Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1664
Anne Sexton 1928–1974
[Born Anne Gray Harvey] American poet, playwright, children's writer, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Sexton's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10.
Anne Sexton is among the most celebrated and tragic poets of the confessional school. Her highly emotional, self-reflexive verse, characterized by preoccupations with childhood guilt, mental illness, motherhood, and female sexuality, is distinguished for its stunning imagery, artistry, and remarkable cadences. An unlikely latecomer to poetry, Sexton underwent a rapid metamorphosis from suburban housewife to major literary figure during the early 1960s. Her first three volumes of poetry, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), All My Pretty Ones (1962), and Live or Die (1967), garnered critical acclaim and established her reputation as an important poet. Subsequent volumes, especially Love Poems (1969) and Transformations (1971), won her a large public audience, as did her popular appearances at poetry readings. A gifted, glamorous, and deeply troubled woman, Sexton's art and life—punctuated by her suicide—converged with the convictions of the contemporary feminist movement, drawing attention to the oppressive, circumscribed existence of women in American society.
Born Anne Gray Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts, Sexton was the youngest of three daughters raised by her parents, a housewife and the owner of a prosperous wool company, in an upper middle-class home near Boston. Sexton graduated from Rogers Hall preparatory school for girls in 1947, where her first poetry appeared in the school yearbook. After a year at Garland Junior College, a finishing school in Boston, she eloped with Alfred Muller "Kayo" Sexton II in 1948, an impulsive marriage that endured separations and infidelities until their divorce in 1973. From 1949 to 1952 Sexton worked as a model, lingerie salesperson, and bookstore clerk while Kayo served in the Navy Reserve during the Korean War. She gave birth to their first daughter, Linda Gray, in 1953, followed by a second, Joyce "Joy" Ladd, in 1955. After the arrival of Joyce, Sexton received psychiatric treatment for severe depression, followed by a period of hospitalization and a suicide attempt in 1956. Sexton suffered bouts of suicidal depression throughout the rest of her life, necessitating continual psychotherapy and subsequent hospitalizations. Upon the suggestion of her psychiatrist, Sexton began writing poetry during her recovery in 1956. The next year she joined a poetry workshop headed by John Holmes at the Boston Center for Adult Education, where she befriended Maxine Kumin. Sexton's first published poem, "Eden Revisited," appeared in The Fiddle-head Review in 1958. During the same year. Sexton received a scholarship to attend the Antioch Writers' Conference to study under W. D. Snodgrass. Later that year, she enrolled in Robert Lowell's writing seminar at Boston University, where she was introduced to Sylvia Plath, and in 1959 participated in the Bread Loaf Writers Conference on a Robert Frost fellowship. Her first volume of poetry, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, received a National Book Award nomination in 1960, as did her second volume, All My Pretty Ones, winner of the Levison Prize from Poetry magazine in 1962. Selected Poems (1964), published in England, consists of poetry from both To Bedlam and Part Way Back and All My Pretty Ones. After an appointment at the Radcliffe Institute from 1961 to 1963, Sexton travelled to Europe on an American Academy of Arts and Letters fellowship in 1963. She received a Ford Foundation grant for residence with the Charles Playhouse in Boston in 1964. During this time, Sexton also collaborated with Kumin on Eggs of Things (1963) and More Eggs of Things (1964), the first of several children's books followed by Joey and the Birthday Present (1971) and The Wizard's Tears (1975). Her next major volume of poetry, Live or Die, received a Pulitzer Prize and Shelley Award from the Poetry Society of America in 1967. Shortly after the publication of Love Poems in 1969, she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to work on her only dramatic work, Mercy Street, produced Off-Broadway by the American Place Theatre in 1969. In the next years she published additional volumes of poetry, including Transformations, The Book of Folly (1972), The Death Notebooks (1974), and The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975), which she completed only months before her death. The recipient of honorary degrees from Harvard and Radcliffe, Sexton gave frequent poetry readings and taught creative writing at Boston University from 1970 until her death. During the 1970s, Sexton's mental and physical health deteriorated, exacerbated by addictions to alcohol and sleeping pills. She committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in 1974.
Regarded as a confessional poet, Sexton's writing is in many ways a candid autobiographic record of her struggle to overcome the feelings of guilt, loss, inadequacy, and suicidal despair that tormented her. Inspired by years of intensive psychotherapy, Sexton's carefully crafted poetry often addresses her uncertain self-identity as a daughter, wife, lover, mother, and psychiatric patient. Her first volume, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, consists of poems written shortly after her confinement in a mental hospital, during which she lost custody of her children. "The Double Image," among the most accomplished works of the volume, is a sequence of seven poems describing Sexton's schism with her mother in the imagery of two portraits facing each other from opposite walls. Other poems, notably "You, Doctor Martin," "Music Swims Back To Me," and "Ringing the Bells" relate Sexton's experiences and emotional state while hospitalized. "Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward," which involves an unwed mother who prepares to abandon her illegitimate child, alludes to Sexton's guilt at having lost her own children. Another significant poem from the volume, "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further," is Sexton's response to poet John Holmes's criticism of her transgressive subject matter, representing Sexton's defense of the confessional mode and her own poetic voice. The poems of All My Pretty Ones further illustrate Sexton's aptitude for invoking musical rhythms and arresting imagery. Entitled after a line from Shakespeare's Macbeth, this volume contains the oft-anthologized poems "The Truth the Dead Know," written upon the death of her father, "All My Pretty Ones," "The Abortion," and "Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound," all of which probe emotions surrounding loss. "With Mercy For the Greedy," also from this volume, anticipates Sexton's proclivity for Christian motifs in much of her subsequent work. The poems of Live or Die explore Sexton's ongoing vacillation between life and maternal responsibility and her attraction to suicide. Her obsession with death, a prominent recurring theme in all of her work, is explicit in the poems "Sylvia's Death," about Sylvia Plath's suicide, and "Wanting to Die," countered by the life-affirming poem "Live" at the end of the volume. Also included are the well known poems "Flee on Your Donkey," "Menstruation at Forty," "The Addict," "Little Girl, My Stringbean, My Lovely Woman," a tender paean to her daughter, and "Somewhere in Africa," a eulogy on the death of Holmes. Less concerned with psychic trauma, Love Poems contains verse ranging from elegant depiction of erotic desire in "The Breast," "Song for a Lady," and "Eighteen Days Without You," praise for womanhood in "In Celebration of My Uterus," the pain of love's end in "For My Lover, Returning to His Wife," "You All Know the Story of the Other Woman," and "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator," and her relationship with her husband in "Loving the Killer." In Transformations, a collection of loosely reinterpreted Grimm fairy tales, Sexton relies upon biting satire and dark humor to shatter the notion of happy or conventional endings. For example, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" portrays the heroine as vindictive and vain, "Rapunzel" involves a lesbian relationship between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel, and "Briar Rose," based on the Sleeping Beauty story, features a young girl haunted by the incestuous advances of her father. Sexton's late volumes reveal the poet's mounting anguish, coloring her work with an increasing morbidity and overriding religiosity. The themes of alienation, death, and deliverance are evident in "The Death of Fathers" and "The Jesus Papers" in The Book of Folly, "The Death Baby" and "O Ye Tongues," a sequence of psalms, in The Death Notebooks, and "The Rowing Endeth," the final poem of The Awful Rowing Toward God in which the speaker arrives at "the island called God" to play a hand of cards with the deity himself. The balance of Sexton's poetry is collected in the posthumous volumes 45 Mercy Street (1976) and Words for Dr. Y (1978).
Sexton is recognized as one of the most significant American poets of the postwar era. Widely praised for the forceful imagery, compelling associations, affective elegiac tone, and meticulously arranged tonal patterns of her best verse, she is considered among the most talented representatives of the first generation confessional poets, along with Lowell and Plath. Critics frequently comment on the dual nature of Sexton's poetry as a cathartic process and destructive urge. While many find courage in Sexton's willingness to transmute painful personal experience and taboo sexual topics into art, others condemn such themes as exhibitionistic and inappropriate. As poet James Dickey wrote of Sexton's poems in his now famous review of To Bedlam and Part Way Back, "One feels tempted to drop them furtively into the nearest ashcan, rather than be caught with them in the presence of such naked suffering." Despite the limitations of Sexton's unabashed self-scrutiny, many critics discern profound archetypal motifs in her work, particularly allusions to the Oedipus myth in themes of incest and the relentless search for forbidden truth. Though Love Poems and Transformations were Sexton's best-selling and most popular volumes during her life, her critical reputation rests largely upon the poems of To Bedlam and Part Way Back, All My Pretty Ones, and Live or Die. Renowned for her heavily revised verse in earlier volumes, most critics note Sexton's declining artistic discipline in hastily composed later volumes such as The Book of Folly, The Death Notebooks, and The Awful Rowing Toward God. A celebrity and trenchant poetess whose frank discussion of sex and mental illness offered liberating honesty for many, Sexton remains among the most important female poets of her generation.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3208
SOURCE: "Seeking the Exit or the Home: Poetry and Salvation in the Career of Anne Sexton," in Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Indiana University Press, 1979, pp. 261-8.
[In the following essay, Juhasz explores Sexton's creative urge as both a curse and cathartic force in her life. Juhasz maintains that Sexton's dual identity as housewife and poet proved a source of inspiration and despair.]
If you are brought up to be a proper little girl in Boston, a little wild and boycrazy, a little less of a student and more of a flirt, and you run away from home to elope and become a proper Boston bride, a little given to extravagance and a little less to casseroles, but a proper bride nonetheless who turns into a proper housewife and mother, and if all along you know that there lives inside you a rat, a "gnawing pestilential rat," what will happen to you when you grow up? If you are Anne Sexton, you will keep on paying too much attention to the rat, will try to kill it, and yourself, become hospitalized, be called crazy. You will keep struggling to forget the rat and be the proper Boston housewife and mother you were raised to be. And into this struggle will come, as an act of grace, poetry, to save your life by giving you a role, a mission, a craft: an act, poetry, that is you but is not you, outside yourself. Words, that you can work and shape and that will stay there, black and true, while you do this, turn them into a poem, that you can send away to the world, a testimony of yourself. Words that will change the lives of those who read them and your own life, too. So that you can know that you are not only the wife and mother, not only the rat, but that you are the poet, a person who matters, who has money and fame and prizes and students and admirers and a name, Anne Sexton.
But what about the mother and wife, and what about the rat, when Anne Sexton becomes a poet? This essay is about the end of Sexton's career and poetry, and it looks at the role that her poems played in her life and in ours. It is a tale for our times, because it is also about what poetry can do for women and what it cannot do for women. Something we need to know.
Since the recent publication of Sexton's letters, there is now no doubt how conscious she was of the craft of poetry, of the work that it is, and how devoted she was to doing that work. "You will make it if you learn to revise," she wrote to an aspiring poet in 1965:
if you take your time, if you work your guts out on one poem for four months instead of just letting the miracle (as you must feel it) flow from the pen and then just leave it with the excuse that you are undisciplined.
Hell! I'm undisciplined too, in everything but my work … and the discipline the reworking the forging into being is the stuff of poetry….
In fact, for Sexton the poem existed as a measure of control, of discipline, for one whom she defined as "given to excess." "I have found that I can control it best in a poem," she says. "If the poem is good then it will have the excess under control … it is the core of the poem … there like stunted fruit, unseen but actual."
Yet the poem had another function in her life, the one which gives rise to that label "confessional," which has always dogged her work and is not usually complimentary. Her poetry is highly personal. She is either the overt or the implicit subject of her poem, and the she as subject is the person who anguishes, who struggles, who seems mired in the primary soil of living: the love/hate conflict with mother and father, the trauma of sex, the guilt of motherhood. The person in the poem is not the proper lady and mother and wife who is always trying her best to tidy up messes and cover them with a coating of polish and wax. Rather, it is the rat, a creature of nature rather than culture, who is crude and rude, "with its bellyful of dirt / and its hair seven inches long"; with its "two eyes full of poison / and routine pointed teeth." The rat person, with her "evil mouth" and "worried eyes," knows that living is something about which to worry: she sees and tells. In form her poem often follows a psychoanalytic model, as I have pointed out in an earlier essay, beginning in a present of immediate experience and probing into a past of personal relationships in order to understand the growth (and the damaging) of personality. As such, the poem for Sexton is an important agent in her quest for salvation: for a way out of the madness that the rat's vision engenders, a way that is not suicide.
Very early in her career, in "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further," she presents an aesthetics of personal poetry which is conscious that the poem, because it is an object that communicates and mediates between person and person, can offer "something special" for others as well as oneself.
I tapped my own head;
it was glass, an inverted bowl.
It is a small thing
to rage in your own bowl.
At first it was private.
Then it was more than myself;
it was you, or your house
or your kitchen.
And if you turn away
because there is no lesson here
I will hold my awkward bowl,
with all its cracked stars shining
like a complicated lie,
and fasten a new skin around it
as if I were dressing an orange
or a strange sun.
Not that it was beautiful,
but that I found some order there.
There ought to be something special
in this kind of hope.
In such poetry, she warns, there is no "lesson," no universal truth. What there is is the poem of herself, which, as she has made it, has achieved an order; that very order a kind of hope (a belief in salvation) that might be shared. The poem of herself is, however, not herself but a poem. The imagery of this poem attests to that fact, as it turns self into object, a bowl, an orange, a sun, while it turns the poem about self into a coating or covering that surrounds the self. The bowl is like a planet in a heaven of "cracked stars shining / like a complicated lie"; if he should turn from this poem, she promises to "fasten a new skin around" or "dress" her orange, that strange sun.
Of course Sexton was right when she said that there ought to be something special in that gesture her poems made toward others. People responded to her poetry because she had the courage to speak publicly of the most intimate of personal experiences, the ones so many share. She became a spokesperson for the secret domestic world and its pain. And her audience responded as strongly as it did, not only because of what she said but because of how she said it. She was often, although not always, a good poet, a skilled poet, whose words worked insight upon her subject matter and irradiated it with vision.
But what about herself, in the process? What did her poems do for her?
In a letter she speaks of the necessity for the writer to engage in a vulnerable way with experience.
I think that writers … must try not to avoid knowing what is happening. Everyone has somewhere the ability to mask the events of pain and sorrow, call it shock … when someone dies for instance you have this shock that carries you over it, makes it bearable. But the creative person must not use this mechanism anymore than they have to in order to keep breathing. Other people may. But not you, not us. Writing is "life" in capsule and the writer must feel every bump edge scratch ouch in order to know the real furniture of his capsule … I, myself, alternate between hiding behind my own hands protecting myself anyway possible, and this other, this seeing ouching other. I guess I mean that creative people must not avoid the pain that they get dealt. I say to myself, sometimes repeatedly "I've got to get the hell out of this hurt" … But no. Hurt must be examined like a plague.
The result of this program, as she says in a letter to W. D. Snodgrass, is writing "real." "Because that is the one thing that will save (and I do mean save) other people."
And yet the program is not only altruistic in intent. Personal salvation remains for her an equally urgent goal. As she writes in "The Children," from one of her last books, The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975):
The place I live in
is a kind of maze
and I keep seeking
the exit or the home.
In describing this position of vulnerability necessary for poetry, she tells Snodgrass that a poet must remain "the alien." In her vocabulary for herself, that alien is of course the rat. But there is a serious problem here, because Anne Sexton the woman (who is nonetheless the poet, too) does not like the rat. The existence of the rat obstructs salvation. In "Rowing," the opening poem of The Awful Rowing Toward God, salvation is described as an island toward which she journeys. This island, her goal, is "not perfect," having "the flaws of life, / the absurdities of the dinner table, / but there will be a door":
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside me.
the gnawing pestilential rat.
In the "Ninth Psalm" of her long poem, O Ye Tongues, an extended description of the state of salvation includes this vision: "For the rat was blessed on that mountain. He was given a white bath."
In other words, Sexton, recognizing at the age of twenty-eight her possession of a talent, turned her mad self to good work (and works): into a writer, an active rather than a passive agent. For she had defined madness as fundamentally passive and destructive in nature. "Madness is a waste of time. It creates nothing … nothing grows from it and you, meanwhile, only grow into it like a snail. Yet the rat who is the mad lady is also the poet. To have become a poet was surely an act toward salvation for Sexton. It gave her something to do with the knowledge that the rat possessed. Left to her silence, the rat kept seeing too much and therefore kept seeking "the exit." Words brought with them power, power to reach others. They gave her as well a social role, "the poet," that was liberating. Being the poet, who could make money with her poetry, who could be somebody of consequence in the public world, was an act that helped to alleviate some of the frustration, the impotence, the self-hatred that Sexton the woman experienced so powerfully in her life. The poet was good: how good she was Sexton, as teacher and reader and mentor, made a point of demonstrating.
