Saturday, April 19, 2014

For National Poetry Month 2014, I have invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about source poems. In this series of essays, each writer will describe a single poem's significance in his or her life.

Our guest blogger for today's source poem is educator and poet Linda Baie, who blogs at Teacher Dance.

Linda Baie
The Way It Is
By William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Read the rest of the poem here.

 I believe that life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet I also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder. David Moranis

When I consider my source poem, the back-story holds the meaning that connects later. My life with poetry began early, in a grandparents’ home where I lived until I was five. My father was killed in WWII in the Pacific theater, and my mother and I lived with her parents until I was five. Both my father’s and my mother’s parents were avid readers, and time with them in early childhood set my path toward loving poetry.
            Before I could read, they all read to me. I was the only grandchild in both families until I went to school. Everyone wanted to read to me! My mother was an artist, wrote and illustrated stories for me. One grandfather loved Shakespeare. No matter that I was young, he still shared the poems, the plays, about the life of Shakespeare with me. A grandmother was a pianist and taught me the poetry of song. I learned the music of the classics, but also hymns, the words of Stephen Foster, the carols of Christmas. When I visited my father’s parents for weeks in the summers, the first thing we did was visit their library, to gather piles of books, including poetry.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.”

My early life held the beginning connections to poetry, in different voices sure, but all with certain favorites that they shared. Later in school I remember teachers reading poems to us, memorizing for performances and finally, in college, I had the pleasure of working with John Neihardt, Missouri’s poet laureate, in a summer poetry class.
When I became a teacher, of first graders, I wanted to teach them to read, to love reading, and poetry too. My ‘go to’ book then was AA Milne’s When I Was Very Young and When We Were Six. My love of poetry started as a young child, and has continued both personally and in my passion to bring this love to students.
There is this poem taped to my desk lamp. I taught middle-school gifted students, a mixed group, for over 20 years at the school where I am now the literacy coach. There was a long list of priorities in teaching, but one of them was the importance of creating and keeping a community. Sharing “like” things in a mixture of unique preferences helped us become family, a group, a knit community.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.”

For community building, I have used certain poems for the class, and one of those poems that I held dear was William Stafford’s “The Way It Is.” It would be shared, we would discuss it, what we thought about it and why it might help us as a group. In other conversations, it became a mentor text for voice. When we wrote, students and I referred to it, wishing we could meet this man who wrote so clearly. Of course, we met him in other poems too, and followed along with Naomi Shihab Nye, a student of his, whose poems also touched us. We discussed connections, how paths cross and re-cross, fade away, return again. And we illustrated those paths in artistic responses. The poem became important to each class, is important to me still.
Loving a poem is not new to me and there are others I love, too. And serendipity sometimes makes me shiver. Certain of my colleagues and I exchange Christmas gifts, and one year friends gifted me with the book Teaching With Fire, edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner, an anthology of poems that are important “source” poems for teachers. On page fifteen, there is the Stafford poem again. Finally, when I left the classroom three years ago, the school gave a party in celebration of my years in the classroom, and several of my colleagues spoke about me, to me. It was a pleasure hearing those words, every one. But the surprise, the serendipity that happened is that my head of school, speaking of my time at the school, my work with students and colleagues, ended with a poem he thought defined me. And that poem was “The Way It Is.” I was shocked and a little teary. The thread continues, and with this poem especially, my strong
connection to poetry remains.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.”

The poem in its entirety can be found at Goodreads, here. And I have written a poem in response.

Holding On

People wonder how to proceed,
when a boulder lies on the road.
I tell them I hold fast onto the thread;
those who are tangled there with me help.
They heave me over and in turn I pull them along.
The filament unwinds sometimes and loosens.
Sometimes wind blows it askew.
It wants re-winding.
A gentle tug and I’ve re-wound,
for me, for family, for friends.
Keeping the strand strong while everyone winds together
makes it easier to climb over that next boulder.

