David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Poem as Whistling Father


When I was a boy in east Texas my father used to take me to the beach on Galveston Island. With my older brothers and our dog, Velvet, a brown boxer with a sweetie pie disposition, we’d take a day at the beach as slow and easy. It was, in my memory, an ordinary, 1970s kind of outing. And in this memory, my brothers and I are all under the age of twelve. We’d swim and goof off in the waves and drift far in the tide like jellyfish, drift far from our umbrella and then have to trudge back up the beach to find everyone. Wandering back the long beach I would look for people we knew from town or kids we’d played with other times. You know, local beach kids. I remember this fantastic game too: We’d throw a soggy tennis ball in and out of the water to each other—this was a monkishly simple game of one brother treading water in the easy waves while another brother, standing on the wet sand with the water lapping at his ankles, threw the ball to you so you could you try to make a spectacular, slow-motion, aqueous dive and catch in your bare hand. And then, submerging underwater, you’d triumphantly hold the caught tennis ball high and wet above the waves into the air.

We ate lunch in parcels—peanut butter and jelly, a bag of chips, soda pop, plus stolen sips of my father’s Schlitz when he wasn’t looking—and we kept a lazy eye on Velvet who like most dogs in those days—this would be the early 1970s as I say—were permitted, at least not restricted, to wander the beach and surf and make friends and get into gentle trouble. Sweat-long, humid, east Texas summer days at Galveston beach with the aroma everywhere, not of sunblock—I mean, c’mon—but cocoa butter oil and lemons squeezed into girls’s hair and windy bonfires and BBQ grills and car exhaust from the cars driving on the beach. And along the seawall there were roller skaters and girls in bikini tops and terry cloth shorts, and shirtless men. And venders selling hot dogs and snow cones and caramel corn.

These are my shorthand memories.

Late in the afternoon my father would stand near our station of half-buried, sand-dotted towels held in place by a styrofoam cooler and then he’d tongue-stab his bottom lip to whistle us all to come in and reunite—brothers and dog alike, who needed to be located from somewhere down the beach near one of the jetties. My father had a high and loud stab of a whistle. It was nearly impossible not to hear it even among the beach din. Like sending an uncoded message, he whistled in high-pitched, naval blurts. Spread out as far as we might have been on the beach or in the waves, we could hear him whistling all right and knew well to heed the summons. Woe to him who offered the weak excuse that he hadn’t heard the call.

A poem too always begins with a call like this, like a whistle, to come in. Woe to the poet who does not hear it. You! a poem calls to the poet, up and at ’em. Let’s go. Get in here. Time to gather, time to remove yourself from the day-to-day and return to being alert to your psyche where your language is always, already, at home. You’re not yet in the place you need to be, a poem says as it calls the poet in, so come on home. For example: Robert Frost’s poem “The Pasture” dramatizes a version of this poet’s summons:

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

When you consider Frost’s poem and when you consider your own poem’s call to you, you know you might very well be headed into a terrifying adventure. But also inside the adventure in your imagination is pleasure too. There’s some hidden gem, is what I mean. There’s the sweet fruit of consciousness. There’s something you can touch and be touched by. A clearing of water, as Frost says, a lick.

Isn’t it worth wondering, then, where does a poem take you after it calls you in, calls you from your life into your creative psyche?

For many poets, a poem calls you away from the center of your existence into some location in your mind and imagination where something—you don’t know what—has previously been lost. And then you write the poem to find what has been lost. Your poem is the answer to the call.

For me, the process resembles being a boy again and returning with Velvet and and my brothers to a whistling father. And, as a poet, I now respond to the call and summons to write as if I might represent the human world alongside the animal world as we tarry in the summer heat and where, at the edge of consciousness, the sandy earth intersects with the saltwater of creation.

You can see how the tenor of a poem’s call might be different for every poet. The 19th century American poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman concludes his Sonnet XXX with these lines:

In all, I seemed to hear the same deep dirge;
Borne in the wind, the insect’s tiny trill,
And crash and jangle of the shaking surge;
And knew not what they meant,—prohetic woe?
Dim bodings, wherefore? Now, indeed, I know!

Tuckerman’s lines reveal his awareness that the summons into poetry may not come in words but as some “deep dirge… / Borne in the wind.” Which is to say, paradoxically, that poems are the best things that almost can’t be spoken. They exist, prior to becoming poems, beyond the reach of words as a “shaking surge” and “dim bodings.”

Now this difficulty to relocate poetry from the “trill” of existence into language contributes to why even we poets sometimes misunderstand our own poems. “I don’t know what that means,” Robert Bly says of one of his own poems after reading it to an audience, “but it sounds good.”

I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that poems are often misunderstood, even after they’ve been composed and revised, because poems come from a place in the psyche that’s difficult to speak of. To be fair, poems are often misunderstood because the poet confuses the factual events of the call with what the events represent. If, for example, I write a poem about my father, am I simply David writing about his actual dad? Or am I a son living in east Texas writing about a father living in east Texas. Or might my poem aim for something truer, larger, and also more resonate and archetypal if it dramatizes the situation as a son seeking to reunite with the summons from the father? Not just David and dad and not just uniting us as two separate entities—boy with man—but son and father in the deepest sense of bonding and uniting into the same body they once shared. The mouth of the father from which the whistle comes seeks the ear of the son—whoever they might be. This is a feeling every poet understands about our impulses and inspirations.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean by this analogy that poems are just about sons and fathers. Of course not. That’s just one analogy for the process of being called to write a poem. The summons is obviously not only male. For example, Ana Božičević writes in “Swan” about answering the summons from the female:

I went to the place I was born
and it plainly was a bride. So I ran after her.

When she turned into a star I swallowed her.
And out of this uneasiness will come
an aster.

By arriving at the birth of the imagination—“the place I was born”—she can hear that what has called her into her poem is the bride of consciousness. She takes to that summons, all right. She “ran after” the summons and “swallowed her” so that the new transformation “out of this uneasiness” spirits her as the poet into blossoming.

You see this sort of thing too in D. H. Tracy’s “Guess the Races of Three Boys from Champaign” in which the last line dramatizes a trust in this transformative call and response of poem to poet: “We need be lots of things, but never lonely,” Tracy says, indicating that a poet’s summons is always a prelude to a reunion.

And in the entirety of Robert Pinsky’s “Samurai Song,” we see the call as a voice animating another voice right into song:

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.

Pinsky’s revelation here is that the summons to the poet comes both from the external world—as in my father calling me in from the beach at the end the day where we will enter the night together—and also as a currency or tally of the soul from your interior, psychic world as well. It calls you to a new attentiveness to the “temple” of your poetic utterance.

But you know this already. If you’ve read this essay this far, you already know that your following the call into writing a poem, which might have come from some external stimuli, as I say, is actually a diving into the interior psyche of your existence. PW 2. Dreams and doors and tunnels that were not there before you answered the call from ordinary time to return you to your poetry-making consciousness.

But even this experience of responding to the call and summons to write can be brief. It might not last longer than the time it takes to whistle. Think, then, of the times you believe you have a poem in your mind and then, when you hesitate, when you refuse to mull what is present there, when you delay, the dream goes away, the windows become walls, the doors close, the tunnels become just small holes in the sand like something a dog has dug.

It’s better that you answer the whistle right away so that when you accept the call, you can become a new filter for perception. Then others will follow you—that is, after you’ve come in from the edge of the watery, sand-laden world and written your poem and gifted it into back to others who remain outside the edges of time in a coastal boundary where land and water of their consciousness come together and fall back and come together over and over again.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →