Recently I was looking at calls for poetry, and I came across one that listed the editor’s preferences for the type of work that appealed to her. She listed the things which, in her mind, made a poem worthy of calling itself a poem, and in her description, one phrase in particular stuck with me: “Musings on motherhood are not enough.”
She’s right, of course—musings on motherhood are not enough to make something a poem. But you could substitute anything in place of “motherhood” and still be right. (My personal vote would be for “Musings on your European vacation are not enough.”) It seems to go without saying that “musings,” that deliberately trivializing word, don’t make powerful poems. But why pick on motherhood?
In a review of Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda in 2013, Michael Robbins wrote for the Chicago Tribune, “[T]o be honest, I don’t care for poems about parenthood. But this poet has a twitchy mind that risks cuteness and moon-swoon to play in lyrical sandboxes.” I was struck by this blanket dismissal; no qualifiers and little room for exceptions (aside from, apparently, Brenda Shaughnessy). He just doesn’t like poems about parenthood. And the reason: they are too cute and, um, moon-swoony.
Ultimately, these point to some foundational issues in the dismissal of poems about motherhood. The word “musings” suggests smallness and lack of critical thinking. Robbins points to sentimentality and cliche. But instead of protesting again that these are problems that can, and do, afflict poems about any subject, it’s worth pointing out that all of the poems about motherhood that I have fallen in love with as a reader over the years either find ways to cleverly subvert, or sometimes even embrace, these “weaknesses.”
Take, for example, Liz Rosenberg’s “All Those Hours Alone in the Dark.” The poem appeared in a 1990 issue of Poetry magazine, and I came across it a few years later doing a poetry portfolio as part of a lit class project. It’s still a surprise to me that the thirteen-year-old girl I was would be drawn to this poem, about a mother nursing her infant son in a darkened nursery. But I fell in love with it from the first two lines: “With his lonely head pressed against the crib / And his dark hair blowing in crazy threads up.” Why, I might have wondered all those years ago, was the infant “lonely”? And why such a bone-deep sadness in the image of a baby with his head “pressed” to his crib? Perhaps I sensed the syllabic regularity or reacted to the sneaky syntax of that second line and was drawn in viscerally first, the way the best poems do.
But what I love now about the poem is that it embraces and transcends potential accusations of smallness or sentiment. Rosenberg isn’t afraid of Big Feelings: “His soul is in me like the teeth in my mouth,” she writes. But Rosenberg shoots that intensity through with a terrible melancholy, from the lonely head at the beginning to the poem’s ending, where, watching milk spill from her son’s mouth to his ear, she wonders:
does he hear me then? in the whorled
pink conch shell of his ear—
and if fifty years later someone rests her head there
will she hear me murmuring, still distantly roaring,
voice of the sea he first floated on?
The poem has rocketed out of the nursery and into the future. This is no longer about a string of moments where a mother breastfeeds her baby, but about a kind of foreknowledge of nostalgia. The poem ends on the unanswerable question: will I, his mother, still be there in this future? Will this intimacy have mattered? The poem is able to balance the magnitude of joy with the attending despair of the passage of time. It has become a piece about the loneliness of deep love, and to get there, it had to walk through the landmine of sentimentality and smallness.
Many of the poems I love about mothering work hard against cuteness by laying bare some of the physical realities of motherhood—poems like Gwendolyn Brooks’ “the mother,” in which aborted babies are described as “the damp small pulps with a little or no hair” or Rita Dove’s “After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed,” where the speaker’s daughter compares her vagina to her mother’s in a new awareness of anatomy. In Beth Ann Fennelly’s “Bite Me,” the speaker’s one-year-old daughter’s tendency to leave “six-teeth-brooches that take a week to fade” on her mother’s skin is juxtaposed against the baby’s bloody and violent birth. Fennelly writes:
Lord did I push, for three more hours
I pushed, I pushed so hard I shat,
pushed so hard blood vessels burst
in my neck and in my chest, pushed so hard
my asshole turned inside-out like a rosebud
This a poem that began with Fennelly’s acknowledgement of her toddler daughter as “[y]ou who are all cliches of babysoft.” But three-quarters of the way through, and we’re talking about the unfortunate fate of the speaker’s asshole. The juxtaposition of the asshole with a rosebud is emblematic of the poem as a whole—agony and ecstasy—which in turn is emblematic of motherhood.
In the end, I’ll concede one more point to Robbins. “Play[ing] in lyrical sandboxes” is the thing that, more than any other, takes a poem from mere musings to something transcendent. My all-time favorite motherhood poem, Sylvia Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick,” shows how a poem can birth itself through sound and transform something potentially mundane (in this case, again, a night nursery scene) into something unforgettable. But this is the lesson of all poems; it isn’t just writing about motherhood that teaches poets they have larger responsibilities to language. And if the poems you’re reading are cute and moon-swoony? You’re reading the wrong ones.