Bad Poem With a Baby in It
A baby turns up in a poem I am writing.
Fear adorability: a too-small, too-cozy world enclosing a warm, windowless, furry room (it smells like lotion) somewhere deep inside a house. Fear not-seriousness. Fear sentimentality, its coos and burbles.
If my poem (I have barely written a line yet) invokes beauty in a baby, it is too obvious. Impossible to approach neutrally the feet of a baby, for example, in a poem—even just think: “feet of a baby.” How weak is any part of a baby, as a potential phrase. I can feel the sick pull of sentimentality, and I haven’t even written a metaphor. I can’t say whatever it is the feet of a baby are, can’t push them someway through language or sound to a new place, because the cliff-edge of preciousness is right there, waiting for me to fall off it.
A baby has turned up in a poem I am writing. Fear the world enclosing it: too easy to inhabit, too pretty, too comfy, too female, too married, too straight. A poem with a baby in it is automatically possibly all of these things, no matter what I am in my life as a person.
Fear the visual implications of BABY. B is breasts: they lead; they are accessible. A is for A-frame cottage; B is for bubble; Y is those two arms reaching upward, in need of embrace.
A baby has appeared. Fear loss of world, loss of danger, loss of trash, loss of anger, loss of war, loss of surprise, loss of mattering, loss of dirt, loss of wildness, loss of scale, loss of geologic time, loss of continents, loss of rivers, loss of knives, loss of meanness. Lost: the chance to go somewhere that scares me.
Fear the weight of the baby and the house together, ready to crush me at my desk. Suddenly, where before I would be writing words or lines or working with dialogue or diction or a set of constraints or just a tension, I am writing a kind of poetry. A “poetry of the home,” or a “mother-poem”—after all, I am a mother, and a baby has turned up on this piece of paper.
I am writing a poem about. A cloud of aboutness hovers over my draft. No matter what other kinds of poems I write, narrative wants to pull this one away like a toy train. A baby is narrative. The head comes out, sometimes first, sometimes last, but always eventually. A baby is close to birth, since its being-born happened fairly recently. I can’t get away from the familiar setting, a life lived; the familiar order, conception, birth, arms of the mother. Arms of a mother, the “Y” in BABY.
(True story: In Paris recently, I read several poems with my young son in them. The work evinced a range of strategies, from fragments to collage to narrative to a lyric. An editor I was talking with afterward said, about the poems, “I’m not interested in content. Do you know what I mean?”)
Babies are content, literally, for forty weeks; then they are carried inside fabric cocoons; then pulled in red wagons, put down at night in cribs. Asleep, content becomes contentment. Isn’t the baby peaceful? Isn’t it sweet? Isn’t the mother? What happened to the poem she was writing?
But I am alone at my desk, not among a herd of mother-poets. I can think of a dozen poems-with-babies that are not tenderly worshipful. Some were written by fathers.
(Fact: When a male poet writes about a baby, he is not accused of being “overwhelmed by biology.” Fact: One of my teachers told me and a couple of other women that we should never write about our kids. I later realized he wrote about his kids.)
Mother-poets, stuck in a sticky blood bond. Even though I am one of those poets who is generally more interested in what poems do than in what they talk about, even though I have no special interest in birth, as a subject (in my life as a person, I adopted a baby), fear this draft wants to open its legs and push.
(True story: A man I read with recently said, “I normally hate motherhood poems, but yours are O.K.”)
If the baby in my poem turns out to be my baby, fear the poem is too much mine. Tightly clasped in the arms of the personal, balanced on the hip of the personal, covered with crusts of the personal. Fear the poem assumes you will feel what I feel. Feel the poem assuming, feel the poem presuming. Fear the poem demanding you revere. Fear the poem demanding you feel awe. Fear the poem demanding you feel. Feel the poem saying shhh.
“You.” Who are you?
You are an editor, you are a writer, a poet, a composer, an artist, you are a thinker, you are a colleague, you are a manuscript screener, you are a friend, a fellow person. Where once I would simply be at work on a poem, not thinking about the reader, now that a baby has appeared, you are in the room.
