A Change of World, Episode 5: Poetry Gives Birth
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off the Shelf from the Poetry Foundation. I'm Curtis Fox. This week, poetry gives birth. This is part five in our series “A Change of World,” about the intersections between contemporary poetry and second-wave feminism. In this episode we’re looking into how women poets made birth and family a central preoccupation of contemporary poetry, just as it is in life.
Ellen Bass: And today, when I go to kiss her
and she says “Not now, I'm reading,”
still she deserves a syllable or two––if only
so I can express how furious
she makes me.
Kevin Young: This is a poem called "Crowning," about the birth of my son.
Curtis Fox: Many poets today, female and male, write about having children or not having children, about being parents, about pregnancy and birth.
Kevin Young: your mother’s pursed, throbbing,
purpled power, her pushing
you for one whole hour
Rachel Zuker: I don't expect you to remember or
understand the many ways I've kept you
alive or the life my love for you
has made me live.
Curtis Fox: Fifty-plus years ago poets almost never put this kind of stuff in their poems.
Lainey Browne: Women's roles were diminished and people didn't want to talk about the female body then. It was considered taboo, I think.
Rose Alcala: Poetry had to have a certain level of transcendence and what's least transcendent than changing a diaper, right? I mean, you know, you can't transcend the dailiness of motherhood.
Curtis Fox: Up to the 1960s, if not beyond, the idea of being a poet and a mother at the same time was often frowned upon. Even Muriel Rukeyser, the great progressive feminist model for women poets of the 60s and 70s, had called the years when she was mothering "the intercepted years." Of course one reason for viewing family life as an impediment to poetry was that family life was not an approved subject for poetry.
Sharon Olds: I got a lot of rejection slips from editors, who were all male, many of which were contemptuous and a couple of which were scary.
Curtis Fox: Sharon Olds remembers submitting to literary journals in the early 1970s.
Sharon Olds: These were love poems, many of them, and they had children in them, and the editor would say if you wish to write about your children may we suggest the Ladies Home Journal. We are a literary magazine.
Curtis Fox: Getting published was one thing. Another was figuring out how to write about motherhood, birth, and family life. There were a few poems from the past that showed a poet how she might go about it.
Lainey Browne: There were and there are but they're not saved, and they're not preserved, and it's just another way that women's voices haven't been canonized, hadn't been preserved, have been erased.
Curtis Fox: Not everything has been erased. Lainey Browne is a poet and professor who has written about her own experiences as a mother. We asked her to comment on one poem that has escaped oblivion. It was written over a hundred years ago in 1914 by the British modernist Mina Loy. It's called "Parturition."
Hannah Kabel: I am the centre
of a circle of pain
exceeding its boundaries in every direction.
The business of the bland sun…
Lainey Browne: It's written from inside the experience of birth, birthing.
Curtis Fox: The speaker in the poem seems to be moving in and out of labor pains.
Lainey Browne: And it includes concrete details, corporeal details, it doesn't shy away from the body.
Hannah Kabel: I am climbing a distorted mountain of agony
Incidentally with the exhaustion of control
I reach the summit
And gradually subside into anticipation of
Which never comes.
For another mountain is growing up
Which goaded by the unavoidable
I must traverse
Lainey Browne: It's pretty astonishing. It doesn't glamorize, it doesn't sentimentalize. And this acute awareness of human beings as animals.
Hannah Kabel: And the foam on the stretched muscles of a mouth
Is no part of myself
There is a climax in sensibility
When pain surpassing itself
And the ego succeeds in unifying the positive and negative poles of sensation
Uniting the opposing and resisting forces
In lascivious revelation
Lainey Browne: A poem written inside the experience of childbirth. I think it's completely unprecedented.
Curtis Fox: Unprecedented and relatively unknown to women writing during feminism's second wave in the 1960s and 70s.
Lainey Browne: You know she was celebrated in her life by luminaries. But Mina Loy's work was out of print for a long time. This book was reprinted not until 1982. For a lot of women writing it wasn't visible.
Curtis Fox: It wasn't until 1966 with the publication of Sylvia Plath's book Ariel that a mother's poem about having a baby got serious literary attention.
Cindy Katz: “Morning Song.”
Lainey Browne: So the first poem in Sylvia Plath's book Ariel is "Morning Song," and the first line of the poem is, "Love set you going like a fat gold watch." So the poem begins with love.
Cindy Katz: Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Curtis Fox: Perhaps even more unusual than a poet talking about birth in an unsentimental way was a poet admitting her ambivalence about being a mother in the first place.
Cindy Katz: I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
Lainey Browne: The central question of the poem is what is a mother. What is the cost of motherhood.
Cindy Katz: All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.
