Richard Hoffman

Attention, Humor, Curiosity, and Poetry. Writing While Parenting by Ben Berman

Writing While Parenting

Ben Berman
Able Muse Press
ISBN: 978-1-77349-111-0

One might think a book titled Writing While Parenting would be filled with tips about time- and stress management, about how to straddle the competing demands of parenthood and authorship, but the brief, incisive, funny, profound, and memorable essays in Ben Berman’s book offer us much more than that. Disguised by its amiability, carried along by its lovingly rendered scenes of parenting, Writing While Parenting is in fact a master class in reading and writing poetry.

Berman is the author of three previous books, Strange Borderlands, Figuring in the Figure, and Then Again. He has taught high school for more than twenty years and is former Poetry Editor of Solstice.

Any serious writer who tries to portray children, never mind one’s own children, must negotiate sentimentality’s powerful magnetic field. How is it possible to portray tenderness without self-indulgence? Without leaning on the reliable responses of readers: Aw, so cute! It’s a delicate balancing act, but Berman proves himself a virtuosic high-wire artist.

Beyond the avoidance of the many perils inherent in writing about children, the 179 brief essays here offer, in the aggregate, a grounded and intelligent exploration of the poet’s calling, an articulation of a poetics synthesized from Berman’s not inconsiderable erudition. Just a glance at the book’s index will assure a reader that Berman, for all his wit and good humor, is a serious poet and thinker. For me, one of the excitements of this book is the collapse of boundaries, the refusal to compartmentalize, whether between the literary and domestic, the poignant and the comical, the practical and the philosophical. Berman’s allusions run the gamut from Czeslaw Milosz to Beanie Boo, Cat-in-the-Hat to Samuel Beckett.

This is a book about the writing life as most writers live it — no power lunches with agents in Manhattan, no Bohemian nights in dive bars taking selfies for street cred — in other words, family life, however configured; i.e. obligations, schedules, meals, and daily crises of all sorts. The only way to thrive in it, Berman seems to be saying, is to pay attention and maintain a sense of humor. Here’s one very short piece from the book:

On why we still read the Greek classics
When I get older, my three-year-old says to me, I want to marry you.
I’m already married to Mama, I say.
Yes, my three-year-old says. But when Mama dies, you’ll need a new wife.

Again and again in these essays, anecdotes deepen into meditations on making art, on the nature and practice of poetry, of what can be learned by cultivating one’s capacity for attention. For Berman, parenting is not a one-way street, with parent as instructor and child as student; on the contrary, his considerations of childhood, of both the joys and obligations of domestic life, and the practice of poetry, are opportunities for asking what is important and why.

Berman’s children, his daughters, appear anonymously in the essays, referred to only as “my three-year-old, “my five year old” etc. The children are integral to his writing life, not a drag on it. He isn’t portraying their struggles or conscripting them as protagonists in a narrative; he is in dialogue with them, a quirky, funny, and surprising conversation that amounts to an ongoing tutorial about both parenting and poetry. Of course dialogue isn’t the right word: Berman is addressing us as well, adults who write while caring for children.

The art of parenthood teaches Berman what he needs to write good poems, and the art of poetry reminds him of the patience, openness, spontaneity, and attention required to be a good parent. Mallarmé’s advice: “Always be a poet, even in prose,” might well be amended, after reading this book, to “Always be a poet, even wrapping a diaper into a disposable package, even giving piggy-back rides, even coaxing a recalcitrant child into taking a foul-tasting medicine.

Berman simply refuses to begin with the assumption that children are a distraction, a burden. He treats them as curious, imaginative, storytelling people from whom he can learn a great deal. “There’s nothing wrong, of course,” he writes, “with the old dictum write what you know, but I also want my poems to be as bewildering and unpredictable as my children.” Or, as he writes in the final essay of the book, a letter to his daughters:

“The intellect of man is forced to choose,” writes Yeats, “Perfection of the life or of the work.”
It’s never been a choice for me. Everything I write is a love letter to the two of you.

Theodore Roethke, in his notebooks, wrote: “A teacher, I carry on my education in public.” Berman seems to have taken this to heart, and in Writing While Parenting, he offers us the fruits of his education, the lessons he has learned from his daughters, in a poet’s fine-tuned and resonant prose.

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