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Solace through poetry

Illinois Poet Laureate and Bradley English professor Kevin Stein touched hearts as he read the poem he wrote exclusively to honor Gold Star Mothers who have lost a child in service to our country at the 73rd annual ceremony in Chicago.

Kevin Stein recites his poem "To Illinois’s Gold Star Mothers, Who Lost a Child in Service of Country."

When Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein was asked by Gov. Pat Quinn to read an appropriate poem at the Gold Star Mother’s Day ceremony on September 27, the Bradley English professor gave himself an assignment: create an original poem for the solemn event.

Stein decided early on that no existing poem, not even the famous World War I poem, “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae, seemed to fit the occasion or the audience. Gold Star Mother’s Day ceremonies honor mothers who have lost children in service to the nation and are held annually throughout the country on the last Saturday of September.

A prolific poet, editor, and critic, Stein eventually found this self-assigned task a bit daunting.  “To be honest, writing this poem, ‘To Illinois’s Gold Star Mothers, Who Lost a Child in Service of Country,’ is perhaps the most challenging writing assignment I’ve ever taken on.”

Intent on offering his personal version of solace through poetry, and following a few failed starts, Stein decided the audience he was most interested in serving ­­— and honoring — was the Gold Star Mothers themselves. “More intimately than any others, they understand the nature of sacrifice and loss — no matter the politics or whatever. My sense was to raise the nation of mothers above all others. That's why I designed the poem in the form of a poetic apostrophe addressed directly to them. And though not rhymed, the poem makes use of the traditional poetic gesture of anaphora ­— the repetition of a phrase for effect.”  

Stein worked on the poem nearly every day for three months. “It was always on the horizon of my attention, waving me onward.” After composing more than 30 drafts, Stein admits to revising the poem onstage prior to the ceremony.

With a desire to avoid politics, steer clear of ethical disputes regarding war, and beware of overt patriotism, Stein instead chose to focus on “the living child, on the maternal realities that deepened the relationship with that child, and to honor the ways mothers know of that human experience more richly and more lastingly than others.” He relied on his wife’s motherly insights as he read the poem to her numerous times. Stein also chose to “not churn up the boundless and unassuageable loss” these mothers were grieving.

 Addressing the audience of more than 300, Stein resolved to look as many of the mothers in the eye as possible. Their grief was fresh. “To say the emotions at work were powerful is to make the proverbial understatement. A few had lost a child in the last month.” Witnessing each of the 27 mothers come to the stage to receive a banner from the governor was an emotionally wrenching experience. Many a mother wore a white t-shirt bearing a photo of her child.

Following the ceremony, several mothers and families shared with Stein that his poem moved them. “In many ways,” reflects Stein, “I felt like I contributed. I was told I had reached hearts.”

At the request of Gov. Quinn, a copy of “To Illinois’s Gold Star Mothers, Who Lost a Child in Service to Country” will soon hang in the statehouse. Illinois has honored American Gold Star mothers annually following a Presidential Proclamation in 1936. Although the American Gold Star Mothers Inc. national organization was formally established on June 4, 1928, the group’s roots are traced back to World War I.


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