 Linda Baie © All Rights Reserved

William Stafford
Visit the William Stafford Archives online.
Linda Baie is a long time teacher of middle school students at a K-8 independent school for the gifted in Denver, Colorado. She is now the school’s literacy coach. She has a wonderful family, including three terrific grandchildren. Passions are reading, writing and being outdoors. She blogs at and tweets @LBaie. She is working hard on writing, sending a few poems to see if they might be published, participates in a writing group, and has been to one poetry workshop, with plans for another. She is holding onto the thread.

Previous posts in this series:
Diane Mayr on a haiku by Basho
Dennis Kirschbaum on "Rain" by Robert Louis Stevenson
Janet Fagal on "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by William Butler Yeats

Friday, April 18, 2014

Source Poems: "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

For National Poetry Month 2014, I have invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about source poems. In this series of essays, each writer will describe a single poem's significance in his or her life.

Welcome, Poetry Friday readers! Poet, educator, and Poetry Friday regular (as a fan) Janet Fagal is today's guest blogger. 

Robyn Hood Black is hosting Poetry Friday at Life on the Deckle Edge today. Stop by for all the poetry links from our Poetry Friday blogging community.

Janet Fagal

Poems by Heart and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

If I were asked about my “source” poem 11 years ago, I would probably admit I did not have one. Maybe I would think back to my childhood and my mother and her love of poetry. I knew Masefield’s “Sea Fever” was one that mattered to her. She would recite it on occasion. But since I grew up on Long Island, New York and we were literally surrounded by water and boats, the sea was just part of life to me. The “call to return again” only happened when I grew up and moved away. Maybe my source poem comes because my mother taught me to recite all the Nursery Rhymes by the time I was 20 months old. But of course that is something I can’t recall, though I do know many of them by heart to this day. Both of these things, I believe set the stage for my love of poetry.
Photo: Janet Fagal
Naturally I became familiar with poems and liked some poems as I grew, but it wasn’t until the later 1980s and 1990s when, as a 5th grade teacher, I realized that poems were a good way to help my students get into writing. I wrote along with them and became a “closet” poet.

For me “poetry” often was that dark and confusing subject from high school. You know the experience, the way Billy Collins tells us how they tie the poem to the chair and beat it to reveal its core. I was young and naïve. How was I supposed to figure out what the poet meant? And I wanted the right answer; I was a good and dutiful student. If the poet was long gone, how could we know for sure what he or she really meant? Luckily, I saw the light before the end of my teaching career.

I embraced poetry as a teaching tool and for its sheer undiluted power as a genre. And then I fell in love. As one of my students wrote in a poem, “Poetry is everything.” And poetry was everywhere, almost every day in my 3rd grade room. Beginning in 2001, because of the way my students eagerly embraced every poem I shared, I began to integrate poetry across the curriculum close to daily. And what a blessing that became. I eventually realized that getting kids to recite together (choral expression) and learn poems by heart was easy, fun, and had “mega” educational potential. A long-time “kid watcher” I was astounded that my 8 and 9 year olds were game for learning almost any poem. And could do it so effortlessly and joyfully. I have since referred to poetry as the “biggest bang for the education buck” for busy teachers and happy children.

Alas, I knew no poems by heart and had no source poem. That changed. After maybe 3 years of not forcing myself to practice the poems, I began to notice that I was learning some of them. And parts of others. Once I had a few by heart, others came along more easily. I began to use reciting poems to myself for many things: falling asleep at night, entertaining myself through dental procedures or on long car trips, and sharing with students or friends.

But the poem I come back to most often is William Butler Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” One of my third graders introduced it to me for her project on Ireland. I can’t honestly recall if I had heard that poem before Olivia shared it with the class. Since then this poem has taught me so much. As I say it again and again, I pause and reflect at different spots. I stress different lines in different ways. It rhymes, has a nice flow, is a “classic”.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

What it speaks to is my childhood, as well as my now. It forces me to remember the places that matter. When the world is too much, I can say the poem silently and instantly transport myself to my own Innisfree. I have a few spots to choose from: a cozy cottage on a little harbor in Maine, the beach at Chappaquiddick or on Long Island, a view of the New Hampshire mountains that I can never forget (found because of a detour we were forced to take on a country road), or my grandmother’s house back in the 50s in East Hampton, before it became “The Hamptons”, sitting in the green tree swing or Adirondack chairs my grandfather, Rob Dunbar made. All are snapshots of times and places that brought me so much happiness that I didn’t realize at the time.

