Advice to My Son

by Peter Meinke

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The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

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 both. Indeed, the violent imagery of the first half of the poem suggests that just coping with the sharp turns of fortune may require more than a few tricks. Reaching “heaven or hell” depends on one’s ability to “survive” such catastrophes as “the shattered windshield and the bursting shell.”

The second stanza, lines 11-21, begins with sound advice to balance the desire for the beautiful and the ideal with attention to the practical, the commonplace necessities of daily life. People cannot exist solely on the “peony and the rose”; they must also “plant squash and spinach.” Although the former “saves,” the latter provides “stronger sustenance.” Here the poem seems to take its own advice by acknowledging the importance of the two sides of human nature. Both are vital; too much attention to either could upset a delicate balance. Almost as if he had produced a syllogism, the narrator then goes on, with a presumptuous “therefore,” to give advice on marriage (fall in love, but be careful), work relationships (be both trusting and cautious), and the need to keep things in proper perspective (serve both bread and wine).

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

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 rhyme, as do lines 3, 6, and 8, as well as 7 and 10. The odd rhyme scheme, combined with the varied line length—from ten words in line 3 to two words in line 22—creates an irregular syncopated feeling that echoes the overall tone and theme of the poem.

The second stanza, which also contains this juggling of traditional and idiosyncratic rhyme, diction, and tone, shows Meinke firmly in control of his form. After the apocalyptic imagery at the end of the first stanza, Meinke begins the second with a return to colloquial language of the beginning, “To be specific.” He then employs common everyday imagery to represent a broad philosophical approach to life: “between the peony and the rose/ plant squash and spinach, turnips and tomatoes.” Lest the reader get too comfortable in the garden, the author abruptly shifts from the vernacular to the abstract phrase, “beauty is nectar.”

The second half of this stanza, which is the third sentence in this four-line poem, consists of three aphorisms, such as “marry a pretty girl/ after seeing her mother.” Thus, throughout the poem Meinke blends the graphic with the bland, the abstract with the concrete, traditional rhyme with irregular rhyme and rhythm. The effect on the reader, a feeling of randomness as well as control, echoes the sense of the world and the advice that the parent seeks to give to the son. The final two lines, which comprise the whole last stanza, snap the poem shut with a humorous wink at the reader, leaving little doubt that the author is fully in control of his medium.

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