At its simplest, “the mother” by Gwendolyn Brooks is a poem about abortion. It’s a powerful free-verse poem that looks at the divisive topic from a human perspective. Brooks describes its effects on a mother and would-be child without making moral judgments for or against. Although the poem is written in the first person, it speaks to the universal experience of any woman who has had an abortion.
What is especially amazing is that Brooks wrote the poem in 1945, more than twenty-five years before the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade made abortion legal.
Although “the mother” is about abortion, it also offers a much broader challenge. Poets can explore contemporary social issues from a personal angle. Some may write the implications of cultural change, scientific research, or new technology. For instance, a poet concerned about genetic engineering might write about a mother who had her child “engineered,” either having unwanted traits corrected or desired traits implanted. She might also wonder how her life would be different if she had been “engineered.”
The poet could also write about more immediate questions. Issues such as illegal immigration and the “Wall” need voices to humanize the tensions on all sides: those who stay behind; those who cross; the ones forced to return, whether criminal or innocent. And what about welcoming neighbors and those who want them gone?
But in addition to social commentary, “the mother” is a profoundly personal experience. The best in poetry can make the personal universal. It can also make the universal personal. The poet’s job is to tell her feelings, experiences, and observations through poetic devices, rhythm, meter, and rhyme (or not), to the best of her ability.
When a poet’s written her best, her work may make a similar impact as “the mother.”