For nearly two years I was loosely associated with Wells College in Aurora, New York; that is to say that I dated someone who went there. My sister had taught there for one year, and I had visited when it was still an all women’s college, met a girl, and wound up living on campus and around town for some time. Ah, memories of another life. Having clicked from one link to another (starting with the entry on the film “Iron Giant”), I was reminded of that region and wound up on Wells’ Wikipedia article. There, I found that Coffin had been a notable faculty between the wars.
This poem is a nice contrast to Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”. Roethkey’s poem is a great one to use and teach, as it is not apparently clear that the father is drunk and abusive and the speaker is full of fear. It also goes great with a number of books you might teach, or students might read. For some, it may cut close to the bone. “The Secret Heart” is an anecdote.
Have students think about a sight, smell or feel that is unique to their parent. It could be toast in the morning, or the one meal your dad can make well, a perfume or the rough feel of a shirt or unshaven cheek. That thing–that one thing–is what art is about. In that thing they have captured their parent. More than a long description, they have the kernel of a poem which captures their essence.
The Secret Heart
Robert Peter Tristram Coffin
Across the years he could recall
His father one way best of all.
In the stillest hour of night
The boy awakened to a light.
Half in dreams, he was his sire
With his great hands full of fire.
The man had struck a match to see
If his son slept peacefully.
He held his palms each side the spark
His love had kindled in the dark.
His two hands were curved apart
In the semblance of a heart.
He wore, it seemed to his small son,
A bare heart on his hidden one,
A heart that gave out such a glow
No son awake could bare to know.
It showed a look upon a face
Too tender for the day to trace.
One instant, it lit all about,
And then the secret heart went out.
But shone long enough for one
To know that hands held up the sun.