by David Axelrod
Whenever you enjoy finding your way through a writer’s entire work, reach the end of it because he or she is no longer alive, and you can only look back now, though wishing there were more, it seems inevitable that you will want to know something about the writer’s life. Have you ever wondered, for example, whether Wislawa Szymborska had any children?
In any event, I asked myself that question, a bit facetiously, when I finished reading “It’s a Genre! The Overdue Poetry of Parenthood,” by David Orr, published on the NPR website. Orr is a new parent, he tells us and I can well imagine the glow on his sleepy face. He has also been reading some recent poems about infancy, especially by young mothers. It wasn’t always so easy to find such poetry, he tells us; “until relatively recently, the poetry of birth tended to glide past the whole ‘birth’ part, usually skipping the newborn bits as well and sometimes giving childhood a miss for good measure.” He provides us with some exceptions to this rule from the Norton Anthology, avoiding for obvious reasons, I suppose, Ben Johnson’s “On My First Son.” Orr laments the fact that there is no poetry that depicts an infant for what it is: “a voracious poop machine.”
About the paucity of poems relating to birth, I really can’t quarrel. The younger generation of mostly female poets he cites no doubt have stumbled upon a new poetry of early parenthood. And there’s little doubt they owe a good deal to Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich, whom Orr cites, though I think of these two as far more cautionary examples: one a suicide, and the other a critic of the very institution of motherhood.
Plath’s “Metaphors,” “I’m a riddle in nine syllables,” is a tiny, comic, and formal tour de force on pregnancy, but “Nick and the Candlestick,” with its apocalyptic imagery borders on the despairing. That the Nick of the title and the “you” addressed in the poem was Nicholas Hughes, a suicide in 2009, raises a very painful, perhaps unfair, issue about the relationship between art and life. As Faulkner is supposed to have said to his daughter on her twelfth birthday, when she asked him to forgo the drink that day and spend his time with her: “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.” Or put it yet another way: the poem “Nick and the Candlestick” and its subjects, pregnancy and progeny, may make a similar claim: life is short, art is long. But really, must art expose those who are, even in this case, more vulnerable than the artist?
Rich’s Of Woman Born was the most influential writing I read about parenthood thirty years ago, when I was a young parent. Two unsentimental moments from that book come immediately to mind. Why, Rich asks, do we congratulate a father whenever he is seen in public caring for his own child, when we would not expect a mother to do anything less? No one would ever think to congratulate her. That certainly resonated with my experience, and if it didn’t exactly shame me, I learned to regard my own parenthood with a healthy degree of self-irony. Then there is what the French woman said to Rich when she was in public, protesting the Vietnam War with her three young sons: “How long have you been working for the military?” Rich’s topic is the institution of motherhood; in this case, how the institution provides a patriotic service to the Military Industrial Complex. Yes, there is that aspect of parenthood, too, the State’s Selective Service claim on the lives of our children as defenders of morally dubious adventures or more accurately, as perpetrators of collective violence.
Plath and Rich were hardly alone. Why not include in that list of precursors Alicia Ostriker’s The Mother/Child Papers, much of Muriel Rukyser’s best work, and any number of Second Wave feminists who also wrote of parenthood? What about the fathers of previous generations? Kenneth Rexroth may not have written about birth, but many of his poems are for or about his children. Theodore Roethke and Richard Wilbur both wrote delightful poetry for and about children that suggests plenty about their experiences as parents: “We Biddly’s are Pee-culiar Bears.” Robert Bly’s children appear in a good number of his poems, and like Stanley Kunitz before him in “The Quarrel,” Bly addresses a child after a moment of apparent rage in “For My Son Noah, Ten Years Old.” Galway Kinnell dedicates The Book of Nightmares to his children and several of the best known poems in that collection are about being the parent of infants during a period of political violence. And then there are Kinnell’s old crowd pleasers: “Fergus Falling,” and “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” the latter never failing to evoke a gently knowing, “Aaaah!” among readers who are parents or aspire to be.
Don’t even imagine that I’ve forgotten “The Bath,” by Gary Snyder. Reading it years ago caused me to go misty eyed with the warmth of mammalian pleasure. Long ago, too, in the Virginia Quarterly Review, “The Bath” was praised as: “a joyful and dignified corrective to bodily shame, and the over-extended incest taboos that induce it.” Uh-huh. Today I’m more reticent about the liberties Snyder takes with the most intimate aspects of his family’s private lives.
