Thursday, May 7, 2009

conVersing on Mother's Day.

This just in. A link to the American Academy of Poets' suggestions for how to honor your mother through the gift of poetry (by medium of a handwritten card) on Mother's Day. Nice. Yes? I mean, I'm all for poetry, and I even buy their graphological argument about why your sentiments to Mom should be wrought by hand. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then one's composed letters are at least a tilted transom to the temperament.

However, a quick scan down the list of verses that they propose you borrow for the occasion, and I'm left wondering who actually put this public relations nightmare together? No one with an ounce of sensitivity to the nuance of metaphor or the vagaries of image, I would wager. For on close inspection, I find a rather startling majority of their suggested verses about Mom to encompass one of the following: indiscretion, passive aggressiveness (often in the form of condescension), plain old aggressiveness, or violence. Rank sentimentality seems to be the least of their worries.

Just to be clear: I'm not criticizing the poetry itself. There's some of my favorite stuff included here; for instance, I used to teach Sharon Olds's poem, "Why My Mother Made Me," that includes these lines that the AAP would have you write out and send to dear old Mom come Sunday:
I lie here now as I once lay
in the crook of her arm, her creature,
and I feel her looking down onto me the way the
maker of a sword gazes at his face in the
steel of the blade
Brilliant stuff, if not If you're the mother in receipt of this verse, you should know you're in trouble by the time you reach the possessive term, "her creature," should sense the impending doom in the preposition "onto me," and run like hell away from the card itself by the time you reach the weaponry. A knife is a knife is a knife, whether it appears in the back or not. Again, it's a great poem, an utterly unsentimental and even ruthless poem, but this is not the stuff of holiday greeting.

Here's another dubious selection in the form of lines from the poem, "My Mother Would Be a Falconress," by Robert Duncan:
My mother would be a falconress,
and I her gerfalcon raised at her will,
from her wrist sent flying, as if I were her own
pride, as if her pride
knew no limits, as if her mind
sought in me flight beyond the horizon.
So, you say your Mom raised you, "at her will," to be her predatory pet, eh? Well, alrighty, then. No control issues there, I'm sure.

Or this one from "Harbor Lights" by Mark Doty:
It's like watching your mother sleep,
minutes after you have been conceived,

and her closed eyes say it's all right
to wake alone....
It's an absolutely lovely image of a recumbent mother, but, really, who wants to memorialize the moment of their parents' lovemaking in their Mother's Day card? Aren't we taught, rather, to fantasize our own immaculate conceptions from the time we're of any age to understand what that means?

They're not all completely awful suggestions. Nellie Wong's lines from "From a Heart of Rice Straw" are kind of nice:
Ma, hear me now, tell me your story
again and again.
I don't know this poem, but I suspect the mother may very well be dead, and the speaker is thus appealing ("hear me now") to her beyond the grave. I'm not sure my mom would appreciate that particular nuance.

I realize it's difficult stuff to turn emotions of any sort into decent poetry--let alone those meant to address such a significant figure in one's life--without veering off into saccharine sentiments and purple "prose." Good poetry (as these examples mostly are) is unsentimental. Hallmark holidays are not. I can only imagine, then, that the poor bloke given the task of compiling this feature for the AAP website was merely a techie, with no interest--and certainly with no feeling--for poetry itself, who just ran a database search of the words "Mother," "Mom," "Ma," and "mothers," and left us those results. Otherwise, I may be inclined to wonder whether he or she keeps arsenic, rather than saccharine, in their sugarbowl.

1 comment:

  1. Funny stuff, and immaculate conception is ridiculous in all cases but mine.

    My search to find a good limerick was without success.