Poem at Thirty-Nine by Alice Walker

How I miss my father.
I wish he had not been
so tired
when I was
born.

Writing deposit slips and checks
I think of him.
He taught me how.
This is the form,
he must have said:
the way it is done.
I learned to see
bits of paper
as a way
to escape
the life he knew
and even in high school
had a savings
account.

He taught me
that telling the truth
did not always mean
a beating;
though many of my truths
must have grieved him
before the end.

How I miss my father!
He cooked like a person
dancing
in a yoga meditation
and craved the voluptuous
sharing
of good food.

Now I look and cook just like him:
my brain light;
tossing this and that
into the pot;
seasoning none of my life
the same way twice; happy to feed
whoever strays my way.

He would have grown
to admire
the woman I’ve become:
cooking, writing, chopping wood,
staring into the fire.

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13 comments on “Poem at Thirty-Nine by Alice Walker
  1. Profile photo of Kerry-Louise Boyne says:

    The title of this poem refers to Walker’s age when she wrote it. This age is significant to her because she has realised something about her father and the poem is an expression of this realisation.

    The poem focuses on the relationship between a father and daughter. From the first line, “how I miss my father”, it is already clear that Walker loves her father and wishes to be with him, but he is absent. When she was born, her father was “so tired”. It is not clear why he was, but it might have been from the burden of another mouth to feed or from debt. She wishes that he had not been as tired as he was, showing that she cares about him and possibly feels guilty for making him feel worse; although, i believe this may not have been true because any father would be overwhelmed that they have a new child and wouldn’t see her as a burden.

    The entire second verse is about their relationship with money. Walker thinks of her father when “writing deposit slips and checks”, because he cared enough about her financial well being to teach her how to manage her savings which is slightly out of the ordinary because at such a young age you wouldn’t expect a dad to be teaching his daughter such things.. He “must have” given her the instructions, although the word “must” implies a little doubt and that she cannot clearly recall what he said. This suggests that it happened a long time ago, maybe when she was very young. This means that money is important to both of them, so he, as a parent, decided to teach her about it early on.

    Even though money is important, Walker refers to it as “bits of paper” which juxtaposes the idea before hand, completely belittling it to the status of scrap paper. This can be seen as irony, especially since later in the sentence she reinforces money’s significance by saying she had a bank account “even in high school”. This means she must have been taught to manage her finances at a relatively young age. She mentions her desire to “escape the life he (her father) knew” and associates that with saving up, suggesting her family had been in debt or generally in a bad situation financially. Since her father taught her about banking, he must have cared about her future and wanted her to be better off than he was.

    The next verse adds an interesting dimension to their relationship. It shows that Walker’s father was a strong influence in her life. He taught her to be honest and didn’t punish her if she told the truth, although some things she said “must have grieved him”. This suggests she could not always live up to his expectations, but at least there was no deception between them.

    The first line of the next verse echoes the opening line, this time with an exclamation mark. This puts emphasis on the line and suggests that over time, she misses him more and more. This is a turning point in the poem; the previous verses are more melancholic, while the later ones sound more hopeful.

    Walker describes her father’s way of cooking as “dancing in a yoga meditation”. Dancing and meditation seem to be completely contrasting; dance is movement, while meditation implies stillness. This gives an oxymoronic effect. Both activities are seen as enjoyable, though, so he must have loved cooking. As he combines dance and meditation while cooking, he treats it as an art form like dance and although he is busily moving his mind is at peace. Cooking is an act of provision, so this is his way of expressing love for his daughter. This has clearly influenced her, as she now “look and cook” the way he did and is as generous with food as he had been. The assonance in this line draw attention to it. This similarity is ironic, because previously she had stated her desire to live a life different from his. It can also be a sign of her love for him, since she has followed his example. Because of his impact on her, in a way, he is still with her.

    His influence on her is also apparent when she says “he would have grown to admire the woman I’ve become”. This shows that she still wants his approval and wishes to make him proud of how far she has come in life. It also shows that she has changed a lot since the time when she had “grieved” her father and that she has grown up and realized how much he means to her. She now does many things, “cooking, writing, chopping wood, staring into the fire”. Cooking is traditionally a woman’s role in a family, while chopping wood is a man’s. Writing is her work, while staring into the fire is a sort of relaxation. The string of words ending with “-ing” gather all the different aspects of Walker into one whole.

