Poetry on the Right-to-Life Issues of Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia:
Commentary from Scansion of the Poems

General observations

Some critics have noted that feminist poetry which concerns the life issues lacks a narrative line. For example, when she notes specifically that the speaker in Mina Loy's Love Songs to Joannes suggests a "traumatic loss of a child through abortion -- a crisis which I will argue is the epicenter of this romance gone wrong" (146), Maeera Shreiber concludes that the sequence lacks "a coherent narrative line" (148) and that the "inability to speak coherently is both a symptom and a cause of a chronic inability to sustain an image of a coherent self, the same inability which informs the fear of procreation" (156). Similarly, when he discusses the abortion poetry of Anne Sexton from a feminist literary perspective, Philip McGowan suggests that "Sexton is seeking to reverse generations of female texts structured by conceit and overpowered by male domination" (130). An even bolder and feminist reductionist claim that McGowan asserts is that "Sexton's text transgresses against the male world of reason and its versions of patriarchy and phallocentrism" (131) because she wants "to liberate the female writer from the constraints of the tight, masculine surfaces of textualisation" (139).

Despite the tendency to veer towards implausible literary theoretical babble, I would elaborate on the sentences in the above paragraph by incorporating the formalist concern for unity in a literary work, expressed in the usual exposition, crisis, climax, and denouement tiers of plot development.ĘI believe that considering these elements of plot development can help us to appreciate the poems on the life issues discussed here even more. Certainly Cawein's infanticide poem meets all four tiers of formalist plot development.ĘThe exposition in the poem shows the mother and child, abandoned by proper society.ĘThe several crises occur as the mother seeks work, shelter, friends, and family.ĘThe climax results from a combination of factors: she and her child are hungry, cold, and tired.ĘThe denouement is the death of the child (we do not know what happened to the mother), followed by a narrator's summary pronouncement of the moral that the mother found it "hard enough to live / [. . .] for one; impossible for two".

Similarly, Randall's euthanasia poem follows a narrative line. The exposition shows a person who urges either the reader or another group of persons beyond the reader that he or she does not want to be euthanized. The crises in the poem are potential; the persona anticipates what may happen to him or her if his or her health would deteriorate. The climax is another potentiality: if he or she "seem[s] less human", then, despite this conditional clause, the persona urges the persons addressed not to kill him or her, but to "Let me still glow". The denouement is not evident, of course, since we do not know whether the "kindly killers" would obey the speaker's request or not. This poem may be one of those examples of a problem in unity in a plot structure which formalist critics seek to resolve.

Beatty's poem, too, follows a plot sequence. The exposition is evident in the title certainly and is expanded in the first stanza. The crises occur in the first stanza when it is apparent that the mother is in the abortionist's room and in the second stanza when the tools for the abortion and the abortionist him- or herself are compared to wolves. A climax is apparent in that it seems as though the abortionist has reached the goal of burrowing into the mother as wolves burrow into the ground hunting for smaller prey. The denouement, though, is uncertain. As discussed above, whether the abortion is successful or not depends on one's interpretation of the last line. Further study of the metrics of the poem may be necessary to discover how the author intended to resolve this climax.

Piercy's poem, significantly, does not follow the four tiers of plot development. First, of course, the grammar of the poem frustrates an attempt to identify the traditional elements of plot development; the verb tenses are all present. Even the exceptions to this rule do not help to identify the four elements. The verbs infinitive "to fatten" and "to butcher" in the third stanza could be construed as future activities once the "you" has "put the lamb / in the pasture" and "haul[ed] it in", but these verbs infinitive do not detract from the present tenses of all actions in the poem. This is the case also with "to tend" in the fourth stanza. "Wished" is the only verb that is past tense in form, but the meaning of the clause indicates that the speaker suggests an action in the past continuing in the present. With all this present action, then, it is impossible to determine the exposition and some crises in the poem, both of which categories include past actions. Apparently, then, this poem is all present crisis or present climax. There is no denouement, since we don't know how the person addressed responds to the accusations hurled against him or her. (The person addressed could be female. Who is to say that men are necessarily the only ones who commit the actions that the persona vilifies?) More importantly, what can the reader do, then, with a poem like Piercy's which breaks narratological order and merely engages in the anti-life activity of accusation instead of the pro-life one of affirming life?

Despite Piercy's problems, hopefully, one can see how the other poems discussed here can be used to advance a life-affirming perspective. Some critics are keenly aware of the political implications of poems on abortion, particularly. In her study of several women who have written on abortion, Barbara Johnson notes that "The world that has created conditions under which the loss of a baby becomes desirable must be resisted, not joined" (36). If this is the case, then the responsibility to resist the "loss of a baby" becomes a poetic marching order to fight against not only abortion, but also other activities that destroy life.