Half the trouble is the baby’s creeping sentimentality, half of the trouble is the way I hold this baby up to be kissed (this is not what I am doing).
Fear loss of credibility.
(True story: I was interviewing for a visiting professorship. The interview went well. When I didn’t get the job, I asked the program director, in the interest of improving my chances for future jobs, if there was anything I might have handled differently. Well, the director said, you mentioned you have a young child. We wanted someone who will be in the department all the time, who will be in her office in the evenings, not just during office hours. We wanted someone who will be completely devoted to her students. We wanted you to be their Literary Mama.)
Fear the Quorum of Seriousness, which gazes upon my poem and says, This is not a poetry we take seriously. We have labored for decades and a century to invent new ways for poems to work; we have questioned how music and diction and the connection between words and sense-making and the world happen. Now you naively trust them.
But I don’t naively trust them! (I say). A baby might be trusting, but I am not the same as the baby. I am the person writing.
The Quorum of Seriousness continues: We have written about incarceration, we have written about addiction, we have used the forms of science, we have written exuberantly about skyscrapers, we have been concerned with destruction, oblivion. We have been murdered for what we wrote in our poems. We have quested after individual voice; we have questioned it. Some of us have forsaken meaning for words only. Some of us have forsaken words for sound. We have collaged letters and dialogue and court testimony and road signs. Sometimes we have returned to our personal pain, but never without an awareness of the ongoingness of the world. Sometimes we have returned to talking about oceans, but never now within a strictly private awe.
But I am not enveloped in a private awe. Am I enveloped in a private awe? I don’t know how I feel. There is not even a poem yet.
For a hundred years (the Quorum, at least half of which is female, goes on), we have given women other things to write out of, to write around, to write about, besides what you have here on your piece of paper.
Sixty laser pointers converge upon the word “baby,” burning a hole through my draft.
If I fail at this poem with a baby in it, I make a personal mistake. The poem has that soft place on its head like ripe fruit, a spoiling spread over to me.
A mistake of intellect is understandable. A mistake of sentiment is just embarrassing. If I had made an error of form, or of perception, or of language, I would go on and write the next poem, and you, reader, writer, artist, critic, friend, might read it, because eventually I would have made it work.
If I could write a sound poem. A strictly phonetic poem, something that is just utterance, with a baby in it.
(A sound poem of coolly neutral hums begins in my head, then it turns into a string of baby sounds: coo, squeak, la, buh, buh.)
If I could write a completely abstract poem, a musical composition instead of a poem….
(A pure music begins in my head, a series of discrete, effervescent notes. It turns into the song the ice cream truck plays, tinny and distorted, as if a zombie toddler were staggering toward me.)
I have not written this poem yet, this bad poem with a baby in it, so much more bad than any other kind of bad poem.
Why poems with babies in them are more potentially sentimental
than other kinds of poems
1. People have strong feelings about children. They tend to like them or dislike them intensely. Therefore, if a poem likes babies, and I don’t, and if that poem doesn’t soon do something besides liking babies, I will resist the poem because I find it predictable, and predictable emotion is one of the forms of sentimentality. (I have strong, but less predictable, feelings about other potentially sentimental things, such as dogs and marriage.)
2. People are expected to have certain feelings about children. A baby activates a set of cultural expectations that operates, in a poem, like subliminal advertising. For instance, babies are supposed to be wondrous. The fact that many people find them so, and that I am expected (by my mother, if not many others) to find them so, pressures the poem. The expectation is out there, daring me to find the baby other than wondrous. A baby in a poem always threatens to make me feel one of the things the world expects me to feel—if not wonder, then love, awe, tenderness. That pressure means the possibility of sentimentality is strong, no matter what the poem is actually doing.
