Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Words for My Daughter” is a poem about the damage adult violence does to children. It is also, however, a poem of adult redemption made possible by a child. Balaban’s background provides some clues to his themes and meanings in “Words for My Daughter.” In his book Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam (1992), Balaban recounts his days as a conscientious objector who volunteered to go to Vietnam. As a Quaker, Balaban committed his life to nonviolence and opposition to war. While in Vietnam, Balaban worked for the Quaker and Mennonite Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Burned and War-Injured Children as a field representative. His knowledge, then, of the damage done to children is born out of firsthand experience. It is also clear from reading Balaban’s memoir that he roots his poetry in his own experience. “Words for My Daughter,” for example, grew out of an actual incident he details in Remembering Heaven’s Face.

When Balaban writes of his early memories of life in Philadelphia, he thematically connects incidents that concern abusive relationships among family members. Children are not only abused themselves, but they are also called upon to rescue other members of their family who are being abused, or they turn to abuse themselves. What should be loving, protective relationships are instead violent and painful. Certainly, one of Balaban’s primary themes in this poem is what happens when...

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