Our music for today’s show sets the scope of our tribute show on the poetry of mothers, about mothers, for mothers, to mothers: you’ll hear “I Turn to You,” the theme song from Harold and Maude (Maude’s maternal advice to be a free spirit), “I Need a Hero” from Fame, and “Hush Little Baby.”
James James Morrisson Morrisson Weatherby George Dupree
Took great care of his mother though he was only three
James James said to his mother, mother, he said, said he,
You must never go down to the end of the down if you don’t go down with me!
James James Morrison’s Mother Put on a golden gown,
James James Morrison’s Mother Drove to the end of the town.
James James Morrison’s Mother Said to herself, said she:
“I can get right down to the end of the town and be back in time for tea.”
And we’re off! A.A. Milne’s “Disobedience” is outing the (feared) adventuress in the mother, who if left to her own devious devices will go to town willy nilly and never be heard from again, “last seen wandering vaguely quite of her own accord.” Mothers! Can’t live with them, can’t live without them, can’t give them enough credit, and what is up with the fact that comparatively little has been written by and about mothers?
A.A. Milne imaginatively engages with the mother, who children never think of as a real person, as he turns upside down a mother’s fears and fuses these fears with the vision of all children of their mothers’ shenanigans away from them, as we slow down to disobey and have our way with and mislay and be waylaid by the Mother Tongue, with Poetry, the way we first learn to speak and to love . . . We learn language and the world through our mothers, milk, women, and song–But whereas there are hundreds of poems about foxes and March and May and moon and horses and hay and fleas and trees, where are the iconic poems about mothers? Why do there seem to be so few poems written by mothers? Stay tuned for a two-show exploration of this topic.
We lead off with a poem from 17th century America, Anne Bradstreet as a mother going into childbirth, along with the maternal mortality rate impacting poets, and a little cultural history of the poets. Motherhood is not for the faint of heart. And in the hands of poets, mothers have a complex fate, except for Mother Earth, perhaps, in native bards, ancient myths of gratitude and recognition of power of life. Moms are generically praised, O dear sweet Mother, but burst out of this sentimental formulation to fierce and epic dimensions; the greater the poet the likelier the complicated heartbroken, heartbreaking, snickering and snarky, ungrateful, speaking-to-truth hungry wistful yearning and learning voice.
We consider Emily Dickinson’s “I never had a mother.” What is up with that? We discuss a psycholinguistic approach to this mystery and a theory of your Professor Host in what ways this statement could be a truth for poets in general. I began my academic career actually on this phenomenon of fair and unfair ways that mothers fare in poetry—a vanished vanquished species, present by absence, helpless, or smothering, infuriating, perhaps because they can give life but not the immortal life that is the poem. We hear Bradstreet on how poems are birthed; poets are creators, not created. By committing to saying something new, in a way that never has been said before, perhaps by definition we can’t have a mother; the poet self has to arise fully formed like Athena out of Zeus’ head, the Creator mind. The poet is the mother, in labor, struggling to give life to something inside, sparked by engagement with the world, some Muse, seminal flash, and meaning and insight fuse, to make something live that only can live if we create out of what we know or discern, if we are open to, something fresh and perhaps even not wholly understood by us even as we are making it. And as anyone experiencing childbirth can tell us, the process is fraught. We consider Emily Dickinson’s “Essential oils are wrung.” The imagery of something wrung, the super squeeze process, describes a kind of labor, the poetic process to work out the life in you, that has to live, apart from you, and you do everything in your power to make this live, give it form, make it sing with life and beauty and what you mean, and at a certain point you can’t help it, it has a life of its own, struggling with you to get out, and live on its own terms, its own voice . . . and each resembles each other and expresses you and is different, and that is your immortality, how you are understood and continue to live, long after you are gone.
This philosophical reflection is followed by the reality of a mother’s life, with the brilliant, witty Harriet Beecher Stowe’s letters. On this topic, I share a Mother’s Day gift of an hour to write a poem, the resulting poem I wrote for my son when he was six. I reflect as a mother and poet on the issues, singing another birth song, and on how I took my journal with me into labor to rectify the lack of poetic treatment of this topic, because where is the poetry about childbirth, this most momentous of experiences, so I’m determined to take notes of the whole experience, to do a docu-poem about motherhood from the beginning. (Yeah, it did not happen.)
Actually there is a matriad of poems about mothers, by Edgar Allen Poe, W.B. Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, Seamus Heaney, Christina Rosetti, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and many others, and so much of it is about a wistful and wry recognition of who the mother was, revealed in the writer’s own maturity, coming of age. We hear “Mother’s Day” by David Young, lines from “Kaddish, Part One” by Allen Ginsberg, “Mama, Come Back” by Nellie Wong, and an excerpt from “My Mother Was a Falconress,” by Robert Duncan. And I share the role of poetry in my life not only as a mother but as a daughter, as poems help me find my way in my mother’s aging and death. I confess to a secret life as a mother, in a way no child can imagine, and that is a joy in motherhood that I struggle to do justice to as a writer.
Next week we return to the topic of how a mother’s perspective informs one of the most influential and powerful books ever written, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and more poems on mothers as wild things and wild poems by mothers on motherhood. We’ll laugh and cry, and this is our little secret, Poetry Slow Down, O Flight of Listeners, what really goes down when mothers go to town. Thank you for being part of this community. “In my poem, you’re the rhyme! In my parking meter you’re the dime!” This is Barbara Mossberg, produced by Sara Hughes, until next week, thank you for making the morning last–my day!
© Barbara Mossberg 2011