Photo: Janet Fagal
Just thinking about the poem brings peace. But that is not all. Once I arrive at my own Innisfree, I get busy. I can build a cabin, plant a garden, and live in a “bee-loud glade.” Just like Yeats, when I am somewhere that overwhelms, I can recall the sound of the water in the lake, gently lapping at the shoreline or hear the roar of waves crashing. I commune with nature and appreciate it all. I can see the stars at night, feel the warmth of noon, enjoy sunset and watch the birds at dusk.

It also helps me feel determined. I WILL arise and go now. I will choose. I like how I feel that I have the power to get away from my crowded, sometimes overly-busy life and find respite. And then at the end, I experience a connection over time and place, from deep in my heart and am back with my grandparents, old friends, new friends and my family. And I smile. The words play over in my mind and I travel yet again.

This source poem makes me notice and appreciate. While it has been a long time since I have physically been to most of my special places, I know them intimately from this poem. I hold my grandmother’s hand while we clam at the bay, play in the waves with my father, sit on the deck with my husband and watch the lobsterman and sailboats as they come and go. And when I write my own poems I find that I incorporate the special places that let my spirit soar and surround me with the love and goodness of the people who raised and cared for me in the best way they could. I remember my father’s words spoken on one of our month-long family camping or boating trips. “I have taken you all over this country showing you its natural beauty and today is the first time I have heard you admire the beauty of nature on your own.” We were on Lake Champlain and I looked east at the pretty sky and clouds and mountains in the distance. It was after a bad storm, nearing sunset. I was in college and I was proud.

Photo: Janet Fagal
I know now that I gave my father a gift that day. And what I have learned from my source poem most is that it is important to pause and reflect on what matters most to you. Whatever it may be. And to appreciate all of the good fortune you may have had in life. This may not be new news or a deep “aha” buried in a poem, but my source poem, which I carry with me always, never fails to bring me a deep sense of contentment.

William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats
Find out more at the Poetry Foundation.
Janet Fagal is a retired teacher who lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. A published poet, Janet’s poems can be found on the NLAPW’s website (National League of American Pen Women) and in their recent anthology: Spirit, Peace and Joy as well as in their magazine The Pen Woman. Two of Janet’s poems were recently honored in a national poetry contest. She speaks at national and state education conferences where she shows teachers how putting poetry at the heart of the literacy classroom is an important and powerful way to improve children’s love of words, ideas and literacy. Don’t underestimate your power to memorize. It is easier than you can imagine.

Here is a link to a 3 minute video of her students reciting poems, some of which were written by her students.

Previous posts in this series:
Diane Mayr on a haiku by Basho
Dennis Kirschbaum on "Rain" by Robert Louis Stevenson

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Source Poems: "Rain"

For National Poetry Month 2014, I have invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about source poems. In this series of essays, each writer will describe a single poem's significance in his or her life.

During last year's National Poetry Month series, poet Dennis Kirschbaum earned the distinction of writing the most-viewed guest-post. Read it here.

Dennis Kirschbaum

The rain is raining all around, 

It falls on field and tree, 

It rains on the umbrellas here, 

And on the ships at sea.

Robert Louis Stevenson

On a dreary, overcast morning earlier this month, I emerged from the D.C. Metro Station at Gallery Place and headed to my warm office a few blocks away. A steady rain was falling as I moved from the dry station entrance into the puddles that filled the sidewalk leading to the corner of 7th and H Streets. As I navigated a sea of black, blue, and red umbrellas, four lines of verse, a complete poem, popped into my head as they have on every rainy day for the last 46 years. I don’t know the exact day, hour or even the month I first heard the short poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, but I remember the event itself and the way I felt at the time.