3. Human brains, even the brains of childless adults, are wired to respond to the image of a baby, cueing the body to pick up and care for it. How to counteract this auto-response? If there is a clear image of a baby in a poem, I can’t forestall a species reaction. The poem has to work hard to do something electric or surprising instead of just being emotionally manipulative, which is another kind of sentimentality. If my brain says “pick up and care for this creature,” and the poem implies the same, the poem is telling me what to do. I resist that.
4. Children are exclusive. Love, heartbreak, death—they universally available. Babies are not available in the same way. A baby in a poem must work hard to operate outside the narrative of birth, the activity of caretaking, the milieu of heteronormativity. If the poem partakes of any of those things, depending on the reader, it courts the sentimentality of expectedness (see #2).
To experience these forces at work, read these lines:
[…] your baby is
most perfect human thing you can ever touch
and I want you to think about touching
and the pleasure of touching
and being touched by this most perfect thing this pear tree blossom
this mouth these leafy hands these genitals like petals
a warm scalp resting against your cheek […] 
If the poem’s insistence that a baby is a “perfect thing” troubled you; if you noticed the poem assumed that you would enjoy touching the baby—rather than allowing your reluctance, pain, anxiety, or other feelings—you experienced force number 2 above.
If you felt yourself wanting to put your palm protectively over the baby’s warm scalp, you experienced force number 3. If you are child-resistant, or in a child-resistant mood, and wanted to stop reading, you resisted force number 1. If you were certain a mother was speaking, you encountered force number 4.
All of these forces are powerful: people’s feelings about babies; the expectation of certain feelings; the body’s caretaking urge; and the exclusive, very often straight, zone of baby-making. They make any poem with a baby in it potentially sentimental even before it is written. They are forces a reader may resist.
This is not to say poems with babies in them are doomed. Some of the best poems with babies aren’t even completely unsentimental. They just manage to engage sentiment and sentimentality in unpredictable ways.
A few poems with babies in them
that resist sentimentality
Lydia Davis’s “Priority” evinces a flat description of choosing a task to accomplish while a baby naps:
It should be so simple. You do what you can while he is awake, and then once he is asleep, you do what you can do only when he is asleep, beginning with the most important thing. But it is not so simple.
“Priority” doesn’t offer a single image of a baby. An image of a sleeping infant is unnecessary, since any reader will be familiar with what one looks like. Avoiding description allows Davis to thwart the sentimentality of manipulative emotion by short-circuiting the brain’s Awww response. Davis’s affectless diction also acts as a tonic, cutting the sweetness of the idea of a napping child. In fact, she uses the word “baby” just once, in the penultimate line.
There are a husband and older boy in the piece, but Davis sidesteps the words “family” and “son,” tied as they are to relationship narratives. The word “husband” might have pulled a reader out of the poem for a minute: Who is this husband about whom no details are given? Instead, Davis chooses the neutral, unexpected word “humans.”
One of our notions as a culture, whether you buy into or oppose it, is that babies are Top Priority. Davis works against the sentimentality of that pressure by reordering priorities. She makes the act of writing a letter loom larger than, or at least as large as, a baby. Most of the lines in “Priority” are given over to inanimate objects rather than to the baby:
It should be simple enough to put the glassware away, but you can’t put it away until you wash it, you can’t wash it until the sink is clear of dirty dishes, and you can’t wash the dishes until you empty the drainboard.
This emotional re-scaling makes the world—and the poem—different than what we expect. In importance and preciousness, babies are usually large, dirty dishes smaller, a mouse smaller still. A husband is greater than a drainboard but less than a baby, which after all carries with it a promise of the future. The flattening of emotional scale in “Priority” makes the domestic situation of a sleeping baby funny and strange rather than banal.
“You know how to care for the mouse,” the speaker tells herself near the end of this prose poem. In this house, a mouse might be a pet; more probably it is a pest. The ironical phrase “caring for a mouse” likely means killing it. The stewardship of small creatures, then, is straightforward: one feeds and bathes them, or else poisons them. Davis’s faintly macabre ending cancels any lingering chance of sentimentality.
