‘The Way My Mother Speaks’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a three-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains five and the second and third have nine. There is no structured pattern of rhyme in the poem, but there are moments of full and half, or slant rhyme.
The latter occurs when two words are connected, because of assonance (vowel sound) or consonance (consonant sound), but do not completely rhyme. A great example is in the first stanza with the words “head” and “breath.” Another is in the second stanza with the end words “think” and “silent.” Both examples depend on vowel sounds to connect them. By utilizing this kind of rhyme the poet is able to give the poem a sense of rhyme and rhythm without having to focus primarily on creating those structures.
There are also instances of full, or complete rhyme as well. Such as exists between “moving” and “evening” in stanzas one and two. This rhyme extends into the lines as well, with “browsing” in line three in the second stanza.
One of the most important elements of ‘The Way My Mother Speaks’ is repetition. This can be seen through the use and reuse of phrases such as “The day and ever” in stanza one and “Nothing is not silent” in stanza two. Duffy also makes use of enjambment, such as at the end of the third stanza between lines eight and nine. There are also interesting moments of juxtaposition in the final stanza. She compares the different emotions she associates with her mother, childhood, and aging.
You can read the full poem The Way My Mother Speaks here.
Summary of The Way My Mother Speaks
The poem begins with the speaker stating that she is taking on the voice of her mother. This means that certain sentences and phrases particular to her mother’s speech patterns have worked their way into the speaker’s own thoughts. These come out in times of particular need, such as when she is facing a great change in her life.
In the last stanza, she describes moving away from her childhood and looking towards the future. Even if her mother isn’t there, the words her mother would’ve used come easily into her own mind and gain voice from her own lips. They are a comfort when she needs them to be.
Analysis of The Way My Mother Speaks
In the first stanza of ‘The Way My Mother Speaks’ the speaker begins by stating that she says “her” phrases in her head. With the prior knowledge provided in the title, a reader should realize right away that the “her” the speaker is referring to is her mother. The first line also contains another example of assonance with “say” and “phrases” and their connecting long “a” sound.
The sentences and phrases particularly to her mother’s speech patterns have worked their way into the speaker’s own thoughts. She now thinks them, or says them “under the shallows of her breath.” They are present there, representing her mother, as “restful shapes moving.”
The use of the word “restful” in line four sets the tone for the poem. It is clear that she has a positive relationship with her mother, or at least these memories which are becoming part of her own personality.
The stanza ends with the repetition of one of those phrases, “The day and ever.” These disconnected words do not provide a reader with any details. There is nothing to inform one when or where this phrase should be used. By formatting the poem this way Duffy invites the reader to consider the phrase themselves and place their own meaning on it.
The second stanza, and the third, are longer with nine lines. The speaker begins by setting another scene. Now she is on a train that is traveling through England. It covers enough distance while she’s on it that the sky changes from blue to “cool grey.” She describes this transition as “browsing.” The speaker, and the train as well, are looking for the “right sky.” Here, again, is another instance of assonance with the half-rhyme that exists between “too” and “cool” in the fourth line.
In line six there is another instance in which her mother’s voice makes its way into the poem. There is no textual distinction between the two, no quotes or italics to show that this line is different. Duffy made this choice for a simple reason: for the speaker, they aren’t different. Her mother’s words are her own.
She says “What like is it.” Then, follows it up by saying that phrases like this come to her when she thinks. This indicates that her mother’s voice is present in her own mind.
In the last line, there is another moment of impactful repetition. Duffy’s speaker says that “Nothing is silent. Nothing is not silent.” This refers to the dialogue that goes on within her mind even when the person speaking is gone. The “Nothing” that is her mother’s presence, is far from quiet.
In the last stanza, the Duffy makes use of a number of shorter lines. These depict moments in the speaker’s mental journey. They are confusing and transitory. She is at once “happy and sad.” She feels as though she is a child who is starting to grow up. This young person stood “at the end of summer” and looked on into the future. While this is a scary time in one’s life, she still has the words “The day and ever” to comfort her.
In the final two lines, the speaker states that she is at once “homesick” and “free.” The speaker longs for the past, her childhood, and her mother but she is also “free” to step forward into the future.
Duffy makes use of enjambment at the end of line eight. A reader is forced down to the ninth and final line to find out that she is “in love / with the way [her] mother speaks.” It is important to take note of the present tense in this line. Her mother is still speaking to her and this is something she loves very much. It is a connection to the past that does not have to change with the passing of time and the progression of age.