But the rat was not good; in yet another image of self-identification, Sexton called that hated, evil, inner self a demon.
too often undressed,
too often a crucifix I bring forth,
too often a dead daisy I give water to
too often the child I give birth to
and then abort, nameless, nameless …
Oh demon within,
I am afraid and seldom put my hand up
to my mouth and stitch it up
covering you, smothering you
from the public voyeury eyes
of my typewriter keys.
These lines are from "Demon," which appears in her posthumous volume, 45 Mercy Street. The poem begins with an epigraph from D. H. Lawrence: "A young man is afraid of his demon and puts his hand over the demon's mouth sometimes." It goes on to show why the demon, though frightening, cannot be covered, smothered, or denied speech: because the demon, exposed, is at the center of her poetry. At the same time the poem, with its bitter repetition of "too often," reveals a hatred, not only of the demon, but of the act of uncovering and parading it. Of the act that is nonetheless essential to making the poem.
Finally, the poem's imagery points to a further aspect of the demon that is for Sexton perhaps the most terrible of all. The demon is crucifix, icon of salvation through death; is dead daisy for which the poem alone provides water; is child which, through the act of the poem, is both birthed and aborted. The demon may begin as something that lives within and is a part (albeit frightening and nasty) of herself; but the poem, in being written, turns the demon into an object separate and alien from herself. This disassociation, this conversion of self into other, is as distressing to Sexton as the self-hatred that she must experience each time she acknowledges the existence of the demon or the rat. Because, as "Demon" makes clear, the self as object, the self in the poem, is dead. To use the self in making poems is to lose the self, for the poem is never the experience that produces it. The poem is always an artifice, as she herself observes in another poem from 45 Mercy Street, "Talking to Sheep":
in my middle age,
I'm well aware
I keep making statues
of my acts, carving them with my sleep—
The poems can never offer personal salvation for their poet, and she has come to understand why. First, because she defines salvation as a life freed at last from the rat and her pain ("I would sell my life to avoid / the pain that begins in the crib / with its bars or perhaps / with your first breath"), and yet she cannot kill the rat without killing the vision that is the source of her poetry. Second, because the poems themselves are a kind of suicide. She knows that poetry must be craft as well as vision; that the very act of crafting objectifies the poem's content. What has lived within her, externalized and formalized by art, becomes something other than herself; is form but not flesh.
She expresses this new knowledge in the only way she knows, by making poetry of it. In poems like those quoted, or in the following lines from "Cigarettes and Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women," the other side of "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further" is revealed: the implications of this aesthetic of personal poetry for the poet herself.
Now that I have written many words,
and let out so many loves, for so many,
and been altogether what I always was—
a woman of excess, of zeal and greed,
I find the effort useless.
Do I not look in the mirror,
and see a drunken rat avert her eyes?
Do I not feel the hunger so acutely
that I would rather die than look
into its face?
I kneel once more,
in case mercy should come
in the nick of time.
In an earlier essay on Sexton I maintained that poetry had saved her from suicide. It did, for the years in which she wrote and was the poet. But it is equally true that poetry could not prevent her death, "the exit," because it could not bring her to salvation, "the home."
For Sexton, salvation would have meant sanity: peace rather than perpetual conflict, integration rather than perpetual fragmentation. Sanity would have meant vanquishing at last her crazy bad evil gnawing self, the rat, the demon. Yet the rat was, at the same time, the source of her art. Its anxious visions needed to be nurtured so that she might be a poet. Sanity might bring peace to the woman, but it would destroy the poet. And it was not the woman, who made the peanut butter sandwiches and the marriage bed, whom Sexton liked. It was the poet. The discipline of her craft and the admiration, respect, and power that it brought allowed her to feel good about herself. That the woman and the poet were different "selves," and in conflict with each other, she was well aware. "I do not live a poet's life. I look and act like a housewife," she wrote. "I live the wrong life for the person I am." Although this fragmentation of roles wrought conflict and confusion, it nonetheless made possible the kind of poetry that Sexton wrote. But more and more in her final years she seemed to have come to despise the balancing act itself, demanding all or, finally, nothing.
Perhaps the kind of salvation that Sexton sought was unattainable, because its very terms had become so contradictory. Certainly, her poetry could not offer it. In poetry she could make verbal and public what she knew about her private self; she could shape this knowledge, control it, give it a form that made it accessible to others. But she could not write what she did not know, so that while her poems document all the rat has seen, they never offer an alternative vision. They are always too "close" to herself for that. And they are at the same time too far from her. By creating through externalization and formalization yet another self with which to deal, her poetry increased her sense of self-fragmentation in the midst of her struggle toward wholeness.
Yet Sexton's poetry has offered salvation to others. Personal poetry of this kind, a genre that many women, in their search for self-understanding and that same elusive wholeness, have recently adopted, must be understood to have a different function for its readers and for its writers. Art as therapy appears less profitable for the artist, who gives the gift of herself, than for its recipients. I think that I can learn from Sexton's poems as she never could. They project a life that is like my own in important ways; I associate my feelings with hers, and the sense of a shared privacy is illuminating. At the same time, they are not my life; their distance from me permits a degree of objectivity, the ability to analyze as well as empathize. Possibly I can use the insights produced by such a process to further change in my own life. For the artist, however, because the distance between herself and the poem is at once much closer and much greater, it is more difficult, perhaps impossible, to use the poem in this way. Salvation for the artist must come, ultimately, from developing a life that operates out of tensions which are creative rather than destructive. Sexton's life, art, and death exemplify some of the difficulties faced by women artists in achieving this goal and also dramatically underline the necessity of overcoming them.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3562
SOURCE: "Anne Sexton's Love Poems: The Genre and the Differences," in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 10, 1980, pp. 58-68.
[In the following essay, Shurr discusses the composition and central motifs of Love Poems. According to Shurr, in Love Poems Sexton "merges the possibility of the ancient genre of erotic love poetry with the immediacy of modern experience."]
At least half of Anne Sexton's published volumes of poetry show a tight unity of construction. Though virtually all of the poems were published separately in various periodicals, and thus each can stand by itself as a complete poem, in the collections they are brought into programmatic relation to one another. This is most obvious in Transformations, where the subjects are all known fairy tales and the speaker and the format of presentation is in every case the same. But study of Love Poems, The Death Notebooks, and The Awful Rowing Toward God—and, to a lesser extent, Live or Die—can uncover a similar continuity of experience. In the remaining volumes the reader finds suites of poems in which each can be taken separately but which yield a still "higher" synthesis when taken together.
Love Poems (1969) is more than simply a collection of love poems; it is the record of a love affair which, as it is presented in the volume, lasted about four years. As shaped in the volume the experience was characterized by intense moments which the lovers had together as well as frequent separations, and it finally ended definitively. One senses in Love Poems a conscious attempt to isolate the experience from all others, to shape it into a unity and present the stages of its evolution as typical. A clue to Sexton's intention in shaping the collection is the forcefully suggestive passage from Yeats with which she introduced it:
One should say before sleeping, "I have
lived many lives. I have been a slave and a
prince. Many a beloved has sat upon my knees
and I have sat upon the knees of many a beloved.
Everything that has been shall be again."
What we are to make of this is perhaps that Sexton is searching for essential contours, for a pattern of events that is repeatable and has been repeated a billion times in human history. Any collection of love poetry, or any suite of love poems, celebrates essentially the same sequence: the fascination, the awakening, the consummation, the celebration, the love-sickness in absence, the parting and the end of the affair: "everything that has been shall be again." But so intensely lived is the experience that it seems to the lovers that it must be their unique experience alone; John Donne would persuade us that no other lovers had ever existed, that he exists as priest to unfold the wonders of this experience to the laity, gradually, according to their ability to understand. As Sexton introduces her poems, through the quotation from Yeats, she would interpret the genre to us as one in which we may appreciate again the universal moments in the experience and look as well for her own personal heightenings and insights.
By far the most highly dramatized moment of the collection, and the most intensely erotic, is the poem which celebrates "That Day." The poem has some elements of the medieval alba: reliving the experience and celebrating its stages in lavish detail, praising the lover's beauty (here, the details of the erection which she herself has manipulated), the union, and watching over the lover's sleep afterward. In the Troubadours, the sexual reward is the Lady's "gift," and Sexton rewrites and modernizes the tradition. "I bore gifts for your gift." Also in medieval love poetry, one finds the convention of the lovers' prayer to avoid the excesses of the unfortunate lovers of old. Medea is mentioned, and more frequently Dido, the Queen of Carthage who wanted to marry Aeneas even though she knew the Fates had decreed another wife for him, who begged at least to have a child by him as a permanent reminder of their love, and who finally committed suicide. Sexton's prayer, against this background, is chilling:
Then I knew you in your dream and prayed of our time
that I would be pierced and you would take root in me
and that I might bring forth your born, might bear
the you or the ghost of you in my little household.
The lovely eroticism of "That Day" is further heightened, interpreted, by its own framework. The typical dawn setting of the alba has been displaced. The experience of "That Day" is recounted the next day; the beloved is absent. In his place, quite literally where he had been, the mechanical typewriter is now in her hands. The end is foreseen and her aloneness frames the poem. The last lines read: "but this is the typewriter that sits before me and love is where yesterday is at."
"That Day" is the fifth poem of the collection and is preceded by three poems of preparation: the awakening of "The Hand," which will touch the beloved for the first time; the awakening of "The Kiss," which suddenly becomes adult, erotic; the awakening of "The Breast," which finds its best function in giving and receiving pleasure, in mothering the lover. What is perceived and repeated in each of these poems is the transition to a higher plane of being, the unfolding of a different function and a different kind of experience. The consummation of these preparations in "That Day" is then orchestrated with a powerful unleashing of new emotional forces. Some of Sexton's most striking lines appear in these three poems. In a vivid image she describes the hand, before its awakening, as "sealed off / in a tin box." An image of transformation at the end of "The Kiss" arrests the attention: "Darling, the composer has stepped / into fire." In each case the suspension caused by the enjambement adds to the effect. Where the musical suggestion is here Wagnerian, it becomes playful in the next poem, "The Breast," where she describes her previously childish body as "A xylophone maybe with skin stretched over it awkwardly."
The natural flow, however, seems arrested by the difficult fourth poem in this initial group of five. It is called "The Interrogation Of The Man Of Many Hearts." It interrupts the continuity of the three preparatory poems with the following fulfillment poem. While the attention it requires seems to break the erotic line of development, it nevertheless clearly defines the situation of the affair and states themes which develop later as the painful dimension of the experience. It is as if Sexton were deliberately interrupting the pleasant expectations of the reader, to insist on the full reality of the matter.
"The Interrogation Of The Man Of Many Hearts" probes the psychology of the male, who obviously enjoys the sexual experience with the interrogating woman, but who will inevitably rest in a more permanent married relationship with another woman. His instinct to marry another is not entirely reasonable. He acknowledges that
She's my real witch, my fork, my mare,
my mother of tears, my skirtful of hell,
the stamp of my sorrows, the stamp of my bruises …
But still, he says, "I'm caught deep in the dye of her." The poem is a sequence of questions from the woman, with answers from the man. Once again the tradition of medieval love poetry comes to mind. Andreas Capellanus states that, among the rules for Courtly Love marriage is actually an impediment to romantic love; the experience is heightened to its fullest only by the excitement of being extramarital, adulterous. Still another poetic technique of the Troubadours, the conversation between the lovers, the alternating debat between the man and the woman, is embodied in these lines.
The woman is sympathetically aware of the compulsive drives of the male. He admits that his polygamous instincts conflict with her essentially monogamous needs; what is a temporary need for him is permanent need for her:
I have not only bedded her down.
I have tied her down with a knot.
Sexton leads the reader through the nuances of reality, deeply felt and rendered with clear verbal intelligence. The wisdom she retrieves from this painful interrogation is the fact of the mutability of all experience, an ancient piece of wisdom traceable through Spenser and Boethius back to Ecclesiastes. Whether sanctioned by society and traditions or not, the final lesson of human experience is the same:
and every bed has been condemned
not by morality or law,
but by time
Insertion of "The Interrogation Of The Man Of Many Hearts" at this point in the collection—between the awakening poems and the consummation poem—immediately elevates the meditations to a plane of high seriousness, from erotic romance to profound realism.
The rest of the poems in Love Poems are in fact rays from this initial cluster. A second sequence can be discerned in which the subject is the sexual awakening of the woman. "Song For A Red Nightgown" is the lightly humorous attempt at a precise description of a woman's night dress, the costume that signals the change from caterpillar to butterfly: "the butterfly owns her now." In another poem, "It Is A Spring Afternoon," the girl senses the change of seasons as parallel to her own profound and silent maturing. She falls in love with her new body, "her animal loveliness," in a series of healing and healthy images:
Because of this
the ground, that winter nightmare,
has cured its sores and burst
with green birds and vitamins.
Because of this
the trees turn in their trenches
and hold up little rain cups
by their slender fingers.
Because of this
a woman stands by her stove
singing and cooking flowers.
Everything here is yellow and green.
The swiftness and completeness of the transition is expressed in diction borrowed from Robert Frost's poem, "For Once, Then, Something":
The face of the child wrinkles
in the water and is gone forever.
The most striking of these "awakening" poems appears at the beginning of the sequence and bears the flagrant title "In Celebration Of My Uterus." The poem fits into the collection only because of the context there. It derives, actually, as the opening lines make clear, from the medical problem Sexton had in 1959, when she feared that she had cancer, the disease from which her mother had recently died. The diagnosis and operation, however, disclosed only a benign tumor which was removed. The event itself was described in clinical detail in the poem called "The Operation" from All My Pretty Ones (1962). But, while the event itself happened several years before the affair began (as dated in Love Poems), still we may judge that this celebration of her womanly sexuality, where "each cell has a life," has been successfully inserted into its present place in the volume. The poem has been noticed by others, and while it may not be her strongest one there are elements in it that suggest a further respect for Anne Sexton's poetry as a whole. From this point of view, the Whitmanesque diction of the poem assumes primary importance. She invents a twelve-item catalogue, for example, of typical women; toward the end of the poem, the same phrase "Let me …" introduces eight separate lines of rhythmically parallel syntax; further, the Whitmanesque word "sing" and its variations occur prominently some half-dozen times, as does Whitman's divine "I am" phrase. Where Whitman celebrates the phallus, Sexton assumes the role of female counterpart, celebrating the uterus. There are reasons for seeing Sexton in the tradition of Whitman; she creates a female singer of the Self to match his male persona.
A third sequence of poems can be discerned later in the volume, celebrating the affair at its height. Leaving open the possibility that other poems and parts of poems touch the same subject, we can list the following as poems which follow without interruption in this sequence: "Now," "Us," "Mr. Mine," "Song For A Lady," and "Knee Song." The poems are characterized by innocence and spontaneity, by the security that the moment of love is eternal. In such a situation, play is the characteristic activity: "We are here on a raft, exiled from dust." The motifs rise to a high point in the final poem, where Molly Bloom's soliloquy is mined for dramatic effect: "Yes oh yes yes yes … yes yes yes." The poems are lovely as erotic celebration. The sensual details are fresh and moving. "Song For A Lady" is a small gem of a song intricately rhymed. But even within this sequence can be heard time's winged chariot, which chills all lovers. Crystalized in a unique trope, this startling image is her version of the carpe diem theme:
The shoemaker will come and he will rebuild
this room. He will lie on your bed
and urinate and nothing will exist.
Now is the time. Now!
This suggests the theme of a fourth discernible sequence in Love Poems, a series of poems on the bitter aftermath of the affair. Once again, Sexton's placement of the poems is telling. Actually, this series comes third among the four sequences I have been suggesting, after the awakening poems and immediately before the fulfillment poems just described. It is as if Sexton would mold our responses to a harsh reality, as she had in the opening sequence of five poems: the most intense sensual pleasures are the most compelling reminders of our temporariness. It is as if Sexton were holding herself to the fire to find all the wisdom she could in a moment that was as transitory as it was beautiful. The poems that follow without interruption in this sequence are "Just Once," "Again And Again And Again," "You All Know The Story Of The Other Woman," and "Moon Song, Woman Song," The sequence is ended by the powerful "Ballad Of The Lonely Masturbator."
