April 12, 2016

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


Tabatha said...

"Ethical will" -- what a marvelous concept!! One of the most useful tools any of us can have (or offer someone else) is perseverance. Nice choice, Jacqueline. As the Japanese proverb says, "Fall down seven times, stand up eight."

Janet Wong said...

With your positive attitude, I didn't realize that you have been through so much, Jacqueline--and some of it during times when we have corresponded regularly, even. You have handled it all with such grace!

Jane Elkin said...

Right on! I'm going to share this with everyone I know, not just writers.

Linda B said...

There's been much that I've read lately about the need to help youth acquire 'grit', and now from your inspiring post, I have a new look at it, ethical will. Your poem is one I have used with students, hoping to begin some self reflection from the lesson that mother is telling her son. It is powerful, and I loved hearing your strong connection to it, too. Thank you.

Pamela Ehrenberg said...

You've always gone a step farther than the narrator in the poem--not just climbing but always being sure to bring others up along with you. Thanks for the inspiration during National Poetry Month and at other times!

Renee LaTulippe said...

Jacqueline, yours is such an inspiring story and spirit. Thank you for sharing this powerful poem and your ethical will. Tremendous.