Finding Poetry in Plays, Movies, and Journalism

By Jack Limpert

unnamed-1While working as a magazine editor, I had a sentence typed on a small square of paper and tacked up on the bulletin board near my desk:

Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution, some clear meaning, which it perhaps never finds.

It’s spoken at the beginning of the play, I Never Sang for My Father. A middle-aged son is returning home to see his father, a difficult man nearing the end of his life, and the son is giving the audience a sense of what’s coming. When the play, written by Robert Anderson, opened on Broadway in 1968, the son was played by Hal Holbrook, the father by Alan Webb.

The sentence captured how I felt about losing my father when I was young, and I loved how it flowed, how it seemed to have some of the poetry that magazine writing should have:

Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship,

which struggles on in the survivor’s mind

toward some final resolution,

some clear meaning,

which it perhaps never finds.

I sometimes wondered how I would have dealt with the sentence if it had appeared in a story I was editing.
I asked several former Washingtonian editors what they would have done.

One said he would have almost automatically taken out the second which but then might have reconsidered because the second which offers a nice echo of the first.

Another said he probably would have changed the second which to that.

Another said he would have taken out the comma before the second which.

My inclination to edit it would have depended some on the writer. When I edited pieces that George V. Higgins wrote for the Washingtonian, my instinct was to leave the words alone. Higgins had a distinct style and an editor might argue for some cutting but his words deserved to be left alone.

There was an interesting discussion at the magazine about editing well-known writers when art critic Robert Hughes wrote a piece for us about the Phillips Collection, a much-loved Washington museum of modern art. It included this sentence:

“And yet the Phillips has never lost its aedicular quality, its gift of intimacy and unhurried ease in the presence of serious art.”

Howard Means, the editor on the story, remembers it this way: “You almost fainted when I sent you the manuscript without removing that word.”

I wanted to change aedicular, figuring that almost all our readers would have to stop reading and look up the word in the dictionary. Howard countered that Robert Hughes was very large for an art critic and prone to operatic moments and was so good and respected that he deserved to be allowed to write it his way and let the readers look it up.

We left it the way Hughes wrote it.
As for the sentence from the beginning of I Never Sang for My Father, playwright Robert Anderson wrote the screenplay for the 1970 movie version and he did change it:

Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship,

which struggles on in the survivor’s mind

seeking some resolution it may never find.

Which is better, the play or movie version?
In Robert Anderson’s 2009 obituary in The Guardian, there was another reference to the sentence:

“The sensitive, semi-autobiographical play was turned into an even better film a year later. Anderson received one of the film’s three Oscar nominations, as well as winning the Writers Guild of America award. The other two were for its stars, Melvyn Douglas, as the dying, domineering father, and Gene Hackman as his long-suffering son, who utters the poignant line: ‘Death ends a life. But it does not end a relationship.’”

If you’re wondering how Robert Anderson ended the play:

The son, Gene, is again alone on the stage, the lights dimming out except for a lingering light.

That night I left my father’s house forever…I took the first right and the second left…and this time went as far as California…Peggy and I visited him once or twice…and then he came to California to visit us, and had a fever and swollen ankles, and we put him in a hospital, and he never left…The reason we gave, and which he could accept, for not leaving…the swollen ankles. But the real reason…the arteries were hardening, and he gradually over several years slipped into complete and speechless senility…with all his life centered in his burning eyes.

When I would visit him, and we would sit and look at each other, his eyes would mist over and his nostrils would pinch with emotion…But I could never learn what the emotion was…anger…or love…or regret…One day, sitting in his wheelchair and staring without comprehension at television…he died…alone…without even an orange in his hand.

Death ends a life…but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind…toward some resolution, which it never finds.

Alice said I would not accept the sadness of the world…What did it matter if I never loved him, or if he never loved me? Perhaps she was right…But, still, when I hear the word father…


  1. The movie version is cleaner and more powerful. Says more with less.

    FYI, Hackman’s father left his family when Gene was young,

  2. Is this movie still broadcast on a channel somewhere, beginning 11:00 p.m. the Saturday night before Father’s Day? Memorable.

  3. Richard – It’s a wonderful movie but I’ve never seen it on television and Netflix—hard to believe—doesn’t offer it. My kids bought a DVD of it and gave it to me for my birthday one year. It’s a special movie for any son who had trouble connecting with his father; in my case it was because my Dad died when I was 10 and all my life I’ve thought about those things a son wanted to talk about with his father but couldn’t. The feeling never goes away. – Jack

  4. And what of the father or mother who has lost a son, all the conversations that never occurred and never will but a feeling of wanting to connect that, too, never goes away?

  5. Thank you for your comments, Jack and JRL.

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