The first poem, which was actually written and published several years earlier, describes the affair as definitely over and ends with the irony that "these constants" are now "gone." The following poems are filled with bitterness: a frog "sits on my lips and defecates"; "the blackness is murderous"; she senses herself as having been used and abandoned; all lovers are "full of lies. / They are eating each other." On first reading, it is perhaps "The Ballad Of The Lonely Masturbator" which strikes the reader as most original, but the poem that precedes it may have profounder rewards. "Moon Song, Woman Song" is a meditation into the ancient archetype of the moon as woman, virgin, goddess, the betrayed lover. The poem sets the speech in the mouth of the moon:
I have been oranging and fat,
carrot colored, gaped at,
allowing my cracked o's to drop on the sea …
The male is present in the poem as violator, "tall in your battle dress." The opposition of figures is ancient and worth considering again, but for this most recent version of the story Sexton suggests a modern context that strikingly authenticates the perennial applicability of the archetypal story. The male is lightly suggested as astronaut by the phrases "coverall man" and "blast off," and the moon passively awaits still another rough assault from him. The poem ends with a further insight; the ends of the male and the female are eternally unreconcilable: for him she is only "headquarters of an area," whereas she sees herself as "house of a dream."
Tight as the generic unity is, two poems seem to resist inclusion in Love Poems. The first is called "The Break," and since it follows "For My Lover, Returning To His Wife," the title suggests a smooth sequence of events. But the poem is an account of the broken hip she actually suffered from an accidental fall downstairs, on November 9, 1966. The fall and the subsequent operation were to leave her a virtual invalid for nearly a year. The muses of poetry were handing her difficult materials to transmute into a series of love poems. But poetry has rules that are different from those of biography and another careful reading is required for signs of Sexton's intention in placing the poem here. A key phrase appears: "I'm Ethan Frome's wife,' and the reader recalls the end of Edith Wharton's story, where the two intense lovers are crippled and embittered finally, with the betrayed wife left to move them around at whim. The poem then suggests guilt and the fear of retribution, of poetic justice: a broken hip is the "right" punishment for an adulterous relationship. An earlier allusion, to Icarus, in line 13 confirms this suggestion of poetic justice. Congruent with this point of entry is the contrast, developed throughout the poem, between the broken hip and the broken heart. The poem begins, "It was also my violent heart that broke"; it ends with the acceptance of reality of her situation, the broken hip and "the violent heart." Her final comment draws on the phrase from the New Testament (John 2:17) to summarize her situation: "The zeal / of my house doth cat me up"—the driving energies of the violent heart have somehow resulted in the crack-up of the body. The seven other references to "heart" in this poem confirm the connection. The heart, "old hunger motor," "thought it could call all the shots." "The heart burst with love and lost its breath." With some problems, then, the poem inserts itself within the thematic patterns of Love Poems, suggesting that the love is a guilty one, that such overreaching cannot long escape the notice of the gods. If this is the intent of the poem, as it finds its place in Love Poems, then two lines in the third stanza arrest the attention:
Yes, I was like a box of dog bones.
But now they've wrapped me in like a nun.
In the last collection of poems she was to see through the press, The Awful Rowing Toward God, her love becomes a mystical love for the divine; her use of "Ms. Dog" indicates some marital relation to its reverse, "God." The lines above suggest some earlier beginning of this perception; the failure of human love isolates her for the divine.
The second poem which resists inclusion into the unity of Love Poems is "The Papa And Mama Dance." The poem is the recollection of a fictional brother and herself, as children, dressing in their parents' old clothes, and engaging in some intensely incestuous behavior. Sexton had no brother and the fantasy is the same as those found in other volumes of her poetry, in "To Johnny Pole On The Forgotten Beach" in To Bedlam And Part Way Back (1960), and in the Christopher poems in The Death Notebooks (1974). These poems, including the present one, are like the other moments when Sexton manufactures "autobiography" for the more intense personalization of her experiences. While "The Papa And Mama Dance," then, seems to come from another corner of the poet's mind, it is worth recalling that the convention of lovers pretending to be brother and sister, to heighten the erotic intimacy of the relationship, is at least as old as the Song of Solomon. There is, in addition, another detail which ties this poem to the present collection. It begins with the sister criticizing the brother for not burning his draft card, for going off to war instead. In the concluding sequence of the book, the poem "December 9th," she complains to her lover:
Two years ago, Reservist,
you would have burned
your draft card …
This poem as well, then, has multiple ties to the collection in which it appears.
An early reviewer of Love Poems complained that the volume seemed to him to suffer from hasty construction, and that "most of the poems seem to have been written far too quickly, as if she were rather nervous of overcooking emotional raw material." It can be argued, however, that just the opposite is true, that the materials of the collection are quite cooled, quite thoroughly manipulated and artistically arranged, that the impression of raw emotion was precisely the one the poet was eager to convey. For example, the reader of Linda Gray Sexton's book, Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters, comes to realize that two poems, "The Nude Swim" and "Loving the Killer," derive their setting and quite likely their personae from Anne's European trips with her husband. Still another poem, "Just Once," fits the composite picture of Love Poems perfectly, but it was first published in 1958, several years before the affair began according to the internal datings of the volume. The raw experience has been cooked here quite thoroughly. Sexton had a talent for "pseudobiography," for the presentation of her poems as if they were raw emotional experiences. What embarrassed some early critics even as unsanctionable invasion of her own privacy turned out, at least at times, to be an intense fictional realism, the inventive talent of the poet-storyteller.
Love Poems, then, merges the possibilities of the ancient genre of erotic love poetry with the immediacy of modern experience. The contours of the genre which Sexton has emphasized are the awakening, the experience, the enjoyment and celebration of love, with the bitter aftermath of the definitive break as the controlling context for the whole. Individual poems are alive with a pulse of their own; the cool, ironic encadrement is the timeless theme of Mutability.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 123
To Bedlam and Part Way Back (poetry) 1960
All My Pretty Ones (poetry) 1962
Eggs of Things [with Maxine Kumin] (juvenilia) 1963
More Eggs of Things [with Maxine Kumin] (juvenilia) 1964
Selected Poems (poetry) 1964
Live or Die (poetry) 1966
Love Poems (poetry) 1969
Mercy Street (drama) 1969
Joey and the Birthday Present [with Maxine Kumin] (juvenilia) 1971
Transformations (poetry) 1971
The Book of Folly (poetry) 1972
O Ye Tongues (poetry) 1973
The Death Notebooks (poetry) 1974
The Awful Rowing Toward God (poetry) 1975
The Wizard's Tears [with Maxine Kumin] (juvenilia) 1975
45 Mercy Street (poetry) 1976
Anne Sexton: A Self Portrait in Letters (correspondence) 1977
Words for Dr. Y: Uncollected Poems with Three Stories (poetry and short stories) 1978
The Complete Poems (poetry) 1981
No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Prose (essays, interviews, and prose) 1985
Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (poetry) 1988
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6714
SOURCE: "Housewife into Poet: The Apprenticeship of Anne Sexton," in New England Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 4, December, 1983, pp. 483-503.
[In the following essay, Middlebrook examines Sexton's artistic development from suburban mother to celebrated poet, focusing on the significance of her literary mentors, particularly her relationship with John Holmes.]
In April 1960, Anne Sexton for the first time wrote "poet" rather than "housewife" in the "occupation" block of her income tax return. Married since 1948, mother of two daughters, Sexton had been publishing poetry for three years. The change in her status as citizen was significant for Sexton and for American literature. No poet before her had written so frankly of the female realm of family life, nor of its pathologies. And few poets, women or men, achieved success so expeditiously: nine years from drafting her first poem to being awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Sexton's unprecedented metamorphosis from suburban housewife into major poet appears, at first glance, a fairy tale. The real interest of its improbability, though, lies in Sexton's exemplary struggle against two seemingly unrelated handicaps: that of being a suburban wife and mother without a college education and that of being, at recurring intervals, certifiably mad. At age twenty-eight, Anne Sexton quite unexpectedly began turning herself into an artist. During the years of her apprenticeship, in which she produced two highly regarded books, Sexton's good fortune included working with several established younger poets—W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, James Wright—who immediately recognized her originality and with the Boston poet-teacher John Holmes, who censured it. Friend and adversary, Holmes measured Sexton's work by the literary standards and conventions of an older generation. The chronicle of their relationship provides numerous insights into the development of Sexton's self-awareness as an artist.
I. 1956–57: Discovering "Language"
Sexton began writing poetry at home. Following her hospitalization for suicidal depressiveness in 1956, Sexton's two young children had been removed to the care of grandmothers; Sexton found herself with no occupation but psychotherapy and convalescence. Her doctor suggested that she use her free time to improve her education. "One night I saw I. A. Richards on educational television reading a sonnet and explaining its form," she told an interviewer. "I thought to myself, 'I could do that, maybe; I could try.' So I sat down and wrote a sonnet. The next day I wrote another one, and so forth." She measured progress by changes in the furniture supporting her work. At first she used a card table "because I didn't think I was a poet. When I put in a desk, it was in our dining room. […] Then I put up some book shelves—everything was tentative."
This "tentative" rearrangement of the household was symbolic of Sexton's changed relation to domestic life in 1957. Postpartum depression following the birth of Sexton's first daughter, Linda, led in 1954 to her first psychiatric hospitalization. On her own birthday in 1956 she had made the first of many suicide attempts. And though family members were initially reluctant to acknowledge how serious Sexton's psychological problems had become, they were generous with support once she entered regular treatment. Husband Kayo's father, George Sexton, paid for Sexton's psychotherapy; after Sexton's second major breakdown, in 1955, Kayo's mother took infant Joy into her home for three years, while Anne's sister Blanche periodically cared for Linda. Anne's mother, Mary Gray, paid for regular housekeeping, and Kayo took over the shopping and cooking when Anne could not manage.
Working alone at home, free from other responsibilities. Sexton found writing an effective therapy. "My doctor encouraged me to write more. 'Don't kill yourself,' he said. 'Your poems might mean something to someone else someday.' That gave me a feeling of purpose, a little cause, something to do with my life." "I was quite naive. I thought he knew everything. Of course, he wouldn't know a good poem from a bad poem, but luckily I didn't think of that."
Sexton marked her development as a poet, rather than convalescing mental patient, from the evening she enrolled in a poetry workshop offered by the Boston Center for Adult Education. The teacher was John Holmes, a member of the senior faculty at Tufts University, who supplemented his income by offering instruction in writing to the "nontraditional" types who enroll in adult education courses. Holmes was warm and unintimidating as a teacher. What Sexton derived from the class, however, was not simply how to tell a good poem from a bad poem. Attempting to characterize this period of her life for an interviewer, Sexton drew an analogy between Holmes's poetry class and the mental hospital.
I started in the middle of the term, very shy, writing very bad poems, solemnly handing them in for the eighteen others in the class to hear. The most important aspect of that class was that I felt I belonged somewhere. When I first got sick and became a displaced person, I thought I was quite alone, but when I went into the mental hospital, I found I wasn't, that there were other people like me. It made me feel better—more real, sane. I felt, "These are my people." Well, at the John Holmes class that I attended for two years, I found I belonged to the poets, that I was real there, and I had another, "These are my people."
Working out the implications of this association between the hospital and class provides a way of understanding some of the social significance of Sexton's art.
Until diagnosed as mentally ill, Sexton had been regarded by her exasperated family as childish, selfish, incompetent. Her mother-in-law remembered the shock with which she first watched Sexton throw herself, pounding and screaming, on the floor because she was enraged at being asked to do an errand. Later, Sexton's anger sometimes threatened the safety of her young children; Linda Sexton indicates that the poem "Red Roses" (in the posthumously published 45 Mercy Street) recreates such an incident. But in the hospital, removed from the dynamics of family life, Sexton assumed another identity. As a madwoman she was a member of a distinct social class. Even the forms of her suffering, symptomatic of the disease she embodied, were not unique but generic. Most important for her later development, in the hospital she was given a hearing by therapists trained to decode her symptoms and clarify their function in her life. And she found herself in a social group that used language in a special way, to communicate indirectly.
Years after this first hospitalization, Sexton described the discovery—"I thought I was quite alone, but […] I found I wasn't—to a psychiatrist friend:
It is hard to define. When I was first sick I was thrilled […] to get into the Nut House. At first, of course, I was just scared and crying and very quiet (who me!) but then I found this girl (very crazy of course) (like me I guess) who talked language. What a relief! I mean, well … someone! And then later, a while later, and quite a while. I found out that [Dr.] Martin talked language.[…] By the way, [husband] Kayo has never once understood one word of language.
By "language," Sexton seems to mean forms of speech in which meaning is condensed and indirect and where breaks and gaps demand as much interpretation as what is voiced. Schizophrenics use language this way, and so do poets: "figurative language" is the term Sexton might have used here, except she meant to indicate that the crucible of formation was urgent need. Being permitted to communicate in "language" made her feel "real"—unlike the speech transactions of family life, which made her feel doll-like:
Someone pretends with me—
I am walled in solid by their noise—
or puts me upon their straight bed.
They think I am me!
Their warmth is not a friend!
They pry my mouth for their cups of gin
and their stale bread.
Psychotherapy following hospitalization, further developing the sense of liberation achieved in the hospital, provided Sexton with a form of education. Intensive scrutiny of her illness introduced her, haphazardly but usefully, to the theory of psychoanalysis, techniques of association, and an arena in which to display her verbal cunning. Equally important, it freed her from confinement in the family. Demonstrably unfit for the occupation of housewife and mother, Sexton turned to other work. And because she had the good fortune to live in Greater Boston, she found her way, merely by enrolling, into another social group that spoke "language": "I found I belonged to the poets, that I was real there."
Boston in the late 1950s was full of poets. "Being a 'poet' in Boston is not so difficult," Anne Sexton wrote Carolyn Kizer in February 1959, "except there are hoards of us living here. The place is jammed with good writers." Such abundance offered numerous advantages to the apprentice. Many well-known writers taught workshops that carried no academic prerequisites. In few places outside Boston might a professor of poetry like I. A. Richards have found an audience for lectures on the sonnet, or a TV station to air them. Both the teacher and Sexton's fellow students at the Boston Center for Adult Education reflected the exceptional literacy of Greater Boston. In John Holmes's class Sexton met Maxine Kumin, a Radcliffe graduate who had decided after some years of motherhood to return to serious writing. Kumin's career was to flourish in tandem with Sexton's, each eventually receiving the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
It was part of Sexton's transformative good luck, I think, that she found both the instruction and, later, the academic credentials she needed without passing through the advantaged but in important ways—for poets—repressive educational systems that shaped the early work of her Boston cohorts, Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath. Rigorous academic training of the period led young poets to imitate the masters of the British tradition, particularly the metaphysical poets and the intensely intellectual modernists. The early writings of both Plath and Rich indicate that they were excellent students, striving for correctness in these modes. As strong poets, and like men who became strong poets under the same academic influences, Plath and Rich survived this academic phase by growing out of it; in their characteristic mature work, the mannerisms of their early models have disappeared. In the realm of the university, however, not only were their literary models intellectual men, but their teachers and lovers were too, and the best women students tended to marry them and then vanish into the underclass of academic life.
Sexton avoided this common predicament of her contemporaries, paradoxically, by marrying young. Having no further academic ambitions after finishing high school, she went on to the Garland School in Boston, where girls were taught home management. She eloped within a few months. Her struggles to mature during the early years of marriage and motherhood took place almost completely within an extended family; her husband was frequently absent on business, and both parents and in-laws were important, frequently intrusive, presences. The illnesses from which she suffered throughout her adult life burgeoned in this context of censorious parental scrutiny. Problematic as her family relations were, however, they formed a different universe of concern from the one she entered as an apprentice to poetry and did not impede her development once she found her way out of the house. She turned from sufferer into poet, a social role different altogether.
