On May 5th, W.Ink looked at Li Young Lee’s free verse tribute to his mother. Today, we offer two more poems for mothers, appropriate for Mother’s Day. As Shakespeare told us, lines of poems endure long beyond a life span.
Lee’s poem was appropriately nostalgic.
George Barker offers a more affectionate view, love salted with reality, while Judith Viorst provides a mother’s advice to her son.
Click the link to read the poem then return here for our analysis, all to help you write your own occasional poem.
“Sonnet”, Barker announces as his title, and most of us wouldn’t have noticed that he chose one of the most tightly controlled poetic structure if he had not announced it.
“Most near, most dear, most loved, and most far” begins the poem, four hyperboles with the contrasting near and far bracketing the line, letting us readers know that these two words mean more than distance.
The first line sounds like the traditional Mother’s Day greeting card. Surprise comes in the third line. No woman wants to be described “as huge as Asia”. “Seismic with laughter”, yes. Barker gives us the reality of his mother. He doesn’t gild the lily, for it is not the pretty image that makes up the mother he loves: a woman who helps the weak and hurt, brash but alluring, fascinating and courageous.
These are powerful images that he creates for us, laded with emotion, two of the four requirements of song.
She has her weaknesses, but he bolsters her with “all my love” and a reminder of “all her faith” as she copes with a devastating death, punned into the last line.
By now we are studying the poem, re-reading the strongly written portions.
the juxtaposition of the first line
the similes and metaphors that complete the first stanza
the continued comparison of the second (sestet)
followed by the anaphoric “all my faith and all my love”
As we conclude, we nod to ourselves, for this is a woman we know, a person we want to emulate.
And although he has written a sonnet, his rhyming is as atypical as the woman herself.
Surprising poems like Barkers draw us back and back—and isn’t that what we want with our poetry? Readers returning over and again.
Off to Poem Hunter again, to read this deceptively simple poem.
Mothers are known for their advice. Teenagers think it’s nagging, but young adults have a comprehension of the wisdom that flows from the mother, advice oft-repeated because we do not understand the simplicity of the truth.
Viorst gives the most important advice for the first years of a happy marriage. She begins by imagining argument-causing statements that she wants her son to avoid. Such comments can HURT, and they awaken common feelings that everyone has had, has, and will have whenever they are in a relationship. Such comments will damage a relationship. And a couple of them will destroy it.
Here is the emotional connection and strong lines of the 4 Requirements of Song. The connection and strength occur because we have all heard these or heard instances of these.
Her son obviously wants to avoid the arguments, and Viorst knows his wife will eventually ask “Do you love me?”
That question always comes at a trying moment, when no one wants to answer any question at all.
The answer to do you love me isn’t, I married you, didn’t I?
Or, Can’t we discuss this after the ballgame is through?
It isn’t, Well that all depends on what you mean by ‘love’.
Or even, Come to bed and I’ll prove that I do.
She continues by describing the typical scene when that “Do you love me?” question will come: burned bacon, messy house, screaming children, and more. These tight little lines create powerful imagery, a third requirement of song.
For Viorst, the answer is simple.
The answer is yes.
The answer is yes.
The answer is yes.
Simple repetition of the truth.
Join us on the 25th, early Morning for Memorial Day and looking ahead to Flag Day, for a first look at examples of patriotic poems.
Memorial and Flag and Independence Days ~ May and June and July
Graduation and Wedding and many other types of days ~ May and June, typically but also constantly
For poets seeking an audience, these occasions are opportunities to practice crafting poems.
Poetic Occasions: 2 Chief Reminders
1] For a poet writing an occasional poem, the most important remembrance is that the audience controls the writing.
Many new poets write only when their emotions need an outlet. They require the emotion for the inspiration. Professional poets know that poetry occurs constantly. Poetry is for every day, not just for the days when anger or grief rule.
Occasions are excellent opportunities for poetic growth. Logic drives poems that endure, not just the canonical Shakespeares and Rilkes, e.e. cummings and Dickinsons, Poes Whitmans and Dickinsons, and so many more. Logic forms the enduring songs we hear in popular cultures, those songs on the radio, like the Eagles and Dolly Parton, Cold Play and Joni Mitchell, the Dixie Chicks and Sting, U2 and Chris Tomlin, and on and on.
Logic does not mean that poetry becomes lock-step.
Logic does mean that the poet controls the poetic craft.
Occasions go one step more. Occasional poems require poets to stretch their abilities without causing deliberate offense to the audience.
In other words, poets write with other people in mind.
2] The poet also needs to remember the 4 Requirements of Song.
The writing must be heartfelt without being smarmy.
Powerful lines and strong imagery must keep the audience engaged: a listening-only audience will break attention faster than a reading one. Occasional poems are often read aloud.
