In “The Lanyard,” Billy Collins offers a child’s look at the contradiction between the contributions that a mother makes to her child’s life and the child’s attempt to “repay” her. Why does that contradiction exist, and should a child feel the need to “repay” a mother? How might the poets in this unit be “repaying” their mothers by the simple act of writing poetry about them? What do these poets seem to recognize about the value and importance of a mother?
Examine the voice of the son in this poem: what clues in the poem might give an indication about the son’s age, perspective, and maturity level? Consider the content of the message, but look as well at the diction and choice of vocabulary. How does that voice help us to understand the central message of the poem in a specific way? In other words, if it were told from a different perspective/age, how might the son’s message be different?
Next, choose either Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son” or Robert Mezey’s “My Mother,” and answer the following questions.
In Hughes’s or Mezey’s poem, examine the voice of the mother: how does the mother/speaker communicate the idea that she is “experienced” and, thus, knowledgeable about the ways of the world? Just as you did with “The Lanyard,” consider the content of the message, but look as well at the diction and choice of vocabulary. What type of life to you think that mother has led? What clues/evidence in the poem lead you to this conclusion? What does the language show us about the personality and character/values of the mother?
Then, consider the tone of Hughes’s or Mezey’s poem: How might the poet use humor, or is the tone more serious? Is there a combination of the two? Choose your own descriptive word to appropriately describe how that mother “sounds.” Some examples: somber, didactic, ironic, sarcastic, caring, loving, annoying, harping, concerned, etc. What might be the reason for that mother’s tone of voice?
Examine the mother as symbolic: what might this mother represent? This is a good place to consider cultural context, historical context, or social context, but you might also simply think about what mothers represent to us in general. What does this mother show us about our expectations?
In one sentence, state what you think the mother is trying to communicate to her son. Do you think the advice this mother is giving to her son is good advice? Why or why not? What contradictions might a young person find in the advice his/her parent is offering? What seems to be the greatest difficulty for parents when giving advice to their children?
Finally, which of these poems reminds you of your own relationship with your mother or a mother figure (if any)? Why? In your own experience, what is the value of a mother or mother figure for a child?