    The poem is written with short lines in free verse. The intuitive leaps between verses and the informal tone make it sound like a stream of thought. The frequent use of “I” makes this very personal and the nostalgic atmosphere makes it clear that she is recalling happy times from the past that she has spent with her father.

  2. Profile photo of Deana says:

    The title of the poem represents, or has something to do with Alice Walker’s age. This age is important to Walker as she realized something to do with her father at this age. The theme of the poem is the relationship between father and daughter in the poem Walker said ‘how I miss my father’ it is clear that Walker cares for and loved her father but he is no longer with her at this moment in time. Walker describes her father as being “so tired” which makes her feel disappointed. However, we do not know why her father is tired whether it is due to illness we do not know.

    In stanza three the reader understands that Walker was taught good behaviour and was not punished for telling the truth, even though some of the truths that she told her father must have disappointed and upset him. Although the phrase “did not always mean a beating” can make us assume that she did experience some kind of physical abuse/punishment.

    The quote “dancing in a yoga meditation” juxtaposes each other. The first line of the next stanza implies to us that she now cooks just like him; therefore his particular way of cooking must have had some kind of influence on her. Within the last stanza, the first line, “he would have grown to admire the woman that I become” portrays that Walker only wanted to make her father proud of her and the way she has tried to live up to his expectations and the way he had disciplined her she always tried to make herself the woman that he wanted her to become.

  3. Profile photo of amy p says:

    ‘Poem at Thirty-Nine,” is a very personal poem and revolves around the theme of a daughter’s relationship with her father. At the time the poem was written, the author was divorced and aged thirty nine. She had a daughter who was 16 at the time.

    The first line of the poem is “How I miss my father,”. Straight away we learn that the author’s father is no longer in her life. The author could possibly have been thinking about the lack of a father figure in her daughter’s life.

    Furthermore, the quote “He taught me,” indicates that her father was a teacher and very authoritative, thus implying that she felt intimidated by him and was possibly even scared of him. This is supported later in the poem when the author writes about “a beating,”.

    However, this is later contradicted as, as the poem continues, she writes about how her father would have been proud of her “He would have grown to admire the woman I’ve become,”. This portrays how, although her father was ‘a teacher,’ he also loved her and that overall, they had a good relationship.

  4. Profile photo of Sophie says:

    Poem at Thirty-Nine
    This poem was written by Alice Walker in 1983. The poem revolves around her dead father and describes the traits and attributes that the author misses the most about him. The poem also reminisces about the man he was, as well as his opinions and actions in response to events that took place while she was growing up. It is clear from the beginning that she regrets not making the most of the time she spent with him from the lines ‘How I miss my father, I wish he had not been so tired’. It also conveys how on hindsight she has developed into someone with very similar traits to her father, such as her outlook on life. ‘Now I look and cook just like him: my brain light’ this shows how she is proud to have these traits and compares herself with him, with a fond sense of nostalgia. Walker clearly valued her father a lot and nothing has changed since he has passed, ‘He would have grown to admire the woman I’ve become’.

  5. Profile photo of Brooke Roberts says:

    ‘Poem at thirty-nine’ by Alice Walker focuses on a daughter looking bacj on how much she misses her deceased father. Although some of her thoughts relate to a young child such as ‘he taugh me…’ it is the title that informs us it was written when she was of a womens age: 39.

    She portrays her father as both negative and positve and switches between the two a lot. For example she mentions ‘he cooked like a person dancing’ which has a positive connotation but also mentions how ‘he taught me that telling the truth didn’t always mean a beating.’ the link to child cruelty also links to the final stanza. By using the phrase ‘he would have grown to admire the women i’ve become’ it implies that it would have taken him time and effort to admire his own daughter. Also the final line ‘staring unto the fire’ could have a spiritual link to hell, connoting he was imfact a bad dad or man.

