This poem was published in Voigt’s collection, Headwaters: Poems, in 2013. Voigt is a poet, author, editor, teacher, and lecturer. Her poem ‘My Mother’ is one of her better-known. She’s from Virginia and has cited Rainier Maria Rilke and E.E. Cummings as two of her major influences and was named the Poet Laureate of Virginia, a role she held from 1999 to 2003.
Explore My Mother
‘My Mother’ by Ellen Bryant Voigt depicts the complexities of a mother/daughter relationship.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker, a woman, begins by describing the way she saw her mother while growing up. She was someone who could handle any situation. She was always ready to help her child and do what she could to make sure they succeeded in life. But, as the poem progresses, it becomes that in the end, the mother feels that she has failed the speaker (her daughter). She gave herself a “C” average because of her daughter’s stubborn rebelliousness.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘My Mother’ by Ellen Bryant Voigt is a five-stanza poem that is written in free verse. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. They are written in a conversational style that makes them very easy to read and understand. The poet uses everyday language, for example, “she pulled that hair up off her face she pulled her stockings on she stepped.”
The stanzas range in length. Stanza one is six lines long, stanzas two and three are seven lines long, stanza four is eight lines long, and stanza five is seven lines long again. They are relatively similar in length but do range in the line number and individual line lengths.
Readers may also note that the poet did not use any punctuation. This allows each line to flow into the next and for an easy, although sometimes slightly confusing, rhythm to be established.
Throughout this poem, the poet uses a few different literary devices. These include:
- Asyndeton: occurs when the poet intentionally commits conjoining words in a phrase or line. For example: “apologize I let my sister succor those in need and suffer / the little children my mother.”
- Repetition: this literary device can be seen in line one when the poet repeats the title phrase “my mother.”
- Euphony: the use of musically pealing words in poetry. This is a literary technique that Voigt is well-known for and which she demonstrates throughout the poem. It is bolstered by her lack of punctuation.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two, as well as most other lines of the poem.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “her stockings or her purse she watered she weeded she fertilized she stood / in front the tallest stalk keeping the deer the birds all.”
my mother my mother my mother she
could do anything so she did everything the world
was an unplowed field a dress to be hemmed a scraped knee it needed
a casserole it needed another alto in the choir her motto was apply yourself
the secret of life was spreading your gifts why hide your light
under a bushel you might
In the first lines of ‘The Mother,’ the poet begins by repeating the title phrase three times. This repetition shows the complete focus the speaker has on her mother. She’s entirely consumed by thoughts of her. It’s easy to imagine someone saying “my mother my mother my mother” with an appreciative and loving tone, as the speaker is.
The next lines add that the speaker’s mother was capable of everything that she put her mind to. Her mother could fix a scraped knee, hem a dress, and much more. This was an attribute that the mother helped promote in her child.
The long discussion of the speaker’s mother moves through all six lines of the first stanza. She uses a run-on sentence, adding more and more about who her mother was and how she raised her daughter. One of the primary lessons she taught her daughter is to “apply yourself” and that the secret of life is to “spread…your gifts.” Hiding your “light,” a symbol of someone’s potential and cleverness, is pointless.
The final line of the stanza is enjambed. This means that readers have to go to the second stanza in order to figure out what else the poet has to say about someone’s “light.”
forget it there in the dark times the lonely times
the sun gone down on her resolve she slept a little first
packed with everything they all would learn
they would be nice they would
The poet adds onto the end of stanza one, saying that if you hide “your” light that you might “forget it there in the dark times, the lonely times.” It’s possible, she implies, that if one does not show off their best traits, they’ll go forgotten.
The poet continues with a discussion of how her mother lived her life. She was determined to make the best of every situation, even when it was difficult. The poet repeats the word “pulled” in line four of stanza two, which helps emphasize her depiction of her mother’s determination. She carried everything with her, emotionally and physically, that her daughter needed, implying that she was always there for her whenever she needed it.
apologize they would be grateful whenever
they had forgotten what to pack she never did
I was who once had been so sweet so mild staying put
where she put me what happened
The third stanza is one of the shorter sections of the poem. In these lines, the speaker explains how her mother always taught her and her sister to be thankful for what they have and did the “motherly” things that one would expect, like kissing her children on the cheek.
The speaker, though, in contrast, was a “stubborn broody child.” She explores her youth through what she feels is her mother’s perspective. The speaker thinks her mother used to love her more than she did as she aged.
must have been the bushel I was hiding in
the sun gone down on her resolve she slept a little first
apologize I let my sister succor those in need and suffer
the little children my mother
In this fourth stanza, the speaker’s emotional complexity comes through more clearly. She writes that she “let [her] sister succor those in need and suffer / the little children my mother.” Here, she’s implying that she didn’t live as well as she could’ve or treat her mother as she likely deserved. She is responsible, at least in part, for her mother’s “lifetime C an average grade,” as is described in the second line of stanza two.
The speaker also writes that the sun went down on her mother’s resolve, suggesting that for all her mother’s determination, she didn’t quite have enough strength to make it through her daughter’s resistance. This has, in some ways, turned to resentment.
There are also a few other flaws exposed in these lines, like the “little lipstick on her teeth the mark / on my cheek” that would “not rub off.” She gave her daughter everything she could, but, as the mark symbolizes, it was not quite enough to make their relationship perfect or even sustainable.
knew we are self-canceling she gave herself
a lifetime C an average grade from then on out she kept
in front the tallest stalk keeping the deer the birds all
the world’s idle shameless thieves away
The speaker concludes the poem by saying that the mother knows that “we,” the sisters were “self-canceling.” They were canceling out everything about themselves that their mother promoted, the poet seems to be suggesting. This, as well as other stubborn character traits the speaker showed in the previous lines, led to the mother giving herself a “C…average grade.”
The mother kept a simple life after her children were all grown up. She stayed inside, with no need for stockings or her purse, and cared for her home. She did what she could to foster growth and health in her garden and protected the parts of it that seemed the healthiest and liveliest. It feels as though the speaker is experiencing some resentment in the final lines of the poem, but the poet is also intentionally using ambiguity, ensuring that the meaning is less than clear.
The main theme of this poem is mother/daughter relationships. The speaker clearly feels love for her mother but is also very aware of her mother’s flaws. She’s also aware of her own issues and how she’s failed as a daughter.
What is the meaning of ‘My Mother?’
The meaning is that family relationships, no matter the variety, are complex. In this case, the daughter knows that she’s failed her mother and her sister in some ways but also sees how her mother failed.
Voigt likely wrote this poem in order to explore mother/daughter relationships and show how multifaceted issues within these close relationships can be. This particular relationship is far from black and white.
The tone of ‘My Mother’ is at times loving and appreciative, while at others, it is more critical. The speaker sees her failings as well as those of her mother.
The poem is about the way that a woman was raised, how her mother carried herself throughout the speaker’s youth, and how the speaker treated her mother in return.
- ‘Mother to Son’ by Langston Hughes – a popular poem in which a mother addresses her child and explains the hardships he’s going to face.
- ‘Mother and Poet’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – a confessional poem in which a mother explores a terrible loss she suffered.
- ‘Parents’ by William Meredith – a highly relatable poem about parent/child relationships.