Cawein's indictment of the social conditions which led the mother in his infanticide poem to kill herself and her child can not only impress on the contemporary reader the universal conditions of the poor, but also encourage us to act on their behalf. The persona in Randall's euthanasia poem can safely allow us to overhear a monologue from someone who fears he or she is in danger of being euthanized. We hear too many voices from one side only: that euthanasia is a right, that it is the answer to medical problems, and that others know what is best for us. Perhaps that is a benefit of literature -- to enable us to read or to hear different voices on controversial issues. The voice of the unborn heard in Beatty's poem offers a perspective rarely discussed in the culture. We hear certain anti-life feminists who claim that abortion is necessary for sexual empowerment of women.17 We hear few men who stand up for their rights as men, let alone their paternity. Perhaps the voice we hear in Beatty's work will help us to see abortion from a different perspective, for the animalistic violence that it is.

Works Cited

Works Consulted


1 I would like to thank fellow University Faculty for Life members who first heard this paper presentation at the annual conference held in Minneapolis in 2004 who recommended that we should also attend to figures of speech, such as metonymy, metaphor, and irony, which reinforce what the meter suggests in these poems. Investigating the effects of these figures would be a significant contribution to the canon of pro-life literature, requiring extensive future research. [Back]

2  Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson, editors of Perrine's Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, caution that

We should avoid, however, the notion that there is any mystical correspondence between certain meters or rhythms and certain emotions. There are no "happy" meters and no "melancholy" meters [....] Poets' choice of meter is probably less important than how they handle it after they have chosen it. (209)

Despite this admonition, I think that even these editors would feel comfortable claiming, as I do, that there may be no such thing as a sad limerick, attributable to the meter used in that poem, just as it is impossible to dance a Polish or Slovenian polka in anything but a lively manner because of the fast tempo -- tempo being poetry and poetic scansion set to music. [Back]

3 John Ciardi writes in his summary of the various metrical feet that "The fundamental basis of all metrical acceleration should be apparent: the more unstressed syllables are brought together between accents, the faster the line will tend to move" (927; italics in original). (for this footnote, I have underlined the 'italics in original' [Editor]) [Back]

4  The introduction to the work by Clark's twin brother conveys this idea even further:

So imperceptibly and gently did his happy spirit flee away, that it was some time before we could ascertain that he had gone. I never saw a gentler death. There was no pain, no distress, no shuddering, no violent disruption of the ties of life. Both as to the mind's peace and the body's composure, it was a beautiful instance of euthanasia. (20-1)

Significantly, as if to reinforce its etymology, the last word is written in Greek. [Back]

5 Researching poetry on the life issues in international literature would be a massive future research project. One could begin, however, with the authors cited in this paragraph and Piotr Wilczek's comparative literary study on the premiere national poet of Poland, Adam Mickiewicz, and Lord Byron. [Back]

6 From After the Killing (c) 1973 by Dudley Randall; reprinted by permission of Third World Press, Inc., Chicago, Illinois. [Back]

7  One particularly egregious example where criticism has overtaken logic (in that the criticism has turned from criticism per se to ad hoministic attacks against pro-lifers) is a 1998 article by Naomi Guttman. After discussing in general terms the importance of gardening as "a necessary enterprise and often one relegated to women by virtue of being a quasi-domestic activity" (10), Guttman hits on many of the major buzzwords in ecofeminist and feminist theory to demean pro-lifers:

In this pro-choice poem, Piercy turns around the rhetoric of the so-called "right-to-lifers," arguing that women should not be treated as though they are fruit trees or breeding animals and that men's wish to control women's bodies is only part of their wish to control and dominate all of nature. Piercy attacks the sophistry that permits the Right Wing to act on behalf of "life" in the case of the unborn human fetus but neglects to agitate on behalf of the environment -- the healthy life of the planet [. . . .] The "Right to Life" Piercy is most concerned with is the continuing life of the planet that sustains us, and it is that right to own -- to be responsible for -- the quality of life on earth that she champions rather than a view of life that privileges the "rights" of the unborn, and possibly unwanted child. (12; internal quotes in original) [Back]

8 Unfortunately, unlike the other poets who granted permission for their work to be reprinted, according to the permissions editor who handles her material, Piercy would not grant permission for certain stanzas of her poem to be reprinted here. However, although her poem is difficult to locate, readers may be able to search college or university catalogs for an available copy. [Back]

9 There is an exception to this rule. The second foot of the last line of the first stanza may be a spondee instead of a monosyllabic foot if one consistently accents all cases of the pronoun. One could, however, designate the foot an iamb, presuming that the use of "you" here could refer not only to the person being addressed, but to the common use of "you" as anybody. [Back]

10 An interesting variation is that the first foot of the first line of the fourth stanza is a spondee consisting of the adverb first and then the pronoun. This opening foot functions as a transition from the impersonal situation described in the third stanza to the oppressive situation described in the fourth. Moreover, the mere presence of the spondees -- five in the third stanza and nine in the fourth stanza -- show that the aggression or at least the anger of the persona is increasing as the poem progresses. [Back]

11  Of course, if the opening foot really consists of the spondaic "You plant", then what I said in the previous paragraph is reinforced with the addition of one more spondee to the four which I discuss.