II. 1958–59: Becoming Visible
Transforming the insights won in therapy into the poetry she wrote between 1958 and 1960, Sexton was like the miller's daughter, in her own poem "Rumpelstiltskin," who acquires the gift of spinning straw into gold. Developing this gift took about three years. From the time she enrolled in John Holmes's course at the Adult Education Center, Sexton worked hard at learning the craft. The day following the first class meeting, Maxine Kumin ran into Sexton at the Newton public library, where Sexton was trying to locate the contemporary poetry shelves. Here began a collaboration that was to last until Sexton's suicide. Kumin knew her way around a library but, like Sexton, initially felt intimidated by the literary world. Two housewives, they pooled cars and other resources, converted house and garden into workspace, and conducted an ongoing informal seminar in the craft of poetry over the telephone.
Sexton and Kumin were apprentices together, but Kumin possessed credentials Sexton had to acquire another way. Following the Boston Center course, Sexton spent several weeks during the summer of 1958 at the Antioch College Writer's Conference. Attracted by the poem "Heart's Needle," she went expressly to work with W. D. Snodgrass. This peculiarly American institution—the writer's workshop, the writer's conference—suited Sexton because it assumed no common denominator but a gift (or the delusion of a gift) and provided the valuable attention of professionals. Working with Snodgrass at Antioch was decisive. Sexton was already quite a capable writer; under Snodgrass she began to abandon certain of the conventions she had picked up in the poetry workshop—such as attaching the poem to an elevating literary allusion or founding the poem on an abstraction. "Heart's Needle," a poem about Snodgrass's separation from his daughter through divorce, came at a moment when American poetry had grown dull and academic. The poem had a large impact on Robert Lowell, for one, who said "Heart's Needle" had encouraged the production of his Life Studies. Snodgrass's influence on Sexton is visible in two of the finest poems of To Bedlam, "Unknown Girl in a Maternity Ward" and "The Double Image"—poems that raise troubled questions about the relation of mother to child. Whereas Lowell had taken from Snodgrass courage to write about the general anguish of family life, Sexton grasped in his model license to explore her sickness as it pertained to her roles as daughter and mother. Working with Snodgrass, Sexton acquired the distinctive voice of her early poetry.
Back in the Boston suburbs with a cache of new manuscripts and encouragement from Snodgrass, Sexton was accepted by Robert Lowell in September 1958 to audit his graduate writing seminar at Boston University. George Starbuck and Sylvia Plath joined this class in the winter. The three—Sexton, Starbuck, Plath—formed an intense triangle whose emotional dynamics are encoded in Sylvia Plath's journal from the period and in Sexton's hilarious and tender memorial essay to Plath, "The Barfly Ought to Sing."
Within a year from her first session in a poetry workshop, then, Sexton had acquired enviable visibility and respect in the poetry world. She did so by working demonically. "She would willingly push a poem through twenty or more drafts." Maxine Kumin remembers. "She had an unparalleled tenacity in those early days." Despite an acute personal shyness, she also became an active self-promoter: cultivating contacts shamelessly; submitting poems anywhere she could expect editorial advice, if not publication; accepting profuse invitations to give public readings. During 1958–59, Sexton lost both her parents, within months of each other, to severe illnesses, and was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment several times herself. Nonetheless, she continued the discipline of long days at the typewriter and regular meetings with groups of poets in which she tested her developing skills.
At least as important as the Lowell class was Sexton's participation in the meetings John Holmes convened in the fall of 1958 to continue working with his star poets from the Boston Center, Sexton, Kumin, and Sam Albert. George Starbuck also joined the group. After Starbuck's departure for Italy in September 1961, the workshop had a shifting population of visitors, but until then it was a remarkably stable collective. Altogether, what came to be known as "the John Holmes workshop" met for three and one-half years, twice monthly until Holmes died of cancer in 1962. During this time Sexton, Kumin, and Starbuck produced widely noticed first books, and Holmes brought out The Fortune Teller, nominated for a National Book Award in 1962. Most of the poems in these four books had been "workshopped" into shape during long evening sessions at one or another of the participants' homes.
The structure of the workshop was informal: each poet in turn became first among equals as a poem was dissected and interrogated. Holmes, however, assigned himself the presiding role. He was senior in age; he also held a respectable position in the literary establishment peculiar to Boston. President of the New England Poetry Club, for a time poetry critic at the Boston Evening Transcript, anthologist and teacher of poetry. Holmes eventually received appointment to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; but his writing had an old-fashioned quality, an Arnoldian judiciousness that made him an odd contemporary for the younger writers.
With Maxine Kumin and George Starbuck, Holmes was confiding and affectionate; he squired them around to meet other literary people and proposed them for teaching positions. Sexton, however, set his teeth on edge. In life as in art, Sexton possessed a commanding physical presence. Photographs from one of the workshop evenings show her sitting on the floor, a glamour girl with long legs extended, her bright red lipstick and sweater in startling contrast to the subdued coloration of her companions. When the workshop met in the Holmes's living room, Holmes's widow Doris Eyges remembers, Sexton's raucous cries penetrated to the upstairs study: "YOU'VE GOT TO HEAR THIS! IT WORKS! IT WORKS!—FANTASTIC!" The loud voice demanded and got a large share of the group's attention. Too much, Holmes grumbled to Maxine Kumin: Anne "is on my mind unpleasantly too much of the time between our workshops.[…] I'm impatient with her endless demands."
III. 1959–61: Sexton and the Censor
During her years of apprenticeship, Sexton was to have two deeply significant confrontations with John Holmes, whose role in her life was, I believe, to disclose to her, in opposing him, her definitive strengths as a poet. The first conflict occurred in February 1959. Writing several poems a week and opening them for discussion both in the workshop and in Lowell's class, Sexton had amassed enough material to consider compiling a book. When she submitted a preliminary version for Holmes's criticism, his response revealed that his differences with her went far deeper than the mild offense his personal standoffishness had communicated.
Like a good teacher, Holmes began his critique on a positive note: "It's a book, all right, well put together." Next he suggested a change in the proposed title, for marketing reasons: "I really think booksellers and publishers would be wary." Then he went on to give the full substance of his advice, a view he had been holding silently since their earliest days of working together.
I distrust the very source and subject of a great many of your poems, namely, all those that describe and dwell on your time in the hospital. […] I am uneasy […] that what looks like a brilliant beginning might turn out to be so self-centered and so narrowed a diary that it would be clinical only.
Something about asserting the hospital and psychiatric experience seems to me very selfish—all a forcing others to listen to you, and nothing given the listeners, nothing that teaches them or helps them. […] It bothers me that you use poetry this way. It's all a release for you, but what is it for anyone else except a spectacle of someone experiencing release? […]
Don't publish it in a book. You'll certainly outgrow it. and become another person, then this record will haunt and hurt you. It will even haunt and hurt your children, years from now. [8 February 1959]
Sexton's first response was a rattled letter she drafted but did not send. ("Of course I love you. […] From true poets I want truth. Anything else would prove us unreal, after all. Thank you, John, for being real.") The reply she did send encloses a poem, "the condensation of it all," titled "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further." Sexton had concluded that Holmes's motive in advising her about the manuscript was not to critique but to censor her. Useful criticism empowers creative revision, and Sexton knew how to profit from the attention of another poet. But Holmes was not saying "Revise"; he was saying "Don't publish it." Sexton's reply is a defense not only of her manuscript but of a whole genre of poetry that would come to be called "confessional."
I tapped my own head;
it was glass, an inverted bowl.
And if you turn away
because there is no lesson here
I will hold my awkward bowl
with all its cracked stars shining
This is something I would never find
in a lovelier place, my dear,
although your fear is anyone's fear
like an invisible veil between us all …
and sometimes in private,
my kitchen, your kitchen,
my face, your face.
Shrewd as neurotic people often are about the concealed anxieties of others, Sexton insists to Holmes that his rejection of her poetry is in part a defense against the power of her art, which tells not a private but a collective truth and, to his horror, includes and reveals him. Sexton may or may not have heard in literary circles gossip about the gruesome suicide of Holmes's first wife or about Holmes's successful recovery from alcoholism. His life had been "ragged with horrors," as his widow put it but by the late 1950s was outwardly peaceful and secure. His advice to Sexton was possibly advice he had followed himself: "Don't publish it … you will certainly outgrow it and become another person." But Sexton based her work on a different understanding of suffering. In her imagery, "tapping" the head produces "stars," signs radiant with significance, uniting sufferer and beholder despite the "glass bowl" that shuts them off from other forms of contact. "Anyone's fear" of the sick inhibits this identification; the courage of acknowledgment in the poetry of To Bedlam comes from Sexton's lucidity about how general is the suffering that must be experienced as personal but can be grasped and expressed in metaphor.
Far from discouraging publication of the Bedlam poems, Holmes's reaction gave Sexton insight into what the book was really about. The poem she wrote in reply contains an allusion in its title to a letter from Schopenhauer to Goethe: "most of us carry in our heart the Jocasta who begs Oedipus for God's sake not to inquire further." The longer quotation of this letter became the epigraph of To Bedlam and Part Way Back, and "For John …" became the introductory poem to Part II, in which Sexton collected her most ambitious and self-revealing poems. Holmes had been "real"—truth-telling—in his response to her, and thus she dared be the same; moreover, his reaction provided a foil Sexton, anticipating the distaste these poems were bound to arouse, could use in her book.
Houghton Mifflin accepted the manuscript in May 1959, just as Lowell's class was ending; it appeared in March 1960 with a jacket blurb by Lowell, which insured that the book would be widely reviewed. The reviews did not change John Holmes's opinion of the work. As Sexton workshopped poems that would shortly appear in her second collection (All My Pretty Ones, October 1962), Holmes's hostility deepened. "I suppose I don't want her to know how I feel," he wrote Maxine Kumin. "But I think more often than you'd ever realize that I can't stand another meeting with her there. […] She is utterly selfish" (6 August 1961). The objectionable characteristics of the person were equally objectionable in the poems.
I said way back, that she was going to have a hard time to change subject matter, after the book, and it's true. I think her search for subject matter is desperate, and that we could talk to her about it, get her to try different things […] she writes so absolutely selfishly, of herself, to bare and shock and confess. Her motives are wrong, artistically, and finally the self-preoccupation comes to be simply damn boring. […] [W]asn't it once understood that the whole intent of writing the bedlam poems was to get rid of them, and to cure herself, to grow up, to become through writing poetry a mature and rich person? […] As it is, she merely re-infects herself, and doesn't seem to know any better than to enjoy it. [16 August 1961]
Holmes took a proprietary interest in the workshop. In February 1960 he had circulated a two-page memo listing four ways to improve its efficacy; many times he would follow up a meeting with letters to one or another of the poets that expanded on his first-sight critiques. Thus in the name of straightening out a problem, he engaged Sexton in a second open confrontation in January 1961. Galled by what he referred to as Anne's "greedy and selfish demands" at one of the workshop sessions, Holmes wrote letters to each of the participants venting his spleen. To Anne he was most tactful, but he made his points:
I was sort of upset about the workshop, as a matter of fact. […] [Y]ou gave Sam an awfully rough time, I felt, too much of it, and hard for a man to take, and he took it like a good sport. But it went on and on. Also I thought you took too much time, more than anyone else got, and also, for the first time I've ever minded, I thought you and Max had too much to drink, and that it took the meaning and responsible thinking away from the poems. [25 January 1961]
Holmes wanted the workshop to work; Sexton thought it was working. Certainly it was working for her: she could audition drafts of poems within a circle of intimates she trusted to know what effects she was after. "What kind of workshop is this?" she fumed to Holmes in her reply to his letter. "Are we mere craftsmen or are we artists! […] I resent the idea that an almost good poem isn't worth any amount of time if we can make it better and first the actual writer has got to be able to HEAR." As Sexton realized, however, the conflict was not merely over workshop manners: it involved behavior indistinguishable from poetics. For Sexton, the unbridled excitements of the group process frequently led to inspired revision. "This is a great strength and a great, but mutual, creative act each time it happens," she argued; to repress the process would be to kill the work. Moreover, she knew the issue was not merely a disproportion in amounts of attention meted out in the workshop. She was not privy to Holmes's judgment in his letter to Sam Albert that she was "like a child and three times as selfish" (24 January 1961), but Sexton's reply indicates that she had felt symbolic family roles being acted out in the group.
In the long pull, John, where you might be proud of me, you are ashamed of me. I keep pretending not to notice … But then, you remind me of my father (and I KNOW that's not your fault.) But there is something else here … who do I remind you of?
The group went on meeting, its format unchanged, until Holmes developed cancer a year later. Holmes's disgust with Sexton increased. He seems to have diffused the problem by inviting others to confide their mistrust and dislike of Sexton and to confirm his judgment that she was a bad influence with reference to both art and manners. "I have heard lately two lengthy judgments of her, exactly like my bitterest feelings, and the impression is shared by others that she does you harm," he warned Maxine Kumin on 6 August.
For Sexton, however, the exchange of letters in February had a clarifying significance, elaborated in a dream she reported to her therapist a few days after writing the letter.
AS: This perfect voice was enunciating very carefully as if to tell me exactly how it was—and yet he was kind and patient about it—very irritated but patient all at once—and this was terrible because whatever he was telling me I was seeing the reverse. […] [H]e'd talk reasonably, reasonably, and he wouldn't stop telling me, you know, just nicely […] it would become so frightening that I would pound on the floor […] maybe screaming stop it, stop it, […] that would be the feeling: LISTEN! and then I'd try something else. PLEASE. Like HE COULDN'T HEAR ME.
Dr: There is one thing I have trouble understanding; that is, what you wanted when you had to pound on the floor.
AS: Well, associate. If you're pounding on the floor then you must be down on the floor. You don't stand up. Crouched […] more like a child or an animal or someone very afraid. It's kind of crazy to be on the floor—and yet it's kind of afraid, really. […] He keeps telling me what's so and probably he's right but it isn't so for me so I've got to try again to make the same thing so for both of us so we can make sense to each other, Otherwise, I'm crazy. I'm lost.
Dr: If you can talk to one person, you're not crazy?
AS: Right. […] One sane person, that is.
Like the poem "For John …" with which Sexton had replied to his letter the year before, this dream is also a "condensation of it all." The unnamed masculine speaker, a composite censor, blends several identities—teacher, critic, father, mother, doctor, senior poet: those in charge of telling "exactly how it is" and unable to "HEAR," Present only as "this perfect voice," his identity may include some of the prestigious reviewers of Sexton's first book: possibly James Dickey ("one feels tempted to drop them furtively into the nearest ashcan, rather than be caught with them in the presence of so much naked suffering"); possibly Geoffrey Hartman ("With such a theme, […] did the poet have to exploit the more sensational aspect of her experience?"). "Kind of patient, telling me about it just nicely," he devastates her.
The doctor asks—reasonably, reasonably—what she wants pounding on the floor, a question Sexton answers rather indirectly. Is the only way to stop the senior poet's voice an act of violence performed in fear, "like a child or an animal"? No: Sexton wants in the dream what she wanted from the workshop, what she had described in her letter to Holmes, the "mutual intuitive creative act" by which the individual poets merged their strengths through disciplined listening. "Probably he's right," but this only makes him distant and self-absorbed. Disengaging from the craziness and fear inspired by being ignored ("you remind me of my father"), Sexton acknowledges—almost in spite of herself—the powers she can marshal against the censor: "I've got to try again […] so we can make sense to each other."
The dream images, like the "awkward bowl / with all its cracked stars shining," radiate outward into other significant relationships formed around words. Among those unable to HEAR, by this date, are Sexton's father and mother, both dead in the spring of 1959, the same spring Houghton Mifflin accepted To Bedlam and Part Way Back. They did not live to read Anne Harvey Sexton's words in a book nor to see the world confirm her as a poet. As in her dream, their impenetrability inspired stubborn efforts to "make the same thing so for both of us"; from All My Pretty On's through The Awful Rowing Toward God, Mother and Father remain in Sexton's poems the powerful withholders of confirming attention, now cleverly dead and beyond appeal.
Out in the real world, however, Sexton's bond with Maxine Kumin involved much reciprocal listening. Kumin has described how each had a special phone installed in her study: "we sometimes connected with a phone call and kept that line linked for hours at a stretch […]; we whistled into the receiver for each other when we were ready to resume." The relationship, fruitful for both, helped Sexton engage her critical faculties once she had completed the process she referred to as "milking the unconscious." Describing it to an interviewer, Sexton said "all poets have a little critic in their heads. […] [Y]ou have to turn off the little critic while you are beginning a poem so that it doesn't inhibit you. Then you have to turn it on again when you are revising and refining." Whistling into the receiver for Maxine was a way of calling up the inner critic by paging an external one. Sexton made use of such a model throughout her life: as playwright; as member of the chamber rock group "Her Kind" that performed her poems to music; as a teacher herself; and, of course, in the workshop.
