In search of a good mother poem

Mother’s Day has come and gone with no acknowledgement from me.* But better late than never, right?

Mothers were a big deal in 1918. Of course, they never exactly go out of fashion, but, with American soldiers just beginning to be in harm’s way, they were on everyone’s mind.

President Wilson paid tribute to the

patriotic sacrifices which are being most freely and generously made by the mothers of this land in unselfishly offering their sons to bear arms, and, if need be, die in defense of liberty and justice.

Clifford Berryman, Washington Evening Star, May 2, 1918

According to the New York Times, General Pershing called on his troops to write home on Mother’s Day. The Y.M.C.A. in France took stationery to the trenches and delivered the letters to the army postal service, where they were marked “Mother’s Mail” and given top priority. “Mother booklets” were distributed to the soldiers, containing Rudyard Kipling’s “Mother o’ Mine,”** Henry van Dyke’s “Prayer for a Mother’s Birthday,” and “a typical letter written from any mother to any soldier.”***

There was a lot of poetry about mothers, most of it, as in any era, pretty bad. So I was intrigued when William Lyon Phelps, author of a seemingly endless series of articles in The Bookman called “The Advance of English Poetry in the Twentieth Century” (we’re on Part VIII now), praised some poems on motherhood by Anna Hempstead Branch. Phelps, an author, critic, and scholar whose lectures drew enthralled throngs,**** called Branch’s poems “as beautiful in their uncrowded simplicity as an eighteenth century room.”

I didn’t get my hopes up too high, though, since, according to Phelps, Branch was the only contemporary poet James Witcomb Riley could stand. The Hoosier Poet has a special place in my heart—he was imprinted on me during a few impressionable childhood years in Indiana—but even Phelps, who was no avant-gardist, called him “the most conservative man I ever knew.” My expectations were lowered further when I read on Wikipedia that Phelps “was regarded as a major poet during her life,” which always has a subtext of “but we all know better now.”

Here’s the first part of Songs for My Mother, called “Her Hands.”

My mother’s hands are cool and fair,
They can do anything.
Delicate mercies hide them there
Like flowers in the spring.

When I was small and could not sleep,
She used to come to me,
And with my cheek upon her hand
How sure my rest would be.

For everything she ever touched
Of beautiful or fine,
Their memories living in her hands
Would warm that sleep of mine.

Her hands remember how they played
One time in meadow streams, —
And all the flickering song and shade
Of water took my dreams.

Swift through her haunted fingers pass
Memories of garden things; —
I dipped my face in flowers and grass
And sounds of hidden wings.

One time she touched the cloud that kissed
Brown pastures bleak and far; —
I leaned my cheek into a mist
And thought I was a star.

All this was very long ago
And I am grown; but yet
The hand that lured my slumber so
I never can forget.

For still when drowsiness comes on
It seems so soft and cool,
Shaped happily beneath my cheek,
Hollow and beautiful.

With all due respect to Phelps, and to Branch’s fragrant mother—no. It’s not just that this poem has nothing to do with where poetry was going.***** Try to read that last stanza out loud. For it to work, you have to pronounce the last line “hollOW and beatiFOOL.” It’s fine to bend the rules on rhyming and scanning if your structure is looser—for example, “Streets that follow like a tedious argument/Of insidious intent,” from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” doesn’t scan particularly well—but if you’re locked into your scheme as tightly as Branch is, you’ve got to stick with it. I did like “I…thought I was a star,” but I got lost trying to follow the cloud/pasture/cheek/mist trajectory.

Then I stumbled upon William Carlos Williams’ 1917 poem “Dedication for a Plot of Ground.” Once again, I didn’t get my hopes up. For one thing, WCW and I have a history, dating back to the early days of this blog when I denounced his foray into poetic Cubism. Plus, have you ever come across a more boring title?

William Carlos Williams with his two sons, Paul and William, and his mother, circa 1918 (Beinecke Library, Yale, University)

The poem is about Williams’ maternal grandmother. Here it is:

This plot of ground
facing the waters of this inlet
is dedicated to the living presence of
Emily Dickinson Wellcome
who was born in England; married;
lost her husband and with
her five year old son
sailed for New York in a two-master;
was driven to the Azores;
ran adrift on Fire Island shoal,
met her second husband
in a Brooklyn boarding house,
went with him to Puerto Rico
bore three more children, lost
her second husband, lived hard
for eight years in St. Thomas,
Puerto Rico, San Domingo, followed
the oldest son to New York,
lost her daughter, lost her “baby,”
seized the two boys of
the oldest son by the second marriage
mothered them—they being
motherless—fought for them
against the other grandmother
and the aunts, brought them here
summer after summer, defended
herself here against thieves,
storms, sun, fire,
against flies, against girls
that came smelling about, against
drought, against weeds, storm-tides,
neighbors, weasels that stole her chickens,
against the weakness of her own hands,
against the growing strength of
the boys, against wind, against
the stones, against trespassers,
against rents, against her own mind.

She grubbed this earth with her own hands,
domineered over this grass plot,
blackguarded her oldest son
into buying it, lived here fifteen years,
attained a final loneliness and—

If you can bring nothing to this place
but your carcass, keep out.

Now, THAT’s a poem. It’s fierce. And Emily Dickinson Wellcome was a fierce mother. What a life! Look at it in geographic terms******:

And so much loss and heartbreak along the way.

If I had to pick a mother from between these two, I’d choose Phelps’s mom, Mary L.B. Branch. When she wasn’t caressing Anna’s brow, she was a poet and children’s author (although not a very good one, from my brief look at her work). She and her husband raised Anna in Connecticut, where her family had lived since 1640. There’s something to be said for stability.

But a poem about a mother? I’ll take Emily, any day.

Title page, The Kanter Girls, by Mary L.B. Branch, 1895

*My Year in 1918-wise, that is. IRL I was on it.

**Which I just read and it’s all about dying and is a terrible poem to give to a soldier!

***1918 mothers were surprisingly interchangeable. American soldiers were apparently known for their need for mothering and their tendency to glom on to the nearest French woman of appropriate age. (But the French apparently thought it was pretty cool, since they followed the American soldiers’ example and celebrated Mother’s Day for the first time that year.)

****People supposedly sat outside packed churches to listen to him through the windows. Those were the days!

*****For an interesting discussion of how a poem can have nothing to do with where poetry is going and still be great, read Frank Hudson’s recent post on Sara Teasdale’s “Union Square.” He sings it too!

******Not completely accurate geographic terms, apparently—E.D.W. was not the most truthful of grandmothers.

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