  6. Profile photo of jenna says:

    Alice Walker, author of “Poem at Thirty-Nine” was in fact thirty nine years old when she wrote the poem. There is an evident semi-autobiographical nature to the poem, which is written from a negative perspective at first however a positive perspective in the last three stanzas. The poem was produced to serve the purpose of displaying the relationship between Alice and her father from when she was born up until when her father passed away. Phrases such as “He would have…” imply that her father is no longer around. The first stanza of the poem “How I miss my father. I wish he had not been so tired when I was born” illustrates deep regret about Alice and her fathers relationship when she was a young child however describing that she does “miss” him demonstrates that they did have a good relationship at some points in their lives and she appreciates that.
    The second and third stanza describe the way in which she learnt from her father which is portrayed in a rather negative manner. “This is the form, he must have said: the way it is done.” This phrase illustrates Alice’s fathers ways of teaching which seem to be either his way or no way. This idea connotes that Alice may have felt trapped by her father and his strict ways. She describes that she “learned to see bits of paper as a way to escape”. Here Alice is referring to her writing which was her way of dealing with what was happening in her life, mostly within her and her father’s relationship.
    Although these ideas surrounding Alice and her fathers relationship are clearly negative, the last three stanzas put a new positive perspective on things. The last stanza “He would have grown to admire the woman i’ve become” shows that Alice believes that her father would be proud of her now as a woman. This idea has connotations of love and an unbroken bond between family members. This phrase also implies that her fathers view is still very important to her even if he is not around to witness her doings.

  7. Profile photo of Vicky Murkett says:

    The relationship between the speaker and her farther goes through various stages through the poem. The first stanza shows regret “I wish he had not been so tired”. This regret is continued into the next stanza which happens to be the longest. The poem reflects on money and what it meant to her father and as it’s the longest stanza it symbolizes it took up most of his life and that’s is the main reason for regret. This stanza also comes after the line “how I miss my farther.” The full stop convey no emotion and that it is just a statement again presenting that she doesn’t connect to this part of her farther.
    “How I miss my farther!” implies a change in emotion as it is more passionate. Within this stanza two words are given a line of their own to portray significance ‘dancing’ and ‘sharing’. Dancing shows how she preferred his more creative and relaxed side, it also contradicts him being ‘tired’ when she was born which could imply dancing as more of a metaphor to present his emotions instead of being literal. Sharing shows how he made up for all the time spent of money. The poet states “ now I look and cook just like him” conveying how she did connect to the passionate side of her farther and showing how this is what strengthened their relationship as its part of her as well as part of him.

  8. Profile photo of Rhianna Creasey says:

    The title of this poem refers to Walker’s age when she wrote it. This age is significant to her because she has realized something about her father and the poem is an expression of this realization.

    The main theme of Poem at Thirty Nine is the relationship between Alice Walker and her father. In the first line Walker writes “how I miss my father”, this suggests that Walker loves her father and wishes to be with him, but he is absent. When she was born, her father was “so tired”. The poem does not say why he was, but it might have been implied from the burden of another mouth to feed or from debt. She wishes that he had not been as tired as he was, showing that she cares about him and possibly feels guilty for adding to his cost of living. In addition to this analysis, the second stanza in the poem is about money and what Walker thinks of her father when “writing deposit slips and checks”, because he cared enough about her financial wellbeing to teach her how to manage her savings.

    Even though money is important, Walker refers to it as “bits of paper”, completely belittling it to the status of scrap paper. This can be seen as irony, especially since later in the sentence she reinforces money’s significance by saying she had a bank account “even in high school”. This means she must have been taught to manage her finances at a relatively young age. She mentions her desire to “escape the life he (her father) knew” and associates that with saving up, suggesting her family had been in debt or generally in a bad situation financially. Since her father taught her about banking, he must have cared about her future and wanted her to be better off than he was.

  9. Profile photo of Georgina King says:

    The title ‘Poem at Thirty-Nine’ denotes the age of Alice Walker when she wrote the poem; the poem reflects on her past in a partially autobiographical way. The main themes of childhood and child-parent relationships found within this poem are displayed through the structural features and imagery presented to the reader. The speaker talks of her father in a negative way to begin with, mirroring her unhappiness through the use of unorganised stanzas to reflect a dysfunctional family life without having a loving father figure. However, the perception of her father changes when she says “craved the voluptuous sharing” which juxtaposes the previous negative image. It connotes a lively and passionate person of which the speaker then continues to describe herself in the same manner. When nearing the age of 40, the author is using this description to inform the reader that when you reach a certain age, you often take the same approach as your parents through the influence they had on you since childhood. The stanzas become more structured towards the end of the poem displaying the speaker’s life as becoming more organised, possibly after an event such as leaving home. Although, the last stanza is short which is used by Walker to portray the end of this chapter of her life, before she begins a new phase when she turns 40.