If John Holmes is one of the identities of the censor in Sexton's dream, then her struggle was not with Holmes the man but with Holmes the Man of Letters: paragon of correctness, arbiter of taste, warden of the literary tradition. The rather playful, even daughterly, tone of Sexton's reply to Holmes's attack suggests that she had already detected the sense that might be made of their mutual hostility. Holmes's distaste for Sexton's work was not based on a judgment that she was a second-rate poet. "What you have is a genius," he had written her in the letter rejecting the Bedlam manuscript, "an unaccountable, unconscious, startling gift with words, and emotions, and patterns for them." His quarrel was with her subject, "your time in the hospital and the complications that took you there" (8 February 1959).
What took Sexton to the hospital was a preference for suicide over the role of mother as she had construed it from her own glamorous, intelligent, repressive, and punitive mother—in the world's eyes, a competent, well-bred woman. The disturbing subject of the Bedlam poems is Sexton's experience of the female roles of mother and daughter as in themselves a sickness, and not merely her sickness. Thus in poems like "The Double Image," she writes of her horror at passing on femaleness itself.
[…] this was the cave of the mirror,
that double woman who stares
at herself, as if she were petrified
I, who was never quite sure
about being a girl, needed another
life, another image to remind me.
And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure
nor soothe it. I made you to find me.
Sexton resisted Holmes's judgment that To Bedlam contained "so self-centered and narrow a diary that it would be clinical only," just as she later resisted the label "confessional" for her poetry. Speaking in the name of art ("Her motives are wrong, artistically") and asking another woman writer to agree that Sexton's subject matter was an extension of her intrusive social behavior ("she writes to bare, and shock and confess"). Holmes insisted that the sick woman was discontinuous with the poet. But Sexton knew the poetry was a revelation and a critique, faithful to the female unconscious; it reflected the high cost of socializing women into feminine roles. Hers were truths that had not been put into poetry before, or with quite the same emphases, by a woman writer. "There's something else here … who do I remind you of?" Sexton was asking the question of an entire tradition largely devoid of the voice of female consciousness—though it was a voice the auditor might be expected to recognize, having heard it at home, or in his own bad dreams.
IV. Coda: Assimilating "Female" to "Poet"
All of Sexton's poems about the hospital and the complications that took her there were published and proceeded to make her reputations: first as a "confessional" poet and then as a woman poet—a category that was developing in literature at the time of her death. The large audiences for her work included mental patients, psychotherapists, and great numbers of women, most of whom did not share Holmes's point of view concerning Sexton's subject matter. The exchange of letters in 1961 was, apparently, the last open confrontation between them; however, it remained for Sexton, who outlived John Holmes after all, to write the interpretive coda to their relationship, in an elegy written shortly after Holmes's death in 1962. Titled "Somewhere in Africa," the poem takes up the themes of reasonableness and wildness expressed in her dream and in her letter to Holmes and synthesizes them in a new way.
Must you leave, John Holmes, with the prayers and psalms
you never said, said over you? Death with no rage
to weigh you down? Praised by the mild God, his arm
over the pulpit, leaving you timid, with no real age.
whitewashed by belief, as dull as the windy preacher!
Dead of a dark thing, John Holmes, you've been lost
in the college chapel, mourned as father and teacher,
mourned with piety and grace under the University Cross.
Your last book unsung, your last hard words unknown,
abandoned by science, cancer blossomed in your throat,
rooted like bougainvillea into your gray backbone,
ruptured your pores until you wore it like a coat.
The thick petals, the exotic reds, the purples and whites
covered up your nakedness and bore you up with all
their blind power. I think of your last June nights
in Boston, your body swollen but light, your eyes small
as you let the nurses carry you into a strange land.
… If this is death and God is necessary let him be hidden
from the missionary, the well-wisher and the glad hand.
Let God be some tribal female who is known but forbidden.
Let there be this God who is a woman who will place you
upon her shallow boat, who is a woman naked to the waist,
moist with palm oil and sweat, a woman of some virtue
and wild breasts, her limbs excellent, unbruised and chaste.
Let her take you. She will put twelve strong men at the oars
for you are stronger than mahogany and your bones fill
the boat high with fruit and bark from the interior.
She will have you now, whom the funeral cannot kill.
John Holmes, cut from a single tree, lie heavy in her hold
and go down that river with the ivory, the copra and the gold.
In Sexton's elegy reasonableness and wildness became two gods: one male, identified with institutions; one female, identified with poetry. The formal art of the piece reinforces the ceremonial tone, yet its argument insists that poetry belongs to the territory of wildness: libido, darkness, fertility, beauty, strangeness. The poem seems to tap all Sexton's ambivalent love for Holmes. It praises his integrity ("cut from a single tree") and claims him for the paradise reserved for the tribe of poets, but it also distinguishes the censor from the artist in him. Separating the dead poet from the authority figures in the poem—"mild God," "windy preacher"—Sexton conveys her understanding that the conflict between her and Holmes was not merely a conflict between two temperaments. It was a successful struggle, on her side, against the conventions and "standards" John Holmes affirmed, which Sexton experienced as powers, powers that could repress, even extinguish, the growth of her art. Criticizing her work, Holmes invariably used the words "childish" and "selfish"; he saw the poems only as referring to the person, whom he deplored, not as radiant signs. It was fortunate for Sexton that neither she nor Holmes was willing to abandon the struggle until it had forced her to clarify this difference for herself. Holmes never failed to assert his standards—which were highly acceptable ones in literary Boston and elsewhere—as part of a process of taking her seriously. Under his gentlemanly disapproval she acquired knowledge of herself as a poet of damage and resistance.
By the time she wrote "Somewhere in Africa," Sexton had achieved genuine separation from all her early mentors—Snodgrass, Lowell, James Wright—who were also, of course, censors; she had acquired a public persona and voice that was distinctively female. And if the female subjects of her poems were dismembered, bruised, unchaste, and self-vilifying, the female god of art in her elegy is none of these. In Sexton's apprenticeship, femaleness itself was an aspect of identity that had, with great difficulty, been assimilated to the sense of authority necessary to mastery, "Somewhere in Africa" identifies femaleness as one of the poet's powers; with all the strength of the known but forbidden, the poet carries her censor and teacher to his final resting place in her hold, on her terms.
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Gallagher, Brian. "The Expanded Use of Simile in Anne Sexton's Transformations." NMAL: Notes on Modern American Literature 3 (1979) Item 20.
Examines the narrative and allusive function of similes in Transformations.
George, Diana Hume. "Anne Sexton's Suicide Poems." Journal of Popular Culture 18, No. 2 (Fall 1984): 17-31.
Explores the articulation of suicidal longing in Sexton's poetry and public disdain for self-inflicted death.
George, Diana Hume. "How We Danced: Anne Sexton on Fathers and Daughters." Women's Studies 12, No. 2 (1986): 179-202.
Offers a psychoanalytic reading of family dynamics and father-daughter relationships in Sexton's poetry.
Locke, Maryel F. "Anne Sexton Remembered." In Rossetti to Sexton: Six Women Poets at Texas, edited by Dave Oliphant, pp. 155-63. Austin: University of Texas at Austin, 1992.
Offers personal reflection upon the life, work, and death of Sexton.
Nichols, Kathleen L. "The Hungry Beast Rowing Toward God: Anne Sexton's Later Religious Poetry." NMAL: Notes on Modern American Literature 3 (1979): Item 21.
Discusses the significance of Christian themes and the journey motif in The Awful Rowing Toward God.
Skorczewski, Dawn. "What Prison Is This? Literary Critics Cover Incest in Anne Sexton's 'Briar Rose.'" Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 21, No. 2 (Winter 1996): 309-42.
Examines critical response to father-daughter incest portrayed in "Briar Rose."
Fitzgerald, Gregory. "The Choir from the Soul: A Conversation with Anne Sexton." Massachusetts Review 19 (1978): 69-88.
Sexton discusses her poetry, literary influences, and artistic development.
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SOURCE: "Is It True? Feeding, Feces, and Creativity in Anne Sexton's Poetry," in Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 68, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 357-71.
[In the following essay, George explores the psychoanalytic significance of infant feeding, nurturance, and excretion in Sexton's poetry, especially as evident in O Ye Tongues. According to George, "In her version of the emergence of poetic consciousness, the infant's ambivalent attachment to feces becomes a metaphor for fertilization of the imagination and for the creation of a sustaining self."]
This is an essay on beginnings and endings, feces and fruit, in the poetry of Anne Sexton. I will end it in the place of specifically female grace made accessible by Stephanie Demetrakopoulos' mediation, "The Nursing Mother and Feminine Metaphysics." But I begin earlier in the feeding cycle, at a moment that is by its nature far less graceful. The extremities in Anne Sexton's poetry might be aberrant, but her dilemma belongs to a lesser degree to all women, and certainly to all women poets. The dilemma and its poetic resolution have to do with the development of creativity in infancy, with the relationship between feces and language. Sexton explores the uses of oral ingestion and anal defiance as primary sources of power in poetry. In her version of the emergence of poetic consciousness, the infant's ambivalent attachment to feces becomes a metaphor for fertilization of the imagination and for the creation of a sustaining self. Her poetic journey from psychoanalysis to myth ends with power and goodness, but begins with impotence and evil.
Anne Sexton believed that evil crawled into her, "something I ate" ("Is It True?"). The ingestion of evil begins with birth, with lactation and feeding, whereby "all my need took you down like a meal." She needs the white love of mother's milk, but because this feeding depletes the mother, she ingests evil, becomes the body of evil in the act of feeding.
When I tell the priest I am full
of bowel movement, right into the fingers,
he shrugs. To him shit is good.
To me, to my mother, it was poison
and the poison was all of me
in the nose, in the ears, in the lungs.
That's why language fails.
Because to one, shit is a feeder of plants,
to another the evil that permeates them
and although they try,
day after day of childhood,
they can't push the poison out.
So much for language.
So much for psychology.
God lives in shit—I have been told.
"Is it true?" she asks. In "The Hoarder," "there is something there / I've got to get and I dig / down." She finds the objects and sins of her past as she digs—the aunt's clock she broke, the five dollars belonging to her sister that she ripped up—until she reaches "my first doll that water went / into and water came out of"; yet what she must find is deeper still:
earlier it was the diaper I wore
and the dirt thereof and my
mother hating me for it and me
loving me for it but the hate
won didn't it yes the distaste
won the disgust won and because
of this I am a hoarder of words
I hold them in though they are
dung oh God I am a digger
I am not an idler
If the problem begins at birth and deepens with the enculturation embodied in toilet training, it can become endlessly cyclical, for we must all eat and defecate. Sexton identified with and loved that creature—"body, you are good goods"—yet was so ambivalent toward it that the struggle between creatureliness and creativity ripped her apart. "Is it true?" became a central question of her quest as spiritual seeker, as poet, as woman. Is it true that God blesses feces, lives in it, that the smell of it is the smell of life rather than of death? Is it true that God can love the rat? (Is it true that God is the rat? That the rat accomplishes and keeps the miracle, as in "The Deep Museum?") If only she could be sure. But she is not. There is no certainty, and Sexton craved absolutes as she craved the sun that shone on her like a "dozen glistening haloes."
The parable of maturation from infancy centers on the feeding/digesting/excreting cycle that makes us creatures so entirely. In this story, as in the scenario envisioned by psychoanalytic theory, the infant loves her own feces, is proud of its production, naps in the ooze of its warmth; in Sexton's version, unlike that of psychoanalysis, it is at this moment that the infant is most able to move toward imaginative invention. When the infant discovers that this dear production in the aura of which it ruminates for lonely hours is suddenly distasteful to the parents, its emerging sense of clean and creaturely identity is forever betrayed. And where does waste come from? From feeding, by which the infant gains its life sustenance at the mother's breast. Although it will be years before the maturing human knows about this relationship—before, in other words, it is fully introduced into the symbolic order—its body may well "know" it from the start; surely the mother knows, and can in nursing communicate her acceptance and/or disgust. Henceforth, the connection between nourishment and waste will be ambivalent. Ironically, almost embarrassingly, this is Sexton's version of the ideal moment before experience teaches its brutal lesson: this moment of the unity of waste and creativity. The God that is said to be all soul—and also, heretically, all immanence—embodies the same ambivalence. The trinity's division of spiritual from bodily and human aspects of godhead becomes emblematic of that division in the civilized human creature. Even Christian culture's God, it seems, is not able to endure the body. At death, we project the reunion of soul and body into the last moments of time, relegating it to an eternity that begins, tellingly, with the Day of Judgment.
Thus the question, "Is it true?" is central to Sexton's spiritual quest. It is also central to her dilemma as both poet and woman. Juhasz, Ostriker, Lauter, and Middlebrook have detailed the ways in which Sexton's femaleness became her central preoccupation as poet-person. According to Ostriker, "she gives us full helpings of her breasts, her uterus, her menstruation, her abortion, her 'tiny jail' of a vagina, her mother's and daughters' breasts, everyone's operations, the act of eating …, even the trauma of her childhood enemas." In her review of The Complete Poems Middlebrook says that Sexton's lasting importance as a modern poet "lies in her bold exploration of female sexuality and female spirituality." Beginning with Live or Die, Middlebrook finds, Sexton "begins to explore the suspicion that what she suffers from is femaleness itself, and is probably incurable." Is it true? Can God love her less, or not at all, or just as much, because she is a woman? Can she love herself? Is it true that "we must all eat beautiful women," that self-sacrifice is the condition and the mandate of femininity? Is it true that she is defective because female, or is it true, more hopefully, that although woman is more rat than man is, God will take that rat in his arms and embrace her? Or might it be true that woman's nurturance, her creativity in the body, makes her more beloved of God? Does the Father-God love his own image best—that of man—or does he crave that "other" not only human and bodied, but also female? Or does "his own image" include both genders as suggested by "male and female created he them"?
These are questions Sexton answered continuously and contradictorily throughout her personal and poetic lives. If the relationship between nurturance and creativity is of the reciprocal and imaginative sort emblemized by the serpent of eternity with its tail in its mouth, then she will be blessed. But Sexton's persona suspects that the waste with which she is sullied soon after birth, once dear and now evil, is specifically female; that mother and father, and therefore God, find female waste the really messy stuff, the manure of the universe. If "shit is the evil that permeates them" to some, and the feeder of plants to others, it will be, ironically, the nurturant and recreative female who is most likely to experience it as permeation. If the body's unruly creature-liness is the antithesis of what is valued by civilization—well known for its discontent with anything messy—then what body is indeed the messiest, the most creaturely? That body is of course woman's, "fastened to the earth, listening for its small animal noises," according to Sexton, pulled by the tide of sea and moon, bringing forth humanity between urine and feces, in blood and ooze. Neither God nor man, it seems, will ever forgive woman his ignominious source between her thighs—nor may she forgive herself in Anne Sexton's world, no matter how hard she tries, "day after day of childhood," to "push the poison out."
That, says Sexton, is "why language fails." The direct connection between feces and language made so explicit in "The Hoarder" and "Is It True?" is implicit throughout Sexton's poetry and is peculiar to her dilemma as female poet, that double bind. To "hoard" words, as the human infant sometimes is said to hoard bowel movements, unable to push them out, filled with them to the lungs and fingertips, is to curse oneself; in Blake's metaphor, it is to "murder an infant in its cradle." If your mother and your father—your culture—hate you for smelling up the hearth, then you will try to keep your waste inside. By analogy, the effort to push it out, to speak, will meet with equal contempt, because the woman's waste, her special evil, is the bodily reminder of mortality and creatureliness.
When I say that this was Sexton's dilemma as poet, I mean that literally. The contempt reserved for Sexton and "her kind" is special indeed, quite different and more vitriolic than that first dispensed in careful and restrained doses to Robert Lowell and W. D. Snodgrass. If the sneer derives from fear, as Alicia Ostriker says—and certainly she is right—that is warmer comfort for critics than it must have been for the poet. Ostriker points out with wry irritation that "Anne Sexton is the easiest poet in the world to condescend to. Critics get in line for the pleasure of filing her under N for Narcissist and announcing that she lacks reticence."