- - - - -
Jennifer Kronovet’s poem “With the Boy, Cemetery” describes the contours of an ordinary afternoon in mother-land, defying sentimentality by enacting isolation rather than private awe:
A fire hydrant
in a cemetery—
observe. And then
nothing to say.
The rubber of thinking
solo so much.
“Nothing to say.” A mother names the world—“fire hydrant”—and a baby looks. Days with infants are trance-inducing. The conversation, such as it is, only goes one way. Nothing to say, and yet a poem can come from “the rubber of thinking,” being bonked in the head by simple words that cycle and recycle throughout a day spent with a baby. Eat. Wake. Look.
By “thinking solo,” Kronovet’s poem resists the sentimental assumption that you, the reader, will be absorbed by her baby. The speaker herself is not absorbed by her baby. She has messaged her own mind; she is thinking about thinking. Poets have used such meta-structures for many decades, but it’s a fresh strategy in a poem with a baby, because it resists the sentimentality that happens in poems caught up in the narrative or the beauty of babies.
One way to avoid a cliché is, of course, to write about something no one has written about. It seems like there’s little new to say about babies, but Kronovet describes an aspect of parenthood I have never heard a poet talk about:
particulars. You eat. I eat.
He eats. OK fragmented
thoughts as if I’m living in
a certain time.
Spending so much time in baby-consciousness, speaking and thinking baby, erases the past and future. One gradually loses the sense of belonging to “a certain time”—to an era, a generation, even a civilization. Everything floats away but the present, which is so emptied of context and language that it could be the Stone Age.
Kronovet ends by forcing a past to exist via the past tense, conjugating the verb “to wake”:
He woke. I woke.
We all woke.
The “we” in “we all woke” serves as both invitation and mantra. “We all” is the world, of which I, the reader, am a part: I am enfolded in the speaker’s morning with her baby. At the same time, Kronovet seems to be trying to persuade herself that she woke, that her morning really, actually happened. So very little “happens” in a day with baby that a parent wonders, by noon, whether she exists. Yet she is part of “we,” the world of articulate adults who think and speak in full sentences and even manage to write poems.
Marcella Durand’s “The Shaking Frame” also captures the stretching and precarious portioning of time spent minding baby. It begins:
What time will spacetime be in another hour when
I go back and pick up and cook and bathe
read three stories and tuck in and stroke head and give sip of water
sit within view, talking a little yet not so much as to promote
wakefulness but to be there, just be there, just be, be, a mostly quiet
presence and hopefully protective, or at least the sense
that one won’t disappear into a hole or turn into a statue.
A complete guide to the laws of the universe.
The reading, the ordinary gestures of feeding and caring—all must be carefully timed, even the mother’s posture must be exact lest the baby cry and she lose a few minutes to herself, perhaps to go back to writing.
The repetitive, soothing language of the first stanza enacts the real feel of dinner- and bedtime-hours in early parenthood. But this is also “spacetime.” The act of imagination in the poem makes the “hole” a black hole. Who is at risk of disappearing, baby or mother? Either could go. A baby, alone, will cry out to see whether it exists. A new mother, having stopped cooking, bathing, and stroking, does not rest; she enters the ambient anxiety of the night watch.
- - - - -
One way to defuse the sentimentality of expectedness is to write a poem that is not about a baby but in which a baby simply exists, alongside many other things. In this kind of poetics, the sweetness of a phrase or image can be offset by what precedes or follows it.
Anselm Berrigan’s poems operate outside of “aboutness.” They don’t build from experience or memory to epiphany. There are instants of epiphanic insight, but the writing alights on many ideas and objects, including babies (Berrigan has two young children), and doesn’t linger anywhere for long. (The lyric crescendo is not necessarily fatal to poems-with-babies, but the traditional, capital-P Poem, if with child, may be more potentially sentimental than other structures, because the Wonder of a New Life is its own kind of crescendo, threatening to drown out what the poem is saying.)
