New Motto

On April 2, 2007 by Eden M. Kennedy

Toward the end of a somewhat passive-aggressive review of The Second Child: Poems, by Deborah Garrison in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, we find this:

“Since female poets began bum-rushing the academy midcentury, claiming their right to discuss these formerly taboo subjects, there has been a flood of smart, morbid, searching, sometimes outrageous writing on maternity. The best such poems burn off the pink sentimentality of motherhood in favor of something wilder and more surprising. When Anne Sexton wrote her hilarious rant “In Celebration of My Uterus,” critics mocked her for considering such crassly female subject matter for poetry. But she and others — Sharon Olds especially, who has built her career on a far more vivid and ambitious variant of what Garrison seems to be striving for — have cleared a path for writing that does more than simply memorialize household happiness.”

The reviewer, Emily Nussbaum, who excels at damning with faint praise, goes on to laud Sylvia Plath as the One True Mommypoet, and while I may actually agree with a lot of what Nussbaum says, despite the fact that I everso slightly know Deborah Garrison and she is darling and so I feel a knee-jerk resentment toward her critics (mixed, rather uncomfortably, with some moldy old envy that she has, after all, published two books of poetry, while I haven’t finished a poem since 1991), I REALLY agree with what Nussbaum says here:

“Plath makes strange what should be familiar — which is, after all, a central task of poetry.”

And if that doesn’t belong on a t-shirt, a shotglass, and a poster with a kitten dangling from a branch, I don’t know what does.

I think “making strange what should be familiar” should be a goal not only of poetry but of television, songwriting, cooking, sex, and maybe even online diarykeeping.

I guess I’ll go back to my cave and think about it during my breaks between egg dying, Lego assemblying, throwing things into the neighborhood swimming pool and demanding that other people dive down into the frigid water and get them, and all the other activities that fill the spring break week of a kindergartener.



42 Responses to “New Motto”

  • In teaching poetry, I’ve begun to think that it is compressing everyday experiences into extraordinarily small spaces, and parsing them as no prose ever could. But that’s just me.

  • Anne Sexton is wonderful. Sylvia Plath, classic. Sharon Olds scares the shyte out of me, big time. She makes the strange even stranger. Except the one titled, “The Pope’s Penis”, I liked that one.

  • I never thought the goal of poetry was to make strange that which should be familiar. Rather, I feel the goal is to take the personal and make it universal.

  • Yes, but in the whole realm of writing/blogging/making poetry about domesticity, the stranger you make what’s familiar to you, the better you can maintain a grasp on a self that sometimes forgets what day it is, they all look the same.

  • This is perfectly thought provoking for the poetry unit I am student teaching (to eighth graders) this month. Thank you!

  • Maybe so. I think different writers have different approaches, and most work.

  • New Fussy shirt?

  • Oh, btw I’m a running a tad dim these days and I forgot I asked a shirt related question a few days ago. You responded and said you were looking for women’s shirts that are longer in the torso. That would be AMAZING! The main reason I don’t wear my two lovely Fussy shirts is that they are too short even more so after washing. So thank you and I hope you find them.

  • That is a bronzeable sentence.

    Does (mommy) poetry have to be sad and dark and frightening and possibly life-threatening to be honest?

  • I smell new t-shirts!

  • I understand the connection between dark and honest, but it’s not like they’re inextricable from each other. You (meaning: parents and other mortals) can be honest about anything you want, which may or may not include the sad/frightening/life-threatening. Don’t you think?

  • Fuckin’ A, Mrs. Kennedy.

  • It’s the sad/frightening/life-threatening stuff that everyone fears… and yet, everyone experiences it. Even the most straight A student experiences things in their own way, and it is special because it is personal.

    I love this thread, because I think it speaks to the huge portion of the blogging community that gets asked, “Why do you blog?”

