Short But Sweet: Cat’s in the Cradle (or, How Nissan Proved That I Need to Teach Poetry Analysis)

Ever sigh and say, “I wish I could teach poetry but I … a) can’t find anything good, or b) don’t have the time.”? This occasional series of posts will focus on specific poems that I like and have even used that I find to be both engaging and amazing.

I have been using Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” in my tenth grade English class for a number of years now, usually as a companion with E.B. White’s essay, “Once More to the Lake.” Both are subtly complex looks at the relationship between a father and a son and at another time, I will go into more detail on White’s essay, which happens to be a personal favorite of mine.

Chapin’s song is a story song (and was covered wonderfully and to hilarious effect on The Story Song Podcast) and tells the story of a father who is never there for his son. Not in the deadbeat dad sort of way, mind you, but in the always-working, semi-detached way that many parents can be (and that even I have admittedly been from time to time). He begins with his son’s birth and goes through his childhood, never having time to play with him and in the last two verses, the tables turn as his son grows up and doesn’t have time for his dad:

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, Dad
You know I’m gonna be like you”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home, Dad
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then

My son turned ten just the other day
He said, “Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on let’s play
can you teach me to throw”, I said “Not today
I got a lot to do”, he said, “That’s ok
And he walked away but his smile never dimmed
And said, “I’m gonna be like him, yeah
You know I’m gonna be like him”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home, Dad
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then

Well, he came from college just the other day
So much like a man I just had to say
“Son, I’m proud of you, can you sit for a while”
He shook his head and said with a smile
“What I’d really like, Dad, is to borrow the car keys
See you later, can I have them please”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home son
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, Dad
You know we’ll have a good time then

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time
You see my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you”

And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
When you comin’ home son
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, Dad
We’re gonna have a good time then

There is a sadness to the irony in the song’s last few lines that has always gotten me. Throughout the first half of the song, Chapin has the child say, “I’m gonna be like you, dad,” with wide-eyed admiration that only comes from the unconditional love that a little kid can give. Then, in the end, he is like his dad but the way he is is completely to the point–always busy, no time. Dad’s gone from a hero to a person and that means that what he’s learned is an altogether different lesson. Plus, it’s not a sad ending per se. It just deals with reality.

Too bad the ad agency that licensed the song for a recent Nissan commercial completely missed the point.

If you didn’t see it (it aired during the Super Bowl shortly before the Dead Nationwide Kid), here it is:

The message here is that … driving a Nissan makes you a better dad? Dad eventually learned a lesson? Dad actually showed up for something? I’m not exactly sure, and I don’t know if it is because I don’t see how this sells cars as much as how I don’t see why anyone thought using this song was a good idea when its singer died in a car crash.

What this commercial does is turn Chapin’s song into an upbeat pop song with a happy ending, which is exactly the opposite of what it is. All things in the melody of “Cat’s in the Cradle” point to a happy ending in the last verse, but Chapin completely subverts that in what is a brilliant piece of folk-pop songwriting. Yes, dad learns his lesson but it’s after the tables are turned, after it’s too late and he’s full of regret. Nissan, however, thinks it’s all hugs and lessons learned in your new Maxima.

I often hear about the importance of relevant, authentic texts. I also hear of the importance of non-fiction and functional text in making students college career ready. Poetry tends to fall to the wayside because it seems to be the opposite. And yet, I can think of nothing more relevant or authentic in this situation than teaching the interpretation of poetry.

Songs are misinterpreted all the time; more importantly, so are ideas, and they are often twisted nad warped for the use of anyone from advertisers to politicians. If our culture is going to stand any chance of surviving as we’d like to see it survive, we need to continue to be critical of what we see and read and break it down for what it is. This may be a thirty-second ad and a four-minute song, but perhaps that’s where we start.

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