Whether protecting or pampering, loving or coddling, mothers tend to occupy a mythic space—children may see them as creators, god-like beings who nourish and mend, and over time, have to learn how to see them as fallible—real people with their own histories, challenges, and needs. Many writers have explored their relationships with their mothers, sometimes with words of ecstatic love and devotion, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem "To My Mother":
The angels, whispering to one another,
Can find, among their burning terms of love,
None so devotional as that of “Mother”
Poets have often celebrated the complex relationship between mother and child. Some see mothers as teachers, offering practical and emotional lessons and advice, as well as compassion and strength. They can be a source of inspiration. In "For My Mother," for example, May Sarton writes:
I summon you now
Not to think of
The ceaseless battle
With pain and ill health,
The frailty and the anguish.
No, today I remember
Of course, mothering is not an easy task, and relationships between mothers and children can be strained. Sylvia Plath wrote one of the most searing poems about a mother-child relationship in the poem "Medusa," addressing the mother who calls often on the telephone:
In any case, you are always there,
Tremulous breath at the end of my line,
Curve of water upleaping
To my water rod, dazzling and grateful,
Touching and sucking.
But in the best familial circumstances, poets remember both the good and the bad about their relationships with their mothers, and are able to portray the complexities of a relationship in which the mother is both mysterious and intimately known. In Seamus Heaney’s sequence "Clearances," written in memory of his mother, he includes a sonnet about the lovely mundane moments that happened while he and his mother peeled potatoes in the kitchen, the rest of the family away at church:
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
Poetic Greetings, Essays & More for Mothers
By Hand: Lines for Mother’s Day
Find the right words to say to your mother for Mother’s Day with this selection of meaningful lines you can share in your own personalized, poetic greeting.
Going for Motherlode: On Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born
In this essay, Miranda Field takes a look at Adrienne Rich’s important feminist text Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, in which Rich discusses what Field calls the “chasm separating women’s actual (or at least potential) link to maternity, and the ‘theories, ideals, archetypes, descriptions’ patriarchal culture substitutes for this real relationship."
Mother Knows Best
The poets in this collection—Toi Derricotte, Juan Felipe Herrera, Jim Moore, Valzhyna Mort, Sharon Olds, and Sandra Simonds—present poems about their mothers and discuss their mothers’ responses to the poems written about them.
On Human Cylinders: The Pregnant Poet
In this essay, Danielle Pafunda discusses the ways writers have traditionally approached poetry of pregnancy and the female body, and examines how poets like Maxine Chernoff, Toi Derricotte, Susan Howe, Alice Notley, Anne Sexton, and more approach the subject.
Relative Strangers: Remembering My Grandmother Ruth Stone
Poet and essayist Hillery Stone, the granddaughter of poet Ruth Stone, discusses her memories of, and relationship with, her grandmother and the last moments of the celebrated poet’s life.
Further Reading for Mother's Day & Beyond
The anthology includes nearly eighty poets writing on topics such as adoption, parenting guide books, and single parenthood, in poems that address the politics, difficulties, and satisfactions of mothering.
This anthology includes poems about pregnancies, birthing and nursing, living with children, mothers grieving their children, aging mothers, grandmothers, and mothers who’ve passed, among other themes.
Part of the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series, Motherhood: Poems about Mothers includes poems that capture the particulars of motherhood from various perspectives and angles.
In this collection, Dove takes the classic mother-daughter tale of Demeter and Persephone out of the realm of Greek myth and places them in settings as various as Arizona, Mexico, and a bistro in Paris.
In Tender Hooks, Fennelly includes poems that track the joys, trials, and complexities of new motherhood.
In this collection, Howe's fourth book of poems, the central events are the revelation of love after adopting a daughter later in life and a teacher’s deep presence (though thronged with other disciples).
The poems in Dorothea Lasky’s fifth poetry collection, Milk, tackle a range of dark subject matter, but these are not typical poetic narratives of loss.
Nuernberger’s second book is a visit to the end of innocence and an entry into the war-zone years of getting pregnant, giving birth, and early motherhood.