As with sex, so with its primary purpose, childbirth: every generation discovers it as though for the first time. But in every generation, too, what seemed like a good idea at the time—in my own, for example, that the personal is political and intimate self-revelation brave—later feels more like a source of ambivalence if not outright embarrassment. Being the parent of a young child is in some ways the most shocking and sustained intensification of personal experience we will ever know in our lives, short perhaps of our own births and deaths. Marriage or becoming grandparents come in perhaps a distant second place. Sure, there are other largely negative extremes, but these that tend toward the affirmative are the more common. Such experiences certainly suggest themselves as likely sources for poetry. One moment we are young, in love, freer than we realize, and then in the next there is suddenly this third living human being who is dependent upon us for virtually everything related to its survival and success. Or its complete and miserable failure. Either way, we unambiguously enter into the instinctive life and the meaning of generation.
We don’t anticipate, though, how brief this episode of parenthood is, any more than we anticipate how all-consuming parenting will be from the moment we carry our baby into our home for the first time. We figure it out, usually, as the formal expectations of this role are fairly narrow and few, though we might protest that claim while caught in the midst of it all. But given the intensity of those demands, plus the additional demands of making a living, I’m surprised anyone has much time for a great deal of good writing about their children. That’s not to say there aren’t those who do, somehow, find the time, but one is just as likely to hear, “I haven’t a great deal of time now to write.”
For most of us today that intensity of parenthood begins to subside after 20 years, give or take. After which, children successfully launched, Nature is pretty much done with us. Prideful and often disastrous efforts to the contrary, our fertility declines and finally disappears. We’ve accomplished the one task Nature assigned. Now we are redundant. And though we’re often given a role later as grandparents, whatever else our lives might become, we must largely invent. We’re free again, but it’s a little crushing to our former pride of purpose. Plus, there’s no guarantee that adorable infant and toddler whose love for us is so innocent and absolute won’t turn into a venomous teenager, before getting that Neo-Nazi tattoo on her neck and decamping permanently for the opposite coast. Nor is there any guarantee that we don’t bear the blame for this state of affairs. Babies are the easy part. The making especially. “This Be the Verse,” comes later.
That is one reason for my own reticence about a poetry of parenthood, though perhaps not the strongest reason: wisdom comes later, if at all, though I’m sure my younger self would have disagreed. There is yet another caution that we ought to consider, and that I’ve already hinted at, and that even my younger self reluctantly allowed himself to be guided by.
After wondering about Szymborska’s status as a parent, a status for which the poet’s work gives little evidence, I began to wonder, too, about an essay Denise Levertov wrote on this subject long ago. It took a couple days of looking through bookshelves, but finally I put my hand on it. “Biography and the Poet,” from The Ohio Review, Number 48, 1992. Not precisely the same topic as Orr’s, as Levertov is concerned with privacy and restraint, though she touches on children as a subject of poetry. Late in the essay, she quotes Robert Creeley approvingly: “My love’s manners in bed / are not to be discussed by me.” Levertov comments on this at length and makes the crucial pivot to our topic here:
I’ve read many a poem that made me feel the author would have done well to profit by this maxim. But adults can object and defend themselves if they feel exposed and exploited as characters in someone’s drama of self-revelation; children cannot. Yet there are many poems in which a parent—and I have to acknowledge that, in my observation, it is most often a mother—writes of a child in ways liable to cause acute, even traumatic embarrassment when that child sooner or later reads that poem. These are poems—or images in poems—which focus on the child’s body, and in particular its genitalia. Imagine a shy adolescent finding in print a graphic description of his little penis at age five, its color and shape! Worse, imagine his schoolmates reading the poem and teasing him about it!…the poem should remain unpublished—at least until the child is an adult and his consent can be requested.