It was a rainy day that’s for sure. There’s a good chance it was April. I was sitting in Mrs. Cook’s first grade class at Beechfield Elementary School in the Irvington neighborhood of southwest Baltimore. My teacher had in her hands a gorgeous edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. The page she was holding up showed a black and white photograph of a little brown haired girl looking out of a rain covered window. She peered through the window with resignation at whatever she saw or didn’t see on the other side. As I recall, the entire book was filled with beautiful black and white photographs illustrating the poems. However, as clearly as I remember the photo of the girl, I don’t remember a single other picture in the book.

The Rain - Illustration by Bessie Collins Pease
Illustration by Bessie Collins Pease, 1905
Source: CTG Publishing
I told my mother that I needed a copy of that book. There was a series of futile visits to bookstores and the department stores of the era: Hutzler’s, Korvette’s, and Hochschild Kohn’s. Ah, the patience of mothers! However, the edition of the book with the beautiful photographs was nowhere to be found. Finally, I accepted another edition with the classic illustrations by Eulalie. Strange to think now that one of my most prized possessions, this little green edition from 1961, the year of my birth, was a runner up for my affection.

I don’t know if I was able to read the book when I first got it. Probably not. I remember camping in the Catskills the following summer with a stack of “I Can Read” books and by the end of that summer, I could! I read A Child’s Garden of Verses many times from cover to cover over the next few years.

Stevenson was born in Scotland in 1850. He wrote many of the classics of children’s literature including Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and for a more adult audience, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There are no cars in A Child’s Garden of Verses. No telephones. No television. The street lamps are gas and have to be lit by a man named Leerie who carries a ladder to reach the nozzles. It was a different world from Baltimore in the 1960s, yet much of what he described was familiar to a child of that time: the entertainment afforded by one’s own shadow, the way a hole at the beach fills with water if you dig deep, the smell of leaves burning in autumn, and, of course, the rain that seems ubiquitous and eternal when its falling on your house and you can’t go out to play.

In Woody Allen’s hit movie, Midnight in Paris, the protagonist, Gil Pender played by Owen Wilson, is accused of “golden age thinking.” Golden age thinking is, according to the character who coins the phrase, “the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one's living in… a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”

Gil is a writer and dreams of living in Paris where he is vacationing with his fiancee and her overbearing parents. Gil loves the romance of the 1920s and imagines himself alongside Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Soon he finds himself transported back in time every evening to hobnob and dance the night away with his idols and receive criticism and advice on his novel from Stein herself.

Perhaps those with an interest in writing are pre-disposed to golden age thinking, or maybe it is just a coincidence, but I find that I have a tendency to idealize what it might have been like to live in an earlier, and what appears from our vantage point, simpler time. I even have a modest collection of items from my personal golden age, roughly 1937-1957. My father’s slide rule, a Remington Quiet Riter typewriter, several mechanical watches, and a stapler that makes its own staples from spool of brass wire can be found among my dresser drawers and on my desktop. I write with a Parker fountain pen, which I fill from a bottle.

Of course, I understand that the idealized past is only a fantasy. Those of us given to idolizing the past tend to forget about the things that went along with the ‘simpler times.’ Polio, poor sanitation, surgery without anesthesia, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and bad coffee are all parts of a past we would just as soon forget. Perhaps such selective contemplation about a time one might not have experienced first-hand is indeed “a flaw in the romantic imagination.” Yet it is also true that the joys and sorrows, the celebrations and sufferings of our writing forbearers were strikingly similar to our own. This is why Stevenson’s poems, like all great art, still resonate with so many today. It’s why the book remains in print in many different editions (though none sadly, with black and white photographs) more than a century and a quarter after it was first published. In the poems, Stevenson captures the essence of what it means to be or to have been a child, the wonder, wisdom, wildness of that mind. It’s a color and quality of childhood that we still recognize in children today and in the children we once were.

