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December 6, 2011 / ethanwolcott

Coleridge and the Greater Romantic Fatherhood

Joshua Robbins

For nine months I daydreamed about what it would be like to write with a little one in the house, about how a baby’s presence would affect the poems: me cartoonishly churning out pages of newly inspired poems as the baby coos and gurgles peacefully in her crib beside me, me scooping up my wailing newborn and soothing him with melodious recitations of Charles Wright (“A gentian snood of twilight in winter, / blood orange in spring, /And ten thousand yards of glass in the summer sky”), me stealing the shiniest, glassiest bits of the child’s acquired language and pressing those words just so into the soft clay of my new drafts.

If you’re a parent, let alone a writer with a child (or more than one!), I’m sure I need not say much here about the reality of these idealizations. That said, now that my boy is here and a part of my writing life, acknowledging my past romanticization has helped me to notice connections between poetry and fatherhood that I’d not anticipated. But first, I’ve also come to see how some of my pre-daddy reverie was influenced by favorite poets and poems. A few examples:

I once heard or read Donald Hall talk about how he’d comfort his infant daughter by reading her poems from The Alligator Bride and selections from Shakespeare. She loved the tragedies most of all. Beautiful.

Also, there’s Robert Lowell who, when he wrote, preferred to do so in morning light while lounging in bed, sometimes with his little girl Harriet beside him. How sweet. Harriet, in fact, made it into Lowell’s poem “Fall, 1961” in the lines “We are like a lot of wild/spiders crying together,/but without tears.” Well, maybe those lines aren’t exactly “sweet,” but the story behind them is. Apparently, one weekend afternoon Lowell and his daughter were listening to a radio broadcast of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. After the program concluded, the next piece was something very modern and experimental, and Harriet, upon hearing the opening shrieks of violins exclaimed, “Daddy, it sounds like a lot of wild spiders crying together, but without tears.”

Oh, there is of course Uncle Walt and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Need I say more?

And the inspiration of Lucille Clifton raising six (or was it eight?) children and still finding time to write some of this country’s most clear-eyed and revelatory lyric poems. (If you don’t own Blessing the Boats, stop reading and head to the bookstore!)

Before my son arrived, poet friends’ divinations were at odds. Some, mostly those without children, expressed grief for the death of my old writing life. Some told me poems would surely pour forth from me like [insert bad simile]. I told both camps all I wished for was an approximation of what Coleridge had in his rural cottage in “Frost at Midnight”: my slumbering babe and some of the frost’s “secret ministry,” some nighttime quiet in which to work, and, hopefully, a proper stand-in for the ashy bit of fluttering soot that might also “make a toy of Thought” even here in my ever-so-suburban office/nursery.

Reality check: the boy is only just now sleeping at most five hours straight through and the only time to sit with my notebook and my feet up is in my dreams.

So, not a lot of time for writing poems. Certainly not the same amount or the same kind of time before he came around. But that’s okay. It’s just different now. And as much as I’d hoped my post-baby writing life would resemble Coleridge’s in “Frost at Midnight,” it hasn’t, though in thinking about the poem as a greater Romantic lyric, I have come to realize that Coleridge’s poem offers another potential lesson of poet/father instruction, one found in the structure of the poem. For a quick and dirty note on the structure of the greater Romantic lyric, I’ll just turn it over to M.H. Abrams to describe these poems as only he can:

“Some of the poems [Romantic lyrics] are called odes, while the others approach the ode in having lyric magnitude and a serious subject, feeling fully meditated. They present a determinate speaker in a particularized, and usually localized, outdoor setting, whom we overhear as he carries on, in a fluent vernacular which rises easily to a more formal speech, a sustained colloquy, sometimes with himself or with the outer scene, but more frequently with a silent human auditor, present or absent. The speaker begins with a description of the landscape; an aspect or change of aspect in the landscape evokes a varied but integral process of memory, thought, anticipation, and feeling which remains closely intervolved with the outer scene. In the course of this meditation the lyric speaker achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision, or resolves an emotional problem. Often the poem rounds upon itself to end where it began, at the outer scene, but with an altered mood and deepened understanding which is the result of the intervening meditation.”