Someone might argue that Levertov is just old-fashioned and a prude. We are so much more honest today about our lives in this enlightened age that has made Sharon Olds’ poetry not only possible but popular. When Olds is writing in her most winning, comic, extended metaphor mode, “Blow Job (Vulgar Slang),” “Topography,” or in her hapless and hilarious poems such as “Adolescence,” or even at her most self-lacerating, “I Go Back to May 1937,” I can stand by her words, and defend them against any assault. But when the kids come up as a topic, I know I’ve walked into the wrong room. In a recent interview in Vogue, Olds expresses similar scruples, having waited a decade, “out of deference” to her children, to publish a book about the end of her marriage. She also wonders about how her frankly autobiographical writing might have contributed to the breakup of her marriage.
So, yes, Levertov is making a case (and I guess so am I) for a degree of restraint and self-censorship, but only as an act of sensitivity and consideration toward those who can’t yet defend themselves. I don’t know if the following is true or merely apocryphal, but I’ve heard that Gary Snyder’s son asked him not the read “The Bath” in public. If that’s true, I think we can be certain why.
Sure, there are poems that must be written, they are forces of nature, and one might wish that this were so of all poems. Still, Levertov’s point is clear. One could, for example, read David Orr’s blog and conclude that his daughter is “a voracious poop machine.” That’s no big deal to anyone who has spent several years of his or her life changing diapers, but to an 11- or 12-year-old classmate of Orr’s daughter it could be a tool of adolescent mortification. Worse, he’s made his own newborn available for public discussion here. It’s really kind of appalling in a way, despite the fact that he intended no harm by bringing up this happy topic. Hence, Levertov’s point seems well taken. It’s really not such a benign act to expose those innocent ones we love, assuming that the whole world will treat them with the same love and kindness as we do.
My own teacher, Richard Hugo, was a bit more blunt. He was speaking here about poems that assert unobjectionable personal virtues, among which we may include the category for the noble intentions of young parents and their especially gifted offspring: “When a guy turns to you in a bar and tells you he ‘loves’ his wife, you know he’s a god damn liar.” From an editor’s perspective, I know that the rash of blogs, interviews, and essays about the New Poetry of Parenthood will spawn a wave of well-intentioned imitators. In the next year or so I’ll read piles of poems by young parents (I wrote the same poems 30 years ago!) and what I will learn is that poets by and large are good enough parents, though sometimes they make hilariously stupid judgements, but no harm done, and their kids, too, turn out really terrific.
My own children made an uncomfortable point about this topic in their adolescence. I’d written plenty about them in poems, but fortunately published little of it. They, though, had come to recognize poetry as little more than an opportunity I took to exploit our personal lives as meaningful subject matter for poems. Until one day they squawked about it: “So, are you going to write a poem about this?” They were correct to mock me and I quickly learned my lesson from them. Which brings us back to Szymborska, from whom we might learn a similar lesson, and about whose personal life we might expect to know a great deal, given her fame and that privacy has become something very quaint. Reading her work I can assume a good deal about her concerns, the quality of her mind, her sense of humor, the regard she has for life and its inexhaustible absurdities, even her personal philosophy, but I know nothing about the intimate details of her personal life, as she betrays little or no information about those she loves. She is hardly alone in this. Her countryman Czeslaw Milosz similarly shied away from revealing the intimate details of his personal life. And yet, does anyone feel that their work is lacking for want of such detail? Perhaps the similar reticence of earlier generations, such as Levertov’s, is not a sign of anything other than respect for privacy. There’s really nothing wrong with that. Maybe some things should remain private. Not because we are ashamed or repressed, but because exposing others can have the unintended consequence of shaming them. This in no way diminishes us. After all, as writers we are hardly limited to close observations of our personal experiences as personal experiences, though that is the siren song of our cultural tendencies. Our eagerness to share, however, can have the opposite effect. It leaves little room for others, readers perhaps, and can, in its worst excesses (The Beats) lead directly into solipsism.
Kay Ryan is another poet whose reticence on this issue is made clear in poem after poem. Look far and wide through her new and selected, The Best of It, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a first-person singular pronoun. More often you will stumble upon a first-person plural pronoun, or a third-person or second-person pronoun, but even this is rare. A friend of mine commented on this phenomenon in her work: “We know absolutely nothing at all about her personal life, even as she writes poems that seem to be about grief. Was she ever in love? Does she ever make reference to her sexuality? Nope.” We really do expect to be able to find answers to such questions. Despite this, her poems, stripped down to the essentials, nevertheless are full of riches, and though they are spoken in a quiet, even private voice, they allow readers enormous space. As is “Relief”:
We know it is close
to something lofty.
