Flying Poetic Kites for Father’s Day – Poems by Heaney and Stafford

Father and son with kite. Photo Credit: BJU International

Father and Son

No sound—a spell—on out
where the wind went, our kite sent back
its thrill along the string that
sagged and sang and said, “I’m here!
I’m here”—till broke somewhere,
gone years ago, but sailed forever clear
of earth. I hold—whatever tugs
the other end—I hold that string.

William Stafford from Stories That Could Be True – New and Collected Poems, Harper & Row Publishers, 1977

What a joy my poetry obsession can be! Picked up Bill Stafford’s 1977 collection of new and collected poems and found this epigraph for my post, this huge small poem, perfect for Father’s Day. And then I thought of the three poems on kite flying that Seamus Heaney had written (one) and translated (two). And in one of Heaney’s poems the string also breaks and one of them is dedicated to his two sons.

I do not in any way mean to discount daughters (I have three – Redd, Tella and Libby – and Reed and Libby who are in communication range – Tella is way up on the north coast out of cell range –  have contacted me today!) on this auspicious day. But thanks to the serendipity of finding the Stafford poem, I want to honour fathers and sons, that often fraught bond! I struggled on and off with my relationship with my Dad until his later years and am so grateful for the full and intimate relationship I have with my son, Alex.

The Stafford poem –  the poignancy of his memory of when the kite string was tight. Especially resonant for me because of the whiff of sadness this poetic kite and its string might carry. Was the son Kim, the well-known American poet, or Brett, his son who died as a young man? Is it Brett’s memory he holds? Was Brett the kite who flew, then broke away? I would guess so.

Heaney’s poem, quite different from Stafford’s. First it is addressed to his second and female grandchild (not a son although Heaney did write a kite poem to his two sons years before – see below.) and there doesn’t seem to be any holding on the kite that in Heaney’s poem so happily escapes into the wild blue yonder. A wonderful letting go. As if something so longing for heaven, like the soul, breaks free into where it most belongs!


After “L’Aquilone” by Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912)

Air from another life and time and place,
Pale blue heavenly air is supporting
A white wing beating high against the breeze,

 And yes, it is a kite! As when one afternoon
All of us there trooped out
Among the briar hedges and stripped thorn,

 I take my stand again, halt opposite
Anahorish Hill to scan the blue,
Back in that field to launch our long-tailed comet.

 And now it hovers, tugs, veers, dives askew,
Lifts itself, goes with the wind until
It rises to loud cheers from us below.

 Rises, and my hand is like a spindle
Unspooling, the kite a thin-stemmed flower
Climbing and carrying, carrying farther, higher

 The longing in the breast and planted feet
And gazing face and heart of the kite flier
Until string breaks and – separate, elate –

The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.

Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013 from Human Chain, Farrar, Straus And Giroux, 2010

How, in the next poem to his sons, the kite image takes a very different turn. Instead of escape, the kite falls to earth but before it does it becomes the power of grief pulling on their hands. Oh, the joy and yet in all poems this sense of grief. Even in the second poem. Yes, the kite and what it represents breaks free, but the kite is lost.

A Kite for Michael and Christopher

All through that Sunday afternoon
A kite flew above Sunday,
a tightened drumhead, an armful of blow chaff.

I’d seen it grey and slippy in the making,
I’d tapped it when it dried out white and stiff,
I’d tied the bows of the newspaper
along its six-foot tail.

But now it was far up like a small black lark
and now it dragged as if the bellied string
were a wet rope hauled upon
to lift a shoal.

My friend says that the human soul
is about the weight of a snipe
yet the soul at anchor there,
the string that sags and ascends,
weigh like a furrow assumed into the heavens.

Before the kite plunges down into the wood
and this line goes useless
take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.
You were born fit for it.
Stand here in front of me
and take the strain.

Seamus Heaney from Opened Ground, Faber & Faber, 1998

I do have a wonderful kite memory of my own! I am lying on the sand of Klaloch beach in Washington, my eyes closed, with my daughter Libby (under two) beside me, asleep. Our kite is attached to me! And to this day the love for all my children, the blessing of them, flies high and tight in my hand. I will not let go voluntarily!


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