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Analysis of the Poem "Praise Song for My Mother" by Grace Nichols

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Grace Nichols

Grace Nichols

Grace Nichols and a Summary of Praise Song for My Mother

Praise Song for My Mother is a short poem that focuses on the poet's personal experience, given voice through a first-person speaker.

It is a celebratory poem, part of an African tradition of handing down songs from generation to generation to sustain tribal history.

Praise songs come in many different forms but are often:

  • metaphorical, structured with loose stanzas and creatively combined with a mix of new and old language.

They can be wide-ranging in expression: personal, political, social, historical and religious.

Music and rhythm can play an important role in how praise songs are performed; this is reflected in the lyrical style of this particular poem.

Grace Nichols writes about her mother:

...'a warm, intelligent, loving woman who was full of stories, anecdotes and songs from her own childhood. People loved being around her and I can't remember a single day when our home wasn't visited by some friend, neighbour or relative who had dropped in 'just fuh minute' but ended up staying hours.'

It was first published in the book I is a Long-Memoried Woman from 1983.

Praise Song for My Mother

You were
water to me
deep and bold and fathoming

You were
moon’s eye to me
pull and grained and mantling

You were
sunrise to me
rise and warm and streaming

You were
the fishes’ red gill to me
the flame tree’s spread to me
the crab’s leg/the fried plantain smell
replenishing replenishing

Go to your wide futures, you said

Analysis of Praise Song for My Mother Stanza by Stanza

Praise Song For My Mother is a free verse poem of 5 stanzas, 3 tercets, a pentain (5 lines) and the final single line stanza.

The lack of punctuation reflects the loose form of the original praise songs - sung or chanted or spoken - and reinforces the idea of a free flowing yet rhythmically creative work.

Stanza 1

Mother is water, a metaphor for purity of love, deep and peaceful and understanding. The element water also heals and cleanses and is essential for life.

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Note the structure of this stanza, repeated throughout the poem. The first line is a simple two syllables...You were...the speaker looking back and celebrating the mother.

As the poem progresses the lines become relatively complex, a step by step kind of form developing, reflecting the relationship between the two.

Stanza 2

The mother is the moon, again a metaphorical device, which is a symbol of all things feminine, emotion, spirituality. This is the eye of a goddess, a calming influence over blood and tides.

Mantling is an unusual word which means covering, protecting.

Stanza 3

In contrast mother is also the sun rising each day, a symbol of renewed energy, warmth, growth and all round well being.

And of course without the sun there'd be no light.

Stanza 4

The longest stanza with 5 lines is full of images of nature - so mother is all things natural, specifically red gills which allow the fish to breathe. She is the flame tree, a gorgeous red tree that fills the day with passion.

The crab's leg and fried plantain are foods, crab meat tastiest from the leg plantain wholesome when fried. So mother is provider, nourisher, refilling life, renewing energy.

Stanza 5

A single line which shoots off at a tangent to the rest. Here is mother actually speaking, telling the speaker (and the rest of the young family) to spread their wings and leave the home to experience their own lives. They have to live their own life, away from mother.

This is the conclusion drawn following all of the metaphorical stanzas - love, spirituality, energy and nourishment mean nothing if the young ones cannot take what they have gained from the mother out into the big wide world.


Being Alive, Neil Astley, Bloodaxe, 2004

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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