Berrigan’s long poem “To Hell With Sleep” was “written through the post-birth sleepless confounding happy freaked consciousness” in the first weeks of his daughter’s life. In Berrigan, startlingly clear, insightful observations about what it feels like to be a parent are part of a sweeping, radar-like awareness. “It wasn’t attended to as a ‘baby poem,’” Berrigan says, “though in my mind it is clearly that.” Here is a short excerpt:
Breathing seizes shapes
of a blast, asleep, awaggle
for the plain dramatics
stricken by new life, fans
taser the heart of a feckless
underdog’s triumph as
we script its mock return
but who’s asking for a red-
lipped star-spackled clam
tilted on its side to befriend
a kid free of language? […]
The speaker is up late watching sports on TV (a few lines earlier, Berrigan observed “the cracks in some hockey player’s teeth mid-check”). Meanwhile, the baby sleeps nearby. “Breathing seizes shapes / of a blast,” Berrigan writes, deftly capturing the baby’s reaction to the goal horn: her mouth an “o,” as if she were blowing the horn herself.
A crumb-filled sofa, the NHL, and a strange, acute sensitivity to the breath patterns of a new person—these are the “plain dramatics” of early parenthood, rendered unselfconsciously.
Then the poem shifts to high lyric: the idea of being “stricken by new life.” If Berrigan were a different sort of poet, he might have written a stand-alone poem about being “stricken,” rather than joyously transformed, by becoming a parent. An infant, too, is stricken by life—sensitive, frightened, and uncomfortable as often as she is contented. “Stricken” in Berrigan’s poem also acts as an antique past participle of “strike,” as in slapped, which is how the baby came to earthly breath. “Stricken by life” is an unsettling idea, coming and going quickly between the playful word “awaggle” and a cuddly toy clam.
If pressed to state the subject, or a subject, of Berrigan’s 20-page narration, I would have to say it is the incongruities of parenthood. Newborns are mysterious and rather terrifying, and we hand them polyester-plush sea life—“red-lipped,” as though clams had lips—and say “hello!” What could be odder? In the best way.
- - - - -
Alicia Ostriker’s “Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas” takes the form of a three-part argument. It is long, openly political, mostly discursive. Reading it feels like being caught in a riptide between second- and third-wave feminism.
The poem (dated 1975-1979) begins after Ostriker reads her old pregnancy poem to young female students. Instead of finding it “ripe and beautiful,” they recoil, calling babies “disgusting” and life-limiting. Ostriker’s anger at them ignites the poem. The conflict, though, is not really between the poet and this next generation of feminists. It is between Ostriker’s own essential identities, as serious academic and mother.
“Propaganda Poem” takes vast sentimental risks. It tells women what to do. It is a screed, a poem with “palpable designs on us”—the kind of poem that, Keats reminds us, people tend to hate. Densely sweet images, such as the one quoted earlier of the newborn with “leafy hands [and] genitals like petals,” attempt to seduce by invoking the beauty of babies. Ostriker lectures the girls:
I am telling you and you can take me for a fool there is no
good time like the good time a whole mama
has with a whole little baby and that’s
where the first images
of deity came from—sister you know it’s true
It is hard to imagine a less persuasive argument for babies, in the years following Roe v. Wade, then that mothering makes a woman “whole.” But so the poem does, at least at first. Mamas and wee ones rock gently together “like a vine, like an oriole nest.” But would young feminists, liberated by a newly legalized Pill, really believe babies are “better than sex?” Probably not. And Ostriker gets this.
So she tries a new tactic in Part 2, “Postscript to Propaganda,” which concedes that babies “limit your liberty, of course.” They ruin sleep, “they whine until you want to murder them,” they make you “a wrinkled old tortoise.” Ostriker attempts rationality and sympathy, then turns on her heel, seemingly as irritated with her own reaching after fact and reason as she is with the young women she wants to convert:
Come on, you daughters of bitches, do you want to live forever?
