April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa

by Diane Di Prima

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

“April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa” is occasioned by the day of poet Diane di Prima’s grandfather’s birth, and though the reference to April Fool’s Day in the title might seem to suggest a prank or joke, the poem is a serious tribute. The author apologizes for her previous unsuccessful efforts to write this tribute, but “the gathering madness” of the moment at hand makes her recognize the urgency of paying homage to her grandfather, and she sets to the task.

The second section of the poem is devoted to expressions of thanks to the grandfather, who was a model of honesty, integrity, and compassion for di Prima. The grandfather told di Prima “what to expect,” and “back there in that scrubbed Bronx parlor” he always was straightforward, “pulling/ no punches.” He was a lover of Italian operas, and he listened to them regularly, not weeping in an obligatory way, but “honestly weeping in time to/ innumerable heartbreaking/ italian operas,” revealing his sensitivity and sincerity. The grandfather’s delicate outlook and his capability to teach effectively are shown by his lesson about children who pull leaves from trees. The grandfather pulled the hair of di Prima herself so that she could know the pain the tree must feel when its leaves are pulled.

The poem progresses into di Prima’s own declaration that she, like her grandfather, is a revolutionary. Her struggle in the present drives her mind into recollection of the past, when her grandfather spoke publicly “in that Bronx park,” insisting that love “had to come or we/ die.” The memory has an ethereal quality, as di Prima refers to “spring Bronx dusk” and recalls her grandfather’s “fierce/ blue eyes” and “white hair.” Her grandfather was a source of pride because people listened to him. Di Prima esteems her grandfather as a loving intellectual.

The final portion of the poem is a vow that di Prima and her fellow revolutionaries will dedicate their pursuit of their revolutionary goals to di Prima’s grandfather and other anarchists and revolutionaries of the past. The poem lists various anarchists, socialists, and artists, creating a sort of hall of fame for people who took social action and made sacrifices to foster love and fairness. The “stars over the Bronxlook on earth,” see di Prima and her cohorts following great models from the past, and have no reason for shame.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 672

“April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa” breaks from tradition because the poem assumes an open form, with no rhyme scheme, no fixed metrical pattern, and no stanzaic arrangement. In fact, the separation between units of thought is slightly obscured by enjambment: Line breaks occur in the middle of sentences, with thoughts running over from one line to the next. No white space is exploited to denote a division or succession of main points.

The poem begins with an apostrophe—di Prima addresses her grandfather, even though he cannot literally hear her words or respond to what she says. This poetic address is carried out in the tradition of the occasional poem—the poem written for a particular day or event—in this case di Prima’s grandfather’s birthday. This arrangement incorporates drama in the poem because the reader, like a member of an audience in a theater, is not directly addressed but is positioned to overhear the words that pass from di Prima to her grandfather.

“April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa” follows the convention of the elegy to honor the dead as the poem lists the characteristics of the grandfather that are worthy of admiration. Furthermore, the elegiac convention of providing comfort for the bereaved is observed because the poem asserts that the grandfather’s ideals live on because di Prima and her friends keep the spirit of revolution alive.

A shift in tense from past to present is pivotal as di Prima establishes a link between the revolutionary activity with her grandfather and the similar activities in the present. In the past, di Prima “stood/ a ways off, looking up at” her grandfather; now she stands “a ways off listening,” still hearing her grandfather’s words in her mind as she proudly serves soup to “young men with light in their faces.” Di Prima is confident that her grandfather would love the scene at her table, where people are “talking love, talking revolution.” He would forcefully deliver “anarchist wisdom” informed by his reading of Dante and Giordano Bruno.

The closing section of the poem makes extensive use of allusions, both literary and historical, as di Prima includes the names of famous and noteworthy people who, in her view, have lovingly fought for justice and made great sacrifices in the process. Some of the allusions are easy to recognize: Most readers have some knowledge of Dante (1265-1321), Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), all great authors dedicated to love and truth. Others may be familiar with the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who was burned at the stake for his refusal to revise his views on transubstantiation and the Immaculate Conception. Nicola Sacco (1891-1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888-1927) were executed in Massachusetts for robbery and murder, even though their guilt was questionable and their “crime” may have been simply their anarchist political viewpoint. Carlo Tresca (1879-1943), a newspaper publisher, defended Sacco and Vanzetti in his radical publications.

Those with a background in Russian history, especially the revolutions of 1917, may know about filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948), whose film Stachka (1925; Strike) immortalized the struggle of workers; these readers may also recall Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), the exiled author, philosopher, and anarchist, or may be aware of Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), the spellbinding revolutionary speaker who endured imprisonment in Siberia. Readers with a background in art may recall Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), whose shocking illustrations of books challenged mainstream views, and Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), the daring French author, dramatist, and filmmaker whom many established artists and critics refused to take seriously.

The poem ends with a final connection between the past and present, between heaven and earth. When di Prima’s grandfather was active in his anarchist endeavors, his magical energy made di Prima feel as if she were “breathing stars.” Now that the grandfather is gone, his star and the stars of other great champions of anarchy are above in heaven. As they look down on earth to see today’s revolutionaries, they can know that the cause of revolution is not forgotten.

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