My wife and I had a baby girl six months ago, and, in terms of motherhood and parenting, all I can say is wow, and more wow. I never knew how hard child rearing is; can you say tired squared? I am so overwhelmed (and inspired!) with only one; I have no idea how people do it, (like Rachel with two and one more on the way). Even though we’re in an era where many fathers change diapers and do daddy day care, mothers still do the heavy lifting, carrying the species forward.
I have to think that we overlook mothers in this country; I was in Guatemala 15 years ago in a small town, and I stumbled upon a statue of a pregnant woman, and it was so appropriate (and sadly disorienting) to see the heroics of the every day celebrated. Are there any large, public statues celebrating motherhood in this country? There are, of course, many tall buildings and several monuments that seem to be indirect testimonies to the most rudimentary element of fatherhood.

With babies and poetry, several things come to mind. 1. How does one find the time and energy to write? 2. Motivation—everything else in the world (including poetry) suddenly seems less crucial when I have my daughter in my arms. 3. The question of if and how to wrestle with the experience of fatherhood in poems.
One immediate danger with babies and poetry is a kind of delusion kicks in with children. My daughter is cute. I mean, really cute. I mean so cute that I’m tempted to put a picture of her on this very page and celebrate her cuteness. But doesn’t every parent feel this way?
So many people write about their kids, or the experience of having/raising kids, in really bland, straight forward, predictable ways. And then there are writer-parents who seem to cross some invisible line of privacy, and one wonders if they are exploiting their kids for short-term creative gains. So what path is a writer to take? Should we avoid altogether a topic that is so crucial to the human experience on this blue and green orb?
At a reading recently, Vijay Seshadri mentioned from the podium that a cynical friend said to him after his child was born, “you’re not gonna write one of those sappy baby poems, are you?” That night, perhaps out of spite, Seshadri began a poem called Baby, Baby, that is smart, funny, and touching, (not sappy!).
The next day I heard Rebecca Wolff read an intriguing poem that wrestles with the how of writing about her child. Wolff’s poem confronts head-on the Sharon Olds model (extremely intimate, seemingly autobiographical poems about her daughter’s body). So far I’ve avoided writing directly about fatherhood. Well, I did write one poem, Self-Portrait as a Stick of Butter, or the Four-Day Anniversary of My Daughter’s Birth, but the poem is spoken in the voice of a very anxious stick of butter, so I'm not sure it qualifies.
On some level, even though I am drained and have less time, I trust that the process of being a father, the unconditional love that comes with it, the whole new way of life rippling with responsibilities, will alter my essence in profound ways and will ultimately influence the work that grows out of me.
It’s funny, my college students often ask about how to avoid a collision between their poems and the living, breathing family members that appear in the poems: their parents. Maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting older, but I’m no longer worried what my parents will think. (I’ve mostly made peace with that.) Now I’m beginning to wonder, “oh no, what will my daughter think” about the novel-like project I am 450 pages into, containing large doses of explicit sex and drug use. I guess as long as I pay attention to her and treat her with love, the other stuff will fall into place.

Originally Published: May 25th, 2007

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...

  1. May 25, 2007
     Kenneth Goldsmith

    Fercrissake, Jeffrey, don't be shy. Post a picture of yr daughter! We'd all love to get a glimpse of how cute she is!

  2. May 26, 2007
     Rachel Zucker

    It's true: there are some pretty smarmy baby poems but, on the other hand, becoming a parent and the consideration of a brand new person in the world -- the close attention to the dailiness of life that a baby brings, the physicality of baby making and baby raising, the fear, the boredom, the sick love -- what else should you write about? Bars? A lot of people write poems when their parents die. Why wouldn't they? Do you think they shouldn't? These are the big life events -- both banal/ universal and radically individual/ personal. And, perhaps most importantly, it is your real life right now. Is there something you think you should be writing about? Do you know that book, The Grand Permission edited by Brenda Hillman and Patricia Deinstfrey? There are some fabulous essays in there! It sound like you need someone to give you permission to write some Daddy poems. Can I? Hey Jeffrey, can you please write some weird ass Daddy poems?

  3. May 28, 2007
     Jennifer Bartlett

    I recently wrote a review about the anthology Not For Mothers Only for the new issue of Cab/Net that covers many of these questions. There seems to be a big backlash against mothers in particular who write about their kids. I chalk it up to the fact that people don't want to hear the truth about women's lives in general -- but father's get some heat too. Two of my favorite father poems are by Galway Kinell and Robert Hass. My list of great mother poems is endless.

