This was my [IB, HL English, Paper 1, mock-exam] commentary essay on the poem “My Father’s Garden” by David Wagoner. In my class, we wrote this as our official midterm exam, and were given two hours.
I was proud of the product so I decided to share it here. I enjoyed writing the essay too because I’d been reading some relevant books in the days leading up to the exam (instead of studying for the exam, ironically), and was able to apply some of the ideas in my writing. As for the title, I don’t know. Don’t ask. (Though the show Dirk Gently might have had something to do with it. What can I say, I’m a writer that’s influenced – or inspired – heavily by my own life.) Also, in the interest of maintaining a historical record of my writing, I haven’t made any changes.
And if you’re interested in this sort of thing, I got a Level 7 (highest IB level), a raw score of 17/20 and a converted percentage of 98% on it. This was my highest mark ever on an essay in English after having struggled a lot in the course, having started with marks in the Level 4s and 5s and 87-93 in converted percentages.
To read the poem (which is recommended before you read my commentary), scroll to the bottom. A photo of my outline sheet is below as well.
David Wagoner’s “My Father’s Garden” opens with a scene straight out of Greek or Roman mythology: a fiery furnace workplace reminiscent of Hephaestus’ cave. A father’s daily trips to his steel-melting factory are depicted from his child’s perspective as heroic and demon-fighting. In the second stanza, a scrapyard is the father’s garden from which he lovingly picks inanimate flowers for his family. Then, the child reveals the unfortunate, repetitive nature of his father’s job and closes with a somber tone of loss regarding his father’s classical education. “My Father’s Garden” is a free verse but structured narrative poem whose narrator facilitates a commentary on the spiritual regression that occurred as a result of his father’s chosen path as a melder. However, the poem’s undertones suggest this was an admirable fatherly sacrifice made out of love for his family – a message that is made universally relevant though the poem’s allusion to farmers in its last line. Thus, it is through a juxtaposition of the father’s individuality as more than a worker and his mindless conformity as one, that form the basis for this piece’s relevant social commentary.
The narrator’s word choice depicts the father’s daily work environment as harsh and unwelcoming, while the poem’s line structure aids in the set-up of the mindless, dull nature of “the melter”. To begin with, the opening stanza contains a very distinctly ancient, mythological lexical set. Words like “demons”, “dragons”, and “satanic cauldrons” are allusions to mythological stories of heroic physical prowess, suggesting that the melter’s job is not only dangerous, but also primarily physical as opposed to intellectual. However, the narrator’s depiction of their father bringing home “lumps of tin and sewer grills” in the last stanza suggests that in the light of reality, the melter’s job is sad and somewhat pathetic. The imagery of the melter’s brain melting emphasizes this undertone to the poem, as does the mindless repetitiveness implied when the job is described: “in those tyger-mouthed mills/[…] the same steel reappeared over and over”. Finally, the fact that the entire poem contains only visual imagery and has no elegant, poetic rhyme scheme or rhythm creates an atmosphere of simplicity which mirrors the portrayal of “the melter”. Thus, the scene of a melter working in a harsh environment sets up the father as an unintelligent worker indistinguishable from other melters, to be then juxtaposed with his individuality.
The characterization of both the speaker and the father and the use of emotional imagery make it clear that, although the father is in a sense just another mindless melter, he is more than just that. To begin with, the title of the poem, “My Father’s Garden” is highly symbolic. A garden is frequently used to represent an idea or object that one cathects, and in suggesting that the father’s scrapyard is “his kind of garden” from which he would “pick flowers for us: small gears and cogwheels”, the father is made out to be a highly sensitive, loving individual. Furthermore, the second stanza is full of childlike and playful imagery; “flowers”, “toy soldiers”, and “grapes” are part of a lexicon set used to induce a feeling of comfort and nostalgia for readers when perceiving a melter who is not just a melter, but a father, too. Finally, the sudden mention of the father’s “classical learning” and the depiction of him filling in crosswords serves as the ultimate reminder of this character’s individuality and possession of a past. Hence, our “melter”, though rough and worn, is also a father, a crossword-puzzle-solver and a student of classical history and literature.
Ultimately, the poem extends a question to the reader, and suggests an answer through the use of contrast in both larger meanings and individually symbolic words. It asks: which is a better way of life: that of a mindless melter or that of an academic learned in Latin and Greek? Initially, it seems obvious. The melter’s life is depicted as dangerous and physically-intensive, while the loss of the father’s classical learning is mourned. Even the words used to represent both sides of the father’s life are polar opposites: “teeth like petals” and “holes for anthers”. However, in representing the scraps the father brings home as flowers, the narrator is creating contrast but not making a distinction. The father’s gifts are simultaneously flowers and gears. Even the father himself is both a “magna sine laude” and a heroic warrior with a “lance/ To pierce the fireclay”. The tone of the piece remains one of love and admiration. And arguably, it’s a love that is all the more true for its criticism and recognition of the father’s sacrifices in order to attain the family life he now possesses.
In conclusion, the poem’s narrator is a conscientious critic of his father’s personal sacrifice, portrayed as a spiritual regression, and, as such, communicates the message that love represents both a gain and a loss of self. Through the poem’s simplistic structure, use of emotion-inducing visual imagery and the intentionally symolic lexical sets used, the poem juxtaposes the father’s melter life with his family life. Most of all, the poem plays with out own prejudices, whirling us through a personal journey to reach our conclusion regarding the father’s life. However, love trumps all in this poem, proving that is is love and not monetary or conventional success which is the secret source of the father’s happiness. Finally, the suggestively farmer-like imagery in the last lines, “brought home lumps of tin and sewer grills/ As if they were his ripe prize vegetables” extends the story onto a more universal field. This story belongs to every father, farmer, melter, and intellectual alike.
“My Father’s Garden” by David Wagoner
On his way to the open hearth where white-hot steel
Boiled against furnace walls in wait for his lance
To pierce the fireclay and set loose demons
And dragons in molten tons, blazing
Down to the huge satanic caldrons,
Each day he would pass the scrapyard, his kind of garden.
In rusty rockeries of stoves and brake drums,
In grottoes of sewing machings and refrigerators,
He would pick flowers for us: small gears and cogwheels
With teeth like petals, with holes for anthers,
Long stalks of lead to be poured into toy soldiers,
Ball bearings as big as grapes to knock them down.
He was called a melter. He tried to keep his brain
From melting in those tyger-mouthed mills
Where the same steel reappeared over and over
To be reborn in the fire as something better
Or worse: cannons or cars, needles or girders,
Flagpoles, swords, or plowshares.
But it melted. His classical learning ran
Down and away from him, not burning bright.
His fingers culled a few cold scraps of Latin
And Greek, magna sine laude,* for crosswords
And brought home lumps of tin and sewer grills
As if they were his ripe prize vegetables.