Another minor consideration is that I consider the second foot in the ninth line of the third stanza a monosyllabic foot because it sounds as though the dependent clause is a casual response to the independent clause which precedes it. It is not so much that fish are not called as one's own possessions as much as that it depends on whether the "you" being addressed is an individual who chooses to consume them. The "you" here could be the colloquial reference to people in general. [Back]

12  There is some confusion among scholars about whether Sexton had an abortion at all. Lawrence Jay Dessner notes in an interview that Sexton once said, "'I'll often confess to things that never happened'" (136). One of his footnotes for discussion of another poem as the basis for the abortion includes a quote in a 1960 letter in which Sexton says "'I have written a new longish poem called "The Operation" which is (damn it as I really don't want to write any more of them) a personal narration about my experiences this fall'" (146; italics in original). (for this footnote, I have underlined the 'italics in original' [Editor])

Earlier, I commented on Guttman whose ideological bent not only manifests itself in her critique of Piercy's work, but which most likely affected an adequate interpretation of the poem. Another critic who may have let an anti-life feminist literary criticism distort an appreciation of Brooks' and Sexton's poems is Irene Dash, who writes:

And although the legitimacy of abortion is recognized, Sexton and Brooks imply that this is not the answer, the anguish in their poems betraying the dilemma of the speakers. For we have not yet moved beyond the primitive first stages in our attitudes towards mother-child relationship. (12)

Whether it is unfortunate that mothers "have not yet moved beyond the primitive first stages" of love for their children is a claim that may not be a concern for a literary critic per se, especially if the critic chooses to ignore the strong pro-life messages in both works. [Back]

13  Many scholars suggested other abortion poems in response to an email query. Besides mentioning Brooks' poem, which received the most mention, I was urged to consider Lucille Clifton's "the lost baby poem" (1972), Rita Dove's "Motherhood" (1986), and Adrienne Rich's "To a Poet" (1974). While Rich's poem only casually references abortion, examining the others from a pro-life perspective can be the object of future research.

I would also like to recognize the work of Cynthia Hallen, whose "Saddest Hymn of the Republic" is "a parison of the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'", only one verse of which has been published in online journals. I would like to thank Hallen for granting permission for me to print the entire work in this paper:

Mine eyes have seen the gory pictures
of dismembered babes;
They have pulled them from their mothers,
and then harvested their brains;
They have burned them in incinerators,
dumped them without graves,
While Right goes marching on.

[CHORUS] Little children are the kingdom;
Little children have a mission;
Little children bring us vision,
And Life goes marching on.

From the beauty of the body,
they are suctioned into bits;
Or they're sliced in ragged pieces
to a mass of broken limbs;
Or the saline poison stops their hearts
and broils their fragile skin,
But Right goes marching on. [CHORUS]

In the name of human freedom,
they tear babies from the womb;
They have labeled life sub-human
and made liberty a tomb;
They use violence for solutions,
and their clinic profits boom,
But Right goes marching on. [CHORUS] [Back]

14 "An Abortion Attempt by My Mother" from Mad River, by Jan Beatty, (c) 1995. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. [Back]

15  I find it interesting that the image of the wolf operates in other poetry concerning motherhood. For example, Rita Dove's "Motherhood" uses this symbol strikingly. The persona of the poem discusses a female character who dreams about "misplacing" her child. In the second stanza, "the wolf breaks free" from "three men" who had tormented it. In the third stanza the woman "toss[es] the baby behind her" and "straddles / the wolf" (185). Whatever archetypal interpretation can be made of this poem, it is certainly evident that the object of the mother's affections is abandoned in favor of a wilder force personified by the wolf.

Perhaps this connection with a wolf is mere coincidence. Perhaps, though, Beatty and Dove are writing about the darker forces in American society that corrupt the natural ancient view of respect and love between mothers and the children that enable women to be granted that title. Another poem by Dove, "Mother Love", shows this corruption even more dramatically. Again, while an archetypal critic would find great symbolism in the poem, the literal presentation is strikingly grotesque. The persona speaks of a "male child" whom she has been asked to nurse. Instead of sitting comfortably by a fire, nursing him, the persona treats us to the following image:

Each night
I laid him on the smoldering embers,
sealing his juices in slowly so he might
be cured to perfection. Oh, I know it
looked damning: at the hearth a muttering crone
bent over a baby sizzling on a spit
as neat as a Virginia ham. (17) [Back]

16 I am aware that the pronoun is neither normally nor necessarily accented. I can argue that a dramatic reading of the poem, though, does bring attention to the self performing the action of the verb. [Back]

17 See, for example, Ellen Willis, who concludes that "Opposing abortion, then, means accepting that women must suffer sexual disempowerment and a radical loss of autonomy relative to men" (466). [Back]

1, 2,