Wednesday 18 December 2019

Prayer for my Daughter

Magdalen College, Oxford

Somehow or other I succeeded in leaving this poem out of the New and Collected (2008). I did not mean to, it just went missing. Then recently, when I was in Munich, the man who had invited me, Helge, said it was this poem that I had read some  fifteen years before at Cologne, that he remembered and that other people had liked so much.

Last night I read it at LUMEN, the cold weather harity in London, and one member of the audience has written to me and asked where she could find it. The answer was, 'nowhere'. But I have found it among old files, and here it is.

It was written for our daughter, Helen, just about to go up to Oxford in 1994, the year we moved to Norfolk. It refers to the Yeats poem, of course, and quotes it too, but it refers to much else. Each time I wrote one part another part demanded to be written so in the end there were seven. It was both fun and moving to write.

Prayer for my Daughter

So here we are and here’s my stanza,
like a Clementi cadenza
a penny-plain extravaganza,

just to keep things neat but sprightly
in what might otherwise politely
decline into a straight unsightly

father-to-daughter patronising
advisory misadvising
lecture on vague points arising,

a Yeatsian prayer to admonish
characteristics too Maud Gonneish,
Fenian or Amazonish.

My stanza’s nineteenth century capers
are out of time. I read the papers
and know the new opinion shapers,

I know their loose, sincere demotic
ironies and semiotic
quiddities, but I’m Quixotic:

though windmills are as quaint as giants,
I continue in defiance
of gravity or modern science

rhyming like a man demented
dolphin torn and gong tormented
till the giants have relented.

Darling, tonight the whole horizon
closed like a lid. The traffic sighs on
rainy tarmac, men flit like flies on

jets of wind, the river fractures,
and a streetlight manufactures
a wealth of frazzled broken textures.

So beautiful: the petrol station’s
amber flatness, the quotations
of lit shopfronts, the impatience

of running clouds. The winter races
into darkness, interlaces
bodies in its breathing spaces.

You see, I want to turn this patter-
song to deeper, graver matter,
more throttle more carburettor

I want to be a souped up, solemn,
portentous father, wise as Solom-
on not just a gossip column,

someone you’ll take seriously
whose works you’ll study furiously
not discard imperiously

from some theory-laden high-rise
nor swat and squash flat, wasp- or fly-wise.
but approve, applaud and lionise.

Walking last night I sought an image
to offer you, a kind of homage
to the wind’s wild scrape and scrimmage,

and noticed how the very cheapest
vulgarisms struck the deepest:
the Woolworth lights, a buckled leaf pressed

to the pavement, a crisp packet
flying in the gust. I took it
home with me, to store and stack it

in memory, imagination,
to use it in some combination:
a poem finding its occasion.

Some quick advice? Well just a quickie:
Beware the sentimental-sticky,
Beware the choosy and the picky,

Beware all those who talk in torrents
The snobs who earned the strict abhorrence
Of poor pale sickly D.H.Lawrence,

Beware the Oxfordly superior,
Beware those with a smooth exterior,
The cynic wiser and world-wearier,

Beware the shady and the murky,
Beware the overprecious-quirky,
Beware your father talking turkey.

Out on your own. The eighteenth hurdle
safely past. The tales I’ve heard all
tend to make a man’s blood curdle,

so to the prayer (I’m feeling prayerful):
Darling be wise, be good, be careful,
be water, fire and earth and air-ful,

find images beyond the kitchen
that women used to bake and bitch in
from Halicarnassus to plain Hitchin,

may you, in darkness, be that changing
wind and light, your mind free-ranging,
sea-like, unplumbed, salt, estranging,

tender, yes, but not kid-gloving
neither too mousy, nor too shoving,
be fortunate, be loved, be loving

be all of these, be kind, far-seeing,
in short, beyond the you- and me-ing
all that befits a human being,

what human beings may be made for:
life, unearned, unknown, unpaid for,
that you were celebrated, prayed for.


Paul H said...

That is so beautiful George. Helen is blessed to have a father write that for her - and I suspect you are blessed to have a daughter like Helen.

Airport Taxi Transfers said...

Helen is blessed to have a father write that for her - and I suspect you are blessed to have a daughter like Helen.

Rudi Konrath said...

Lovely reading.

Stephanie Green said...

I loved this poem so much I sent a copy of it to my son when he went off to university (2008).