Part II: Writing Motherhood: poetry and autobiography
Autobiographies are almost never written in verse, even those penned by poets. Yet poetry is often hugely and unapologetically autobiographical. Few English-language poets have even attempted to render their whole life story in verse, the notable exceptions being William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850), Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1881, with that title), John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells (1960) and Ian McMillan’s recent Talking Myself Home (2008). Even Samuel Taylor Coleridge chose to write his Biographia Literaria (1817) as prose. The fragile boundaries between fiction and autobiography in poetry are frequently blurred: Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was received as autobiography, although it is told as a fictional narrative, and indeed helped to create the idea of the ‘Byronic hero’, forever confusing the author with his creations.
Of course, almost all modern poets have drawn heavily on their own personal experiences to shape their poetry, but they tend to be individual events rather than life narratives. Wordsworth called these highly memorable events ‘Spots of Time’ – defining moments which change a person’s character forever. ThePrelude could be read as a linked series of ‘Spots of Time’: the death of his father, ice skating on frozen Esthwaite Water, travelling to France on the brink of the Revolution, and so on. In this way, Wordsworth’s influence on subsequent writers was huge: there is not a contemporary poet alive who does not draw directly from their own life stories when developing their poems. In this way the recounting of individual instances are quite common in poetry, though not the large narrative scope of The Prelude. And what event could be more life-changing that than of producing another life, the act of becoming a parent? (Which, tellingly, Wordsworth never mentions, despite fathering six children.)
None of the autobiographical poets mentioned above are women. The Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of
Women’s Poetry gave an eager audience the chance to hear three women poets talk about the relationship between poetic form and autobiographical subject through the lens of motherhood. Sinéad Morrissey, Rebecca Goss and Carolyn Jess-Cooke all draw inspiration from their experiences as mothers, collaborating on an on-going poetry project called ‘Writing Motherhood. ’ Jess-Cooke began by quoting the novelist Candia McWilliam’s epithet ‘every baby costs four books’ (just to help you win that esoteric pub quiz, McWilliam has three children and five books to date). The influence of motherhood on writing is clearly a two-way experience: for all three women, it has proved inspirational for their own poetry but also prevents them from writing as much or as often as they might otherwise like to do. It is the nature of this juxtaposition which forms the crux of their project.
The sheer intensity of the motherhood experience is, without doubt, the driving force behind ‘Writing Motherhood’, which aims to put those shared experiences of motherhood into the public sphere using poetry as the medium. As I said, poetry is not the preferred medium for autobiography; the popularity of programmes and books like ‘One Born Every Minute’ and ‘Call the Midwife’ attest to the obvious suitability and popularity of prose and the televised docu-drama for this subject matter. Jess-Cooke felt that the public discussion of motherhood was often very political and derogatory towards mothers, and felt that it called out for a new type of literary representation:
‘It completely and utterly blew me away, how much I could love another human being. It far surpassed all the negativity I had felt swamping around me. I urgently needed to find an art to express all of this, a language, a literary form. I thought first about writing a non-fiction book about motherhood, then a novel. Neither of them felt right (although motherhood is a prominent theme in ALL my novels) so I started writing poetry.’ (http://www.carolynjesscooke.com/2013/11/21/writing-motherhood/)
The need to use poetry as the medium for this experience is fascinating, as though the sheer emotions wrought by birth are not best-suited to the strongly narrative nature of prose. Jess-Cooke’s poetry focuses on the process of birth (‘scurf and residue of me on her scalp’) and the first few hours of life (‘the deflating dune of your first home’), the fears and overwhelming love that accompany the birth of a new baby (‘certain I could hold the life into you’), and the joyful struggle of choosing a suitable name for the new baby (‘ancestral honouring’).
Rebecca Goss’ experience as a mother who then lost her baby was particularly poignant because it was as much the poetry of loss as of motherhood. Her Birth, published in 2013, is intensely autobiographical, telling the story of the pregnancy, birth and short life of her first daughter Ella, who was born with a serious heart condition, and tragically died when she was a little over a year old. Goss spoke of the difficulties she had in talking about Ella after she died; well-meaning friends would ask ‘Are you going to have another baby?’, and she found it impossibly hard to tell them that no, she did not want another baby, she wanted the daughter she had lost. Something which, she said, she found it difficult to articulate in the post office queue! So she turned to poetry instead as a way to give voice to both her experience and her emotions, and from this came another sort of birth, the inception of what became Her Birth. This metaphor was made physical by Goss’s husband, who moved her writing desk into the space which had previously held her infant daughter’s crib: a ‘wise reclamation of the site’.
The overlap between the language of birth and the language of poetry is powerful and potent, not least because
the two are symbolically linked yet rarely brought together. Sinéad Morrissey explores that relationship between creativity in language and creativity in birth: she looks back to the theory of spontaneous generation, plays with the nature of the word ‘eve’ (to capitalise or not ‘the breaking of E/eve’?), and ghosts her writing with the voices of her children: ‘in other noises I hear my children crying’. In a genre historically dominated by men it was hugely refreshing and inspiring to hear three women discuss the interplay between form and subject, bringing together poetry, autobiography and motherhood unashamedly together.