For the living poet, the process began immediately, with the special and almost haunted contempt of her teacher, John Holmes, quoted at previously unavailable length by Sexton's biographer, Diane Middlebrook. Bear in mind the scatological foundation of this discussion while I cite a few of the positions taken by Sexton's critics, both friends and enemies. Holmes "distrusts the very source and subject of a great many of your poems." He is deeply bothered "that you use poetry this way. It's all a release for you, but what is it for anyone else except a spectacle of someone experiencing release?" James Dickey's now famous review of the poems in To Bedlam and Part Way Back is perhaps the most appropriate: "One feels tempted to drop them furtively into the nearest ashcan, rather than be caught with them in the presence of such naked suffering." More recently, Rosemary Johnson, who approaches Sexton with some sympathy and respect, still feels obliged (only partly ironically) to wonder whether "such messy preoccupations will remain to stain the linen of the culture for long or whether good taste bleaches out the most stubborn stain eventually."
To underscore the obvious: a woman of "her kind" is more than invited, is indeed required, to feel that "infantile" connection between feces and words. If she hoards her words, then she is full with waste to the fingertips. If she shares them, the critics declare that she has messed her pants in public, that such "confessions" are indeed nothing but waste matter, smelly soil that belongs—where else?—in the ashcan, furtively dropped there by the reader lest he be "caught with them." The male critic wants to drop it in the can, while the female critic, in wry, womanly fashion, wonders rather how we will get out the stain left on the linen of culture. Holmes even advised other workshop members to stay away from Sexton, believing her influence to be dangerous and pernicious. He speaks for many of us in his "distrust of the source and subject" of her poetry: her own very bodily, excruciatingly female, madness.
If psychoanalytic theory sometimes seems silly because of the attention it pays to toilet training and to its symbolic meaning and lasting influence on our lives, the reaction of critics to Anne Sexton's poetry seems to prove its case. Perhaps, after all, a great deal of our enduring conflicts, joys, suffering, confidence or lack of it, emerges from this first encounter with enculturation. Perhaps, indeed, it all has something fundamental to do with language, imagination, creativity. And why should these concerns not be within the domain of our poetry?
Swallowing Magic, Delivering Anne
I am directed back by Diane Middlebrook and Stephanie Demetrakopoulos to O Ye Tongues. They find this psalm sequence among Sexton's most accomplished poems, formally and thematically. I did not share this opinion until recently, probably because I have been among those disposed to see early Sexton as best Sexton, and late Sexton as sloppy and self-parodic, I locate the central poem for the relationship between infancy and creativity, and between waste and language, in the "Third Psalm." In O Ye Tongues, Sexton employs what Middlebrook calls "that most nurturant rhetoric: praise." I want here to employ that same rhetoric to suggest some of Sexton's finest poetic accomplishments. I consider this poem significant for its mythic and prophetic qualities, and its place in Sexton's radical retelling of the story of humanity's creation, fall and renewal in the poetry that begins with Transformations and includes "The Jesus Papers," "The Death of the Fathers," and the "Furies" and "Angels" sequences.
O Ye Tongues begins with a tone reminiscent of the Psalms; its subject is Genesis:
Let the waters divide so that God may wash his face
in first light.
Let there be pin holes in the sky in which God puts
Let there be seasons so the sky dogs will jump across
the sun in
Let there be a heaven so that man may outlive his
A tonally non-violent flood—"Let Noah build an ark out of the old lady's shoe and fill it with the creatures of the Lord,"—is conducted by a largely benevolent God who is presented only once in a slightly ironic light when the ark of salvation serves to "notch his belt repeatedly." The joyous bulk of humanity imagined at its daily tasks and delights is finally particularized in the "Third Psalm" with an "I" not quite or only Anne Sexton; she is the human infant in civilization. That this infant is American and urban is specified by her coming "from the grave of my mama's belly into the commerce of Boston."
Here Anne Sexton achieves the perfect and delicate balance between telling her own story and telling the story of us all; this is, as Middlebrook points out, "an eerily, beautifully sustained account of the emergence of the symbol-making consciousness in infancy," and a "parable of liberation from confinement by means of invention." I am especially interested here in the part played in that drama by eating and defecating. Sexton envisions for us an infant, alone with herself in the new universe for many more hours each day than she is accompanied by adults (the "big balloons" that "bend us over"), a baby full of human intelligence and not yet able to occupy her mind with the mental activity that precedes articulated identity.
For I could not read or speak and on the long nights
I could not turn the moon off or count the lights
of cars across the ceiling.
What does such a one do, alone and newly birthed from one kind of grave? In Sexton's story, she begins to engage in mental creativity, a "reproduction" that is at the same time a splitting. Such a process had long been surmised and theoretically posited by psychoanalysis to take place only with and through the infant's contact with the mother:
For Anne and Christopher were born in my head as I
howled at the grave of the roses, the ninety-four
rose creches of my bedroom.
The imaginary brother, or other self, functions in Sexton's parable as an animus figure, who prior to the formation of a fully recognizable "I" is united (and split) into a "we," a "kind of company when the big balloons did not bend over us." Here Sexton implicitly locates the source both of wholeness and fragmentation in the emerging psyche, dependent crucially not only upon the presence of the big balloons (alienating, even if needed for nurture and as a reference point for the emergence of identity) but upon their sustained and frequent absence. With no one to talk to, to gaze upon and therefrom gain a sense of reality and identity, the infant creates its own companion within the psyche. We have long recognized that the "imaginary companion" of very young childhood emerges from such a need to fill up lonely hours, but popular mythology and formal theory alike place its emergence later. Sexton, sometimes more psychoanalytic than the theory itself, sometimes seems capable of being, presses back the boundaries toward birth, supposing that the infant will engage in the process it has just been through: a birth which sunders it from connection, yet ironically brings it from death into life. Both imitative and inventive by nature, Sexton's infant makes an analogy of the birth trauma, compensating for its loss, celebrating its life. In an analogy to the psychoanalytic concept of penis envy, Sexton conflates developmental stages into this creative act of the brother's mental birth: Christopher is her twin, "holding his baby cock like a minnow."
When the balloons appear, then the infant lapses into passivity, even if that passivity is sometimes angry:
For I lay pale as flour and drank moon juice from a
And what else does the infant do? It wets its pants and it shits, and when it does, "Christopher smiled and said let the air be sweet with your soil." Here Christopher becomes that self-affirming voice of confidence, assuring Anne that she is altogether good. She can listen to Christopher, "unless the balloon came and changed my bandage." The body that experiences the cleansing and feeding rituals is the female body, in this case, so it is "she" who first experiences humiliation and distaste from the balloons. Christopher, entirely mental, escapes censure and confusion. As I read him here, Christopher is not only the aspect of self that infuses one with self-confidence, but also the infant and imaginative forerunner of Sexton's later Christ as "ragged brother" and fellow-traveler, the human figure of godhead with whom she can identify, and whom she eventually lost; for Christopher in enlarged form will later change from self/brother to Father/God. Oscillation between identification with and alienation from this later-exiled aspect of the self is foreshadowed even here:
For I lay as single as death. Christopher lay beside me.
He was living.
Christopher takes care of her when the balloons disappear, and they talk together. In answer to her question, "where are we?" (she is experiencing the "boundaries of the closed room"). Christopher says, "Jail." When Christopher sleeps, and is not there to answer the questions or to reassure her, the infant "Anne" learns to rely on herself, surmounting the frustration of the fingers that "would not stay," and that "broke out of my mouth." Although I suspect that other plausible readings might call forth less happy inferences about Christopher's otherness and "Anne's" separation from him, he still remains her infant's own creation, a symbol for self-insemination when they ruminate together, and for the necessity of lonely self-reliance when he is unavailable to her.
For I was prodding myself out of my sleep, out the green room.
The sleep of the desperate who travel backwards into darkness.
Momentarily alone, she knows she must be her own awakener, must bring herself out of sleep even while Christopher sleeps, "making sea sounds."
What "Anne" figures out alone, and then with Christopher when he reawakens, is the final lesson of the parable, and a fair account of the ambiguous polarities of Anne Sexton's subsequent life; perhaps, read another way, it speaks of all of our lives:
For birth was a disease and Christopher and I invented the cure.
For we swallow magic and we deliver Anne.
Considering Anne Sexton's life and death, and the context of such imagery in the rest of her poetry, we can only read these lines as radically ambiguous. Sexton apparently did consider even her very birth and existence a disease; the invention of "cure" in "swallowing magic" has ironically defeating references to her dependence upon drugs and her repeated efforts to kill herself with pills. In "Wanting to Die," she writes:
Twice I have so simply declared myself,
have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy.
have taken on his craft, his magic.
"The enemy" can be either life or death; in either case, to take on the craft and the magic refers to killing oneself through a parody of normal nurturance, through ingestion that cures once and for all the disease of life sustained from the beginning by that other ingestion of food which results in the waste one cannot get out of one's fingers or one's soul.
But whatever the echoed allusion here to previous and future sources of disease and cure, the function of "magic" in O Ye Tongues is the creation of a sustaining self; not only of a sustaining self, but of a creative impulse. The "Anne" delivered in the rest of the sequence is the heroine of her own story, coming of age into womanhood, motherhood, and poetry. From her beginnings, lying in quiet and in soiled diapers, talking to herself, inventing Christopher, surrounded by her own sweet soil and its smell, she rises into yet another birth, this one meant to correct the flaws of the first. In the "Fourth Psalm," Anne and Christopher "come forth" from "soil" and make "poison sweet." The mole who comes from the ground—that "artificial anus"—into the light is capable of "swallowing the sun." Every image in the "Fourth Psalm" is natural, earthly, and regenerative: daisy, orange, snail, squid, cauliflower, rose, daffodil, dog, carp, leopard, even cockroach, all are blessed. Given little praise for her creatureliness or her femaleness either by culture or by its designated enforcers in the persons of parents. "Anne" celebrates that feminine creature from soil and sea, as she does in so many poems. In the "Seventh Psalm," she takes on the female function of reproduction as an embodiment of "a magnitude," a "many," each of us "patting ourselves dry with a towel." At the same time she is a solitary figure, "in the dark room putting bones into place." Seeing the large design, she births her baby into "many worlds of milk."
The progress from her infancy to her own motherhood marks a transformation of the meaning of the feeding cycle; that transformation is from psychoanalysis to myth. Sexton always placed herself in the middle and mediating positions of mother-daughter constellations. Her poems about the mother-daughter relationship in which she is daughter are always painfully ambivalent, while her poems to her own daughters are joyfully ambivalent. Understanding what went awry between herself and her mother, she endeavors to ensure that she will not do to her daughters what was done to her. She will try to experience nursing not as psychic depletion, but as spiritual abundance. The terms of this transformation are theoretically outlined in antithetical essays by Freud ("On the Transformation of Instincts") and Stephanie Demetrakopoulos ("The Nursing Mother and Feminine Metaphysics").
"To begin with," says Freud, "it would appear that in the products of the unconscious—spontaneous ideas, phantasies, symptoms—the conceptions faeces (money, gift), child, and penis are seldom distinguished and are easily interchangeable." While I agree with the feminist contention that what women "envy" is "power," I support the psychoanalytic contention that the metaphor is grounded in an always bodily reality—i.e., "penis envy" is a valid term. Sexton's infant conjures up a penis of her own in Christopher, "holding his baby cock like a minnow." It is through the mediation of fecal matter that the infant first experiences the desire for "power," experienced in Sexton's poem as invention and creativity. The infant engages in that other "birthing" in which she does indeed deliver a child. In Freud's scenario, this will take place over a period of years and will normally end with the female's relinquishment of the desire for the penis in the substitute "child." In Sexton the process in the early psalms of O Ye Tongues is entirely imaginative; she has already begun to transform the terms of psychoanalysis into mythic structures. Freud is concerned in his essay to trace adult character traits that have their sources in the anal stage, and among these traits is obstinancy, stubbornness, or defiance. Defecation affords the infant and young child its first occasion to decide between a "narcissistic and an object-loving attitude." He or she can offer up feces as a gift, or else retain them as a means of "asserting his own will." Because he is concerned to trace the etiology of neurosis. Freud's language is censorious; failure to relinquish the gift results in defiant, obstinate attitudes that spring from a "narcissistic clinging to the pleasure of anal eroticism."
Anne Sexton has been called "narcissistic," and in other poems she does speak of withholding feces, but I want to transform the meanings of the Freudian terminology. The story of Sexton's infant may indeed be that of a developing neurosis; yet it is also a description of another and creative kind of "defiance," a primary source of energy and power in Sexton's poetry. The early formation of an individualized, courageous stance in art may be connected to this infant drama of giving and withholding. Sexton's infant wants to keep that penis, that power, that child. It belongs to her, more especially since it is rejected rather than welcomed by the mother because of its female character. The nursing experienced by the mother as depletion results in this product she will also despise, and Sexton's infant makes of this situation the best that could be hoped for. In the contest of wills between resentful mother and defiant infant, the infant cuts her losses in the real world by compensating in her imaginative life. What Freud mourns as symptom. Sexton celebrates as power.
When Sexton's infant grows into maternity herself, she tries to perceive nursing differently, aware that her perception of it will have vast consequences for the child:
For the baby suckles and there is a people made of milk for her to use. There are milk trees to hiss her on. There are milk beds in which to lie and dream of a warm room. There are milk fingers to fold and unfold. There are milk bottoms that are wet and caressed and put into their cotton. For there are many worlds of milk to walk through under the moon.
Stephanie Demetrakopoulos uses Sexton's psalms to forward a thesis about nursing. If Levi Strauss's metaphor "The Raw and the Cooked" is a central image for raw nature turning into culture, then "woman cooking, woman gestating, woman nursing" are all images of that process:
Woman's alchemy changes blood to milk; her body is a transmutation system that has the power to change her very body to food which becomes in turn the physical and psychic energy of her child. She is creating an incarnate soul, assisting its growth.
Demetrakopoulos sees Sexton's imagery of nursing in the "Seventh Psalm" as a sign of specifically female grace. She experiences it as the "connective tissue, the flow, the indisputable plenitude of a loving ground of being, a goddess who seems to amalgamate Demeter with Sophia."
This movement from compensatory struggle to assisting the growth of an incarnate soul was clearly conceived by Sexton as midwifed by the mother who governs the tone of the feeding cycle.
For the baby grows and the mother places her gigglejog
on her knee and sings a song of Christopher and Anne.
For the mother sings songs of the baby that knew.
"Anne" herself, now become a mother, is the "baby that knew" what we all know in some private reach of unconsciousness inaccessible to many of us, accessible to Anne Sexton throughout her life; the loneliness and the companionable creativity of infancy are the double source of all we are, all we might become. "For the mother remembers the baby she was and never locks and twists or puts lonely into a foreign place." This is, after all, a hopeful fiction, a myth, for motherhood precipitated Anne Sexton's first mental breakdown, and her illness later did compel her to "put lonely into a foreign place." She acknowledged in many poems that despite her efforts to make it so, love has no simple, "uncomplicated hymn."
Thus the mother of the ninth and final psalm sees that motherhood cannot be her only creation. She must "climb her own mountain." For this woman, the mountain is poetry:
For I am placing fist over fist on rock and plunging
into the altitude of words. The silence of words.
Even as the mother does so, the daughter "starts up her own mountain" to "build her own city and fill it with her own oranges, her own words." The image of the orange functions in O Ye Tongues as an embryo of the human form: the expectant mother "has swallowed a bagful of oranges and she is well pleased." Now the same orange is equated with language, especially the language of poetry that operates by the creation of metaphor and images—another gestation, another birthing. Sexton has come full circle from feces to fruit, from language to babies, in the regenerative cycle. Sometimes her false pregnancies have filled her with waste. But she bears ripe fruit in moments of genuine conception, of greater grace. The child is mother to the woman. The poem arises from the imaginative impregnation of the self.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6786
SOURCE: "Mysticism and Suicide: Anne Sexton's Last Poetry," in Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 68, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 335-56.
[In the following essay, Shurr discusses the significance of Sexton's increasing religiosity and impending suicide revealed in The Awful Rowing Toward God.]
Schweigen. Wer inniger schwieg rührt an die Wurzeln der Rede.
And Rilke, think of Rilke with his terrible pain.
