What is poetic voice in "Mother to Son"?

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Sometimes students confuse the author of a poem with the speaker of the poem. In fiction, readers readily assume that the person who tells the story is not the author himself; the author has generated a fictitious character and tells a story through that character's eyes. The same happens in poetry. While the author does sometime speak as himself or herself, he may also create a completely fictitious persona who presents the poem to readers. I always tell my students that they should not assume that the speaker, or poetic voice, is the author unless they have solid evidence to believe otherwise.

In this particular poem, Langston Hughes, an African American poet who wrote in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, uses the poetic voice of a mother (noted right in the title) to convey an important message for a young man. This works well because of the relationships mothers often forge with their children, instructing them with firm and loving advice often based in their own life experience. In the end, this mother tells her son,

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.
The motherly wisdom is just the poetic voice that this son needs. His mother has struggled through hardship and is still pressing forward, climbing the metaphorical stairs of life.
Poets use varying poetic voices to deliver a particular tone or theme, and the choice depends on the ultimate message they intend to create.
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The poetic voice refers to the voice that is used to speak the text of the poem. If we assume that the poet is actually the narrator of the poem, we can miss some opportunities for interpretation or make assumptions about the speaker that are incorrect. It is safer—and potentially leads to more viable interpretations—to believe that the narrator is a character who has been created by the poet in order to best convey a particular message or meaning. Sometimes that character does not reveal much about themselves, but that's not the case in this poem.

We can identify the speaker of "Mother to Son" as a concerned mother who wants to teach her son the world is not an easy place, and that she's had a difficult life, as well as teach him the value of perseverance. She says,

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—
Bare. (lines 2–7)

However, her message is not meant to sound like a pity party; she is not sharing her difficulties in order to gain her son's sympathy. Instead, she emphasizes the idea that, even though life has been hard, she is "still goin', honey, / [She's] still climbin'" (lines 18–19). She encourages her son not to "turn back" just because he "finds it's kinder hard" (lines 14, 16). This mother tells the story of her challenges in order to inspire her son to fight through his own struggles and not give up. This voice is sincere and uplifting, candid and loving.

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Poetic voice is defined as the the imagined role an author assumes as the speaker of the poem. While it is easy to conflate the writer and the speaker as the same person, this is not always the case.

In “Mother to Son,” by Langston Hughes, the poetic voice, or speaker, is an African American woman imparting her wisdom to her adolescent or young adult son.

Besides the title that indicates this, the reader can infer the speaker’s identity using details from the poem. The speaker refers to her son as “honey,” a term of endearment that a parent might use. Hughes’s use of an African American Vernacular dialect also gives the speaker a unique identity: “I’se,” “ain’t,” and “kinder” all serve as examples. While Hughes wrote the poem, he wrote it using an intentional poetic voice of a mother.

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