key . . .), to love Mt. Rainier (though let's be honest her last poems were quite too religious and ethereal for me . . . and she was WAY preachy about how MFA programs sucked while at the same time teaching in one (UW).

Andrew Shields said...

No, Martha, I agree with you: there is a lot to learn from Merwin and Levertov. From Merwin, an openness of imagery, as your points suggest; from Levertov, for me, a formal flexibility (though I am not sure she would have liked how traditionally formal my poems have become with time) and a lexical rigor (though perhaps that came through from classes with her).

I'm surprised she was down on MFA programs, since her workshops at Stanford seem to me in retrospect to be the kind of course that completely justifies the idea of teaching creative writing!

Martha Silano said...


You = eloquent; me = inarticulate, at best. I'm referring to your characterization of Merwin's and Levertov's styles. "Lexical rigor"--very apt way to put it, and it sounds good, too. I have (or had) a wonderful cassette of Levertov reading from the Olga Poems (and a whole lot of others from those earlier days); I played that tape so many times I finally broke it. I could tell she worked very hard to find the right word. Her poems make beautiful sounds and add up to perfect sense.

I didn't take a class w her, but I had friends who did (at UW), and they said she often talked about how she didn't really like the whole notion of the MFA. I heard her read just before she passed away, and she took some time to talk about that, so I did hear it first hand.