It's really nice to see you here again. I was in London over 9/11, attending a reading at Batterton House, just feeling the warmth of that wonderful English poetry community. I miss that night, that place and those people very much. I bet that if you get to London, they still have those regular Tuesday night poetry readings. Anybody can sign up to read any it's the warmest audience in the world. You really ought to give it a shot. I bet that Poetry Review has something about it on its web site. And The Wolf, which is a very nice English little magazine, used to have and may still have a good web site.
If I'm not being presumptuous, I'd like to talk to you about your poem. First, everything that everybody said before I'm putting my bit in, well, they're right. It is a sad poem, there is a lot of feeling, it is moving, and it does get loneliness across. What I want to talk to you about is how to improve the poem by listening to the poem and trying to get at what the poem wants from you.
I think that's a somewhat different poem than the one you've written here. I think what you've got here is a very fine early draft of a good poem.
The first two lines of the poem start us off well. You've given us two objects, two things that we can see somewhat vaguely in front of our inner vision. Then you comment editorially about the objects in the next two lines. The difficulty here is that I, as a reader, don't have enough of a picture in front of me for you to leave me alone in the dark while you fill in backstory. The editorial comment is, in effect, a flashback with no pictures, no sounds, smells or sights to make it come alive for me, the reader. One possible solution among many is that you make the details of the wardrobe and dresser more visual and lively by extending your imagination further into the scene. You've only been able to show in the poem what you've been able to imagine the room in your writing process, so if you make your scene more visually detailed in your head by taking a walk around the room and putting the lamps and rugs and windows and plants and stairs in, you'll have more details (and their colors) to chose from in fleshing out your first stanza.
Now if it's still important to you that you get it across that this character about whom you're talking was in "the wars" you need to think about how you get that across. Remember, you can't do this on a first draft and often not for several more; you need to get stuff to work with down on paper, as you do here. What I'm talking about is letting the poem help you with your revisions.
I say "the character about whom you're talking" because at this stage, that character will need to stop being your father and will have to start to become the character your poem needs him to be.
In Richard Hugo's book, The Triggering Town, which I speak of often, he makes an interesting point. It's better to find the place and the characters that hit you or turn you on in some other place, a place in the imagination that you can transport to some realistic town someplace else. In your town you have trouble talking clearly about Mr. Peabody, that poor guy with the alcohol problem next door who has to go to all those meetings, but in the town your poem makes for you, the Triggering Town, he can be
The fat drunk next door who smells like wool.
I just made him up. But for the sake of the poem, you may want to see where the poem takes you, and who the father the poem creates may be. It may surprise you. You can always hope so.
Anyway, should you want to talk about the pitiful legacy the man leaves, you can actually show it. In the second stanza, rather than offering us "First editions of Old Newspapers" a decent detail by the way, why not offer us some headlines, with markings and underlinings on The Guardian, The Mail or whatever that would tend to place him in specific places, doing specific things that are unheroic or desperatly heroic and that are in contrast or are a forshadowing of the life he has since come to lead.
Don't let the necessity for a rhyme force you to pad out a stanza. If there's trouble, as an experiment pick four already decent rhymes that aren't the ones you have and see if you can come up with another stanza that says something else using those rhyme words. It doesn't have to follow, you know. If the stanza is good, you'll probably be able to find a bridge at some point.
The tobacco tin is another good touch. Three Nuns? Sobranie? Some mixture of Burley and Bright? If used decently, you can use brands of pipe tobacco as a means of characterizing and forwarding the direction of a poem as well, and installing the sort of detailing that can make a poem sparkle. When I used to smoke a pipe, one of my favorites was an American tobacco called Revelation. I bought it by the pouch, and my first pouch cost me seven cents, about three pence these days. The I switched to a mixture called Half and Half, which was, oddly enough, half Burley tobacco and Bright tobacco, and I liked to think of myself as being half burley and half bright. I use myself as an example.
You have a lovely touch here with the broken watch, the brooch, the fuse, the half dozen assorted screws. Again, if you can insert your imagination, this will become more real. You will be able to report what you in fact did with the watch or any of these objects. Did you wish you had a wife for the brooch? What did the broken watch feel like on your wrist? Did the band still smell of old man?
If you offer enough of these actual sensory details, you won't need to call these things "worldly goods," because the reader will experience more fully what an insult that cliche is to the actual life of the man, even if he is shown
Like a knife thrower's assistant,and only in the ring of details in which you can outline him. They need to be sharp and they need to be accurate and they need to be close, otherwise the picture is lost.
Leave out the tears in your eyes. You can approach the same result without hitting your reader with a a book of instructions. Talk instead about the details of the photograph.
Nine people in a photograph
Taken at a fun fair by the sea
Thin mouths slung open for the laugh.
The only one survives is me.
This is clearly inferior, and not in your style at all. There is a tone of self-pity that in implied far too openly, but I've tried to be a bit more concrete, and I've taken out "my family tree," which is not really fresh enough for the effect I think you're shoot for.
I think I sent you some comments about a prior poem as well, but I couldn't find it in the lists to see what you'd made of my thinking. I'm hoping you find this useful. That's the way it's intended. All my best, BobK.