Poems about birth and parenting are poems about creation, or beginning, or nurturing, or innocence, and poets have found such metaphorical resonance irresistible. The American tradition of poems about birth begins, not surprisingly, with Walt Whitman, in "There Was a Child Went Forth." Determined to express the breadth and range of human experience in Leaves of Grass, Whitman was more inclined to tackle the traditionally female experience of birth in his poetry, writing in this poem that the act of giving birth is not only conception and delivery, but the ongoing process of parenting:
- His own parents,
He that had father’d him, and she that had conceiv’d him in her womb, and birth’d him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that;
They gave him afterward every day—they became part of him.
If Walt Whitman is the father of American poetry, then Emily Dickinson is most certainly the mother, albeit a non-maternal one. Birth in Dickinson's poetry is an ongoing process of the accumulation of experience, as it is in Whitman’s poem. Dickinson writes in "470":
- How good—to be alive!
How infinite—to be
Alive—two-fold—The Birth I had
And this—besides, in—Thee!
Birth is frequently used as a metaphor, more generally, in poems about the creative process, most especially the process of writing poetry, as in the Anne Bradstreet poem "The Author to her Book":
- Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
Sylvia Plath begins her last book, Ariel, with "Morning Song," a description of her daughter’s birth that is filled with wonder and awe—and the sense that one might not be able to take credit for such an extraordinary event:
- Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Later, she writes, "I am no more your mother / Than the cloud that distils the mirror to reflect its own slow / effacement at the wind’s hand." Birth for Plath is not metaphorical but real; her child is ever-present in Ariel, as if one does not get a respite from motherhood, even to stop and write a poem.
Contemporary poems, drawing upon the confessional poets and the birth songs of many different cultures, are more open about the physical side of childbirth. As the feminist tradition of the 1970s unfolded, women began writing more honestly about birth and the changes in their bodies, in a way that was no longer metaphorical, abstract, or religious. This trend continues with realistic and explicit depictions of birth and new parenting in the work of many emerging authors, including the recent collection Tender Hooks by Beth Ann Fennelly.
For poems that consider birth as a metaphor or as an event, or parenting in general, try the following:
"Labor Pains" by Yosano Akiko
"Central Park, Carousel" by Meena Alexander
"Like a ship's captain" by Yehuda Amichai
"A child is something else" by Yehuda Amichai
"Infant Joy" by William Blake
"The Author to her Book" by Anne Bradstreet
"The Mother" by Gwendolyn Brooks
"the lost baby poem" by Lucille Clifton
"470" by Emily Dickinson
"Bite Me" by Beth Ann Fennelly
"Honey" by Arielle Greenberg
"Baby Song" by Thom Gunn
"The Borning Room" by Michael S. Harper
"The Miracle," by Maureen Hawkins
"Those Winter Sundays," by Robert Hayden
"Starlight" by Philip Levine
"Apricots Died Young" by Chiao Meng
"Curriculum Vitae" by Lisel Mueller
"Sara in Her Father's Arms" by George Oppen
"Morning Song," by Sylvia Plath
"Gods" by Michael Redhill
"With Child" by Genevieve Taggard
"Woman into Man" by Susan Wallbank
"A Woman Waits for Me" by Walt Whitman
"Parents" by William Meredith
"There Was a Child Went Forth" by Walt Whitman
"By the road to the contagious hospital" by William Carlos Williams