You would think that becoming a parent would be one of the great poetic subjects. To contemplate the making of a human being is to grapple with meaning and mortality: you are forced to think about the spirit and the flesh. There is pain and fear and risk and love and transformation and joy. It is political, and makes you think about the arbitrariness of privilege and the future of the planet. As a topic it seems to me to touch on, well, everything important really. And yet, bizarrely, poetry about parenthood is still seen to be somehow minor, petty, ‘domestic’. I have heard very well respected male poets observe that they don’t really care for ‘motherhood’ poems (try imagining them saying the same for love poems or war poems and see how odd it sounds). I have also heard brilliant female poets apologizing for writing about their children (‘don’t worry, there’s only a couple in my next book’) as though it was some kind of self-indulgence.
A lot of female poets still seem chastened by the example of Kate Clanchy’s Newborn in 2004, marketed at new mums with a soft-focused cover, which attracted venom, particularly from male critics – as someone who wrote a column for the Guardian about her NCT classes, she was an easy target for accusations of middlebrow cosiness, although it is actually a finer collection than people remember (see her poem ‘Rejoice in the Lamb‘ for example: ‘At night, in your shift, fine hair upright, / you are my tiny Bedlamite, / admonishing the laughing crowd’). But if Carol Ann’s Rapture had received criticism, people wouldn’t have been nervous about writing love poems for a whole decade afterwards.
The problem is not so much with poems about motherhood as with the perception of mothers in general. The contemporary media divides them into yummy or slummy – and sees both as slightly revolting. The female poets who have been allowed to write about motherhood are those who write about the shadow side – IVF, miscarriage, stillbirth, the death of children. Or the failure to be adequate mothers – Plath telling her nursing baby ‘the pain you wake to is not yours’; Anne Sexton in ‘The Double Image’ admitting ‘and this was my worst guilt; you could not cure / nor soothe it. I made you to find me.’ These are important topics, of course, and important poems, but there is a sense that writing from the perspective of an ordinarily lucky, happy mother is somehow icky – the equivalent of showing baby photos or bragging about your kids’ IQ. That mothers are smug and motherhood a kind of superficial narcissim, where you lose sense of anything important beyond your darling son (or DS, in mumsnet speak).
Mothers are somehow, like cyclists, one of the last groups it’s socially ok to hate. In the papers recently, I’ve read a couple of articles attacking women with buggies for having the nerve to inconvenience other users of cafes/pavements, as though we should all just stay indoors. Even Suzanne Moore (a mother herself, and usually a columnist I love) seemed to be attacking us in a recent article. ‘But now I see that many folk where I live are actually the first people ever to have babies in the whole of human history!’ she sneers. ‘So no little fold up pushchairs; instead they have buggy cars… then it’s baby yoga…’ Oh god yes, there’s nothing so repellent as women (who are pressurised to take leave rather than the fathers by society, legislation and the NHS showing videos that define being breastfed as a basic ‘human right’) filling the long, milky hours with their babies by going for walks with buggies that can handle a bit of mud or gravel, and taking them to community classes. Or, hang on, is that actually totally inoffensive? I have a large buggy because I was too broke to buy one myself and was given it by my sister-in-law. Now every time I go out I can’t help thinking people might be looking at me and seeing it as some grotesque extension of my ego.
I have been writing a few tentative poems about motherhood recently, but I can’t shake this feeling that female poets have to be careful; that a single wrong note can make people hate them. Look, they’ll say, Clare Pollard’s acting like she’s the first person to ever have a baby in the whole of human history!
Anyway, whilst feeding Gruff I have been clicking around poetry websites, doing my best to find other poems about being a mum: to seek out women who have written well about it before. That means Sharon Olds, who has written one of the few famous poems about childbirth, ‘The Language of Brag’, but I’ve also been finding less well-known poems. Sally Read’s ‘Gestation’ is one of the best I’ve read about the strangeness of pregnancy. I’ve been impressed by Marilyn Hacker’s ‘Iva’s Pantoum‘ and Rita Dove’s ‘After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed’ (how few poems address parenthood’s strange mixture of repetition and revelation…) Then there is the brutal child’s-eye view of the mother in the Hungarian poet Anna Szabo’s ‘She Leaves Me’.
After her reading at the Poetry Library’s 60th party, I also discovered that the American poet Brenda Shaughnessy’s collection Our Andromeda is about being a mother and downloaded the ebook. It’s staggeringly good, mainly because deals with the language and politics of mothering so intelligently – no one could accuse Shaughnessy’s work of being the product of ‘baby brain’. They are poems about mortality and responsibility and religion and being thrown, as a feminist, against the limits and instincts of your own animal body. In ‘Liquid Flesh’, about a night feed, she tells us:
I know I am his mother, but I can’t
quite click on the word’s essential aspects,
can’t denude the flora
or disrobe the kind of housecoat
“mother” always is. Something
cunty, something used.
Perhaps a shift is coming. I see the Emma Press are taking submissions for a new anthology on motherhood and Carolyn Jess-Cooke is plotting a Writing Motherhood project – and hopefully these will be marketed at everyone rather than just ‘new mums’. It’s not, obviously, that I think mothers are better writers than other women, or that the theme is more important than others, but surely the creation of a human being is at least equally as weighty and universal a topic as a love affair or a landscape? And whilst we’re at it, maybe we should rethink what we as a culture condemn as sentimental – why is it fine for middle-aged male poets to go misty-eyed about their commuter train, but not for a woman to write about cuddles?
I note, by the way, that men don’t apologise for their parenthood poems in the same way women do – Don Paterson’s ‘Waking with Russell’ or Michael Donaghy’s ‘Haunts’ were greeted with uncomplicated acclaim. And rightly, but where are the recent female equivalents? Do let me know any other poems about being a mother you can recommend, especially ones which ‘denude the flora’ of ‘mother’ and question the discourse around it. Because everyone was born, right? Why is birth and the raising of children only of interest to some sloppily-imagined ‘buggy brigade’?