A Close Reading of “Elegy for My Father,” by Annie Finch

Annie Finch titled her 2013 volume of selected poems Spells for good reason. A Wiccan as well as a poet, she recognizes the power of incantation in creating an altered consciousness, a state in which a strongly held vision can move from the realm of possibility into reality. Not all of Finch’s poems are visionary or transformative in intention, but they do share a powerfully persuasive incantatory quality.

Finch relies on a number of poetic techniques to create these incantations, most notably repetition of words and phrases and the use of iambs—the thump-THUMP of a heartbeat that calls up instinctive memories of the womb. But her repertory far exceeds the basic iamb, as we see in “Elegy for My Father.” While the poem definitely meets the criteria of an elegy – it recounts the vigil at her father’s deathbed – its complex dactylic meter runs counterpoint to the somber subject matter. Lines alternate between pure dactylic tetrameter and dactylic trimeter with a final, stressed syllable at the end, as in this example:

Under the ocean that stretches out wordlessly
past the long edge of the last human shore
there are deep windows the waves haven’t opened
where night is reflected through decades of glass.

As I was parsing the meter of this poem, I could not shake the feeling that I had heard it before, but extensive research hasn’t been able to produce a clear source.[i] My best guess is that it’s a meter common to traditional English song and poetry. Finch’s use of rhythm and meter feels almost instinctive, but it wasn’t until I studied this poem closely that I realized the depth of her mastery. Sustaining a dactylic meter is difficult, but she keeps the pattern strong through the whole poem. The complex pattern seem appropriate to such a tumultuous and yet common experience as the death of a loved one. It’s possible to interpret the tripping rhythm in more than one way. Is it playful and childlike, or uneasy and off-balance? One of the joys of poetry is that it can be both at once. Finch draws out both interpretations:

There is the nursery, there is the nanny,
there are my father’s unreachable eyes

and then breaks the rhythm in this line, echoing its meaning:

turned toward the window. Is the child uneasy?

These departures wouldn’t be as noticeable if the overall dactylic meter weren’t so regular.

I was especially impressed with “the wild gaze of a wild, wave-fed seal.” Finch’s elegy describes a journey “past the long end of the last human shore,” like Beowulf’s whale-road. Finch has translated Anglo-Saxon poetry, and its alliterative verse echoes in this line.

What begins as a journey by water ends as a journey by air (“flying so his thought could fly”). This transition jibes with the Wiccan symbols of death (water, west) and rebirth (air, east). The final image of the poem drives home that this is a completed cycle:

He has given his body; his hand lies above
the sheets in a symbol of wholeness, a curve
of thumb and forefinger

I admire the way that Finch’s work incorporates a belief system I share without descending into overly earnest cliché. I tend to encode my own beliefs more; her poetry challenges me to be more courageous and skillful in this arena. I do find that Finch can adhere to meter rather too closely for my tastes, especially when she uses iambic pentameter.  But reading her – and focusing on meter in general this semester – has also made me more conscious of it in my own revisions. I often struggle with the question of when a line should be regularly metrical and when it should be syncopated. As Paul Fussell writes, most poets use meter instinctively. But applying craft to instinct during revision is what can make the difference between a mediocre poem and a beautiful one.

Works Cited
Finch, Annie. Spells: New and Selected Poems. Wesleyan University Press, 2013. Print.

Reference on Metrical Forms:
Mayes, Frances. The Discovery of Poetry. Harcourt, 2001. Print.
Fussell, Paul. Poetic Meter & Poetic Form. McGraw-Hill, 1979. Print.

End Note
[i] The closest that I got were the introductory lines of Byron’s “The Bride of Abydos.”