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Among Peter Meinke’s most anthologized poems, “Advice to My Son” is best known for its humorous, ironic tone and contemporary interpretation of traditional rhyme structure. First published in 1964 in The Antioch Review, the poem was anthologized in the volume Liquid Paper: New and Selected Poems (1991), published by the Pittsburgh Press. According to Meinke, he had little idea that the poem would so deeply resonate with readers when he first wrote it as a young father, inspired by a fellow professor’s bountiful garden.
“Advice to My Son” centers around a speaker giving life lessons to his son. Though much of the speaker’s advice is contradictory, it covers the deep existential question of how to fully live while being aware of one’s mortality. The speaker exhorts the son to seize the day since life may suddenly end, yet also thoughtfully plan for a long life. The final stanza ends with the speaker advising the son to serve both bread and wine, symbolizing the importance of striking a balance between necessity and beauty. Critics agree that Meinke’s fearless embrace of formal verse in the poem predate the new formalism movement, thus marking Meinke a trailblazer in his own right.
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Though “Advice to My Son” is made up of only 22 short lines, which are mostly direct and casual in tone, the poem is rich with symbolism, metaphors, rhyme, and other literary devices. Additionally, Meinke uses irony, humor, and colloquialisms to illustrate deep, philosophical concerns, creating strong moments of juxtaposition. The effect of all these elements is to illustrate the poem’s central themes centered on the bewildering, tragicomic range of human experience.
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Peter Meinke was born to a salesman father and a homemaker mother in 1932 in Brooklyn, New York. After receiving a BA at Hamilton College, Meinke served for in the US Army from 1955-57, during which time he was stationed in Würzburg, Germany. He went on to earn an MA at the University of Michigan and a PhD at the University of Minnesota.
Chronologically a contemporary of American poet Sylvia Plath, Meinke’s career as a poet and short story writer spans six decades. He has published many volumes of poetry, including Lucky Bones (2014), The Contracted World: New & More Selected Poems (2006), Zinc Fingers (2000), Liquid Paper: New & Selected Poems (1991), and The Night Train & the Golden Bird (1977). Also a celebrated short story writer, Meinke has published short fiction collections including Unheard Music (2007) and The Piano Tuner (1986), which won a Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction.
In 2015, Meinke was appointed to a four-year term as the poet laureate of Florida, after serving as the first poet laureate of St. Petersburg, Florida, where he has lived since 1966 with his wife, artist Jeannie Clarke. After directing the writing workshop at Eckerd College for many years, Meinke works as a professor emeritus there.
Known for his wit and tragicomic sensibility, Meinke writes about everyday concerns, objects, and realities. He eschews the idea that poetry should be lofty and hyper-literary. Using verse, language that ranges from philosophical to colloquial, and a juxtaposition of warmth and dark humor, Meinke explores important contemporary subjects such as war, the global arms race, and environmental degradation. In an interview with The Clockwatch Review, he stated:
I don't separate my poems into "light" and "serious"—they're cut from the same cloth, using as my model not just Donne, but the tragedies of Shakespeare, with all their imbedded jokes. I have a basically dark view of the way the world's going […] but I look on poetry as a kind of beacon in the darkness, and I would like my poems, at least, to shed a little warmth as well as light.
Meinke, Peter. “Advice to my Son.” 1964. yourdailypoem.com.
“Advice to My Son” features a speaker giving seemingly conflicting life advice to his son. The guidance encourages a balance between a carpe diem or "seize the day" mentality and a practical, planned way of living.
The poem opens with the maxim that the son of the speaker should "live your days as if each one may be your last" (Line 2) for time very quickly passes and even young men can meet an unexpected death. Though the son should live as though he may die tomorrow, he should also plan for the future in case his days run slow and he lives a long life. In case the son escapes the "shattered windshield and the bursting shell" (Line 7)—referring to a violent, unexpected death—he'll reach the long stretch of adulthood known as "our approximation here below of heaven or hell" (Lines 9-10).
If the son does make it to a long life, he should plant a mixed garden, growing vegetables like squash, spinach, turnips, and tomatoes between the aesthetically pleasing peony and rose. According to the speaker, planting beautiful flowers is important because beauty is “nectar” (Line 13). Yet, while beauty and hope can save a man who is starving in the desert, a man requires something more substantial for sustenance to actually survive the experience.
This sustenance can also be in the form of a good life partner. The speaker encourages the son to marry a pretty girl, but only after having seen her mother. They tell the son to show his soul or share his secrets only with a man with whom he doesn't work. Above all, the son must be hospitable and serve nourishing bread with sensuous wine. The speaker repeats their advice to the son in the last line, but with a critical difference: Now, they advise the listener: "But son, always serve wine” (Line 22).