    We try to take what is familiar and make it a little strange, because then anyone who reads it gets the jolt of both. Familiar yet strange – the perfect cocktail, and strange reminds you of the lives that are being lived on this planet that have nothing to do with you.

  • Oddly, I’d bet that many people would view the job of poetry as making familiar what’s strange, not making strange what’s familiar. But I agree, I’d rather have my familiar made strange than the reverse.

  • Sylvia always served as a terrible warning for me but then a long time ago when I still wrote

    I do not will him to be exceptional.
    It is the exception that interests the devil.
    It is the exception that climbs the sorrowful hill
    Or sits in the desert and hurts his mother’s heart.

    - Sylvia Plath

    I totally get that. Not in a put my head in an oven sort of way, but I want him to know what I know but to never, ever, be me.

  • I am only posting to show my support via headshakes and blank looks.

    I am an un-cultured swine.

  • New t-shirt indeed….I think that my love of poetry should expand towards more female/modern poets. Thanks for making my library list a bit more thoughtful.

  • I’d like it on an apron. As you suggest, making strange what should be familiar certainly applies to my cooking.

  • Two words for you here: Amy Hempel. Short story writer who has a bead on making the familiar strange and vice versa with the most stunning combination of words. Each story’s like a long poem, every word pointed and spare.

  • “Plath makes strange what should be familiar — which is, after all, a central task of poetry.”

    It’s a good thought. Another good thought is to remember that she says “a central task of poetry,” notthe central task of poetry.”

    A pet peeve of mine, besides hearing about other people’s pet peeves, is people issuing absolute and exclusionary declarations about what comprises good art of any genre. Good poetry can “make…strange what should be familiar.” It can also make you stand up and scream “Hell YEAH that’s so real!” by carefully walking threads — or barbed wire — through foggy, muddy landscapes of the heart. It can make you weep and laugh just by painting an accurate picture, not necessarily photo-accurate but a carefully framed part of what is real, like a truly great and revelatory landscape.

    Poetry can do a lot of things when it’s good, when it’s true. “[M]ak[ing] strange what should be familiar” is only one of its powers.

  • I have Deborah Garrison’s collection of poems “A Working Girl Can’t Win” on my bookshelf. I’ve picked it up twice since I bought it ten years ago. But Eden, I check “Fussy” EVERY DAY for a little bit of real life poetry. And its your page which assures me that I can do familiar things in a unique way (I wanted to say ‘strange’ way but I was afraid I would hurt your feelings).

  • You can call me strange, Bunny — I’ve certainly been called worse. (Thanks for the compliment.)

  • Ok I’m a nuthead — when i first read this “egg dying” — in light of the subject matter of the post I at first thought you meant –you know just sitting around and letting your eggs (the female ovary kind) DIE.

    Which is what mine are doing…..

  • I agree absolutely, and I’ve done my more than my fair share of time in the Sylvia Plath Nunnery for Ambivalent Mothers, but still, isn’t there room in the canon for you know, living poets whose vision of motherhood isn’t stultifyingly pathological and annihilating?

  • …part of a larger comment I decided to edit b/c I realized I didn’t know WTF I was saying and this was the part I liked the best anyway…
    Stop walking to your car in the Target parking lot, purchases hanging in a bag from the crook of your arm. Stand amongst the cars and take a picture of the dusk downtown skyline, just visible over the tops of surrounding warehouses and reflecting the sunset on the other side of the sky. The whole reason you noticed any of this was the in-your-face full moon rising just to the left of it all.
    Of course, the bottom half of the shot is parking lot and Target signage and cars and people walking. But that’s what appeals; the juxtaposition of familiar mass consumerism and the regular rotating of the earth around the sun, the moon around the earth, these wholly regular things become special (and by definition strange) together.

    For me it’s all about taking in the whole scene, really stopping to take note. Then smelling, savoring the contrast inherent in it.

    …and I just like the sky.
    So this could just all be me wanting to take pictures of it.
    I have no motherhood experience so I can’t speak to that theme personally, but I’ve definitely been to Target and noticed the sky. Yep. Familiar and strange, all at once. Beautiful.

