The Poem

“Father and Son” is a dramatic lyric in four stanzas, inclining not quite decisively to blank verse. The neutrality of the “and” in the title understates the poem’s tenor, suggesting neither the son’s anxiety in coming to terms with his father nor the inevitable one-sidedness of their relationship. The speaker of the poem need not be understood as Stanley Kunitz; references to time and place are not indubitably autobiographical. The son speaks in a direct, if elliptical, manner. He recounts a journey from the “suburbs,” through the “sleeping country where [he] was young,” and thence to the edge of a forested pond, where his father may have died.

The opening line implies the urban origin of this journey, however, and suggests that just as the son moved toward the forest from the suburbs, so had he recently exited the city. The first stanza also makes clear that the son is pursuing his father through time. The speaker’s narrative begins with dusk, but implies in the opening word, “Now,” a preceding day. As the first twelve lines of his narrative conclude, he has fully entered the night, thus giving the sense of a complete day.

In the second stanza, the son asks how he shall convey to his father his “fable” and “fears.” His life is troubled by a “chasm,” representing not only the distance between the dead father and himself, but also a sundered family, which “lost” the house the father had built. A...

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Forms and Devices

The poem’s details are integrated by several patterns of diction. The “pond” in the first stanza and the “water’s edge” in the third envelop the poem. By being “whiter than bone dust,” the “road” of the first line prefigures its dead end in the skeletal “white ignorant hollow” of the father’s face, the poem’s terminal image. This whiteness, connected to bone in both cases, stands against the diction of darkness or insufficient light rendered in lines 1, 12, 19, and 20.

The language in which Kunitz wraps the son’s desire belongs to education. Of the father, the son says, “You know/ The way.” Positioned at the end of the line, “know” has a universal status, but enjambed with “The way,” it belongs precisely to the moral domain which orders the third stanza. Line 26 ends in “Instruct.” Standing alone, it is any sort of pedagogical directive, but run on (“Instruct/ Your son . . ./ Ingentleness”), it bespeaks the need for affectional learning. The last line of the third stanza begins with “O teach me,” referring to proper work and kindness. In the concluding couplet, “ignorant” paradoxically gives ironic fulfillment to this body of words. Finishing the poem, the reader may re-evaluate “master” (line 7). Its immediate context (“chains”) implies dominance and servitude, but the whole poem enlivens its suggestion of a perfect mentor as well.

The poem is, however, more mystifying than...

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