Rhetorical devices that emphasize points are especially necessary as they help the audience “hear” the ideas through repetition and climactic ordering. These devices “control” the sequence of thought and must be carefully controlled.
Two Poems to Study
Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of the Morning” and Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright” are perfect examples of occasional poems written for presidential inaugurations.
Angelou gives us a free verse poem as sprawling as American cities while Frost’s “The Gift Outright” is tightly focused and structured over its 16 lines. For the audience, this is the difference between a 20-minute speech and a 5-minute one. It’s the Gettysburg Address that we know and love, not the hour-long speech that preceded it which everyone has forgotten.
Angelou’s poem resonates when we can hold it in our hands, peruse it, muse over it. It is a poem for future anthologies.
Frost’s “The Gift Outright” is powerful in the moment yet is then rarely referenced as more than an inaugural poem.
Craft an occasional poem well. It can gain power to reach into the ages.
Intimidated? You can always fall back on a greeting card.
Here is our first poem for Mother’s Day.
Li-Young Lee & the Water of Time
In “I Ask My Mother to Sing”, located here on the Poetry Foundation website, Li-Young Lee presents the connection of the past to present to future.
Go off and read. I’ll wait.
Mothers connect past to present to future for their children in many unconscious ways. They ground their children with who they are (present) and who they come from (past) even as they encourage who they will become (future).
Lee celebrates this ability of his mother and grandmother through their singing. The women’s joy comes across in the second line: “Mother and daughter sing like young girls.” Then Lee sidesteps the typical encounter of a mother-based poem—much as Langston Hughes did with “Mother to Son”, another excellent poem of past to present to future. Lee adds a memory of his departed father, reminding us that these two women who give him such joy will not always be with him.
Just as our mothers will not always be with us. A gentle reminder: Be with them in this now, for time will have its cruel way.
Lee’s second stanza has the readers wishing that they knew this song ::
“I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace / Nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch / the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers / running away in the grass.”
It’s the third stanza, however, that contains the powerful imagery of soothing serenity :: waterlilies become a bamboo fountain, “spilling water into water / then rock back, and fill with more”.
We finish the poem, but it’s not done.
We read the poem, read it again, basking in the soothing imagery and the wistful ideas. Then, in preparation for moving on with our busy lives, we read the title, those few words that we scarcely glanced over in our rush to read the poem.
Lee has done something wonderful with this title. It is a necessary part of his poem. It pours us into the words, just as the waterlilies pour water into water, from the first line to the next and the next and then pour us out of the poem.
Three stanzas, unrhymed, with very little tying the poem together—yet still with a tranquility that draws us back and back, reading the poem a second and a third time, remembering it, connecting it with our lives.
Return on the 15th for another Occasional Poem in Celebration of May for Mothers.
(The images at the top of this blog are of the Folger Shakespeare Library, the wonderful Seven Ages of Man stained-glass window and one of the reading rooms.)
Many transformative songs arose from the 1960’s social change movement. One of the more powerful poets is Joni Mitchell, whose deceptively simply lyrics carry powerful messages.
My favorite Mitchell is “Big Yellow Taxi”, with its famous
line “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” The catchy little tune and
clever lyrics hide a riptide undertow of ecology and conservationism. (Yes, I
love trees. You might call me a tree hugger. The bark’s a little rough,
“Both Sides Now” speaks more universally than “Big Yellow Taxi.”. And the song reminds us that personal change is necessary before social change can occur. Mitchell pulls a Shakespearean Ages of Man with her song, reducing the 7 Ages to 3.
Here is Judy Collins with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, from 1976:
Remember the 4 Requirements of Song? Clear Communication. Heart-felt Message. Powerful Lines. Strong Imagery. “Both Sides Now” achieves all four without difficulty.
The Ages of Mitchell through Powerful Lines and Strong
Stanza I = Clouds
Clouds represent childhood, when we had the time to lie on
our backs and stare at the lazy summer passages and dream about the places
we’ll go (as long as the metaphorical fire ants don’t interfere with our
imaginings). The shapes in the clouds transport us from our humdrum droning
Of course, big puffy clouds herald rain (and snow in
winter), metaphors for the things of life that interfere with our “cloud’s
illusions”. Years beyond our childhood, we recall our lost dreams.
Mitchell’s last line in the refrain—“I really don’t know
clouds at all”—becomes especially poignant looking back with the jaded
experience of our maturity. The line hints at how we went wrong: we didn’t truly understand what we wanted,
what the dream required, and what we would have to sacrifice.
When a child dreams of what s/he wants, that child doesn’t
understand the devotion necessary to achieve it.