  • Shouldn’t the whole point of life be to make strange things of the familiar? I mean, once you’ve habituated to something, you’re really not paying attention to it anymore and you should go out and fine or make a new way to get your own focus back.

  • That is a great line. I love poetry that takes the mundane and makes it sublime – Billy Collins is good for that, too, but without the strange. Sharon Olds is freaking amazing, too, and Sexton, but honestly I never got into Sylvia Plath – I should go back and re-read her now.

  • Umm, for the first and perhaps definitive version of the idea that art should make the familiar strange–”enstrange/estrange” it–see Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky, in an essay called “Art as Device,” written in the 1920s, collected in his book, Theory of Prose. I cite selections:
    “By means of this algebraic method of thinking, objects are grasped spatially, in the blink of an eye. We do not see them, we merely recognize them by their primary characteristics. The object passes before us, as if it were prepackaged…Gradually, under the influence of this generalizing perception, the object fades away…
    …Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war…
    And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art…By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious.”

    Sorry, is that too pedantic? It’s just that Shklovsky is dear to my heart, and if you put it on a t-shirt you should give him credit.

  • Sometimes I feel like my whole life could accidentally pass by “prepackaged”.

    Yeah, man.


  • I think a lot of what poetry is deals with putting ordinary things into words that are unfamiliar. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t make you think, wouldn’t make you want to lie on your bed with a cool beer analyzing what it could mean or what it could relate to.

    Regardless, poetry intrigues me regardless of what it makes me think of, and occasionally something simple that doesn’t require a lot of analysis is a welcome relief.

  • Just thinking about Mrs. K’s question as to whether, in order to be honest, writing about domestic life has to be dark — and also what Weaker Vessel says above about Plath’s writing on motherhood being pathological. I’ve always thought that Plath (especially in her journals) was actually great at capturing the feeling of happiness on the page. It’s really hard to write about joy without sounding sappy, and her journals from when she was falling in love with Ted Hughes are some of the best writing about that feeling I’ve seen.

    Also, she has two super-happy poems about pregnancy which I’ve given copies of to many pregnant friends: “You’re” ( and “Metaphors” ( It’s always struck me that this poet who’s remembered as the ultimate gloom-monger also had a capacity for expressing joy.

  • maybe I’m just being male here, but I HATE having to guess what the hell a poem is about. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the rhythm of the words, or the way they sound together, or the imagery it evokes, or a new way at looking at the same-old same-old, but dammit, I hate reading anything and not being able to tell what the hell it was about afterwards. It makes it inaccessible. Its like poetry that only poets can appreciate. Or not having the key to a code, or not knowing the secret handshake.

    rant over.

  • I hear what you’re saying, Bob, but I do like it when a poem comes at its subject sideways. You get a different point of view.

  • The Sylvia Plath reference reminds me of how in comedy, Sara Silverman is always the one “acceptable” female comedian. It’s like any woman artist has to project a certain level of darkness and edge to be considered worthwhile.

    That quote is fantastic. I agree that that’s what any writer is charged with. As they (“they”) say, there are only 7 stories in the world and Shakespeare’s done ‘em all. Without “making it strange” we’d forever live with that self-doubt of “well why should I tell this story? It’s all been told before.”

  • I thought the central task of poetry was to rhyme. Hee.

  • One of the most repeated tenets of 100-level cultural anthropology classes is to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”

    By the way I’m now addicted to Amy Winehouse. Love it.

  • While endulging in your comments, I noticed you were looking for shirts with longer torsos…I have found a site that I love. they have everything.

  • A superior merchandising idea this is! Combines my love of Plath, the strange and the familiar in one tidy package.

  • I have read your blog carefully and like it a lot! We have the same opnion! Could you check my blog at: to check my blog title: helenwang`s blog”? May be we can talk further and be friends.