Then comes Part 3, which feels written years later. Ostriker has become more relaxed, philosophical. The poem has let go of seduction and bitch-slaps; Ostriker seems to be musing to herself, not addressing a class. This is where the emotional complication of the poem, which makes it so much more than propaganda, becomes clear. Ostriker, as a feminist foremother, is part of the force that shaped younger women’s suspicion of motherhood. She implicates herself, wondering about the damage done:
What a lot of garbage we all shovel. What a lot of self-serving, self-pitying rhetoric we splash around in.
She goes on, not without humor, noting how attempts to modify feminism’s idée fixe only create more, and weirder, ideologues:
We paint ourselves wrong. How can I, to paraphrase the poet, say what I actually mean? What, anyway, do I mean? About motherhood? It is the unanimity that offends me. The ideological lockstep that cannot permit women, humans, simply to choose for themselves. When I was in college everyone expected to get married and have babies, and everyone thought this was her own idea, although from this distance we can see that we were programmed. Presently everyone believes motherhood is the sinister invention of patriarchy.
This week in Paris I learn that the serious intellectual women are into lesbianism, incest, armed violence and the theory of hysteria. G. gave her slide lecture on the re-emergence of the goddess image in women’s art and was called a Nazi. How can I be a Nazi, she said, I’m a Jew.
There are women with children in this part of the poem, but not in blissful dyads. These mothers are sad, panicked, even superstitious—not earth mothers, but simply human, finally, in the griefs and discomforts of later parenthood. Notably, the “whole little baby” of Part 1—when Ostriker suggested pregnancy makes a woman “less vulnerable to cancer”—has become a child with leukemia: The poem calls out its own dubious advertising.
“Propaganda Poem” had set out to be a strike, a sit-in, an occupation of motherhood in an attempt to rescue for young women “the dazzling circle of contact without dominance”. Its “propaganda” wanted to reinstate biology as pleasure rather than destiny. Ostriker’s initial romantic images are balanced by images of mothers whose choices have pained and aged them. It’s not that the tide of the argument has turned against babies. It’s that, as Ostriker writes, “choice equals risk.” Somewhere between pro-choice and anti-choice is this lost fact about choosing. “Some of us are born to be mamas,” Ostriker says. “Some born not to be. Some in the middle.”
I empathize with Ostriker’s students. I would have been one of them, some years later, who believed that a baby would mess up my life. It is the conflict in Ostriker of being both feminist foremother and mother—a conflict I personally was caught up in—that moves me.
Because the poem holds a place for conflicting truths, the very definition of negative capability, it is not sentimental. The “Maybe” in the title is like a portal. Maybe some women will pass through it. Maybe one who thinks babies are not much worth having, let alone writing about, will find a different way to think by virtue of this poem, which reminds me that I almost missed being a mother.
“Species-specific response to human infant faces in the premotor cortex.” Andrea Caria, Simona de Falco, Paola Venuti, Sangkyun Lee, Gianluca Esposito, Paola Rigo, Niels Birbaumer, Marc H. Bornstein. NeuroImage 2012; 60(2): 884-893.
Alicia Ostriker, “Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas,” The Mother/Child Papers, University of Pittsburgh, 2009.
Lydia Davis, “Priority,” The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Picador, 2010.
Jennifer Kronovet, “With the Boy, Cemetery,” Witness 24:3 (fall 2011), online.
Marcella Durand, “The Shaking Frame,” Critiphoria, March 2010.
Anselm Berrigan, “To Hell With Sleep,” Free Cell, City Lights Publishers, 2009.
 Anis Shivani on Sharon Olds, Huffington Post blog, Aug. 13, 2011
 See also “The Baby Penalty,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 5, 2013: “As one job candidate wrote, ‘I had the experience of being in an interview, mentioning my child, and seeing the [search-committee chair’s] face fall, and that was the end of the job.’”
 The lines are from Alicia Ostriker’s “Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas.” See Part III.
 The context of the Vietnam War, ongoing during Ostriker’s pregnancies, lends extra force to this line, which positions motherhood as a radical act in a time of war.