Rose Alcala: She's at the beck and call of this baby. But at the same time this baby will erase her.
Curtis Fox: That's Rosa Alcala, a professor and poet who, like Lainey Browne, has written about mothering and motherhood.
Rose Alcala: That's why she was Sylvia Plath. That's why she set herself apart from other women of her generation or of other writers because she wrote about these things.
Cindy Katz: Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.
Rose Alcala: I think of my own case of reading Sylvia Plath. You know, I started reading her when I was very young and I don't think I was thinking at that time about motherhood and about being a mother. But I was very aware of the difficulties for a woman in the 1950s, as Sylvia Plath was, of trying to straddle these two things of being sort of the perfect mother and also being a writer herself. And she often seemed a cautionary tale to me, that trying to do these things was incredibly difficult, and I was often given the message that maybe one would have to choose, because it would be difficult to do all of these things.
Lainey Browne: It's not so helpful. I mean it's a terrible model to have, you know, the devastating suicide. Like this is not a sustainable, helpful. Yeah. We needed more models. And Sylvia Plath needed more options.
Curtis Fox: There was at least one other famous poet out there serving as a model.
Kevin Young: I mean I think back to the poems of Gwendolyn Brooks, who I do think managed to write about womanhood and girlhood and childhood in the broadest senses. So I do think there were some folks doing that before Plath, it should be said.
Curtis Fox: Kevin Young is a father, poet, and editor.
Kevin Young: And, you know, her famous poem "The Mother" is very much about not having a child.
Gwendolyn Brooks: "The Mother"
Kevin Young: I think that was really breaking powerful ground.
Gwendolyn Brooks: Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.
Kevin Young: We don't think of her as a confessional poet, and therefore we kind of don't think of her as writing about personal matters, and I'm not saying these are autobiographical matters but they are deeply personal and about everyday life.
Gwendolyn Brooks: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.
Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
Lucille Clifton: This is a poem that's a very personal one for me. It was a time before I could write it. But I found after reading a poem called "The Mother" by Gwendolyn Brooks, her poem enabled me to be able to write clearly this poem, which is about an abortion.
Curtis Fox: Lucille Clifton published her first book in 1969 when both second-wave feminism and the Black Arts Movement were in full swing. Her poems are what we might now call intersectional, combining concerns of race and class from a woman's personal perspective. Kevin Young edited her collected poems, and we asked him to read and comment on Clifton's "the lost baby poem.”
Kevin Young: the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned
Kevin Young: I think that's just an incredible opening because she invokes the sea, the city, the waters––these very mythic primal things––but she's also, I think, invoking this modern moment.
Lucille Clifton: you would have been born in winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car
Kevin Young: It's the time when the gas was turned off and thinking about what decisions are made because of financial realities.
we would have made the thin walk
over the genecy hill into the canada winds
to let you slip into a stranger's hands
Kevin Young: I mean I think she's imagining this walk over the hill and I take it to be an actual hill but also the Hill, the mountain top, you know, to deliver this baby up for adoption.
Lucille Clifton: and if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers wash over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller of seas
let black men call me stranger always
for your never named sake
Kevin Young: I think Ms. Lucille is one of the greats. She was defying conventions of black writing, of white writing, of poetry in general. She was able to break through and combine the personal with the public in a way that I think is really fresh and new and radical.
Lucille Clifton: won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Kevin Young: For me, the poem is always this thing that is making the ordinary extraordinary and making the extraordinary ordinary. That kind of mix of miracle and everydayness I think is where poetry works the best.
Curtis Fox: Miracle and everydayness, making the extraordinary out of the ordinary. Lucille Clifton managed to do this and her poems while raising six children. There were other poets in the late 60s and early 70s who found ways to write significant poems while being mothers, whose poems changed the way poetry itself could be written so that it included birth and children and family and much else besides. We're going to talk about two poets in particular who still serve as models for poets today.
Rose Alcala: I hit my head on the wall for years after having my daughter just thinking you know at some point things will sort of calm down and I'll be able to write like I used to, and I think like they ain't gonna happen. Like I just. Life has changed, you know, and I have to learn to write in a different way.
Curtis Fox: When Rosa Alcala was a young mother she looked for examples of older poets who had combined poetry and motherhood in interesting ways.
Rose Alcala: For me the writers really gave me permission were Bernadette Mayer and Alice Notley. They seemed to present a kind of poetry that felt as if children were just kind of part of the milieu, a part of what they were doing above what was moving around them. Right, there was literature and poetry at the same time and that felt very accessible to me.
Curtis Fox: Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer were both part of the East Village poetry scene around the St. Mark's Poetry Project in New York in the early 1970s. Lainey Brown was also drawn to their work.
