How Gwendolyn Brooks Invented a New Metrical Foot for Abortion
Adventures in Scanning Brooks and Hardy
Gwendolyn Brooks Memorabilia at Pierpont Morgan Library, 2022
For the last several months, I have been working on a Poem Guide for Gwendolyn Brooks’ abortion poem “the mother” for the Poetry Foundation. After my abortion in 1999, this poem was one of a tiny handful of literary works, along with Lucille Clifton’s “Lost Baby Poem,” that kept me company—and, in turn, inspired me to begin the twenty-year project of editing Choice Words; Writers on Abortion.
In the process of editing Choice Words, I received “the letter” that Brooks’ estate has been forced to send out to those wanting to republish the poem, in an effort to stop it being used as propaganda in the abortion wars. Unfortunately, many anti-choice people have ignored the poet’s wishes, republishing the poem without permission on the internet and using its emotional complexity as “proof” that abortion is evil. When the Poetry Foundation asked me to write a poem guide on an abortion-related poem, I chose “the mother,” partly as an opportunity to set the record straight.
Little did I know, though, that Brooks’ poem, in addition to its great gift of emotional honesty regarding abortion, offers a metrical gift as well: a metrical foot I have never seen before!
I have only once before discovered an unnamed foot “in the wild.” It happened in a poem by Thomas Hardy, like “the mother” a poem that courageously processes an emotionally complex, even traumatic experience. When my scansion assistant, Autumn Newman, and I were working on the scansions for How to Scan a Poem, we found a foot that we had never seen before in a famous line in Thomas Hardy’s dactylic poem “The Voice”:
/ u u u u } / u u } / \ | / ( u u )
even to the original air-blue gown!
The only way to scan this line as a dactylic tetrameter—following the poem’s ‘metrical contract’ for the last line of each stanza (to use John Hollander’s term for the metrical understanding between poet and reader) —is to scan the first foot as a foot I don’t ever recall seeing before, a foot that extends the pattern of a falling foot by one foot further than accepted metrical terminology takes us. The troche is a wand followed by one cup (/u); the dactyl a wand followed by two cups (/uu). Then there is the first paean, a wand followed by three cups (/uuu). But this foot was a whole new animal—helping make this line a rarely appreciated one in English lyric poetry. Here, the wand is followed by not three but four