Skip to main content

Dr Rachel Bower: Birth, Parenting and Poetry

School of Night

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been doing some work at the Hull History Centre, trying to track down a Nigerian poet, Minji Ateli (neé Karibo) who was at the University of Ibadan  in the 1960s. Karibo contributed several poems to The Horn, a Nigerian student poetry magazine edited by J.P. Clark and modelled on Poetry and Audience (Leeds). Karibo’s best known poem is “Superstition”, anthologised in Nigerian Student Verse (edited by Leeds’ Martin Banham). There is a letter to Karibo from Howard Sergeant in 1965 at the Hull History Centre, saying that he has seen this poem, and inviting her to contribute to two anthologies of Commonwealth poetry that he has been commissioned to edit. Karibo replies, letting him know that she is now married (she is now Mrs Ateli), and that she has two ‘lively children’ who are keeping her very busy. She says that consequently she has not had time to write much, or revise anything she has written, and therefore she cannot send Sergeant new material for his book. I have not found any poems by Ateli after this time – so do get in touch if you know more!

At the same time as finding the letter from Ateli, and thinking about how she stopped writing when she became a mother, I was also finalising this article for Wild Court on writing birth and motherhood. It is clear, not least from the ensuing conversation on Twitter about the article, that there have been big changes in the field of criticism and reviews in relation to poetry about birth and motherhood over the last twenty years. We have gone from a situation in which poetry about these subjects tended to be dismissed or even derided, to the recent recognition of Liz Berry’s poem, “The Republic of Motherhood” in this year’s Forward Prize (Best Single Poem). I talk briefly about my own pamphlet, Moon Milk (Valley Press, 2018), in the article, and the way in which this has been celebrated, particularly its ‘unsentimentality’. I discuss how this (well-meaning) evaluation sustains the expectation that writing about such subjects will always begin from a place of sentimentality, and only by escaping this can ‘good’ poetry be written. I have recently had new poems on the subject published in Literary Mama, Ink, Sweat and Tears and Riggwelter and have others forthcoming in New Welsh Review and Wild Court, so there are certainly lots of excellent magazines and journals welcoming such material.

The recent School of Night event on ‘Parents’, run by Simon Armitage, exposed the sheer variety of poems relating this subject, suggesting a universality to the theme. Indeed, it seems that when we look closer, most poets (of all genders) have written at least one or two poems about their parents, or about the experience of being parents. There is certainly much more work to be done, but I hope that the recent success of poets like Liz Berry and Hannah Sullivan will encourage more women to write about birth and parenting, and to establish writing on these subjects as properly ‘fit’ for poetry.