Lainey Browne: They made these active decisions, right, about what they wanted to let in their work or what they didn't want to let in their work. And it was an experimental process.
Curtis Fox: Experimental in Alice Notley's case in that she didn't just talk about children in her poems. She included their voices. This was something new.
Alice Notley: Mommy what's this fork doing?
It's being Donald Duck.
What could I eat this?
What do you mean?
What could I eat it?
Lainey Browne: She doesn't proscribe. She doesn't have a prefixed idea of what motherhood is or what her family should look like. She's looking at her children as fascinating human beings and she's conversing with them and that conversation and her exploration and learning who they are and they learning who she is, that's in the poems.
Alice Notley: Do you remember when you were like Edmund?
What did you do?
crawled with him.
Do you remember last year?
Yeah, Mommy, what did you
do when you be Anselm?
Curtis Fox: Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer were both associated with the New York School of poetry.
Rose Alcala: You know this idea of writing things as they're happening, collapsing the low and the high together.
Reader: How early it is. It is 8:00 in the morning. Well, the pigeons were up earlier. Did you eat all your egg?
Curtis Fox: With one exception, Barbara Guest, the first generation of the New York School was all male––John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and Kenneth Koch. The second generation was where poets like Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer took on some of the poetic strategies of their colleagues from a female perspective.
Lainey Browne: There's a mixing with other modes, like other states of consciousness, dream state, visionary state, as a space of imagination. These are all active ingredients in the poetics along with the quotidian, the concrete, and the daily.
Curtis Fox: Both Notley and Mayer became mothers early in their careers, so the quotidian and the daily often included children.
Bernadette Mayer: When one is pregnant, especially eight months pregnant or whatever, one is constantly thinking about the act of giving birth.
Curtis Fox: Right before having her second child Bernadette Mayer wrote a poem called "Baby Come Today, October 4th.”
Lainey Browne: One thing I love about this is that the title and the poem is a command. She's thinking well what if I could just make it happen now, and then she writes the birth into being.
Curtis Fox: The poem doesn't start with the birth. It starts with a poet at the window of a country house. One of the windowpanes is a piece of cardboard from a box used to ship a furnace, and the poet reads what's written on it.
Bernadette Mayer: Ecstatic experiences with nature
This is an automatic furnace
Do not drop or roll
do not handle which squeeze lift truck
handle with care
This is a piece of quality assured
home heating and cooling equipment.
The Ohio Valley…
Curtis Fox: Gradually the poet shifts her attention to what's going on inside her body.
Bernadette Mayer: There is no pane, the first frost comes
the second baby, we’ll have to
turn up the heat, eat nothing
and breathe through a rose
Emulating the butterfly’s patterns
And the repetitive indifference of leaves
Turning pink, color of the rose, so flushed
Orange color, color of trees
Ecstatic mists train us, no feeling
No feeling, only moving beginning
The pane crashed, baby falls
Between loose pelvis onto the sheet
Lainey Browne: It's not sentimental. There's economic concerns. There's beauty, there's color. And it seems like it's also the creative process. To bring a human into being, to be generative in itself as an ecstatic experience.
Bernadette Mayer: After pretention to be singly devoted to one's task is swayed to love
Then the simple movement from inside to outside
Becomes astonishment, red yellow orange and eyes bright
Sophia Crystal foretells as I foresee absence of memory who
only to sing more and more.
Curtis Fox: Bernadette Mayer. Alice Notley. Lucille Clifton. They and other women poets of their generation wrote birth, children, and family into their poems and into American poetry. In the process, they brought a new kind of poetry, a new way of relating to experience, into being.
Lainey Browne: There is this disobedience right, this resistance to the idea that women are described in relation to their roles to others. I'm a daughter, I'm a sister, I'm a wife, I'm a mother, and what are the societal expectations of that, and that's how women are seen in the culture. There is a rejection of that in all these women’s' work that we're talking about.
Rose Alcala: I think we benefited from all of that work that was doing from all those different writers writing in all these different ways about motherhood. We had so much more movement. We had so much more flexibility in the way we approached this topic than ever before.
Curtis Fox: This has been the fifth episode in our series "A Change of World." Thanks to Hannah Brooks-Motl for her editorial advice on this episode and to PennSound for the archival audio of Bernadette Mayer and Alice Notley. Cindy Katz read Sylvia Plath's “Morning Song” and Hannah Kabel read Mina Loy's “Parturition.” Do let us know what you think of this podcast and of the series in particular. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can link to the podcast on social media from SoundCloud or you can subscribe to it in Apple podcasts. The theme music for this program comes from The Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off the Shelf, I'm Curtis Fox. Thanks very much for listening.
How women poets made birth, motherhood, and parenting central preoccupations of contemporary poetry, just as it is in life.