"It doesn't matter who my father was," Anne Sexton once wrote, "it matters who I remember he was." That memory—of the enormous, perhaps protective, perhaps absent, often mythic man—looms large in poems about fathers. In Mark Irwin's "My Father's Hats," for example, the father seems so big that his closet is like "a forest, wind hymning / through pines." Or in the famous Sylvia Plath poem "Daddy," the father exerts such a massive influence that Plath imagines that even one of his toes must be "big as a Frisco seal," his head meanwhile dipping "in the freakish Atlantic," an image of a father so huge his body spans an entire continent.
Some poets describe fathers they remember through their labor, fathers they know as bastions of support, as Robert Hayden's speaker does in his poem "Those Winter Sundays," which describes a father's dutiful labor in the "blueblack cold." And William Jay Smith’s poem "American Primitive" reimagines the wonder with which a child gazes upon his father going to work:
Look at him there in his stovepipe hat,
His high-top shoes, and his handsome collar;
Only my Daddy could look like that,
And I love my Daddy like he loves his Dollar.
Other poets may present a more comic take on fatherhood. As Robert Pinsky said, "From Polonius to Homer Simpson, fatherhood has sometimes been associated with comedy. Like all notions of dignity, fatherhood, in its dignity, invites the banana peel fall of satire." A good example of this is the William Carlos Williams poem "Dance Russe," where a father, allowed a moment of privacy as everyone else in the house sleeps, humorously dances naked in front of a mirror, eventually concluding:
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?
Finally, many poets have used poetry as a way to pay tribute to their fathers, to mourn them, or to plead with them through time. In Li-Young Lee’s "The Gift," the speaker, while helping his wife remove a splinter, recalls the time his father did the same for him:
And I did not lift up my wound and cry...
I did what a child does
when he's given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
For more poems about fathers and fatherhood, consider the following:
"my father moved through dooms of love" by E. E. Cummings
"Inventing Father in Las Vegas" by Lynn Emanuel
"Father Outside" by Nick Flynn and Josh Neufeld
"A Boy and His Dad" by Edgar Guest
"Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden
"My Father's Hats" by Mark Irwin
"The Idea of Ancestry" by Etheridge Knight
"The Portrait" by Stanley Kunitz
"The Gift" by Li-Young Lee
"My Father on His Shield" by Walt McDonald
"Yesterday" by W. S. Merwin
"Descriptions of Heaven and Hell" by Mark Jarman
"Father's Song" by Gregory Orr
"Daddy" by Sylvia Plath
"Whose Mouth Do I Speak With" by Suzanne Rancourt
"My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke
"Working Late" by Louis Simpson
"Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas
"Dance Russe" by William Carlos Williams