When Anne Sexton died in 1974, she had just produced what she intended to be her final book of poems. The Awful Rowing Toward God. Before that volume the direction of her work was unclear. There had been seven earlier books of poetry, beginning with the forceful and unsettling poems of To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960). Her signature was the clear line of personal narrative; but it was frequently not clear whether the narratives were true biography or a kind of artistically manipulated pseudo-biography. She became famous, with the Pulitzer Prize in 1966, and the reader became familiar with such frequently anthologized poems as "Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward," "The Truth the Dead Know," "The Farmer's Wife," and "The Abortion." We knew her voice, but each poem seemed an unrelated victory. Her early classification among the "confessional poets" never seemed to confer the insights it had promised. One fellow poet dismissed her work as garbage; at the other pole, Sandra Gilbert canonized her divine madness in an essay entitled "Jubilate Anne."
The reader's reward was finally The Awful Rowing Toward God, the book of a mature poet whose dedication to art was single-minded and supreme, who could finally declare with utter simplicity "I am in love with words." Sexton had prepared and intended The Awful Rowing Toward God as a posthumous publication. A year before she died she told an interviewer that she had written the first drafts of these poems in two and a half weeks, that she would continue to polish them, but that she would allow publication only after her death. Her published letters add the chilling information that she had then sent the manuscript to her publisher and was actually reading the galley proofs on the day she took her own life.
The volume gains authority as Anne Sexton's intended final work. The shape and direction of her poetic career finally becomes clear. Clear also is the grim fact that the suicide is a consciously intended part of the book. We miss her meaning, the total program she provided for her reader to experience, without this stark fact.
As the "Rowing" of the title suggests, the image of the Sea pervades this collection; and it soon becomes obvious that this metaphorical Sea is the carrier for one of the most profound and pervasive ideas of western culture.
One of Sexton's earliest reviewers noticed the prominence of the Sea in her work, and when a later interviewer asked her about it she affirmed its personal importance to her. She was a New Englander: the sea was in her history and in her daily experience. The imagery aligns her, also, with some of the most prominent American writers. Emily Dickinson was another virtually land-locked lady in whose poetry the Sea is pervasive. The New England tradition was remembered as having begun with a dangerous adventure across the unknown ocean; the culture was supported throughout its history by commerce on the sea. For Sexton personally, the sea was escape and renewal, where the family had vacationed since her childhood. It is both a danger and life-support system. In most of her poetry it is also the setting for the journey of the soul. The phrase most often quoted by the reviewers from her early books was the one she retrieved from Kafka and used as epigraph for All My Pretty Ones: "… a book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us."
In her final volume this Sea becomes warm with swarming life. The two poems which begin and end the collection, "Rowing" and "The Rowing Endeth," set up a framework of sea-exploration, and there are overt references to the Sea in two-thirds of the poems. The Sea is quite literally the fluid medium in which the mental life of this poetry takes place. The first poem begins with the emergence of the Self from non-being; the child is gradually able to do more human things but feels itself still "undersea all the time." We are only seven pages into the collection when the perception becomes clear that the Sea is the source of all life:
From the sea came up a hand,
ignorant as a penny,
troubled with the salt of its mother,
mute with the silence of the fishes,
quick with the altars of the tides,
and God reached out of His mouth
and called it man.
Up came the other hand
and God called it woman.
The hands applauded.
And this was no sin.
It was as it was meant to be.
There is a calm rightness carrying this statement along, a sense of order, and—new for Sexton—an untroubled account of the invention of sexuality. The poem achieves dignity and authority by its imitation of Biblical diction.
But the Sea is not only origin; it is also metaphor for the continuing flow of life within the human being. Sexton, for example, perceives the pulse that beats in her arteries as "the sea that bangs in my throat." The figure is extended a few pages later, where "the heart / … swallows the tides / and spits them out cleansed." The Sea is simultaneously within and without. Even the ears are "conch shells," fashioned to bring in the sound of the Sea constantly to human consciousness. This seems to intimate that human beings live in a Sea of Life, but if one knows that the conch shell really amplifies the rush of the blood within the hearer, then this line also indicates that the Sea of Life is within.
There are negative elements in this massive symbolic Seaworld. On the margin between sea and land, between spirit and matter, are the crab who causes painful cancer, the sand flea who might enter the ear and cause madness in the brain, the turtle who furnishes an image of human sloth and insensitivity. There is also the land itself which supports human iniquity and furnishes images for spiritual dryness and desolation. But in this world the margin between sea and land is also creative; it is the area where "the sea places its many fingers on the shore" and opposites can interact. The sea is necessary "mother," as the earth is necessary "father," and without interaction between the two there is no life.
Still another perception unfolds as Sexton explores her seasubject: "Perhaps the earth is floating" on the Sea. The world of matter floats on the Sea of spirit and life; and so that Sea is never far off from any of us. Even the earthbound can dig wells in the middle of the desert, and tap into that Sea, as the Sphinx advises the poet to do in another poem:
I found the well [of God]
… and there was water,
and I drank,
… Then the well spoke to me.
It said: Abundance is scooped from abundance,
Yet abundance remains.
The appreciative reader has now arrived, at this point in the book, at the ancient literary perception of a metaphoric Sea that surrounds and animates all life with a creative vitality, the fluid medium in which things live and move and have their being, a creative "Abundance" prodigal of its forms. This is the same perception that is behind much literature that can be described as "Romantic," "Enthusiastic," or in any way "Mystical."
These figures and tropes carry us to one of Sexton's most moving poems, the only poem in the collection in which the obvious and awaited word "Logos" appears:
like the surf biting the shore,
again and again,
and the woman opens her mouth in pleasure
and her teeth gleam
like the alphabet,
Logos appears milking a star,
and the man
inside of woman
ties a knot
so that they will
never again be separate
and the woman
climbs into a flower
and swallows its stem
and Logos appears
and unleashes their rivers.
Sexton recapitulates twenty-five centuries of western erotic mysticism here, where the imagery of the Song of Solomon merged early with the worship of the Torah, and then developed through the writings of St. John the Divine into the Logos Christology of the Greek Fathers, who were themselves influenced by Plato's lovely idea, in the Timaeus, of the world as divine creative Body. Divine creative energy, which unleashes itself in permanent joyous activity, has—according to the poem—its momentary analogue in human ecstasy: the human being can, at least briefly during intercourse, "reach through / the curtain of God" to participate by immediate contact in the creative flow of life.
Image carries idea. The most important function of the Sea images in The Awful Rowing Toward God is to carry the items that produce this Logos mysticism as Sexton's final achievement, the final life-conferring idea her work came to embody.
One of the most important poems in this personal synthesis then becomes the strange one called "The Fish that Walked." The title introduces the scenario: a fish enters the human element for a period, finds the place "awkward" and "without grace": "There is no rhythm / in this country of dirt" he says. But the experience stimulates deep memories in the poet-observer, of her own vague pre-existence in the Sea, floating in "the salt of God's belly," with deep longings "for your country, fish." In view of the Logos poem which immediately precedes it, this poem is not so strange. With its allusions to grace and to the traditional symbol of fish as Christ, this is Anne Sexton's highly personal version of the Logos made flesh and dwelling among men. Sexton asserts that she herself has enjoyed the mystical experience of living in the flowing life of the Divine: the poem ends with conversation between the lady-poet and the fish-Logos.
Sexton's Logos-intuition is itself creative, generating further imaginative work. More developments follow, and more connections are made. God is incomplete without a body, for example: according to a poem called "The Earth,"
God owns heaven,
but He craves the earth
… but most of all He envies the bodies,
He who has no body.
And in a later poem in the collection, the Logos would like to be incarnated more than once:
I have been born many times, a false Messiah,
but let me be born again
into something true.
Such a world, in which the Logos is the Sea where the poet lives, is charged with Personality or Personhood. Near the end of the collection a poem begins
I cannot walk an inch
without trying to walk to God.
I cannot move a finger
without trying to touch God.
The grounds here are those of mystics and theologians who have perceived the Logos as eternally existing, responsible for the creation of the physical world, and responsible also for preventing its lapse back into non-being.
The image of the Sea, as it merges into the idea of the Logos, is thus the underlying metaphor that gives The Awful Rowing Toward God its largest meaning and its undeniable power: the Sea-Logos gives life initially, sustains and supports it, and finally receives it back. The Sea-Logos is the personalized arena for the struggle of the human mind; it is as well the goal of the human mind and affections. And the poet's consciousness is at the center of this world. Her genius comes alive in this vital connection with its source. With this collection Anne Sexton's work creates a highly personal synthesis of the mystical potential in Western civilization.
It is startling to find such traditional piety in the sophisticated lady whose conversation was sprinkled with conventional obscenities, whose trademark was the ever-present pack of Salems. In the photographs that accompany her works she is immaculately groomed, expensively dressed, posing against a glassed-in sunporch amid wicker furniture and potted plants. If this is the setting of anguish, it seems mockingly ironic. On the evidence of the photographs one might almost accuse Anne Sexton of self-indulgence; we might almost agree with one of her early critics that she is "a poet without mystical inclinations." But her voice is deeply formed from layers of authentic experience. Style in this last volume has grown lean and precise, the presentation of a personal idiom.
It is surprising also to find the lady so learned in the tradition. She despised her formal education: "I'm not an intellectual of any sort I know of…. I had never gone to college, I absolutely was a flunk-out in any schooling I had, I laughed my way through exams…. And until I started at twenty-seven, hadn't done much reading." Her comments led one sympathetic friend to write (mistakenly, I think): "Nor was Sexton a particularly reflective or intellectual person. She came to poetry late, to learning even later, and though she worked hard to educate herself, she never acquired a vocabulary to discuss her ideas on a level of enduring interest or value." But the reader emerges from The Awful Rowing Toward God with the sense of having been put deeply in touch with the tradition of letters and religious sensibility; she embodies both the length and the richness of that tradition.
For example, the title, The Awful Rowing Toward God seems to arrest with its overtones from Emily Dickinson, some of whose love poems feature images of rowing to safe harbor. And, indeed, one of the first impressions that the book makes is that it recapitulates the American experience in literature. The myth from Poe's Eureka is reflected in these lines: "I will take a crowbar / and pry out the broken / pieces of God in me." She repeats Whitman in calling her poems "a song of myself." The later voice of T. S. Eliot can surely be heard in these lines:
We must all stop dying in the little ways,
in the craters of hate,
in the potholes of indifference—
a murder in the temple.
The place I live in
is a kind of maze
and I keep seeking
the exit or the home.
Yet if I could listen
to the bulldog courage of those children
and turn inward into the plague of my soul
with more eyes than the stars
I could melt the darkness….
There must be a nod to Thoreau's personified pond as she notices "the pond wearing its mustache of frost." There is direct engagement with one of Emily Dickinson's poems when she says, "Perhaps I am no one." The American Indian legacy is briefly regarded as she imagines a reservation with "their plastic feathers, / the dead dream" and tries herself to revitalize those Indian dreams of fire, vulture, coyote, and wren. The great American writers are also apparent in the sea imagery on almost every page of The Awful Rowing Toward God. She extends as well an American writer's interest in evolution: the two themes emerge in one poem, where "the sea … is the kitchen of God."
But she can be found even more intensely among the Modernist concerns of the century. She sounds like Yeats early in her collection: "[the children] are writing down their life / on a century fallen to ruin." She has learned the modern temper from Kierkegaard and in one poem gives her own personal version of "The Sickness Unto Death." She has learned from Beckett to construct scenarios of the Absurd with her own life as the text. She has learned the metaphysical seriousness of The Seventh Seal of Ingmar Bergman: the last poem of this collection imagines Sexton playing her royal flush against the lyrically wild cards of God. She has learned from Lowell, Berryman, and Snodgrass so to liberate her writing as to match the tones and concerns of modern inner speech. The language taboos are broken through: the banal reductions of ordinary speech are as telling, in context, as were the flights of fancy in former times. Formal structures of versification in her final work are valid only for the individual poem—each poem has its own form.
The Awful Rowing Toward God embodies a stratum of even deeper and longer historical traditions. What will make the poetry of Anne Sexton permanently valid is her modernization of the perennial meditative wisdom of the West. C. S. Lewis said many years ago that "Humanity does not pass through phases as a train passes through stations: being alive, it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving anything behind." Heaven and hell remain useful for the mind to locate itself, even for a population without the "faith" to regard them as actual places. Anne Sexton's last volume presents a very personalized compendium of the permanent wisdom of the West, of those questions that frame our enquiry, those values that are constantly meditated on in our solitude. She has written her own psalm sequences, her own proverbs of wisdom. She can look at traces of evil within and strike a playful explanation from the first text of Western Literature: "Not meaning to be [evil], you understand, / just something I ate." The fabric is densely woven by a woman of "little education."
The Awful Rowing Toward God describes not only perception of the Logos, but also the traditional journey of the ascetic soul towards encounter. A voice present from the earliest volumes reiterates the neurotic intensity of her perceptions, the hyper-sensitivity produced by inner disorder. But in this final book the voice that had earliest spoken her madness now seems cultivated for insight. The room where she writes has become sacred and magical: the electric wall sockets are perhaps "a cave of bees," the phone takes root and flowers, "birds explode" outside the window; her typewriter is at the center, with forty-eight eyeballs that never shut; it holds carols for the dance of Joy, songs that come from God. This room of the writer becomes the geographical center of her poems, as her writing becomes the one passion that has mercilessly excluded all others—the lover who had been celebrated in Love Poems, the recently divorced husband, the growing daughters, the friends who have been alienated or abandoned, have all dropped beneath the mental horizon of this collection. Perhaps there is the ruthless egotism that Perry Miller believed he saw in Thoreau, the violent simplification to gain her writer's solitude. But perhaps it is the last instinct of the ascetic, ruthlessly to exclude everything from one's life that suggests this world, that does not furnish essential baggage for the next.
The jourrey within this room begins with savage emptying. Sexton imagines herself as the Witch, a figure from earlier poems now assumed as a personal identity. She goes to her window only to shout "Get out of my life." She imagines herself as old and ridiculous to look at.
I am shovelling the children out,
scoop after scoop….
Maybe I am becoming a hermit,
opening the door for only
a few special animals….
Maybe I have plugged up my sockets
to keep the gods in …
But it is all required, she says in a magnificent phrase, for "climbing the primordial climb."
In the earliest stages of the climb, the power of evil intrudes and impedes. She senses "the bomb of an alien God":
The children are all crying in their pens….
They are old men who have seen too much,
their mouths full of dirty clothes,
The tongues poverty, tears like pus.
She takes this evil upon herself and sings the lament of the ancient psalmist:
God went out of me
as if the sea had dried up like sandpaper,
as if the sun had become a latrine.
God went out of my fingers.
They became stone.
My body became a side of mutton
and despair roamed the slaughterhouse.
As a sufferer herself her compassion expands to all of humanity caught in the hell of a bad dream:
They are mute.
They do not cry help
where their hearts are covered with grubs.
And insight arrives with compassion. She senses that her heart is dead, but only because she called it Evil. And further light appears when she sees that physical isolation is an aspect of human misery; in a poem called "Locked Doors" she looks into the human hell: "The people inside have no water / and are never allowed to touch." In the earliest poem in this collection she had already started this theme of isolation:
Then there was life
with its cruel house
and people who seldom touched—
though touch is all.
Three poems which appear near the center of the collection recapitulate aspects of the journey towards perception of the Logos. The most historically based poem of the collection is called "The Sickness unto Death," and it is a Kierkegaardian meditation on the human sense of loss and isolation, of estrangement from the Sea of Life. What is left is evil, excremental; it must be eaten slowly and bitterly. The poem stands as a pivot at the center of the book and it ends with a turn upwards, with a catharsis:
tears washed me
wave after cowardly wave….
and Jesus stood over me looking down
and He laughed to find me gone
and put His mouth to mine
and gave me His air.
The next poem in this series follows a few pages later and continues this upward development. "The Wall" begins with the paradox that over the millions of years of evolution the only thing that has not changed in nature is the phenomenon of change; mutability is the only constant. It is a part of wisdom to participate consciously in this reality. At the end the poet's voice assumes great authority and formality. She is now the seer who has lived close enough to her experience to emerge with wisdom worth imparting:
For all you who are going,
and there are many who are climbing their pain,
many who will be painted out with a black ink
suddenly and before it is time,
for these many I say,
take off your life like trousers,
your shoes, your underwear,
then take off your flesh,
unpick the lock of your bones.
