In ‘Where I’m From’ Lyon delves into themes of identity, home, and history. By looking deeply into her own childhood, and pinpointing the things that make her unique, Lyon is able to lay out a roadmap to understanding herself. She flits through her own history, mentioning a wide variety of things that stick out and have turned her into the person she was when she wrote the poem.
Since its publication ‘Where I’m From’ has been taught in classrooms around the world. It is often used as a template to inspire children and adults alike to think about their own lives and explore what makes them special. Variations of ‘Where I’m From’ can be found all over the internet by writers from innumerable backgrounds and cultures.
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Summary of Where I’m From
The text takes the reader through a series of pictures from the poet’s childhood. These are things she remembers experiencing and from which she feels she comes. They defined who she was as a child and who she is today. She speaks of the work she did alongside her family, her friends, their sayings, and the joys of being around those she loved. There are references to religion, small joys and losses, and then finally to the larger family tree that bore her into the world.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Where I’m From
‘Where I’m From’ by George Ella Lyon is a three-stanza poem that is divided into one set of nine lines, one of eight, and one of twelve. The lines do not rhyme consistently, nor do they conform to a metrical pattern. But, due to techniques such as repetition and anaphora, which are discussed below in the “Poetic Techniques” section, there is a feeling of rhyme and rhythm to the text. Lyon repeats phrases with a similar structure throughout, glowing the reader to fall into a pattern while moving through the three stanzas.
Poetic Techniques in Where I’m From
Lyon makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Where I’m From’. These include but are not limited to anaphora, allusion, and enjambment. One of the clearest techniques at play in this poem is anaphora. It is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. In this case, “I am” or “I’m” appears eight times in the three stanzas. It is around this phrase that the poem is based.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. This is another prominent technique in ‘Where I’m From’. It can be seen in the transitions between numerous lines. For example, four and five of stanza one and three and four of stanza two.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In ‘Where I’m From’ Lyon makes several allusions to things from her personal life. These are people, places, and objects that might be recognizable, at least to a degree, for the reader but have a much deeper meaning for her. Due to the personal nature of this poem, and all other “where I’m From” poems, this is always going to be the case. They are about one’s personal life and the deepest and most poignant connections one has to their youth.
Analysis of Where I’m From
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
whose long gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.
In the first stanza of ‘Where I’m From’ the speaker begins by making her first “I am from…” statement. She speaks first of clothespins and “Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride”. These words, which are also an example of alliteration, allude to washing clothes and hanging them out to dry. Since this is the first image in the first stanza of the poem a reader should assume that it’s an important one. This activity must have been prominent in the poet’s youth.
Next, she uses juxtaposition to compare the clean clothes and bleach to the “first under the back porch”. Immediately the reader gets two sides of Lyon’s life as a child. She works with her family to do laundry and keep her clothes clean but she also found her way into the cool dirt. She explored, as children do, and notes how the dirt tasted like “beets”. From these lines, a reader might also make some assumptions about the nature of her childhood. She spent time working and time outdoors exploring. She lived somewhere where both of these things were possible.
The next statement refers to the nature around her. She creates a memorable image in the last lines of the stanza of the Dutch elm near her home. This tree was a prominent feature in her youth. So much so, that the branches are as familiar to her as her own arms.
I am from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
with cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.
The second stanza of ‘Where I’m From’ is one line shorter, at eight lines long. The next two things the speaker says she’s from are quite different: “fudge and eyeglasses”. These take the reader into the house and to interactions with other people. She mentions “Imogene and Alafair” two girl’s names and then goes into statements like “know-it-alls” and “pass-it-on”. This alludes to the possibility that the girls where children she went to school with or played with in some way. Perhaps even family members.
Two more colloquialisms are noted in the next lines: “perk up and pipe down”. These were phrases likely directed at her when she was either too quiet or too loud. They also tell the reader something about where she grew up and the dialect of those around her.
The last lines of this stanza refer to religion, something that was important in the area of the Southern United States where the poet is from. The “cottonball lamb” is a sweet and clear image that speaks to a child’s view of Christ and his “flock”. The phrase “He restoreth my soul” is more adult, coming straight from Psalm 23 of the Old Testament.
I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.
The last stanza of ‘Where I’m From’ is the longest. In the first lines, she speaks of two rivers, “Artemus and Billie’s Branch” and then of food items. These bring sight, sound, and smell into the poem, all important parts of creating clear and memorable imagery.
In juxtaposition to those images is the “finger” her grandfather lost. It was cut off by the “auger”. (An auger is a machine used to dig post holes.) This alludes again to there “hands-on” nature of her youth. Her family spent time together, built things with their hands, and cared for themselves. There is an interesting phrase that follows, referencing her father and the “eye” he closed to “keep his sight”. This line feels much more metaphorical than the others. Perhaps he closed part of himself off in order not to lose all of himself. This could allude to selective ignorance or, alternatively, it is actually a reference to a physical loss of sight.
Under the speaker’s bed, she says in the next lines, there were pictures of various people. These kept her company and drifted “beneath [her] dreams” as she slept. The last images in the poem and the last “I am” statement refer to those same pictures. They are also where she’s from. They are a record of the world that came before her, the family tree of which she is one leaf.