“Advice to My Son” is an invigorating and successful poem because it conveys some age-old advice in a fresh dynamic way. Many who might not be inclined to listen to advice might find it difficult to resist such a cleverly camouflaged homily. The contradictory statements, the graphic images, the platitudes and insights, the shifting tone and diction, the unusual rhythm and rhyme scheme, all come together to produce a unified effect, with just enough ambiguity, ambivalence, and humor to invite the reader back for another reading.
The advice poem, often from father to son, has a long history in English poetry. Meinke draws on this tradition even as he alters it slightly to suit his purposes. He realizes that if the poet or parent were to pontificate directly on the truths of life it might strike the modern reader, accustomed to being skeptical of absolute statements on the nature of reality and morality, as rather pompous. His task is to convey a sense of the dangers and rewards of life without coming across as either cynical or naïve—or dogmatic.
Meinke often writes of domestic relationships and introspective musings. Here he is more successful than usual, in part because he refuses to gloss over the darker realities of daily life. Yet neither does he focus on them exclusively. Life is a serious, even dangerous affair, full of accidents, warfare, misleading appearances, and deception. However, it is not so serious that one should neglect what is beautiful and inspiring. People need those things in life that are fragile, lovely, and intoxicating: the peony, rose, nectar, honied vine, pretty girls, truth, and wine. This is emphasized as the negative, violent imagery of the first stanza is gradually, although not completely, replaced by the more positive language of the last two stanzas. Once the son—and the reader—accepts that life is a mixed blessing, that it is both earthy and spiritual, practical and idealistic, he has learned the trick mentioned in the first line of the poem. It is true that “the stomach craves stronger sustenance/ than the honied vine,” but the soul still seeks beauty, the “nectar, in a desert.” A mixed blessing is still a blessing. The son can toast to that if he follows the advice of the last line to “always serve wine.”