Poem of the week: Letter to My Daughter by William Palmer

A parent’s regretful words, ruing miscommunication, sing with clarity and concision

Letter to My Daughter

The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass…

These words of Keats – the animal moving
through the vowels,
the consonants that stand
as frosted blades, or emptied trees

– I cannot give you any more than these
Or, better – share them with you.
Their tenderness may make amends
for those harsh speeches, quickly uttered,

that seem to wither up the earth.
Our lives, our words –
they are the same. The one good gift
I’d give to you is knowing always

what I haven’t always known myself
– that what’s not given can never be returned,
that words not given when they’re sought
limp, tremble, rot into a frozen ground.

William Palmer’s poems are accessible, but not obviously courting attention. Clarity and conciseness inform their rhythm, imagery and structure. Not quite a formalist, Palmer seems the kind of poet who carries a traditional sense of cadence in his head, while being able to make the lines sing in modern, unpretentious and not too rigidly metrical English.

He is the author of seven works of fiction and three full-length poetry collections. He has quietly kept faith with the lyric form, and The Water Steps, published in 2017, represents a mature and impressive achievement.

Letter to My Daughter sets up its metaphorical base with a quotation from the opening stanza of The Eve of St Agnes. In Keats’s poem, the atmosphere of intense cold summoned at the start is mainly physical, and seems designed to give all the more emphasis to the rich romantic glow of the love feast later enjoyed by Madeline and Porphyro. The wintry chill symbolises old age, sexual barrenness and death, of course, but it doesn’t have the particular metaphorical dimension Palmer’s poem insists on – a “frozen ground” where the language of human connection fails. Palmer still draws on Keats’s descriptive powers, confident, I think, of his readers’ shared memories of the classic poem. The first verse here reminds us about the sheer linguistic magic of Keats, in fact recreates some of that magic as it makes us hear and see “the animal moving / through the vowels, / the consonants that stand / as frosted blades, or emptied trees”.

Palmer’s letter writer is a parent, probably the daughter’s father. The sentiments would work for a parent of any gender, but the implied cross-current set up between a father and a daughter adds various tensions. The “harsh speeches” seem all the harsher as a function of gender dissimilarity. Although the speaker is offering the gesture of “amends”, we can’t be entirely sure whose silence was responsible for the freezing of the relationship, nor if only one person failed the other. The poem simply makes clear the fierce emotional chill produced when the words were hard, hasty, or went unsaid.

The second stanza begins with the clearest rhyme in the poem (“these” and “trees”) but this is not a prelude to lyrical flight. The writer proceeds, as verse letter-writers will, to offer advice. The advice is earnest, not at all playful. Despite his certainty about what he intends to say, the writer even corrects himself as he goes along, editing and softening “give you” to “share … with you”. What he is giving and sharing are “these” words, he says – the words in Keats’s line about the limping, trembling hare.

The wisdom offered is, at least in part, essentially a writer’s: “Our lives, our words /– they are the same”. “Words” are allotted the supreme value. An additional observation concerns the impossibility of returning “what’s not given”, those cancelled replies which should have been made at the time. The more conventional sentiment we often express is about wanting to un-say certain words, but this poem has another narrative. As it develops it almost becomes a new formation of those unsaid words – a gift (and “giving” is recurrently invoked) made of new ones.

The speaker’s admission of past ignorance is engagingly humble: “The one good gift / I’d give to you is knowing always // What I haven’t always known myself / – that what’s not given can never be returned.” It’s a painful covert apology.

Palmer’s last line imagines the death of Keats’s hare, a creature symbolising the necessary words that remained unspoken. Now the present tense adds force to the verbs, “limps”, “trembles” and (not one of Keats’s words) “rots”. The poem doesn’t give way to an easy reconciliation, but sustains its sense of the mortal danger attendant on words – wrong words, and “words not given when they’re sought”.

The verse letter is an ancient genre, first associated with the Roman poet Horace, but it remains popular. And, of course, many more poems than bear the title “letter” would qualify as epistolary, in that they are informally addressed to a single, intensely present “other”. Poised between formality and informality, “tenderness” and detachment, this is a distinctive example of the genre, and an addition to it.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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