Simply getting over being sick
or finding lost property
has in it the leap,
the purge, the quick humility
of witnessing a birth—
how love seeps up
and retakes the earth.
There is a dreamy
wading feeling to your walk
inside the current
of restored riches,
clocks set back,
Ah, yes, there it is. A kind of perfection, generous and open, that averts the disasters of sealing off human experience into categories, or worse, into specific genres. The birth imagery is certainly the most vivid in the poem, but it connects itself to a broad swath of the experience of human affirmation.
It’s difficult to read David Orr’s blog, too, without seeing it less as a call to explore the territory of a “new” poetic subject, than as a symptom of a larger cultural phenomenon: the always conflicted territory of women’s bodies. After all, this is a political season that has been weirdly focused on the biology of women, from the Catholic Church’s conniption fit over insurance coverage for contraception to Rush Limbaugh’s grotesque attacks on Sandra Fluke to the “testy ideological exchange” between Hilary Rosen and Mrs. Mitt Romney to Todd Akins’ bizarre theories of “legitimate [sic] rape,” and all the outrageous claims in between. A recent review by Diane Johnson in the New York Review of Books, “Mothers Beware!” examines no fewer than four recent books that argue in part that, “women are being menaced by a new wave of maternalist fundamentalism.” Even a supposed third wave feminist like Naomi Wolff is making strangely retrograde and ridiculous claims such as the vagina’s neural connection to “the feminine soul.” Good grief, she goes so far as to detail her spiritual experiences with a yoni therapist, a retired investment banker who, for a “workshop” fee, massages female genitalia and in necessary cases performs sexual intercourse to heal the needy vagina, proving once again that there’s a sucker born every minute. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
In his NPR blog, David Orr cites two poems from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, “Infant Joy,” and “Infant Sorrow,” by William Blake. The Blakes we know were childless. And yet, working together, they made, early in his poetic career, these two enduring books of poems, editions of which were completed between 1793 and 1794. They were not his first illuminated books, rather they were preceded in 1788 by All Religions Are One. That is to say, the oppositions, the “Contraries” that organize the Songs, are built on the philosophical foundation of the earlier work, a “vision,” that Blake would continue to elaborate throughout the remainder of his life and work. The Songs are emblematic of his larger philosophical and spiritual concerns. Poised between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, and a witness to the end of pastoral England, the demographic shift toward urbanization, and the economic shift to industrialization, Blake’s poems, even for (or about?) children, seethe with political and social content. This is hardly news to anyone. What concerns us here, though, is the poetry of parenthood, of infancy and childhood. Aren’t we standing today at the end of a historical era that Blake stood at the beginning of? Hasn’t the the pastoralism of Songs of Innocence given way to the industrial era of fossil fuels, the experience of which is global climate change? Be honest, given the political and social inertia of the past generation (ours), don’t our children have the bleakest future? Aren’t the savage ironies of Blake’s poems an ontological critique of the unholy alliance of religion and capitalism that betrays the vulnerable? Wasn’t he warning us? Blake wasn’t a parent, and yet children and their future remained a primary concern of his imagination. And it’s imagination and its philosophical foundations that make much of his work so powerful still. I think David Orr aims too low and children aren’t shit factories. Theirs is the only future any of us have and, from an environmental perspective, it’s a grim one. The stakes are huge for them, and our poetry at the very least must address that challenge. This sounds apocalyptic, I know. Or as Leonard Cohen would sing, “There’s a mighty judgment coming, but I could be wrong.”
I’m not, however, arguing against a new poetry of parenthood. Only that it isn’t new, it isn’t ethically neutral, it isn’t without unintended consequences that we ought to consider first, and it isn’t free from being culturally determined by race, class, or gender. And the consequences for our children and our children’s children are so grave that we might need an equally grave approach to these matters. After a decades-long slog in the furrow American poetry has plowed through smothering domesticity and self-disclosure, I hope for the emergence of a poetry more engaged in the condition of lives other than our own private, atomized personal lives. We have the powerful imaginative skills of the heart to accomplish this. Our circumstances require nothing less. Let’s give the kids a break.