Poetry gives grieving mothers some peace

October 23, 2012

By Clarrissa McWoodson ’14

Dr. Kevin Stein, Caterpillar Professor of English and the state's fourth Poet Laureate, offered some peace of mind through poetry last month to a dozen Illinois mothers who lost a son or daughter in service to the nation.

Gov. Pat Quinn invited Dr. Stein to speak at the Gold Star Mothers Ceremony, held in downtown Chicago at the city’s Cultural Center, where Dr. Stein read his poem “To Illinois’s Gold Star Mothers, Who Lost a Child in Service of Country.”

Dr. Stein recited his poem to an audience of about 200, including 12 Illinois mothers whose sons and daughters died in combat. This is his fourth time speaking at the annual Gold Star Mothers Ceremony. He said for this year the atmosphere was again powerfully charged.

“There was a sense of dignity and reserve. Everything that took place at the ceremony was stately,” Stein said of the Sept. 30 ceremony. “The room was surrounded by many veterans holding flags; most of them were from various motorcycle veteran clubs.”

During the ceremony, the mothers received a small banner with gold stars on a white background and a wide red border that is typically hung in a window of their homes. Several of the mothers attending wore T-shirts featuring a picture of their deceased child.

Dr. Stein added, “There were a lot of tears and emotion, but through it all, mothers irrespective of race, supported each other.” He said this event was not only about parents who had lost their child, but also about the public function of poetry and how it can be used to bring people together. Dr. Stein said that only after people commented on how touched they were by his poem did he realize his art had served the function that he hoped it would perform.

“I couldn’t tell whether the poem brought any comfort to the families while I was performing it. It was not until afterwards that people would come and speak to me and comment on my poem,” he said. “I spent six months working on this poem specifically for this event. At first, I knew what I wanted the poem not to be, but I was not sure what I wanted it to be.”

Dr. Stein said he did not want the poem to be “unthinkingly patriotic.” He also wanted to avoid saying anything that would diminish the loss these mothers had endured or anything that would take away from the honor that their children should receive.

“I wanted the poem to be less about America,” he said. “I wanted it to be more about mothers.”