No doubt there are other poems of Stevenson that capture the universal experience of childhood across space and time better than “Rain” but for me this short poem is a well from which I continue to draw. Perhaps it is the music of it, or the fact that it is the first poem I remember hearing read aloud, or maybe that I instantly memorized it, or just that I am reminded of it so often, especially in these kind, cruel months of early spring. The tune of it arrives as an earworm with the feeling of drops on my face. Or, maybe, it is the face of the brown haired girl at the window still haunting my flawed romantic imagination. The two of us peer through the streaked panes of glass and wonder when, or if, the sun will shine again, as it did in a far away country, a century before either of us was born.

Here is a poem about boyhood.

by Dennis Kirschbaum

While the other scouts slept with sighs
deepening beneath mildewed canvas
in the dark-at-last summer night,
we escaped to pine woods, took seats

among the needles. We made a blaze
from paper scraps and exploding
cones. Sky told stories of the lodge
his folks had in Colorado, how deep

was the snow and the wolves
they’d hear at night and can you hear
them now calling, calling at the edge
of this stand just beyond Baltimore?

Before sunrise, we drowned the embers
with our piss, boys who conquered everything.

Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent
from WikiMedia
Dennis M. Kirschbaum is Hillel International’s Associate Vice President for Campus Services. His chapbook of poetry, Clattering East, was published in 2013 by Finishing Line Press. He has traveled extensively in India, Thailand, Morocco, Israel, and Egypt and is an Adirondack 46er having hiked to the summit of the 46 highest peaks in New York state. He has reconciled his checking account to the penny every month since 1979. He lives with his family in Washington Grove, Md. 

Previous posts in this series:
Diane Mayr on a haiku by Basho

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Source Poems: "The Land of Counterpane"

For National Poetry Month 2014, I have invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about source poems. In this series of essays, each writer will describe a single poem's significance in his or her life.

Our guest blogger for today's source poem is Maryland-based poet Pamela Murray Winters, an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Pamela Murray Winters
As with so many things in my life, I changed my “source poem” plans at the last minute.

I had intended to write about Deborah Digges’ incantatory “To a Milkweed,” a touchstone in my return to writing poetry in the past decade. Or maybe about “The Mower,” which shows the grim old Brit Philip Larkin as the softy we always suspected he’d be.

Then, after reading J. C. Elkin’s entry in this series on the mysterious dragon “Hannibal Clim,” I realized that I had to revisit Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Land of Counterpane.”

I suspect that I first encountered what we call poetry in A Child’s Garden ofVerses, which my mother read to me. I am trying to hear her voice now, reading it, and I can’t. I should be sad, but at least it brings back the memory, and the concomitant gratitude, that she gave me the gift of reading. [AA: Stevenson's "The Swing," also from A Child's Garden of Verses, is the first poem I remember reading. Read more here.]

Looking closer, I realize that this poem is responsible for the best and the worst of who I am: it’s an integral part of my love of words, and it’s inextricably tied to my sloth. Regard the first stanza:

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

Here I learned that one could lie a-bed, sick, and still be happy, a dangerous concept indeed if one is prone to fantasizing about being a Victorian lady of the thwarted intellectual persuasion, dropping posy-tied manuscripts and candied violets to the children at the window and courting suitors via sly essays in the local weekly.

What bliss (for the amateur invalid, not the truly suffering) to be bedridden! So many happy hours spent with a bowl of buttered white rice, a tankard of ginger ale, at least one cat, and a TiVo full of “Law & Order” reruns! To feel soft sheets against bare skin, to turn the pillow over to its cool side and bunch it up under that achy part of your neck…

I am sure that I tried playing with my toys in bed after first hearing this poem. I didn’t have soldiers, but there was that plastic barn with the farm animals smaller than a dime and the cunning little fences. I might have noticed for the first time how the gentle rolls of bedspread, arranged not by artifice but by the natural movement of my body, resembled hills.

Surely I relished the word “counterpane.” I never thought of it as the name of a country, but I valued its unfamiliar formality. Some words carry their oddnesses on their shoulders like the bindled vagabonds seen in stories (have you ever seen, in earthly life, a wanderer carrying a bundle on a stick?). The oddness matters more than the soul inhabiting the word. Words from my childhood I don’t hear anymore: davenport, Victrola, cursive, percolator. Each is a book in itself.

