Birth, most people would agree, is a fairly important event. And poetry, most people would agree, tends to focus on subjects of intense emotional significance. So one would think the poetry of early parenthood would be a rich and varied category, filled with reflections on physical transformation, the emergence of life, the realities of infanthood and so forth.
One would be wrong.
Yes, there are a few great poems about infancy — William Blake's "Infant Joy" and "Infant Sorrow," for instance. But until relatively recently, the poetry of birth tended to glide past the whole "birth" part, usually skipping the newborn bits as well and sometimes giving childhood a miss for good measure. Perhaps the most famous example is William Butler Yeats' "A Prayer for my Daughter," a lovely poem that focuses on what the poet hopes his infant daughter might be like in 18 years (courteous, kind and "not entirely beautiful"), rather than what she surely was at the time (a voracious poop machine). Recent parents may also note with amusement Yeats' proud announcement that he "walked and prayed" an hour for his newborn during a powerful storm while his child slept on. Yes, a whole hour. While she slept.
This avoidance of actual babies can seem a bit disappointing if, like me, you are a poetry critic with a newborn daughter. Fortunately, the past few decades have seen a reversal of sorts. And it is a reversal that coincides, not at all coincidentally, with changes in society — most notably the greater presence of women in fields that, like poetry, have not always wished to dwell upon the uterus.
Consider the anthology Morning Song: Poems for New Parents, which was released last year and is, as far as I know, the only example of its kind. Much of the anthology consists of work that is not so much for "new parents" as plain old "parents" or even just "people who have heard of these things called 'children,' " but there are two sections devoted specifically to birth and infancy. They are dominated by female poets, almost all of whom are alive today. And that dominance would be even more pronounced if several famous dead male poets were not included on grounds that seem charitable at best. For instance, Robert Frost's "The Pasture" is labeled a "birth" poem, although it has about as much to do with birth as Prince's "Little Red Corvette" does with carburetors.
Frothy and pink as a rabid pig you —
a mauler —
a lunatic stricken with
a madness induced by flesh —
squeeze my skin
until blotched nicked. Your fingernails
Indeed, much of the best poetry of early parenthood is being written by today's younger poets. And they are tackling subjects that either haven't gotten much attention in the art form or have been spun into metaphor at the expense of reality. The feeding of infants, for example, appears in many older poems, but more often as a symbol than a subject. William Wordsworth's "The Birth of Love" is an elaborate classical allegory from the late 18th century that revolves around finding a wet nurse for Cupid. Contrast that with the beginning of Julianna Baggott's "For Furious Nursing Baby," which appears in the forthcoming The Best American Poetry 2012:
As my wife put it, "Yeah, that's about right." The point here is not that Wordsworth's poem is dull (although it is), but rather that Baggott thinks of breast-feeding as being worth discussing in its own right.
A similarly refreshing frankness can be found in the work of dozens of female poets across the aesthetic spectrum, such as Brenda Shaughnessy, A.E. Stallings, Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker (Zucker and Greenberg's collaboration, Home/Birth: A Poemic, is well worth reading). These poets are following a trail cut by Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich, but they've expanded and improved upon the path left to them.
Yet while the new poetry of birth is largely being written by women, it would be unfortunate if it were only being written by women. After all, men do have a role to play in these matters. So it's good to see poems like Paul Muldoon's "Sonogram" and books like Devin Johnston's Traveler that confidently take up the rituals and worries of early parenthood. Perhaps it's appropriate that the same volume of the Best American Poetry series that includes Baggott's poem about breast-feeding concludes with Kevin Young's "Expecting," in which Young describes his wife's ultrasound as "The doctor trying again to find you, fragile / fern, snowflake." All snowflakes are unique, yet look nearly identical — like embryos, babies and even birth itself. This is the kind of paradox that new parents understand, and that poets at last seem ready to embrace.