Wagoner’s New Poems

Although I was disappointed to find that there were only eighteen new poems in Traveling Light, after all I already owned all the other poems, I was happy to find several that I liked. Some like “At the Summit” reminded me of old themes as the poem seemed an update to “Getting There,” but others introduced new themes, particularly the poems addressed to children.

I particularly liked “A Letter Home,” a poem that successfully combines older themes of memories of parents with his new themes of being a parent

A Letter Home

In a bad year, my father went away
A hundred miles to take the only job
He could find. Two nights a week he would sit down
In his boardinghouse after a hard shift
In the open hearth and write a duty letter.
He hated telephones, being hard of hearing
And hard of speaking and just as hard of spending
Now that he had to save our car and our house
And feed us from long distance. He knew words
Of all kinds, knew them cold in Latin
And Greek, from crossword puzzles and cryptograms,
But hardly any of them would come from his mouth
Or find their way onto paper. He wrote my mother
Short plain sentences about the weather
And, folded inside each single page, for me,
In colored pencils, a tracing of a cartoon
From the funny papers: Popeye or Barney Google
Or Mutt and Jeff or the Katzenjammer Kids.
The voice-balloons hanging over their heads
Said, "Hope to see you soon" or "Hello, David."
And those would be his words for months on end.

I thank him now for his labor, his devotion
To duty and his doggedness. I was five,
And he was thirty-five. I have two daughters
As young as I was then (though I’m twice as old
As my father was). If I had to leave them
In a bad year, I’d want them to be good
To their mother and to love her as much as I did.
I’d miss them, and I’d want them to be happy
With or without me and to remember me.
If I could manage, I’d even write them love
In a letter home with traces of me inside.

The long first stanza, brings back images of the strong, silent man who was the narrator’s father, a good man who, though seemingly incapable of verbally expressing his affection for his son, nevertheless showed it through his “devotion to duty” as the family breadwinner and his doggedness in finding work hundreds of miles away from home. And though the narrator may not have realized it as a boy, the mature poet realizes the father attempted to express his love in the simple cartoons that accompanied his mother’s letters.

Now that the narrator is seventy and has children the same age as he was then, he realizes what a sacrifice his father made in leaving behind the woman and child he loved to work hundreds of miles away from home.

But there are overtones in this poem that go beyond his memories of his father. There is a realization that he, like his father, may be forcefully separated from his children. If so, he would want his children to love their mother as much as he loved his mother when his father was away. Just as importantly, he would want his children to be happy while still realizing that he loved them. “If I could manage,” to me at least, suggests something more drastic than a physical separation, and makes the lines “I’d even write them love/ In a letter home with traces of me inside” even more poignant.

I’m always surprised that David Wagoner isn’t more popular than he is. It seems to me that his poems are particularly accessible and that his themes are the themes of everyman. If I were able to write poetry, I imagine I would write poetry like Wagoner. His views on nature and on the nature of man are so similar to my own that I often feel like Wagoner has simply put my thoughts into words.

Perhaps that also explains why Wagoner has not attained greater fame. Many readers, particularly young readers, are looking for writers who have a totally unique outlook on life. Writers like Sexton or Plath, and to a certain extent even Roethke, seem very different than us because of the problems they faced. The Beats through their rejection of Western culture bring a Buddhist perspective to nature that is lacking in Wagoner’s poems, though there are probably more similarities than differences between Wagoner’s and Gary Snyder’s attitude toward nature.

Wagoner is certainly a “confessional” poet in the sense that his poems are told from the perspective of his own life and often include biographical details, but unlike the more sensational confessional poets, Wagoner doesn’t seem have much “to confess.” He seems to have lived a fairly normal, and in some ways, more outwardly “successful” life than most of us.

Still, if I had to recommend one poet to friends who are unfamiliar with poetry, I would heartily recommend David Wagoner, and Traveling Light would be an excellent place to begin.

4 thoughts on “Wagoner’s New Poems”

  1. I am enjoying your conversations about poetry, and in the process am discovering my way back to poetry myself. Looking at the poem, I think of Wagoner as a teacher. He was one of my workshop teachers in grad school some years ago, and his description of “fabricating broken country” echoes to me how he tried to map what is essentially unmappable territory — the way to write a poem. He was very good at it nonetheless; I still remember when he took a less than memorable poem, changed not a single word, but broke the lines and stanzas in a new way, and it suddenly leapt from the page. Not just good editing — for the first time I understood that where a poem breaks is a decision the poet makes which will change everything.

    Fine teacher, fine poet.

    Thank you for your maps of broken country as well.

  2. Strangley enough, you’re not the first poet to suggest this to me.

    That’s really more than I could ever have dreamed of doing.

    I must admit all I had hoped to do was to inspire a few new people to take a serious look at poetry and what it can offer to our lives.

  3. I’ve been reading your comments about David Wagoner and I’ve got to say that as a teacher I found him to be cruel and pretty ineffective. This was in 1996. A poetry class at the UW. I do like his poetry. He couldn’t seem to see the good in what any of us wrote though, and humiliated quite a few students. Several left the class. He did compliment me on a poem but then said I read it completely wrong. I’ve been in many classes and workshops for writing but I haven’t had such an oppressive feeling come over me as I did in his class. Maybe that’s why he isn’t more revered. He also bragged a lot.

    1. Can’t say this surprises me. As I noted somewhere, I tended to get worse grades in his classes than in any other upper-level class. I made the mistake of choosing a poetry book by an author who had won the Pulitzer Prize instead of him and his and nothing I said in the paper could be “true.” Theodore Roethke could be pretty tough as a teacher, too, and Wagoner was certainly his disciple.

      That said, he is still one of my favorite poets because his poetry is remarkably in tune with my views. Luckily, I don’t think you have to “like” a poet to like his poetry.

      I remember thinking many times I’d preferred to live my relatively happy life and be unable to write poetry than live a tortured life and write great poetry.

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