The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Words for My Daughter” is a six-stanza poem written in free verse directed to the poet’s daughter. Although the poem tells several brief stories of the poet’s past, it is not truly a narrative poem. Rather, it is the poet’s first-person voice recalling events to his daughter in order to account for the violence that adults direct at children. The poem opens with scenes from John Balaban’s childhood in the rough neighborhood of a Philadelphia housing project. In the opening stanza, the reader learns the story of a boy named Reds, “fourteen, huge/ as a hippo.” The scene of idyllic childhood fort building is interrupted by screams from Reds’s mother, and Reds rushes to rescue her from his father’s brutality. The litany of violence continues in the second stanza, in which another of Balaban’s friends attacks the milkman who is raping his mother. The poem then turns to a girl “with a dart in her back, her open mouth/ pumping like a guppy’s, her eyes wild.” It can be surmised that the girl’s brother has caused her pain because later the neighborhood kids, with their rough justice, try to hang him.

The third stanza, only three lines long, shifts abruptly back to Reds: “Reds had another nickname you couldn’t say/ or he’d beat you up: Honeybun.’/ His dad called him that when Reds was little.” This stanza further addresses the source of Reds’s hatred for his father. The sexual connotation of the nickname suggests that Reds...

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Words for My Daughter Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Balaban uses images to great effect throughout the poem. By providing the reader with specific detail, he is able to recount the violence done to and by children. In addition, Balaban combines visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, and tactile images so that all of the reader’s senses are engaged in the poem. In the first stanza, for example, pastoral visual images such as a “mulberry grove” and “the thick swale/ of teazel and black-eyed susans” are interspersed with the auditory images of the screeches of Reds’s mother, “thumps like someone beating a tire/ off a rim,” and the sound of Reds yelling profanities “at the skinny drunk/ stamping around barefoot and holding his ribs.” In the fifth stanza, the reader is absorbed by Balaban’s description of his infant daughter and her fragrance. These images, endearing and comforting, are interrupted by a memory from Vietnam of “Sur Anicet’s orphans writhing in their cribs.” Again, through this device, Balaban is able to convey his primary concern of violence done to children.

Another device that Balaban uses effectively to introduce and develop his themes is juxtaposition. That is, the poet carefully places his memories in a particular order to create a particular atmosphere. In the opening scene, he layers examples of adult brutality to children and the children’s brutal retaliation. In the final three-line stanza of this section, he only needs to hint at the sexual abuse of Reds for the reader to make the connection. Perhaps the most important juxtaposition, however, is the connection of his memories of children in Vietnam with his memories of his own childhood friends and with his own infant daughter. The memories, initially divided by stanzas, ultimately become one memory in the fifth stanza, in which he holds his infant daughter, hears Sur Anicet’s orphans in his mind, and sees the “tiny Green Beret” trick-or-treating at his door. Balaban is able to convey the traumatic nature of his memory by inserting that trauma into the happiest of his moments. Even in these long years after the war, his memories of his daughter are inextricably tied to his memories of injured Vietnamese children. The juxtaposition, then, serves to underscore his theme.