  10. Profile photo of Felicity Hale says:

    Walker describes her father’s way of cooking as “dancing in a yoga meditation”. Dancing and meditation seem to be completely contrasting; dance is movement, while meditation implies stillness. Both activities are seen as enjoyable, though, so he must have loved cooking. As he combines dance and meditation while cooking, he treats it as an art form like dance and although he is busily moving his mind is at peace. He has clearly influenced her, as she now “looks and cooks” the way he did and is as generous with food as he had been. Previously she had stated her desire to live a life different from his. It can also be a sign of her love for him, since she has followed his example. Because of his impact on her, in a way, he is still with her.

  11. Profile photo of Sofia says:

    ‘Poem at Thirty Nine’ was written by Alice Walker and she was thirty nine when she wrote this poem which is significant as she felt like she was getting older. This tells the reader that the poem is based on her personal experience meaning that the speaker and the author are the same person. The author explores the themes of relationship towards her father and also money.

    The second stanza is about the relationship with money. The speaker sees her dad as her teacher. “I think of him. He taught me how.” This quotation suggests that she was influential and even the simplest things bring back memories of her dad. In addition to that, he gave her responsibility at an early age as the poem mentions that “even in highs school had a savings account.” This implies that wealth was seen as a priority over race but she didn’t care. However the poet refers to money as ‘bits of paper.’ Money was important to both of them yet it refers to it as paper which is ironic.

    The poet also talks about her dad being a teacher to her in the next stanza but this time says,”…not always mean a beating;” The verb ‘beating’ could have alternate meanings. Firstly, it could mean that her dad used to physically beat her which reinforces the dictatorial idea and she was scared of her dad. Alternatively, it could be interpreted as sometimes the truth hurt. The poet then extends that phrase with a semi colon saying that, “…though many of my truths must have grieved him..” which could convey that she did not always live up to his expectations and it could have been because of her creative nature. However, the later stanzas become more hopeful and the speaker wishes that her father could see what she has accomplished which further connotes that his views are still important to her.

  12. Profile photo of Lauren McCorkell says:

    ‘Poem at Thirty-Nine’ is an autobiographical poem of which a woman is talking about her father and how she misses him. We assume he has died because of the past tense used throughout “cooked”, “taught” etc. The poem begins on a negative feel however it grows into the positive. The title of the poem connotes that the author is 39 years of age and she is reflecting back on her past as she is getting older.
    “I wish he had not been/so tired/when I was/born” implies that her father was going through a hard time, maybe he was ill. She seems to show regret through this and we can see how she also has regret from when he was alive. Their relationship may not have been stable because he was going through a hard time or because she did not do the things he wished her to do and was not the person he wanted her to be. “He would have grown/to admire/the women I’ve become” implies that maybe he would not have accepted the way she lives at first but he would have grown to love her as herself.
    I think the poems main themes are love and loss “How I miss my father!” is repeated throughout the poem and shows how when she reminisces about their past she desperately wants to see him again to show him how she has turned out to be quite similar to him “cooking, writing, chopping wood” apart from speaking out creatively “though many of my truths/must have grieved him” explains how even though he taught her to tell the truth he did not like what she was saying, he was almost disappointed. Maybe that is why she misses him, because she wants to show him how he should not have been disappointed in her.

  13. Profile photo of Rhianna King says:

    In this poem, the speaker is reminiscing about her father and how he influenced her life throughout this semi-autobiographical poem.

    Walker states simply and clearly “How I miss my father” in the first line which is repeated again. The use of few words to express the emotion gives it more emphasis and makes the feelings more powerful. She is reflecting upon her life and remembering her father who is presumably deceased.

    It is evident that is missing her father and the influence he had upon her life. Money related activities are what she associates with him foremost such as “Writing deposit slips and checks” and having “a savings account”. This would suggest that her father wanted to ensure she would be able to be practical and sensible when it comes to money and she says “I learned to see/bits of paper/as a way/to escape/ the life he knew” which implies her father had issues with money perhaps debt. Therefore, her father was a teacher of sorts for her and he made her responsible and ensured she would plan for the future. This could be seen as him forcing his own fears and ideas onto his daughter, yet the memories seem positive and the only resentment suggested is that he left her too soon. However, she also remembers fondly about him cooking “like a person/dancing” which is unusual but shows the father to be passionate and perhaps out of the ordinary.

    She believes herself to be like her father in many ways and says “seasoning none of my life/ the same way twice;” which suggests he taught her to make sure she made her life interesting as you would make food more interesting by adding salt or herbs. She also describes herself as “happy to feed/whoever strays my way” which proves her to be generous and it would be justified that her father taught her to be so. Overall, she believes her father would be proud of her and the way she has lived her life and that moreover she is proud of herself too.

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