The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Peter Meinke’s “Advice to My Son” is, as the title suggests, a poem on how to live one’s life, from the perspective of one who is older and more experienced. In a fashion both witty and wise, the parent advises the son, and by extension the reader, on the dangers and delights life holds in store. In only twenty-three lines, Meinke conveys a powerful sense of the multiple and often opposing aspects of life: the practical and the idealistic, the physical and the spiritual, the temporal and the long-term, the sensual and the intellectual, the secular and the religious, the aesthetic and the mundane. He does this both directly and indirectly, through contradictory statements as well as sudden and at first seemingly incongruous shifts in imagery, diction, rhyme, and tone. He suggests that the key to a successful life lies in the ability to reconcile, or at least accept and cope with, very different desires and needs. A sense of humor helps, too.

The narrator, who is never specifically identified as the mother or father, begins by suggesting, somewhat paradoxically, that the son should both live for the moment and plan for the future. Because the days “go fast,” he is told to live them “as if each one may be your last.” Yet only a few lines later the reader is told that they “go slow” and it is necessary to “plan long range.” The narrator admits it is a “trick” to pull this off, implying that there is a danger if one does not do...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

For such a brief poem, “Advice to My Son” employs an impressive array of poetic skills. The modern, seemingly casual, offhand tone artfully disguises a sophisticated use of poetic technique. The poem itself reflects the advice it gives: It presents a delightful mix of traditional and innovative rhyme, rhythm, imagery, and diction, as well as an effective blend of seriousness and humor, which keeps the reader off-balance just enough to maintain the element of surprise throughout, even after multiple readings.

This contrast between the traditional and the new, the formal and the casual, begins with the first line. After the rather stately title “Advice to My Son,” a traditional poetic title and topic, the tone shifts dramatically with the first three words of the poem, “The trick is,” almost as if the parent is giving the son a secret on how to get by rather than broad general advice on how to live and build character. The tone shifts again a few lines later when readers learn that “young men lose their lives” in violent ways. The description of how they do so, by way of “the shattered windshield and the bursting shell,” is itself a sharp contrast to the abstract statement three lines earlier that they are lost in “strange and unimaginable ways.”

This mix of traditional and modern in the first stanza is reinforced by the irregular rhyme scheme. Although there is standard end rhyme, it is not evenly spaced; lines 1 and 4...

(The entire section is 506 words.)