Going to the dogs on Father’s Day

If you want sentimental and uplifting poetry for Father’s Day, head to the drugstore for a greeting card. This post is geared towards those with complicated, difficult, or dead dads.  No disrespect to fathers: mine happens to be all three (complicated, difficult, dead), and still I count myself a fortunate daughter. Looking clearly at the thornier parts of a person doesn’t mean you don’t love them, as the poems that follow demonstrate. Loving the whole person, warts and all, can lead, over time, to marveling at and admiring the goodness that exists against all odds and through great force of character.


Let’s begin with Robert Bly’s “Prayer For My Father.” I left it at an entrance to a park that features a towering phallic statue (you can see it in the background).



Prayer For My Father

by Robert Bly


Your head is still

restless, rolling

east and west.

That body in you

insisting on living

is the old hawk

for whom the world


If I am not

with you when you die,

that is just.


It is all right.

That part of you cleaned

my bones more

than once. But I

will meet you

in the young hawk

whom I see

inside both

you and me; he

will guide

you to the Lord of Night,

who will give you

the tenderness

you wanted here.


Talk about a complicated relationship. His father seems angry and hard—the old man shakes his head NO at the beginning of the poem; lying on his deathbed, he is “insisting on living”; in the distant past he had done harm to his son, more than once. But none of that matters. The son sees past the hardness and anger to behold a man deprived of the kind of love that might have made life easier. The last lines speak of forgiveness and hope:



will guide

you to the Lord of Night,

who will give you

the tenderness

you wanted here.




The next two poems deal with the sudden understanding that fathers will not always be on hand. One is from the point of view of the son, the other from the father himself.


I left Theodore Roethke’s “The Premonition” by a bank of a small river.


poem is on branch middle-left of the picture


The Premonition

by Theodore Roethke


Walking this field I remember

Days of another summer.

Oh that was long ago! I kept

Close to the heels of my father,

Matching his stride with half-steps

Until we came to a river.

He dipped his hand in the shallow:

Water ran over and under

Hair on a narrow wrist bone;

His image kept following after,—

Flashed with the sun in the ripple.

But when he stood up, that face

Was lost in a maze of water.


The boy scampers after his father like an adoring puppy. The third line—Oh that was long ago!—has an emotional openness that draws us right into the scene, and we watch, with the boy, every movement of the father, carefully, in great detail. The boy is tethered to this man. Perhaps the boy follows him so closely because they are emotionally close and that is their way: perhaps the boy desires a closeness that the father withholds. Either way, the boy has an unsettling vision of his future: just as the father’s reflection disappears from the surface of the water, the father himself will be gone one day.




Donald Hall’s “My Son, My Executioner” looks at parental loss from the father’s eyes.

poem is on back of sign


My Son, My Executioner

by Donald Hall


My son, my executioner,

I take you in my arms,

Quiet and small and just astir,

And whom my body warms.


Sweet death, small son, our instrument

Of immortality,

Your cries and hunger document

Our bodily decay.


We twenty-five and twenty-two,

Who seemed to live forever,

Observe enduring life in you

And start to die together.


I’m imagining the delivery room where Donald Hall’s son is born. “My son!” he says. Mother beams. Nurses smile. “My executioner!” he adds, and social services rush in with restraints.


It’s not the usual response to a newborn, but it’s not Debbie Downer either. First of all, the pleasant rhyme scheme, the orderly quatrains, and just the fact of this wee baby quiet and small and just astir resting in his daddy’s arms make this a gentler poem than the title would suggest. Sure, the baby is a memento mori—but he’s a memento mori in the bright of day, not a skull in the dark night. Gazing at a baby, we see the generation that will replace us. We die off, they carry on. It’s not necessarily a sad feeling, any more than planting a tree that will outlasts us is. That connection to the cycle of life can be deeply satisfying. And can we talk about that cute baby again?




We’ll end on a lighter note with “Going to the Dogs.”

poem is above the dog sign


Going to the Dogs


My granddad, viewing earth’s worn cogs,

Said things were going to the dogs;

His granddad in his house of logs,

Said things were going to the dogs;

His granddad in the Flemish bogs.

Said things were going to the dogs;

His granddad in his old skin togs,

Said things were going to the dogs;

There’s one thing that I have to state—

The dogs have had a good long wait.




My dad was not happy with the state of the world. Not only was the world full of turkeys and jackasses, it was also coming to an end. Every year was going to be the last. Eventually I realized the apocalypse was not imminent, and he was just ranting. (Let me add that when he wasn’t in such dark moods, and God knows he had reason to be with the crazy childhood he had, he was a great father and a great coach who cared fiercely about our education and family life.) Anyway, you can see why I enjoy this poem so much. Perhaps you too had a grumpy dad or grandfather.




It may seem disingenuous for me, given these poem selections, to wish all the dads out there a happy father’s day, but I mean it. I am surrounded by marvelous fathers—my husband, brothers, and friends—and I see how their love and strength and hard work shape their families and their communities. I salute them. I thank them, sincerely, from my heart, for the good they bring to the world.

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