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That’s where you get your man badge at: Poetry and Fatherhood.

Yogi (Christopher Powell) to Marcus (William Jackson Harper):

You can’t just try. You have to just do it. You gotta mould this kid. It’s gonna look like you. It needs to act like you…. Plus, the whole fatherhood shit, that’s where you get your man badge at. This is where you earn it, bro. What kind of man do you wanna be?

(‘Becca Evans Part II’, Love Life, Season 2, Episode 6, BBC, 4 Nov 2021)

When we were awaiting the arrival of our first child, I did what a lot of artists do – used my work to track the process. I would call it ‘Pip Sequence’ and I would present it – nay, bequeath it – to my progeny when they were born. This Great Endeavour would make a Great Dad. At least that was my intention. As my partner’s pregnancy progressed, I quickly lost sight of the poems amid the rush of things that actually had to be done. Like making a home for it and ensuring it would have clothes to wear.

It was when our second child came along a few years later that fatherhood really took over my creative output. I was thinking about Possibility (yes, with a capital P) and how, pre-conception, this is potentially infinite. With every day that follows conception, this Possibility gets slowly reduced to just one set of circumstances and outcomes that form an actual life. My head started to spin with my role; my children’s lives were being reduced daily to a single timeline and I was a huge part in that reduction. What a responsibility I had! To cope with this, in between the various fulfilments of this responsibility (doing the best I could) I decided to remap my own Possibility in my poems. Other new dads take up ultra-running or road cycling; I took up highly constrained formal poetry.

So I made some poem sculpts from texts that were published in my birth year, creating short narratives using only the words on specific pages in these found texts. I thought that my literary cousins could offer me glimpses on a plethora of alternate lives. It would be my parallel autobiography of the Possible. But what emerged through this process was a little deeper (and probably more interesting). The parallel ‘me’ that I found in these books had lost their father at a young age, and this loss came to dominate the rest of his life. In book after book (I did over 40 in all) this narrative grew up through the page and into the poems that were later published in the pamphlet In all my books my father dies (Red Ceilings Press, 2021).

I didn’t lose my father at an early age. He’s still very much fit and healthy and a huge part of my life. On reflection (nothing prompts reflection like poetry does), these anxieties were based on my potential absence from the lives of my children. Fathers have long been permitted distance from their children’s lives. The definition of the verb ‘to father’ is ‘to cause a pregnancy’, whereas ‘to mother’ involves all of the ‘affection and caring and nurturing’ needed to actually bring a child up. I’ve never been happy with that division of labour. Watching Bambi with my children a few months ago made me furious. Who was that stag leaping back into the ruins of his son’s life to ‘offer advice’ then pissing off again over the mountain? What kind of role model is that? Who did he think he was?

Poetry has a long tradition with the subject of fathers, but surprisingly little to say about being one. There are exceptions to this – Cecil Day Lewis’s ‘Walking Away’ is now on the GCSE specification but yup, you guessed it, it deals with fatherly separation. Raymond Carver said that having and raising children was the single biggest influence on his whole career and wrote a couple of stand-out poems about that. And it’s encouraging that more and more poets are putting their fatherhood into their work. But why, as David Wojahn asks in his essay ‘Furious Lullabies’, have so many father-poets seemed to actively avoid talking about it in their poems?

As masculinity is under more (and rightful) scrutiny than at any previous time, poetry is proving itself a ripe space to explore its complexities. Can we use fatherhood as a lens through which to address masculine identities in poetry, and contribute to their evolution? Can poems about our dads and about being dads help us define the kind of men we want to be?

Luke Palmer is in the midst of teaching ‘Blind Pilots & Furious Lullabies’: Poetry & Fatherhood’ this Summer term. Find out more here.

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