I was sitting in a crowd of poets at a summer writing conference. In front of us sat a panel of editors discussing the submission process from the editor’s view. The most singular comment of that afternoon came from an editor of a prestigious review. He told the crowd of writers (many of them parents, all of them children), that he would never accept a poem that contained the word “mother.” Although the comment might have been made simply to get a reaction from the crowd, I don’t believe the editor’s declaration surprised the conference room of writers as much as it should have.
Motherhood has often been seen as an inferior, overly sentimental subject for poetry, but what of motherhood poems that move from the internal to the external, between mothering and the politics of war, race, class, and sex?
The above text is a question posed by the 2010 AWP panel “Birth and the Politics of Motherhood in Contemporary Poetry” (poets on the panel included Diana Garcia, Beth Ann Fennelly, Alicia Ostriker, Misha Cahnmann-Taylor, and Patricia Smith). The panel was full of beautiful stories, argument, and poetry. But, setting aside explicit interactions with issues of war, race, class, and sex, I began to wonder: what of motherhood poems apart from “external” justification?
What about the poem with the word “mother” in it? And where will the thematic censuring end if we disallow the “mother” (and motherhood) from poetry? Does the father and fatherhood go next, as they (logically) should? Do children disappear? Infants? What about birth—will birth be the next archetypal metaphor exiled from poetry?
Now, an editor has every right to influence his or her journal according to personal taste—in fact, a full-bodied editorial influence is what makes any journal worth reading. But poets and poems are wise to be pragmatic when it comes to human experience, because denying any part of the human experience in our creative writing results in loss.
Have poets committed acts of sentimentality while writing about mothers? Well, yes they have. They have also waxed sentimental over their dog, their brother, the golden gate bridge, deer on the lawn in dawn’s light, pear trees, traffic lights. It’s not the subject of the poem that makes the creation sentimental, but the subject writing the poem.
Two recent examples of writing that incorporates themes of motherhood in a deft and dexterous way include Julie Brooks Barbour’s poem, “Two Days,” published in Issue 2 of UCity Review, and Michelle Tooker’s poem “One Month After Miscarriage,” published by Ruminate in Issue 21, Autumn 2011. The voices of the two poems side by side offer a remedy to the type of motherhood poem that would, I think, upset the editor in the above story:
“Two days after my daughter’s birth,” Barbour writes, “jaundice sets in.”
“Grief lingers longer in half sleep,” Tooker writes, “ignores the children’s laughter / rising like waters in a ready womb.”
“Two days after my daughter’s birth, the sun beams into the apartment / like a beacon,” Barbour writes.
“Is it forkfuls of noon / -the sun’s honey- / floating through the window/ onto our sleeping bodies?” Tooker questions.
These are poems of motherhood, but also poems of illness and loss. The sun shines in both poems, as does a tenderness towards the child and would-be child. The presence of the mother is held in each line. There is no need to actually use the word “mother,” as the perspective is that of the mother. Would these poems meet the editor’s standards? I believe they would.
Both of these poems remind me of an ancient use of maternal metaphor in Luke 13:34, when Christ exclaims over Jerusalem: “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…!” Even though I’ve only quoted the second half of the verse, the note of lament is rich in these lines. Christ illustrates loss by employing the image of a mother hen’s empty wing. The mother separated from her children: it is difficult to find a more tragic sight.
My seven-week-old son has been lying in my arms as I typed the above. His head is wedged in the cradle of my right arm, and balancing my laptop and him has presented its own creative challenge. What if he never entered my poems? What if I never felt comfortable writing as a mother or making use of the role of motherhood in my poetry? As artists we are not limited to the creative equivalent of roses and candy hearts. We can write the difficult and the human, the sickness and the death, into our work in as many ways as we can imagine. We can imagine beyond the sentimental.
In a recent Ruminate blog post, Alexa Van Dalsem writes of God as creating the world “full of beauty and surprises.” I would go so far as to say the beautiful surprises (see also Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Beautiful Changes”). The poet is also capable of creating that surprising beauty in a poem, with any choice of words. That’s part of what makes the human mind itself a beautiful, and surprising, creation.
Hannah VanderHart lives in Durham, North Carolina. She is a Ph.D. student in English at Duke University, where she reads (and writes on!) medieval and early modern texts, philosophy, and poetry. Follow her on twitter @hmvanderhart.
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