The poem bristles with action: soldiers (if I were workshopping this poem, I’d question the adjective “leaden”), sailors, even urban development. Amid it all, the sick child is the prime mover, a young god, a small person made giant by power and juxtaposition. Even when stilled by illness, the creator can rest and contemplate what he has made: “dale and plain / The pleasant land of counterpane.”

How many lessons on poetry are held in this one brief poem?

The Land of Counterpane
When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane. 
R L Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson
Image from The Guardian

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Source Poems: "Mother to Son"

For National Poetry Month 2014, I have invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about source poems. In this series of essays, each writer will describe a single poem's significance in his or her life.

Our guest blogger for today's source poem is poet and children's author Jacqueline Jules.

Jacqueline Jules

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes. Reprinted with the permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated. Source: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Books, 1994)

My Ethical Will: “Mother to Son”

“Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes comes as close to an ethical will as I could ever write to my own sons and grandchildren. Life may sparkle brilliantly at times, but it is not a crystal staircase. Instead of shining steps transparently waiting to lead us to our dreams, we must face tacks, splinters, and “boards torn up.”

My work as an author and a poet has been fraught with as much rejection as success. This year I had two picture books published. NeverSay a Mean Word Again took 16 years from idea to publication. What a Way to Start a New Year required 24 years. In June, Stronger Than Cleopatra, a poetry chapbook I’ve been working on for 20 years, will finally be made available to readers through ELJ Publications. I am intimately familiar with “reachin’ landin’s,” “turnin’ corners,” and “a-climbin’ on.” Rejection is a part of a writer’s life and choosing to sit down every time it happens means being stuck on a rotting staircase with your head in your hands.

This is not to say I haven’t been tripped by other things. Grief has certainly tempted me to sit down on too many occasions. I lost my first husband when I was 37 years old. My parents died nine months apart. Less than two years ago, I watched my only sister painfully succumb to a debilitating genetic disease at the same time another family member was diagnosed with cancer. Sometimes I question my ability to handle what may lie ahead. The height of the staircase is daunting. It offers no view of how many steps must be climbed before the next landing. And if I feel weak and lean too hard on the rail, it sways.

Perseverance, as portrayed so eloquently in “Mother to Son,” has redeeming power. To keep “a-climbing on” and “turnin’ corners,” even when it means “goin’ in the dark” is to recognize that better alternatives do not exist. The narrator in this poem provides both a courageous model and a challenge. If she keeps climbing when her life hasn’t been “a crystal stair,” then her son can face disappointments, too. A parent with a stubborn streak is a powerful inspiration. The voice in my head that keeps me moving when I’d rather collapse often sounds exactly like my father’s.  

The staircase beckons, even when there are “places with no carpet on the floor.” Our job in life is to keep climbing. To accept that life is supposed to be meaningful, not easy. 

And when I reach my final landing, I hope it will be said that I always had the courage to follow the sage advice Langston Hughes offers in “Mother to Son.”

Black Heritage stamp
Jacqueline Jules is the author of the poetry chapbooks, Field Trip to the Museum, coming in March from Finishing Line Press, and Stronger Than Cleopatra, coming in June from ELJ publications. Her poetry has appeared in numerous publications including Inkwell, Soundings Review, The Innisfree Poetry Journal, Potomac Review, Minimus, Imitation Fruit, Calyx, Connecticut River Review, and Pirene's Fountain. She is also the author of two dozen books for young readers including the Zapato Power series, No English, Sarah Laughs, and Never Say a Mean Word Again. Visit her online at

Thank you for sharing your personal connection to this poem, Jacqueline. The stories that we have been telling in connection with source poems have made this a powerful National Poetry Month series.

Here is a word animation with a dramatic reading of Jacqueline's source poem, "Mother to Son":

Previous posts in this series:
Diane Mayr on a haiku by Basho