Last week the Saturday Guardian published an interview with the US poet Sharon Olds (1), who has just won the TS Eliot prize for Stag’s Leap: a collection of poems about her divorce. I first encountered her work in an anthology of poems about birth and motherhood (All the poems you need to say Hello, Picador 2004) edited by Kate Clanchy. The poem was The Language of the Brag and it remains the best birth poem I have read to date. In it she compares the physical achievement of birthing with the best physical achievements of men: “I have done this thing,/ I and the other women this exceptional/ act with the exceptional heroic body”. She uses incredibly graphic images to describe this act: “my inner sex/ stabbed again and again with terrible pain like a knife./ I have lain down./ I have lain down and sweated and shaken/ and passed blood and feces and water and/ slowly alone in the center of a circle I have/ passed the new person out”.
I want to say they are brave, these images, but that is only because I would feel anxiety about using them – I would worry about how they would be received. Perhaps I need to be braver, too, because it is only by writing about the difficult things that we bring them into the light. And brave poetry is generally good poetry: moving, shocking even, but mainly… worthwhile. It takes some courage to say something important and new. Women writing about birth, motherhood and domesticity is relatively new. The Guardian article comments: in the early 70’s she was rejected with a condescending putdown. “They told me: ‘This is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest the Ladies’ Home Journal. The true subjects of poetry are… male subjects, not your children.’”
There remains a dearth of poems about birth itself, as Kate Clanchy has commented regarding the process of compiling her anthology. Historically, there are lots and lots of elegies for lost babies, but there are only seven poems in her section on birth (out of a total of 95). Clearly this is a difficult subject. Perhaps now that Sharon Olds has paved the way and we are living in the era of One Born Every Minute and Call the Midwife, we will begin to see more poets (and not only women) tackling its possibilities. I wonder though, if there is something even more fundamentally revealing about writing a poem about your own experience of birth than there is about having that same birth broadcast to the nation on TV. Perhaps poets are just more reticent types, but actually I think the truth is the reason I write poetry rather than work in television. For me, a poem’s power lies in its ability to convey something that a fly-on-the-wall documentary cannot, and therein also lies it’s difficulty. I’m not sure I can name it though. Ideology? Complexity? Emotion? Passion? All of the above? Something, anyway, that is worth the effort.
1. Confessions of a Divorce, The Guardian, Saturday 26th January: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/jan/26/sharon-olds-american-poet-divorce Accessed on 2nd February 2013.