Where I’m From is a poem that has become a classroom classic and is taught throughout the world. It has a universal appeal, with the template being used by children and adults alike to pinpoint exactly where they come from, what makes them unique.
- We all have our own story to tell. This poem helps zoom in on the specifics of that story and allows exploration of background, home, childhood, upbringing and family culture.
George Ellen Lyon is a poet, writer, musician, storyteller, and teacher and was inspired to write this poem when she read a book by fellow author Jo Carson titled ‘Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet.’ In amongst the quotes from various people was the following: “I want to know when you get to be from a place.”
- So she created the poem to help her in the quest to find out just where she did come from. By remembering and naming all the things that stood out as important in her childhood, she was able to put things into perspective, and find that special place.
Where I’m From allows the reader into the intimate world of the speaker and gradually builds up a picture of identity and the factors that shape it.
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.
I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.
I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.
Where I’m From is clearly a look back at a childhood full of things but in the process of looking back the speaker is clarifying her identity as of now…I am from...meaning that her identity is made up of all these things from her past.
This poem goes some way towards answering the question Who am I? The speaker takes the reader on a journey through her childhood, through time and into the home where she was brought up.
- So there are lots of different domestic objects on view, each one with a connection back to the speaker. The home and its environs become alive through simple suggestions and memories.
The speaker isn’t only a product of the household interior, she relates to nature too. Take the forsythia bush and the elm, whose limbs (branches) feel like her own, an allusion to a rooted existence and steady growth.
- The second stanza contains references to a part religious upbringing. The phrase He restoreth my soul is from Psalm 23, from the Old Testament of the Bible. And cottonball lamb could be Jesus Christ and the ten verses also from the Good Book.
She is a learner this speaker but she’s had to endure some stuff – how about having to wear pass-it-ons (hand-me-downs)?, clothes from an older member of the family, instead of new ones bought from a store…. OR is pass-it-ons to do with secret messages whispered quietly in the ear?
We all know what know-it-alls are, they are people with rampant egos who think they know everything about everything but sometimes know very little and are not willing to learn!
Perk up and Pipe down are probably straight out of the family household or classroom, where an adult has calmly suggested to the speaker that they should:
a) dig deep for energy, look on the bright side of life and find their mojo again.
b) not talk so much and in so loud a fashion.
- In the third stanza the reader is taken into the state of Kentucky, to Artemus and Billie’s Branch. The setting is rural, or basic, for she’s from is fried corn.
She also is from a finger belonging to her grandfather, which was lost in an accident with an auger, a large wood boring drill made of metal. Ouch. And the eye of her father, which had to be kept shut to save his sight. Drastic stuff, pointing to a strong family/blood connection, related to trauma.
No mention of the mother though, which is kind of strange. perhaps the house and home and surrounds are a substitute?
- The final stanza concludes with that most mysterious of places – under the bed, where lurk often ghosts and bogeymen and what have you. But not in this case. The speaker keeps her dress box and it is full to overflowing with images from her past, perhaps her ancestors.
The imagery is vivid – picture the girl asleep, dreaming, whilst the visages of her past family go on with their business below. What about the word sift? It means to separate out the most important things, in this case, ancestral portraits.
The final two lines are a bit of mystery. What does she mean when she says that she was snapped before she budded? Does that imply that she was broken and wasn’t allowed to flourish? And that she has now left the family fold?
Where I’m From is a free verse poem, 28 lines long contained within 4 stanzas. There is no set rhyme scheme and the meter (metre in British English) is varied, which brings change in the rhythm.
The narrator or speaker has a clear voice right from the start…I am from…first person, direct telling.
There is a definite emphasis on establishing a strong identity. The first stanza alone has a triple repeat of I am from, which is subsequently shortened to I’m from as the poem progresses.
Note how the poet has avoided monotony by separating these repeat words with sufficient, different lines, mixing it up and keeping up the challenge for the reader.
The language of belonging features strongly in this poem, together with specific objects introduced through memory of the childhood home and special ‘time capsule’ lines. Some of the language is domestic – clothespins – Clorox (a manufacturing company) and carbon tetrachloride is a solvent for fats, whilst other words are local to where the speaker grew up:
Imogene and Alafair are girl’s names.
Artemus and Billie’s Branch are two forks of the family tree converging OR two places in Kentucky, a small town and a river respectively.