June 11, 2007

Kenneth R. Smith on ‘The Portrait Poem: Reproduction of Mothering’

Mother and Child

Smith begins by noting the link between national mythologies and national identities and he suggests that ‘these archetypes, these symbols of the nation, tend to abstract the culture beyond the access of individual experience, and to certain extent beyond tangible understanding’ (48). In contrast Smith sets up the ‘portrait poem’ as a mode that deals with individual human experience. The portrait poem is similar to a parise poem in its ‘remembering, portraying, exemplifying’, but the praise poem only deals with ‘legendary figures or with the dead’ (48). While praise poems are ‘extraordinary, beyond reality pr life, and are aimed at social memory’, portrait poems are ‘critical or satirical, they deal with the ordinary, and are aimed at social reproduction’ (48).

Smith refers to R.S. Thomas’ demand for the ‘winnowing of the people’ and to Caradog Evans’ ironic stories and poems. Smith describes the purpose of such poetics as ‘meant to reveal the impurities and feelings of inferiority which are stifling in the true expression of national character (48). While the praise poem looks back to an ‘irretrievable past’, the portrait poem offers images of ‘portending cultural demise’ (48). Yet in each mode of writing, the representation of the culture and community is all important:

The poet, as a representative of the people, adopted from the bardic tradition, uses imagination to recreate the reality of the people’s existence in a way which they can understand. Even though at times this may take the form of poetic or mythopoetic thought, Thomas would maintain that these are representations of the true national character […] (48)

Sometimes reproduction of nation in portrait poems is done for political purposes in the hope of changing the status quo. Smith suggests that this is the case in Sally Roberts-Jones’ collection Turning Away. Roberts-Jones uses the English sonnet form to present portraits of politicians. Smith notes that while the verse form signals ‘the confinement of office’, it also ‘offers a form which can carry a moral message or cynical twist in the final couplet’ (48). The subject of Roberts-Jones’ poems is often forgotten or silenced parts or subjects in Wales and Smith offers analysis of ‘Dic Sion Dafydd Returns to the Valley’, a poem about lost community and the lack of opportunity for new generations.

Roberts-Jones’ collection, Relative Values, sticks to notions of lineage and heritage. Smith notes that in this collection, the grandmother plays a significant role as the gatekeeper of the family memory. In poems such as ‘Not a Tolpuddle Martyr’, ‘The Painting’ and ‘Dressmaker in the Nineties’ (earlier poem), the grandmother ‘reproduces in her grandchildren the memories of the family, much as the poet passes on those of the society’ (50).

Smith compares the grandmother-grandchild relationship to the mother-child relationship and he suggests that the grandmother’s distance from the child allows her a special bond with the child. The mother-child relationship is quite problematic for Welsh writers and Smith sees it as being influenced by Nancy Chodorow’s book, The Reproduction of Mothering. Smith quotes Chodorow who suggests that mothering is passed on from mother to daughter. The representation of mothering in Welsh poetry unfolds in two ways according to Smith, ‘as the poet tries to portray her own mother, or a daughter’s view of a mother, and as she tries to represent the mother’s view, or herself as a mother’ (50). Smith describes this as the ‘winnowing’ of mothers.

Smith turns to Ruth Bidgood’s sequence, ‘Seven Found Poems’, and to the particular poem, ‘Grievance’, which takes the form of a letter written in 1712 from Alice Owen to her mother. The poem reveals how the narrator has always been expected to be second best in the family: ‘the prerequisite of a good mother’ as Smith notes sarcastically. Bidgood’s poem, ‘Letter’, also portrays a woman who must give up her own wants and desires for the good of the family. Through Tony Curtis’ analysis, Smith finds similarities in Anne Stevenson’s Correspondences, a collection of letter-poems which in some places examine the subjugation of women by husband and family.

Drawing on Tillie Olsen’s Silences, Smith suggests that Welsh women writers are preoccupied with having to put others first and the repression that this practice causes. He quotes from Jean Earle’s poem, ‘Time’, a silent woman serves a group of men, yet she comes to understand time through her silent observation of the world. Similarly, Earle’s poem, ‘Summer’, suggests, according to Smith, ‘that women have an instinct for the natural order which they are privileged to through self-sacrifice’ (52). Chiming with Chodorow’s theorising, Earle seems to believe that women’s views are hugely influenced by their role as carers and mothers. The reproduction of mothering is obvious in Earle’s poem, ‘Daughters’ Houses I and II’ in which she imagines her daughters as mothers. Smith concludes that the role of mother is seen as ‘a natural, inevitable, [sic] situation fro women, without questioning the imposition of mothering, that is nurturing, maintenance, education, and entertainment of children, upon childbearers’ (51).

While women writing in Wales do not seem to have embraced radical changes in the structure of the family, they are very much concerned with the relationship between mothers and children. Smith quotes Nan Bauer Maglin who suggests that there are five aspects in portraits of mothers:
1. The collective speaking voice of the daughter-poet who speaks beyond her individual concerns.
2. Admiration for the mother’s strength.
3. The telling of the matrilineage or women’s familial history.
4. Maintaining a balance between sympathising with the mother and addressing conflicts.
5. The expression of anger and grief at the silence between mother and daughter.

Smith suggests that while the first three elements can be seen in Roberts-Jones, Bidgood and Earle, to address the other aspects, he needs to turn to other poets.

One of these is Gillian Clarke who offer portrait poems that are ‘significantly different […] because they show motherhood from a personal, self-revealing stance which initiates the reader into the conflicts of a woman tied to her children and the hostilities between a mother and daughter’ (52). In Clarke’s poems, the view is far less nostalgic and children sometimes appear in poems to interrupt the thoughts of the narrator as in ‘St Thomas’s Day’. Other poems such as ‘Community’ consider how ‘[a] dependence is established in which the mother satisfies the needs of the family’, while ‘Sundial’ describes the mother caged by concern for her sick child (52). In poems like these, the mother must sacrifice her own needs for those of others, but in other poems, such as ‘Letter from a Far Country’, this is challenged.

Clarke’s poems about mothers and daughters are particularly highly charged and Smith associates them with factors 4 and 5 in Maglin’s account of mother-portraits. In poems like ‘Sunshine’, ‘Catrin’ and ‘Ice Queen’, the daughter rebels against the silence inherited by the mother from her own mother and the mother responds by feeling both hurt and glad for her daughter. The chain in the reproduction of mothering is broken.

I can remember you, our first
Fierce confrontation, the tight
Red rope of love which we both fought
over …
(From Clarke’s poem ‘Catrin’).

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