Image: Vintage Fine Lawn Rose Pattern Embroidered © @lizzylovesvintage
Material is by Ros Barber and is about the changing role of a mother in the family unit. The speaker contrast her mother with the way she looks after her children now. It is a personal poem that concentrates on one woman’s experience of realising the importance of a mother figure in a child’s life and the nostalgia surrounding this and things from the past. The poem moves from this past into the present and a consideration of the narrator’s own role as a mother and how this differs from the experience of earlier generations.
The poem has a very strong structure made up of 9 stanzas of 8 lines each. There is consistent use of half rhyme to suggest the uncertainty felt by the poetic voice.
- Barber half rhymes words such as ‘cloth’ and ‘shops’ showing not only uncertainty but also the informality of poetry in the modern day. Poetry used to rhyme, it was part of the formality in which people lived in those days, echoing the message of the rest of the poem to show how the role of the mother has changed.
- This is also some strict alternate line rhyme in the second stanza especially, ‘lace’ and ‘face’ – suggesting that although some things have changed, there are still some similarities.
- Repetition in the line “step-together, step together, step-together”, this structure shows how there was formality in the old days
- Proper nouns show how the people in her youth were very important to her upbringing “George with his dodgy foot”, this is a very personal poem to her
- Concrete nouns creates more of a sense of nostalgia, “The fishmonger whose marble slabbed”. Things are disappearing from her youth and this makes her sad as she sees the world changing before her eyes.
- Rhyming triplet at the end ‘disposable/material/will’
- Contrast between hanky and tissues show the change in the role of the mother to the poetic voice. A hanky used to be made od durable material (relating to the title), were given as gifts which often had a lot of thought put into them – embroidered with personal initials. However now, people tend to use paper tissues which are disposable and weak. They are often a rushed thought and can be bought anywhere. This juxtaposes how the mother’s role has changed and that now, the poetic voice is not as present as she perhaps should be to her children.
- There is the use of an extended metaphor of the hanky “My mother was the hanky queen, when hanky meant a thing of cloth”. The extended metaphor allows the reader to understand how the speaker feels that her mother was a constant figure in her life. She was a gift, whereas tissues are disposable – how the role of the mother changes
- ‘Material’ as the title refers to the actual material the hanky is made from but also how we are shaped by our mothers and shape our children in turn. The phrase ‘raw materials’ is important here, reminding us of the importance of nurture in creating character.
- The tone throughout the poem is quite reminiscent and sad. She is nostalgic about her youth and her mother. She ponders how everything now is materialistic and throw away, perhaps she thinks that people take things for granted.
- There is also a sense of frustration with herself in the 8th stanza when the poetic voice reflects on her own performance as a mother, “I raised neglected-looking kids, the kind whose noses strangers clean” – she is not a constant mother figure for her children – raises the question, is today’s parenting style lazy? Do we tend to stick children in front of the television as a virtual babysitter? However the fact that she acknowledges this gives the reader hope that she may change her ways.
- “marble that slabbed” could suggest a morgue and that her youth is dying away creating a sad tone
- Emphasis on the last line is helped by the italics
- The rhyming triple also helps to do this because ‘material’ is tangible and a symbol of care and love for the children
- We know that “[she misses] material handkerchiefs, their soft and hidden history” – this provokes sympathy for the poetic voice and is probably quite a relatable situation for many readers
As you can tell, there’s a lot more to this poem than first meets the eye and a lot of hidden meanings, especially surrounding the extended metaphor. The reader may at first not like the poetic voice for neglecting her children but she does realise her mistakes by the end and hint that she will change her ways