Brenda Shaughnessy’s third collection taps into both the personal and universal as it explores themes of astronomy, illness, the family, motherhood, and home.
The book is a vivid rendering of waiting in a white room for a door to open up into the battlefield of motherhood.
Poems for Mothers
“Rock Me to Sleep” by Elizabeth Akers Allen
Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight …
“Jugglers” by Francisco Aragón
She and I on a beach eating prawns:
“Another Poem for Mothers” by Erin Belieu
Mother, I’m trying …
“The Angel that presided ‘oer my birth” by William Blake
The Angel that presided ‘oer my birth …
“Translation for Mamá” by Richard Blanco
What I’ve written for you, I have always written …
“Dear Mama (4)” by Wanda Coleman
when did we become friends?
“Mother” by Herman de Coninck
What you do with time …
“To My Mother” by Lucretia Maria Davidson
O thou whose care sustained my infant years ...
“The Persistence of Scent” by Cindy Williams Gutiérrez
Mother, you will persist in fragrances …
“Mother o’ Mine” by Rudyard Kipling
If I were hanged on the highest hill …
“To My Mother” by Edgar Allan Poe
Because I feel that, in the Heavens above …
“Mother” by Lola Ridge
Your love was like moonlight …
“[Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome]” by Christina Rossetti
Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome …
“For My Mother” by May Sarton
Once more …
“To My Mother” by Robert Louis Stevenson
You too, my mother, read my rhymes …
Poems on Mothers & Motherhood
“My Mama moved among the days” by Lucille Clifton
My Mama moved among the days …
“Letdown” by Teri Ellen Cross Davis
The books say that milk letdown …
“Equivalents” by Mónica de la Torre
My child is my mother …
“My Mother Would Be a Falconress” by Robert Duncan
My mother would be a falconress …
“Frequently Asked Questions: #9” by Camille T. Dungy
Don’t you think you should have another child?
“Demonstration” by Chanda Feldman
At the county extension service in the old downtown …
“Time to be the fine line of light” by Carrie Fountain
between the blind and the sill, nothing …
“Abeyance” by Rebecca Foust
I made soup tonight, with cabbage, chard …
“Postpartum” by Hiromi Itō
Childbirth was not dying nor defecating …
“The Blue Dress” by Saeed Jones
Her blue dress is a silk train is a river …
“The Time Machine” by Laura Kasischke
My mother begged me: Please, please, study …
“Nurse” by Dorianne Laux
My mother went to work each day …
“The Sky Over My Mother’s House” by Jaime Manrique
It is a July night …
“The courage that my mother had” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
The courage that my mother had ...
“Self-Portrait as C-Section Scar” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
When I’m happy I can smile twice at the same time …
“Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath
Love set you going like a fat gold watch …
“The Rule of Opulence” by Khadijah Queen
Bamboo shoots on my grandmother’s side path …
“The First Person Who Will Live to Be One Hundred and Fifty Years Old Has Already Been Born” by Nicole Sealey
Scientists say the average human …
“My Mother Was No White Dove” by Reginald Shepherd
no dove at all, coo-rooing through the dusk …
“At the Metropolitan Museum” by Matthew Siegel
I had sworn I wouldn’t write …
“After the First Child, the Second” by Mary Austin Speaker
To you …
“The Sick Child” by Robert Louis Stevenson
O Mother, lay your hand on my brow!
“My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer” by Mark Strand
When the moon appears …
“Mama, Come Back” by Nellie Wong
Mama, come back …
“Sitting at Night on the Front Porch” by Charles Wright
I’m here, on the dark porch, restyled in my mother’s chair …
“Mother’s Day” by David Young
I see her doing something simple, paying bills …
“Hours Days Years Unmoor Their Orbits” by Rachel Zucker
tonight I’m cleaning baby portobellos …
Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang discusses her various responsibilities—as poet, public advocate, and mother—and how she balances all of those roles at once.
In this Poetry Breaks video, Li-Young Lee reads his poem "I Ask My Mother to Sing."