Stanza 2 = HEA Love
Stanza 2 moves from childhood to young adult and the “dizzy
dancing” mysterious glory of love, when everything is possible and nothing
Unfortunately, life interferes. The once-upon-a-time “fairy
tale” of happily-ever-after love rarely lasts. The glowing first rush of
attraction is not sustainable. Hopefully, more than the pheromone-driven rush attracts
a couple. Compatibility keeps the love re-charged; devotion helps it endure
life’s slings and arrows.
This persona never gets past the demise of that fairy tale
rush. She gives two pieces of advice. The first is a light-hearted mutual
parting: “leave `em laughing when you go.” The second is for broken hearts: “If
you care, don’t let them know.”
Broken dreams and bruised hearts build emotional walls that
are difficult to knock down. The persona says that love is a “give and take”. Is
that a mutual exchange? Or does one give while the other takes? When she
laments about “love’s illusions”, we understand the reason those relationships
Stanza 3 = Life and its Changes
How do we go forward with these emotional barricades
constructed from the rubble of broken dreams and bruised hearts?
Mitchell suggests “tears and fears and feeling proud / to say ‘I love you’ right out loud”. Yet then our hearts are damaged again. After a time, we guard ourselves from further emotional pain. We try “dreams and schemes and circus crowds” only to have our glorious plans fall apart. After several disappointments, we stop pursuing the hard goals. We don’t give up; we just turn aside.
And well-meaning friends see our emotional barriers, see our guarded hearts and discarded plans, and ask why we aren’t reaching out? Have they not faced the same difficulties?
Or did they never dream? Have they contented themselves with life’s first offerings? When that failed, maybe they shrugged and moved on.
So now they “shake their heads” when the persona won’t give up on her dream. Now they say that she’s out of step, that she’s the one who “changed”.
Heartfelt Message: Keep Pursuing the Dream
Mitchell shrugs off those judgements. She just wants a
balanced “win and lose” life. After all, “something’s lost but something’s
gained in living every day.”
See, that’s Mitchell’s truth: don’t drift. Happiness and
heartaches will occur. Don’t try to understand them. We can never understand
the magical mystery of life and its illusions. Just live.
Writing “Both Sides Now”
Mitchell’s structure is three stanzas and one refrain. The
refrain, though, changes slightly with each repetition. These slight changes
are called incremental repetition.
The cleverness comes with the way each change matches its
particular stanza. The first change occurs when the white puffy clouds of
childhood transition to the young adult’s “love” and then the maturing adult’s
“life”. The changes reinforce the focus of each stage of life, three stages for
In addition to incremental repetition, Mitchell employs two
clever rhetorical devices: the
polysyndeton and anaphora.
A polysyndeton is using more conjunctions than would
normally occur. The purpose is to slow down the progression of the line. In
Mitchell’s poem, the polysyndeton stretches out the first line of each stanza,
just as childhood, the beginning of love, and the launching into maturity seem
to stretch out.
Stanza I] “Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air”
II] “Moons and Junes and ferris wheels”
III] “Tears and fears and feeling proud . . . .”
An anaphora is a phrase repeated at the beginning of a
sentence or a stanza.
Mitchell’s first anaphora occurs at the midpoint of each stanza, in the second line with “I’ve looked”. The sentence then continues with the predominant metaphorical topic of that stanza.
Her second anaphora occurs on the third line of each stanza which begins with “But now”. Along with the repetition and the rhyme, these anaphoras tie the stanzas even more tightly.
Summing It Up
“Both Sides Now” is a clever exercise in William
Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. Simple rhetorical devices keep each stanza powerful.
Childhood, youth, and adult. In each stage we have our
dreams and disappointments. Mitchell reminds us that life will perform a
balancing act. She wants us to look at the even-handed give-and-take of both
sides. We gain when we accept the balance.
Reality keeps us balanced. Illusions keep us going.
We begin our look at occasional poetry in May. Occasional
poetry is written to celebrate or commemorate a specific person or event. In
May, our occasion is to celebrate mothers while in June our fathers will be the
focus. That takes us to July and the occasion of Independence!
In examining these poems, we’ll discover how to write an
By the time we finish, you’ll have what you need for that
awkward moment at Thanksgiving when people ask what you’ve been doing with your
writing. You can read them a poem for Thanksgiving—or Christmas—or Advent—or
Halloween—or Labor Day. Or volunteer in your local community to write an
inspirational poem. Every month has one major occasion, and many months have
several. November, for example, has Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving and Advent
and Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Basically, though, remember the 4 requirements of song, and you’ll do well.
On the 25th of April is Carole King’s “Tapestry”, a look at a riddling allegory. Then, after the occasional poems for moms and pops and freedom!, we’ll offer up another allegory.
Through the heat-heavy days of summer we’ll look at the classic rock “Hotel California”. The Eagles will have landed.