I have three young children. For me, the question “why write?” carries urgency. Why spend precious hours and strenuous mental effort over imperfect poems while battling hormones, leaking breast milk, and desperately in need of sleep? On the other hand, why have another child, and then another, when the timing might not be convenient, when, given the drive to write, there would be more solitude, more time for thought without them?
The urge to mother and the urge to write poems coexist in me. There are philosophical reasons for doing both, to be sure: I act according to my own set of premises about sexuality, creativity, and the good life. More than that, though, these urges are fundamentally connected for me, each dealing with the mystery of life at its source, each making me vulnerable to the suffering of others, and each exposing me to my own moral contradiction, which is a form of pain.
There is a poem by Anne Bradstreet I am fond of, a meditation called plainly “In Reference to Her Children,” a seventeenth-century puritan’s articulation of an empty nester’s pain. She writes,
My age I will not once lament
But sing, my time is so near spent,
And from the top bough take my flight
Into a country beyond sight
Where old ones instantly grow young
And there with seraphims set song.
There is much compressed emotion here: sorrow, resolve, and hope, as the speaker thinks about her children’s departure from her home and her own approaching death. The poet confronts her mortality metaphorically, but also frankly. She will take her flight, by choice as well as by necessity. And she chooses to sing.
I have, in the past, found it baffling that I am so drawn to this poem when I haven’t yet experienced the empty-nest phase of life, but that is what a good poet can do. Bradstreet is touching on something so essential to parenthood, so essential to life, that it doesn’t require solidarity with her experience to be moved. And poetry and parenting have both taught me, as they taught Bradstreet, to live feelingly in the shadow of death, and sing.
“I saw a pregnant woman,” Rilke writes in his semi-autobiographical Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. “She pushed herself heavily along beside a high warm wall, sometimes touching it as if to make sure it was still there. Yes, it was still there. And behind the wall?”
Poetry expresses an encounter with mystery, and it is a great mystery that as soon as a child is conceived, he or she is open to the possibility of death. Rilke’s “wall” is not only the barrier between the mother and child represented by the mother’s own body, but the barrier between existence and nonexistence, between life and death.
In giving birth, I was able to feel in my body that birth and death are conjoined. I was aware, with more clarity than ever before, that I could—and would—die. I also felt that something beyond me pulled me through the experience; that I was given superhuman strength; and that even after that particular moment of strength subsided, I would be left with a continuing awareness of my own positive potential. I knew that I would not be easy to extinguish. Profound and undiscovered stores of resilience and tenacity remained in me. I could participate in existence as a life-giver, as a creative force, even in the face of total annihilation. I experienced death (or the shadow of death) as labor, and I found that I could succumb to the limits of my being passively, or I could accept them actively: that I could be receptive to the possibility of death, but could also do the work of the experience of it, and that the latter would be infinitely better.
It was after this experience of giving birth that I recognized in Bradstreet’s poem not just her pain but her spirit of resolve. Again, she will sing and take her flight. She has the power to affirm these acts, even in inevitable circumstance.
Sorrow is the poet’s field, and most poets admit that they think about death all the time, and that it feels immanent to them. Yet that same sense of loss—of terror, even—is a poet’s gift; it is what he or she turns into affirmation in a world of language, though often in strange and paradoxical ways.
Harold Bloom writes of poetry’s origin in pain:
Ever since I was a small boy, I have judged poems on the basis of just how memorable they immediately seemed. It is distressing to reflect that what seemed inevitable phrasing to me (and still does) was the result of inescapable pain, rather than of what it seemed to be, bewildering pleasure. Strong poetry is difficult, and its memorability is the consequence of a difficult pleasure, and a difficult enough pleasure is a kind of pain. (135–6)
In the mind of a mother, pain is related to terror, and terror tends to take a particular form. It is a physically painful experience to give birth, but that pain pales in comparison to the threats of the world you give your babies to.
Alice McDermott describes this memorably in her novel Someone, when the narrator reflects on her work at an undertaker’s as a young woman:
I never considered until I got to Fagin’s the variety of missteps that might take a child from the world: burst appendix, whooping cough, consumption, pneumonia, lead poisoning, the infection from a dog bite once (an angel, Mr. Fagin had said, of the little girl), and accidents, accidents, accidents. Run over, drowned, electrocuted by a table fan; one lanky boy had tried to leap between rooftops and fell instead into the lightless areaway—even in his coffin you could see how new his body had been to him. (111)
Later, the same speaker uses the metaphor of a beast to describe the child’s external world:
I was a mother now and all the terrible things that could maul a child, snatch him from the world, had bared their teeth and trained their yellow eyes on me. (188)
There is another kind of terror implicit in parenting, one which reaches deeper and is more difficult to express. This is a terror involving one’s spirituality, recognizing that one is responsible, not just for someone’s physical creation, but for their soul. We bring our children into a world where there are moral dangers, and where it can become clear in an instant that we do not know what we thought we did. The strongest moral convictions are open to reevaluation in light of the love one feels for one’s child.
Joseph Brodsky writes, in an essay on Frost, that “terror has to do with anticipation, with man’s recognition of his own negative potential—with his sense of what he is capable of” (7). It is not just the fact that your child could get hurt that frightens, but that fact that you could hurt your child. Not physically, perhaps, though that possibility remains, but existentially. Your own inadequate answers to the great questions of the universe are thrown up in your face.
This is in part what John Berryman expresses in his brief, poignant “A Sympathy, A Welcome:”
for your bad fall how could I fail,
Poor Paul, who had it so good.