To put it in a nutshell: Romantic lyrics, which include Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” employ a kind of out-in-out movement, a process of thinking in which the speaker responds to their environment, is catapulted into the imagination, and then comes back to the original scene and is changed. And, of course, there are variations on this movement and points to be made about what the process does for the speaker’s relationship to time, loss, subjectivity, blah, blah, blah, blah, etc.

What I’m intrigued with here is the possibility that this greater lyric structure may offer me, and potentially others applying these to their own backgrounds, a new way to understand this process of becoming a father and, now, fatherhood. Here’s my shorter greater Romantic fatherhood:

Out: For years we battled insurance companies, suffered anxiety and depression and the specter of hope, we failed again and again, we endured batteries of tests and procedures, and then finally…

In: We got pregnant and I could begin to imagine, truly imagine, what it would be like: fatherhood, and now that my son is here…

Out: I am absolutely changed by his presence. The old “out” environment of pain and confusion exists, but only in memory. How else will my relationship to the past change, I can’t say. This is a discovery that will come through my new role as father and through the continuing process of lyric change.

I know I’ll never have Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”-post-baby writing life. It was never an option and I’m sure it was never a reality for him, either. What I know now is that the lyric movement out-in-out which has meant so much to me as a poet has an entirely new application, and when I go to rescue my boy from his crib tonight, and when I’m changing his diaper and putting him back to sleep, I can whisper into his tiny ear “Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee” and he can know it to be true. We both can.

6 Comments

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  1. Carol Dahmen / Dec 6 2011 10:35 am

    Great piece, Ethan! I can appreciate the tension you discuss in writing when you are a new parent. I have been a single mom for 8 years of two boys who are now ages 10 and 14. There are so many dynamics to a beautiful new baby in a writer’s life. The ways in which you look at and assimilate yourself in the world seem to change daily. I remember at first being so frustrated hiking with my toddler; we never made any good headway on the trail. Very quickly, however, I realized this little scientist and poet at my knees opened up a new world on a trail I’d hiked many times and never really seen. Tiny bits of wisdom in monosyllabic phrases would tumble out of his mouth and floor me. Congrats on your new baby and again, great post!

    • ethanwolcott / Dec 6 2011 3:25 pm

      Thank you, Carol. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, but I’m merely the middleman who posted it. The multi-talented Josh Robbins wrote the work, and all praise is owed to him. Thanks, though, for reading!

  2. Goat / Dec 6 2011 6:39 pm

    Lovely. More than lovely, the discovery made in the essay is strength both to his writing and to living. I feel his fingers gripping the line, ready for trial, tempest and tenderness, all of life that best informs one’s words. Kudos to the author for writing well and living well.

  3. Leonard Oakland / Dec 8 2011 4:51 pm

    Josh, what a wonderful evocation of both Coleridge’s frosty, romanticized midnight and the joys/demands of fatherhood as I remember them when my daughter arrived in 1969. Never have I felt so long-term exhausted! Never have I felt such exhilaration of soul (“erhebung without motion”). It was the turning point of release from the self. Adolescent self-absorption had to be abandoned; there was now someone in my life utterly dependent on my ability to show up with a milk bottle or a diaper. Marriage was a profound change, but fatherhood was transformative beyond anything I had dreamt. I’ve never been the same.
    Thanks for this beautifully written piece. Leonard

  4. D.L. Chandler / Dec 16 2011 1:47 pm

    Greetings! Such a wonderful piece from Joshua Robbins. It truly exemplifies how the typically insular life of a writer changes once they become parents and how it informs how they document the world via their words. I truly appreciate the stirring and heartfelt sentiment behind this post. Creative writing was never my strongest suit, but I’ve always been in love with the art of poetry and how much beauty can be contained in a such concise and thought out lines. Thanks for this. D.L.

  5. Pearle Schlesier / Mar 12 2012 1:42 pm

    Don’t get worried about people stealing your notions. If the ideas are worthwhile, you must ram them down people’s throats.
    Regarding the time we are able to result in the payments, somebody moves the ends.

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