Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“With Mercy for the Greedy” shows Sexton’s need for religious faith and her inability to find it. The poem also provides her explanation of how her art functions as therapy and, to some degree, takes the place of the religion that she cannot comfortably accept. Addressed to a friend “who urges me to make an appointment for the Sacrament of Confession,” the poem explores the speaker’s attempt to grasp faith. The friend, identified as “Ruth,” has sent her a cross, which she has been wearing “hung with package string” around her neck. This cross, though, has nothing to say to her. It remains unresponsive to her desperate need. “I detest my sins and I try to believe/ in The Cross,” she says. Yet she must conclude, finally, that “need is not quite belief.”
Having determined that she cannot approach traditional religion through her friend’s gift, she tells her friend what she does do: She writes poems, and these are her confession, her way of dealing with her sense of guilt. “I was born/ doing reference work in sin, and born/ confessing it. This is what poems are,” she explains. Poems are the struggle with the self and the world that provide “mercy for the greedy”—they are “the tongue’s wrangle,/ the world’s pottage, the rat’s star.” Only through the difficult and painful process of creating poetry can she aspire to any kind of peace. The phrase “tongue’s wrangle” suggests the awkwardness and difficulty of...
(The entire section is 355 words.)
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