The internet has no shortage of warm, fuzzy Father’s Day cards, memes and messages celebrating great dads and insane gadgets for your man. But let’s be honest—our feelings about our dads aren’t always all flowers and teddy bears and references to fishing. For those of us who don’t have the best relationships with our fathers, I’ve rounded up a few classic poems depicting less-than-perfect paternal units as a reminder that not all dads are the best around, and Father’s Day can be complicated.
“Daddy” – Sylvia Plath
Soooo I can’t decide if I should start my Father’s Day card with “Daddy, I have had to kill you. / You died before I had time” or close it with “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”—or both! Plath’s speaker battles with an omnipresent, tyrannical, pretty terrifying Daddy figure. She compares her relationship with her father’s memory to that of the Jews to the Nazis (a move which has received lots of criticism, for good reason), and to her romantic relationship with a male partner (“I made a model of you, / A man in black with a Meinkampf look”). From Robert Phillips’ 1972 review: “When [the speaker] drives the stake through her father’s heart, she not only is exorcising the demon of her father’s memory, but metaphorically is killing her husband and all men.” Happy Father’s Day!
“The Little Boy Lost” – William Blake
This poem from Blake’s Songs of Innocence is a short-and-sweet depiction of a father walking hella fast and leaving his child behind to fend for himself in a dark, dewy mire. In the companion poem “The Little Boy Found,” the crying child is brought by God himself back to his mother, who had been looking for him the whole time.
“My Papa’s Waltz” – Theodore Roethke
The waltz in this poem is not as fun as it sounds: it’s basically a drunk dad spinning his child in circles in the kitchen. The poem begins:
“The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.”
Top ten saddest moments in this poem include the father-child pair knocking over all the pans in the kitchen, the mom figure frowning, and worst of all references to possible physical abuse (“The hand that held my wrist / Was battered on one knuckle” and “You beat time on my head.”).
“Father Son and Holy Ghost” – Audre Lorde
All of Audre Lorde’s writing is basically my feminist bible, and this poem is no exception. “Father Son and Holy Ghost” is a really heartbreaking elegy reflecting on the death of a father with whom the speaker had a somewhat difficult relationship. The father is remembered in descriptions like “massive and silent,” and “Each week a different woman/ regular as his one quick glass/ each evening”—it’s a sad, honest look at saying goodbye to a father-daughter relationship that wasn’t always perfect.
“‘Daddy’ Warbucks” – Anne Sexton
The master of reframing children’s stories to horrifying effect, Sexton presents this poem in the voice of Little Orphan Annie, commenting on the speaker’s all-consuming struggle to please her “money song”-singing, “pure gold car”-driving, mega-rich ‘Daddy.’ The poem starts with a dark reference to the classic eyeball-less comic strip characters (“What’s missing is the eyeballs/ in each of us, but it doesn’t matter/ because you’ve got the bucks, the bucks, the bucks.”), and shows a ‘Daddy’ figure encouraging the speaker’s weird obsession with his wealth for maximum shudder factor.
There are plenty of other poems featuring not-so-amazing dads—let us know your favorites in the comments. Have a happy (or not so happy) Father’s Day!