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Poems ”Poem at Thirty-Nine” and ”Once Upon a Time”

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In the poems ‘Poem at Thirty-Nine’ and ‘Once Upon a Time’, the idea of the relationship between father and child is explored, but in different ways. In ‘Poem at Thirty-Nine’, the relationship between the poet and her father is portrayed as a warm and positive one. The poet writes of her father as a teacher to her. The lines ‘Writing deposit slips and checks, I think of him. He taught me how’ tells us of his guiding her in the practice of necessary activities of life. We can see that the poet is appreciative of her father, as she used her father’s lessons to escape the ‘life he knew’ which was most probably a very hard one, as the poet says that she wishes her father ‘had not been so tired’. The poet looks up to her father, which is evident in that she grows up to be like him, as shown in the lines ‘Now I look and cook just like him’. Being like her father has had a positive impact on her life as she says that her ‘brain’ is ‘light’ and she is ‘happy to feed’ others, reflecting her father’s hospitality and generosity which is shown in the lines which say that he ‘craved the voluptuous sharing of good food’.

The repetition of ‘How I miss my father’ adds a feeling of longing in the poem, and displays how close the poet was to her father and how she wishes for the father to be with her now. The phrase ‘He would have grown to admire the woman I’ve become’ reveals the poet’s confidence in that her father would approve of who she has grown up to be, highlighting the intimacy in her relationship with her father, as she knows how her father would feel. However, the relationship between the poet and her father might not be entirely positive. There is a hint of resentment towards her father in the poet’s tone, as she says ‘I wish he had not been so tired when I was born’, as though blaming her father for not being there for her. In ‘Once Upon a Time’ however, the relationship between father and child is portrayed differently. In ‘Once Upon a Time’, the father is shown teaching his son about the harsh and unforgiving world, contrasting to the lessons from the poet’s father in ‘Poem at 39’ who teaches the poet life skills. The father in ‘Once Upon a Time’ tells his son of the artificiality and insincerity of others who ‘laugh with their teeth’ and ‘shake hands without their hearts’.

The phrase ‘laugh with their teeth’ almost gives the reader an image of a grimace or gritted teeth, both of which are negative, which shows the reader how people no longer laugh with positive feeling. ‘Shake hands without their hearts’ is also impactful upon the reader, as the heart, which commonly symbolizes emotion, is not used, revealing to the reader how people of society are without emotion in their activity. This contrasts with the society of ‘Poem at Thirty-Nine’, which is one of sharing and joy. The father then laments to his son how he has also learned to fit into this artificial society as he has learned to wear many faces’ with ‘all their conforming smiles’. These ‘faces’ are worn like masks, all with the same emotionless smile, which displays to the reader how the father in the poem himself has become part of this false and bleak society. The sadness of the father about this is reinforced in the lines in which he sees his own smile like ‘a snake’s bare fangs’, which conveys a sense of danger, perhaps danger of losing himself completely to society.

The father then reveals to his son that he in fact admires his son but not in the same way that the father in ‘Poem at Thirty-Nine’ would have admired the poet, While the father in ‘Poem at Thirty-Nine’ would admire the poet for how she has developed and her maturity, the father in ‘Once Upon a Time’ instead admires his son for his innocence, and how his not changed to fit into this cold society. He reveals his wish to learn from his son how to show true emotion, to ‘unlearn these muting things’ which restrict his feelings, and for his on to teach him innocence and sincerity once more. While the ideas of relationship between parent and child seem to greatly contrast in ‘Poem at Thirty-Nine’ and ‘Once Upon a Time’, the lessons of living generously and cheerfully as well as the importance of showing true emotion are both applicable in our daily lives.

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