  4. May 30, 2007

    Hi Rachel,
    Thank you for your comments, and for the suggestion to read The Grand Permission. Sounds like a cool book. I am very interested in the intersection between one’s lived experience and the art that gets produced.
    At this point in time, I am more in a revision mode, than a generative mode, as I am trying to fine-tune a manuscript, grinding existing poems through a series of revisions, towards a fourth book, so I don’t anticipate many new poems in the next few months (though it would be great if some emerged).
    But when the new poems come, and as I search for an authentic entry point, I hope to bear in mind the very helpful adjective “weird-ass”. I think you’re right that if I write baby poems, they need to be “weird-ass” baby poems. That is the kind of adjective that can liberate me. Thirteen years ago I wanted to write a poem that addressed my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s. I loved her deeply, we had a serious bond, and it was very sad and disorienting for her to not know who I was anymore. But as I tried to address my feelings head-on in a straightforward manner, I kept feeling blocked, the poem kept coming out wrong. It wasn’t until I reversed directions completely that I felt liberated and propelled–I ended up writing a poem in the voice of a character who plays tricks on his grandmother who has Alzheimer’s; he grabs the family photo album uses a black pen to give himself black eyes in old photographs, then tells his memory-less grandmother how she used to beat him.
    Being a farther has been one of the single most challenging, exciting, invigorating, draining experiences in my life, and I’m sure it will surface in my writing one way or another. I’ve begun working on a fiction project, where a character has a baby, so perhaps some of my experience, (or variations of that experience) will be filtered through the prism of that character.
    Hi Jennifer,
    Thank you for your comments. I think you are so right that people don’t want to hear the truth about women’s lives, (or maybe that we don’t get told about/shown the truth of women’s lives in our society; I am interested in the dance between big media (TV and films) giving us what we want and shaping what we want.)
    I’ve got Not For Mothers Only on a list of books to read. Thanks for bringing it up here. (I’ve also got The Last Clear Narrative by Rachel and Close To Death by Patricia on my list.)
    I'd be interested in hearing people talk more about the backlash towards women when writing about their kids. I've noticed that the term "confessional" gets applied to women a lot more (Caucasian women specifically) than to men.
    Please share some of your favorite mother poems.
    Best wishes, Jeffrey
    Hi Kenny,
    Thanks for the request. I will send you a photo privately.

  5. May 31, 2007
     Marie-Elizabeth Mali

    I just happened to be reading Phil Levine's Don't Ask (Poets on Poetry series) after reading your post and came across this on pp. 160-161:
    "I always thought I was a lousy father, and then one day . . . I saw that all three of my sons were gutsy and independent as hell . . . I said this to my wife, and she said, bullshit! You were terrific. You'd play games with them for hours every night . . . because you loved it. And you told them wild stories every night . . . maybe having a father who's still in his pajamas at 3 P.M. slaving at a poem is a good thing. It's not your standard image of the father, but it's a guy who's gonna do what he wants to do no matter what. And maybe that's why they're unafraid of the world, so much less afraid, I think, than I was at their age."

  6. May 31, 2007
     Jennifer Bartlett

    Hi, from the Not For Mother's Only antholgy I love Rachel's poem and Alice Notley. Mayer's Midwinter Day is amazing. Jorie Graham has a poem called Annuciation with a Bullet in It, that is just wonderful. I don't know what book it's from. Alice Ostriker's Mother/Child Papers in great. Notley also has a great essay called Doublings. I have some mother poems in issue #7 of Bruce Covey's Coconut. I think the address is

  7. May 31, 2007

    Hi Marie-Elizabeth,
    Thanks for your post. That brings up a whole other issue: poets as parents. Unfortunately as a group we have a pretty dicey track record (or maybe it's just the kids of the craziest poets feel compelled to write books about it. I bet Phil Levine would be a great parent though, and that's a good quote.
    Hi Jennifer,
    Thanks for the list of poems. I love the title of that Jorie Graham poem.
    More random baby/poetry thoughts. I've been on Daddy Day Care for many hours this week, and I still can't imagine writing about it yet. It would be like writing about falling down an avalanche as one is falling down an avalanche. It's all so very now, and I get soooo tired. I must be one of those wimpy, prima donna poets who needs lots of sleep and down time. Also, since Camilla Wren is our first baby, I have first-time parent syndrome, which means I usually have half a clue if I'm lucky. And it all changes so quickly, each week something new happens: this week's it's rolling onto her stomach, in a kind of kung-fu style. I'll lay her in the crib to change her diaper, I'll turn my head for a second, and she's ninja-ed over into a crawling pose. I'm really not prepared for her imminent mobility; I've heard they can move really quickly.
    But when I can fight through the tiredness and the fear and can just hold her and look at her and be with her, it is so incredibly powerful. I am amazed by her ability to sustain a stare, to just gaze into my eyes and not flinch. All these people that are in my life or have moved through my life, and how little I just stared into their eyes and experienced them wholly.

  8. January 27, 2009
     Bernadette Geyer

    I became a mother just over three years ago and have written very few poems regarding my own personal experiences as a parent to my child. What being a parent has brought to my writing is a whole new level of experiences that I am familiar with so that I can write with some greater level of understanding about other parents, other situations, drawing on my own experiences to highlight some universal aspects of parenthood.
    For instance, only because I had a baby did I have cause to re-experience the story of Thumbelina, which affected me so dramatically -- once Thumbelina is kidnapped by the Toad's Mother you never hear about Thumbelina's mother ever again -- that I wrote a series of four sonnets in the voice of Thumbelina's mother (two of which are included in the Fall 2008 issue of 32 Poems journal). I can tell you that I am 99.9 percent positive those poems would never have been written if I hadn't become a mother.
    I think even if you don't write specifically about your own circumstances and experiences as a parent, parenthood brings to your psychological threshold many concepts and themes that might not otherwise have occurred to you.
    Enjoy the ride! It's bumpy but never a dull moment...
    --Bernadette Geyer
    ps - the act of rocking a baby to sleep lends itself well to composing metered poems, as long as you have a good memory...