Perhaps all imaginative writing is autobiographical. The more closely such writings details conform to verifiable facts in the author’s life, the easier it is for readers to see an equivalence between reality and art. Yet such a view contains a hazard to readers of fiction based largely on fact: Writers are at liberty to veer at will from fact to fancy, and when they do, readers may be deceived.
“Father and Son” is Kunitz’s best-known and most-anthologized poem. Written as World War II was erupting in Europe, it is the story, which Kunitz says came to him in a dream, about a boy seeking his dead father. Because the poet’s father committed suicide before his son’s birth, this is not a conventional father-son poem packed with memories of family outings, fishing trips, or ball games.
Kunitz had to invent his father. Anything he devised was reasonable; the boy had no real knowledge of the specter that had sired him. His mother, a distraught widow who, in the aftermath of her shocking loss, had to struggle to run her husband’s manufacturing business and to support her three children, erased the memory of the dead Solomon Z. Kunitz from her household. She could not deny his death, but she could handily deny his having ever existed.
Stanley’s sole concrete memory of his father was of a face in a faded photograph, which was torn from his hand by his angry mother who punished him for treading on forbidden ground in his attempt to construct a past for the father he never knew. “Father and son” festered for three decades in Kunitz’s subconscious before his eerie dream gave him the stuff of his poem.
“Father and Son” has been variously interpreted. It is a thirty-four-line poem, mostly in iambic pentameter, that blurs time and evokes the misty quality surrounding a pond “down the sandy road/ whiter than bone-dust” past the “curdle of fields, where the plums/ Dropped with their load of ripeness, one by one.”
A boy pursues an apparition down that bone-dust road in the first two narrative stanzas, offering it information about where and how he lives. In the third stanza, he implores the father to return, bargaining with him and promising to wipe the mud stains from his clothes. He begs his father to teach him “how to work and keep me kind.” The apparition, however, disappoints. It does not—cannot—respond. The boy wants to be “a child to those who mourn/ And brother to the foundlings of the field”; he wants to be a “friend of innocence.” His wishes, however, are dashed by the dead father, who can offer only “the white ignorant hollow of his face.”