Writing a litany of praise for anyone to whom you owe gratitude for life lessons will work in interesting ways if you take on the seemingly unpraiseworthy as if it were praiseworthy. You will get interesting results that push your writing past easy sentimentality or blinding anger to the important waters of insight.
Praising What Was Unpraiseworthy
Thinking this way, I jotted down images and events I associated with my father that my mother, my sister and I had made fun about for years. I remembered: that he smoked before the Surgeon General’s report, that he kept cat skulls on his shelves that everyone thought were morbid, that he never trusted my sister and me to take care of things, even if they were for us, that my mother had talked for years about how he’d once abandoned her to deal alone with backed up plumbing, that his friends made fun of him for the grass he planted in a flowerpot. With images from these memories in mind, I wrote a litany repeating the words “I praise him for….” and then added a lesson I might have inadvertently learned from his behavior. I titled my litany to highlight the contrast between what I see now in contrast to how the family had always judged things.
Some Things He May Not Know He Taught Me
For my father
I praise him for two varnished skulls from cats
he’d dissected in biology, the way he bolted those skulls to mahogany
and kept them on his shelves, a trophy for attending college against the odds.
I praise him for the diligence with which he wrote a jingle night after night
at our kitchen table trying to win prizes from the supermarket, the special care
he took with the 78 rpm Pinocchio album his jingle won him, how he kept it
on a high shelf so my sister and I would not touch it when he was not around.
I praise the way he cherished what he worked so hard for.
I praise him for the clay pot he planted with grass seed scooped from the ground
when gardeners sowed a lawn each spring between the buildings of our court.
I praise him for the joke he made, cutting the grass each Saturday
with scissors, showing my sister and me that chores get done.
I praise him for the day when I was four and watched him shave
until the plumbing backed up. With an inch of sewer water underfoot,
he lifted me from the room waking my mother in a hurry,
telling her the problem, his feet already out the door to work.
She yelled how it wasn’t fair to leave her with the mess.
I praise him for teaching me nothing unexpected need be fair.
I praise him for the hand he slammed against the steering wheel
our first time through the Lincoln Tunnel when a car rear-ended us
and his sample cases of pharmaceuticals clanked, smashed and oozed.
I praise him for the way he did not easily accept what wasn’t in his control.
Quick most times to anger, he let us know his burden and his soul.
Another writing idea for this kind of exploration is to create a word snapshot. In his first chapbook, Across the Smooth Lens of the Lake, Seattle poet Gary Winans included a poem called “From the Picture Window,” in which he imagines being able to see his late father filling the bird feeders. The poem ends with the speaker seeing snow filling his father’s footsteps. This image is haunting in its ability to evoke the essence of memory, how it makes a person come alive and disappear once more. I admire the title for the way it sets the reader in a location and then puns on the word “picture,” as if sitting at a picture window with its opening to the world, one could see whatever picture one projects through it.
If you want to write another poem about a person of influence, try creating a snapshot by locating yourself where you might frequently have watched that person doing something in their normal routine. Where are you? That is your title. What is the person doing? That is the snapshot. What ending image can you find that comes directly from this location and activity that also tells something about the person or your relationship? That is the work of the poem, the discovery.
Here is the result of my try at this assignment:
Sitting in a Black and Gold Replica of an Early American Rocker
I see my father at his maple desk staring at index cards to memorize
the pharmaceutical sales pitches he’ll need that week
to call on doctors. His hair is closely cropped, barbered
every Saturday without fail. His suit, his tie hang nightly in his closet.
Soon he’ll give me the printed cards he studies from. He’ll say the words
he’s learned by heart about dosages, side effects, and illness indications.
If he stumbles over phrases, I think it’s just to keep me on my toes,
It’ll be a long time before I think there’s anything he’d get wrong.
Think of someone you might write a piece about to explore their influence and/or your admiration. And then see if using these strategies works to help you write what you might not have written otherwise.