I can offer you only: this world like a knife.
Yet you’ll get to know your mother
And, humorless as you look, you will laugh
And all the others
Will NOT be fierce to you, and loverhood
Will swing your soul like a broken bell
Deep in a forsaken wood, poor Paul,
Whose wild bad father loves you well.
There is a different kind of affection here than we see in Bradstreet’s work, a greater degree of separation between the parent and child. “Your bad fall” seems particularly male to me, an outsider’s perspective on childbirth, and one which romanticizes pregnancy—or is it the state of pre-existence that is, by implication, “good”? But there is protectiveness here, too, a sense of resolve. To say “loverhood” instead of “love” makes the image of the swinging bell a vocation, an identity, even—and one perhaps in opposition to “fatherhood”—more than a mere feeling. And yet what bleak isolation is contained in the metaphor. The newborn’s soul is a “broken bell / Deep in a forsaken wood.” One senses that Berryman is projecting himself here, and that it is the poet who is clanging and forsaken, as much as the boy.
What is striking, however, is Berryman’s choice to end on the word “well.” Even a broken bell, a soul whose music is crooked and strange, can love, and be loved well. The poem encapsulates the poet’s urge, as Yeats says, to “articulate sweet sounds together.” It also sings with the poet’s uncertainty and resolve, his deep and contradictory convictions that this world is full of strong, good feeling—and is a terrible, isolating, and violent place in which to stake a weak existence.
Like many, I am familiar with inner conflict, and find it simultaneously the most fruitful impetus and the most troubling aspect of writing. There have been many times when I have tried to write a poem of affirmation—by which I mean a poem that primarily articulates a feeling of celebration or happiness—only to have it “go bad” and articulate something that scares me. A love poem threatens the dissolution of the relationship, or the end of love. A poem about birth becomes a poem about death. Again and again, I finish a poem and find that it can’t escape the terms of annihilation, dissolution, and despair, which are at odds with my experience of life as good. How can I make my peace with this?
This is deeply related to bringing children into a world of suffering. As I write, the partly decomposed bodies of seventy-one Syrian refugees have been found in a truck parked alongside an Austrian highway. The ancient city of Palmyra has been ruined as unspeakably brutal destruction continues in the Middle East. Closer to home, a twenty-five-year-old acquaintance of ours has been killed suddenly in a motorcycling accident. Longer ago, but just as haunting to me, a close friend suffered a late and devastating miscarriage in the same year her brother was killed in a plane crash. And a cousin woke up one morning to find that her eleven-month-old daughter had inexplicably died in her sleep.
What have I done, bringing life into a world like this? And what could I possibly say, closed behind the doors of my room, shutting out even my children for a few moments of solitude, that could make it any better? Even if my words were as sweet as angels’, sorrow would cover the world.
I cling to insights like those of Ellen Bryant Voigt, who, in her 2009 Hopwood Lecture, spoke of “the excess and even contradictory meaning of the world.” What a good poem contains, she writes, is irony, not the irony of sarcasm, but empirical irony: a vision that “discovers the paradoxical doubling uncovered within the evidence collected from the world, reinforced by the evidence of the poem.” A poem can offer layers of paradox, not because the poet is playing intellectual games, but because the poet actually perceives, is stricken by, and is struggling with contradictory experience, or contradictory desires. Not only that, but the poem itself—the writing of it, and the world it creates—is part of the paradox.
The “death” a poet faces in writing a poem is a death of certainty. Unless the poet is facing a genuine conundrum, the poem rings hollow. It becomes a “clanging cymbal.” No amount of artifice can make up for false antithesis.
And yet love itself is just such a conundrum. Love for God, love for creation, love for one particular person above all others, and especially, as I have felt these last six years, love for a child. How can I carry a child which is and is not me? How could I possibly have the capacity to nurture a human soul while also containing the potential to destroy one? How can I, as I asked above, expose my child to a world of pain? More than anything else, I have been grateful to be a student writing poetry while struggling through the vastness of love which is so great it is almost self-annihilating.
There is profound comfort in facing up to paradox in the world of a poem. Yes, I am at odds with myself, and yes, two incongruous things about lived reality both appear to be true. Yes, I love my children, and yes, I have endangered them just by giving them life. Yes, the world is good, and yes, the world is broken. Even as it encompasses the terms of anger and despair, a poem can say yes, yes, yes. Life matters.
Having and raising children, reading and writing poems—there is little time for either, world as it is. And given the former, the latter must always be set aside for the immediate needs of a person. For the invasion of a human face. I set aside poems more often than I take them up these days. But I do take them back up, again and again. And it is time well spent.
Kjerstin Anne Kauffman holds an MFA from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Her poetry appears in Gulf Coast, 32 Poems, Unsplendid, and elsewhere.
Berryman, John. “A Sympathy, A Welcome.” New Yorker. August 16, 1958: 22.
Bloom, Harold. Where Shall Wisdom Be Found. Riverhead Books, 2004.
Bradstreet, Anne. “In Reference to Her Children.” Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172960.
Brodsky, Joseph. “On Grief and Reason.” Homage to Robert Frost. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.
McDermott, Alice. Someone. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.” William Needham, ed. https://archive.org/stream/TheNotebooksOfMalteLauridsBrigge/TheNotebooksOfMalteLauridsBrigge_djvu.txt.
Voigt, Ellen Bryant. “Double Talk and Double Vision.” Michigan Quarterly Review. Vol. 48, No. 3 (Summer 2009). http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.act2080.0048.308.