In other words take off the wall
that separates you from God.
The road upwards, the journey of affirmation, contains moments of joy and vision. The grounding insight, which regulates the rest of the ascent, comes in a third poem called "Is It True?" the longest poem in the collection and also located near the book's center. It is a poem of occupations and blessings for ordinary things, which become transparent and holy. But in the midst of these the poet still senses herself "in this country of black mud" and can see herself as animal, filled with excrement, living in a country which still prosecuted the Vietnam War. The poem begins with the natural instinct of the human to stop his work and look up at the sun occasionally; it ends with looking up to find Christ in the figure of the wounded seagull:
For I look up,
and in a blaze of butter is
soiled with my sour tears,
a lamb that has been slain,
his guts drooping like a sea worm,
but who lives on, lives on
like the wings of an Atlantic seagull.
Though he has stopped flying,
the wings go on flapping
despite it all,
despite it all.
The next poem records moments of pure ecstasy, where daily chores and ordinary occupations are permeated with the presence of the divine: "There is joy / in all." She is transported by the impulse "to faint down by the kitchen table / in a prayer of rejoicing." She expands in a poem called "The Big Heart" a few pages later, accepting a new repose at a higher level of reconciliation:
And God is filling me,
though there are times of doubt
as hollow as the Grand Canyon,
still God is filling me.
He is giving me the thoughts of dogs,
the spider in its intricate web,
in all its amazement,
and the slain ram
that is the glory,
the mystery of great cost,
and my heart,
which is very big,
I promise it is very large,
a monster of sorts,
takes it all in—
and in comes the fury of love.
This leads, in the poems that follow, to multiple reconciliations. Friends are gathered around her, valued for their "abundance." Words sometimes fail the poet, but they are "miraculous" nevertheless.
I am in love with words.
They are the doves falling out of the ceiling.
They are six holy oranges sitting in my lap.
They are the trees, the legs of summer,
and the sun, its passionate face.
She becomes reconciled with the Mother who had been a harsh presence in earlier volumes; she relives life at the breast, life at the knee, and now feels the strength necessary to face what she calls "the big people's world." The whole of the mystical tradition now becomes her personal domain, and she can speak of the Jesus of Christianity as "the Christ who walked for me."
We must, then, come down to Anne Sexton as a religious poet; critics have found this aspect of her poetry more difficult than her shocking language or her revelation of family secrets. It is quite obvious in the later collections that she becomes progressively more interested in exploring aspects of the western religious tradition. Barbara Kevles was the interviewer who as able to probe most deeply into this aspect of Sexton's experience. In the Paris Review interview of 1971 her gently persistent questions led Sexton to reveal a great deal about her religious experiences. She protested initially that she was not "a lapsed Catholic" as some had conjectured; she was religious on her own Protestant terms. The most starling revelation of this interview was her experience with visions: "I have visions—sometimes ritualized visions—that come of me of God, or of Christ, or of the Saints, and I feel that I can touch them almost … that they are a part of me…. If you want to know the truth, the leaves talk to me every June…. I feel very much in touch with things after I've had a vision. It's somewhat like the beginning of writing a poem; the whole world is very sharp and well defined, and I'm intensely alive…." One recalls the story that Hilda Doolittle told on herself—it was only after she mentioned to Sigmund Freud that she had religious visions that Freud felt she was sufficiently interesting, and sufficiently sick, for him to take her on as a patient. But in this interview Sexton was able to keep religion and mental illness separated at least to her own satisfaction: "When you're mad, [the visions are] silly and out of place, whereas if it's so-called mystical experience, you've put everything in its proper place." She protested that speaking of these things to the interviewer caused her some discomfort and she would prefer to move on to other subjects. But the line of questioning produced this final insight: "I think in time to come people will be more shocked by my mystical poetry than by my so-called confessional poetry."
The mystical poetry has not been universally appreciated. For one hostile critic, the religious poems read like "verbal comicstrips … the pathetic figure of 'Mrs. Sexton' reminds one less of St. Theresa than of Charlie Brown." Another critic, though, could recognize in her the "sacerdotal … a priestess celebrating mysteries," and could use such words as "hieratic … sibyl … vatic."
It may be that Sexton herself was somewhat surprised or even embarrassed by this turn of her interests, this direction of her own growth. At least this seems a possible explanation for her decision to leave the poems for posthumous publication—though the careful reader can already discern seeds of this book, hints of this evolution, in her earlier collections.
We come then finally to deal with Saint Anne, who found the western tradition of spirituality anything but bankrupt. Towards the end of this collection we find that she has been reading the lives of the saints, and that she even has meditations on the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Faith is initially described as a great weight of information hung on a small wire. The small wire then becomes a thin vein with love pulsing back and forth through it, sustaining the believer with a higher life. The relation is life-giving and life-sustaining, as the twig feeds life to the grape, from another figure in the poem. The ending is dramatically modern, with one of Sexton's reductive banalizing similes: the pulsing vein of faith is man's contract with God, who "will enter your hands / as easily as ten cents used to / bring forth a Coke." The poem is remarkable for its intelligence and its compactness, as well as for its historical sweep.
Two rowing poems bracket this collection and give its title. The two poems are the only ones to use the rowing metaphor. The first is a poem of beginnings: recollections of the crib, dolls, early schoolyears, the gradual recognition of inner pain and loneliness. Consciousness emerges from all of these experiences as if rising from under a sea, gradually discerning God as an island goal. The rower as in a dream fights absurd obstacles, but has the hope of possible calm and resolution at journey's end.
The last poem is full of joy. The rowing has ended, the struggle is over. The surprise in the poem is the game of poker which God requires of the newcomer. He deals her a royal flush, the complete family of cards. But he has tricked her—with a wild card he holds five aces. The game and the trickery serve to release the final tensions of the volume. Laughter spills out and the hoop of his laughter rolls into her mouth, joining God and the Rower in intimate union.
Then I laugh, the fishy dock laughs,
the sea laughs. The Island laughs.
The Absurd laughs.
The poem and the volume end with love for the wild card, the "Dearest dealer," the "eternal … and lucky love."
The Awful Rowing Toward God seems a complex harmonium, a radical simplification achieved at great personal expense. Anais Nin once described her own work as a writer in the following way: "Why one writes is a question I can answer easily, having so often asked it of myself. I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me—the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art."
The Awful Rowing Toward God is a polished and completed "alternative world," inevitable like every great work of art. It is the personal embodiment of one of the oldest and most invigorating ideas in the Western tradition, the idea of the Logos. She does not die as does Henry James's character Dencombe, in The Middle Years, feeling that he had never completed the artistic work for which his whole life had been a preparation. But her achievement in this book of poems is penultimate; the final action, the suicide, remains to be pondered.
There is a body of scientific theory on the nature of suicide. One socio-psychological theorist begins with questions such as: "Why does man induce so fearful a thing as death when nothing so terrifying as death is imminent?" His assumption is that death is always and in every case "fearful" and "terrifying." Sexton's final work is contrary evidence. "Exhilaration" would be a more appropriate word.
It may be that we are closer to the reality with A. Alvarez. In his extraordinary study of literature and suicide Alvarez writes that "each suicide is a closed world with its own irresistible logic." Each suicide is special, wrapped in its own individual mystery. We must then build a theory for each case, and for a start we may cull a brief anthology of Sexton's comments on death, from her letters to friends:
"Killing yourself is merely a way to avoid pain."
"Suicide is the opposite of a poem."
"Once I thought God didn't want me up there in the
sky. Now I'm convinced he does."
"In my opinion Hemingway did the right thing."
"One writes to forestall being blotted out."
"I'm so God damned sure I'm going to die soon."
The list is chronological, and though the statements are in ragged prose, unsupported by the framework of a poem, they show progression, from a conventional and guilt-ridden attitude toward suicide to a more open understanding of it. Sexton's ideas on suicide obviously changed as she came closer to her own death.
Much of Sexton's artistic speculation on suicide she herself gathered in her third book of poems, Live or Die (1966), and a full account of the genesis of her thought would have to deal extensively with these explorations. A brief tour through that book produces several direct statements about "the almost unnameable lust" for self-destruction:
But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.
Her voyage has already set in that direction. But so in a more general sense has everyone's:
But surely you know that everyone has a death,
his own death,
waiting for him.
So I will go now without old age or disease….
The last poem of Live or Die was actually called a "hokey" ending to the collection by an unsympathetic reader. But it can be seen as strongly defining the collection. The decision not to take one's life is "a sort of human statement," a celebration
of the sun
the dream, the excitable gift.
It was about this time that Sexton recorded her psychiatrist's plea, "Don't kill yourself. Your poems might mean something to someone else some day." It was as if she sensed a mission still to be completed.
But what may be the most powerful poem in the 1966 volume comes in the center, "To Lose the Earth." The reader is arrested by the epigraph, from Thomas Wolfe:
To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing;
to lose the life you have, for greater life;
to leave the friends you loved for greater loving;
to find a land more kind than home, more large
The poem itself goes on to conduct the reader's entry into a work of art, and it is a remarkably moving experience. It is an entry into the world of timeless beauty which is elevating and utterly mind-altering. But introduced as it is by the quotation from Wolfe, the poem is ambivalent: it is, equally, the experience of death into which she conducts us. The poem is Sexton's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Ode to a Nightingale" stated simultaneously: the lure of death merges with the idea of timeless beauty. It is escape of the Ego, with its Imagination, into the eternal stasis of beauty and truth. Joyce Carol Oates wrote, much more sympathetically, that "Sexton yearned for that larger experience, that rush of near divine certainty that the self is immortal." Freud had already generalized on this phenomenon: "Our unconscious … does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal." We need, then, a broader set of categories for suicide.
As a young man Ralph Waldo Emerson speculated quite generously on the variety of motivations leading to suicide, and provided this listing:
It is wrong to say generally that the suicide is a hero or that he is a coward…. The merit of the action must obviously depend in all cases upon the particular condition of the individual. It may be in one the effect of despair, in one of madness, in one of fear, in one of magnanimity, in one of ardent curiosity to know the wonders of the other world.
Emerson's last two categories, startling for a young clergyman, carry us farther towards meanings latent in The Awful Rowing Toward God.
One accomplishment of the collection is an enormous expansion of awareness, of consciousness. As Sexton grows from inner disorder to inner harmony, from madness to poetry, the themes and images of the mystical tradition provide rungs for that "primordial climb." A vast inwardness develops: silence and introspection sculpt the inner world until it matches the larger lineaments of the common tradition of western mysticism. The journey is the dangerous work of solitude:
One must listen hard to the animal within,
one must walk like a sleepwalker
on the edge of the roof,
one must throw some part of her body
into the devil's mouth.
The flight from multiplicity, in the search for "the pure, the everlasting, the immortal and unchanging," which Plato described in The Phaedo, results in a sense of accomplishment, of self control and rest, of "being in communion with the unchanging." Sexton comes to embody one form of the long tradition of liberal inquiry and inward search for concepts and values which, as Socrates observed, make human life worth living. There results a sense, as in Poe's Eureka, of the return from fragmentation to unity, to the primordial Paradise, the home of Life, Beauty, Intelligence. The preliminary report of this world can now be tendered by one "in love with words," but the reality itself is fully experienced only when one takes the final step into the Great Silence which climaxes Thoreau's journey in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. To borrow a phrase from Rilke, Sexton "steps, festively clothed, out of the great darkness" of her solitude. She has achieved, in her climactic work, exactly what Emerson called "magnanimity."
It is not enough to say that literature is an imitation of life. It is rather an abstract of life and a forced patterning of life. Time, in art, is stopped, repeatable, arranged, enriched, reversible—as it is not in life. The events that befall a person in a drama or a narrative may be the experiences of a real person in real life. But there is an important difference. In real life the experience is part of a flow; significant experiences are merged with experiences of entirely different meaning or of no apparent meaning at all. The pattern of significance is clouded over by other events. Even the profoundest introspection may not uncover the exact beginning or the final end of the reverberations of an experience. In art, on the other hand, even the most abstract art, there is selectivity and conscious pattern. Art and the life-experience are rarely identical. There are cases where life becomes significant when it tries to imitate art, as closely as possible, as when one might try to live up to a code or an ideal.
Sexton became totally an artist, to the exclusion of any other role, an artist whose medium, in the final event, was her own life. The major actions of her final months seem deliberate attempts at denouement: the final book was shaped to its final order; the final task was to act the finis. How else guarantee the permanence of the accomplishment; how else act authentically on the present state of insight?
The most famous twentieth-century comment on suicide was Albert Camus's, in The Myth of Sisyphus: "There is only one philosophical problem which is truly serious; it is suicide. To judge whether life itself is or is not worth the trouble of being lived—that is the basic question of philosophy." It is generally assumed, in the context of Camus's thought, that suicide would be a negative judgment of the "worth" of life. In Sexton's case the contrary is true.
In Sexton's case, one can see suicide as grounded in "magnanimity," as the result of "ardent curiosity," the self-chosen final capstone to a structure of life and art now satisfactorily completed. Suicide becomes a version of Kierkegaard's leap of faith, a step into what the imagination had seemed, by its harmonizings, to authenticate. Should there be no light beyond, at least the adventurer has left behind a vision of sublime light. Sexton's way is not everyone's, but it has its own rationale and, as artistic vision, its own extraordinary beauty.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5380
SOURCE: "The Poetic Heroism of Anne Sexton," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 33, Nos. 3-4, 1987, pp. 76-88.
[In the following essay, George examines the significance of forbidden knowledge, incest, and psychic guilt in Sexton's poetry. George contends that Sexton's truth-seeking resembles that of the mythical Oedipus of Greek tragedy and psychoanalytic theory.]
Not that it was beautiful,
but that I found some order there.
There ought to be something special
in this kind of hope.
This is something I would never find
in a lovelier place, my dear,
although your fear is anyone's fear
like an invisible veil between us all …
and sometimes in private,
my kitchen, your kitchen,
my face, your face.
—Anne Sexton, "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further" To Bedlam and Part Way Back
What the story of the Sphinx seems to emphasize is that the answer to the riddle of life is not just man, but each person himself…. In contemplating Sophocles' Oedipus as Freud did, one realizes that the entire play is essentially Oedipus' struggle to get at the hidden truth. It is a battle for knowledge in which Oedipus has to overcome tremendous inner resistance against recognizing the truth about himself, because he fears so much what he might discover…. What forms the essence of our humanity—and of the play—is not our being victims of fate, but our struggle to discover the truth about ourselves.
—Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man's Soul
Oedipus, Sophocles, Freud: this is preeminently a man's story, told by men to and for men, about a tragically fated hero who unknowingly slays his father and marries his mother. Despite Freud's attribution of the Oedipus complex to women as well as to men, the story of Oedipus has also remained essentially masculine in the popular imagination. That imagination, sensing perhaps the culturally masculine tenor not only of the myth but of its symbolic meanings, has even tried (with a brief assist from psychoanalysis) to provide a womanly equivalent: The Elektra complex. But Freud stuck stubbornly to his assertion that the story of Oedipus was that of all humankind, and a number of revisionist theorists and practitioners have attempted to explain why. Among the most convincing retellings is Juliet Mitchell's in Psychoanalysis and Feminism, in which she urges us to construe the Oedipus complex as more than a term for normal childhood sexual conflicts revolving around intense attachments to the parents, by which measure the significance attributed to it by psychoanalysis may indeed seem inflated. According to Mitchell, the Oedipus complex designates a set of internal and external acts through which every person is initiated into the cultural order; it is not only "a metaphor for the psychic structure of the bourgeois nuclear family under Viennese capitalism," but "a law that describes the way in which all [Western] culture is acquired by each individual."
Critics have been endlessly irritated by the recurring themes of infancy and the relationship to the mother and father in Anne Sexton's poetry. Beginning with her first teacher, John Holmes, Sexton has been accused of childishness and of infantile preoccupations. She insisted that these themes were at the heart of the matter—and not only her matter, but by implication, everyone's. "Grow up," said the decorous world of poetry to her throughout her career; "Stop playing in the crib and the sandbox—and especially stop sniveling about your childhood." Her poetic reply frightened the critics who disliked her work—most of them transparently opposed to psychoanalytic theory—for that reply asserted again and again that grown woman though she might be, successful professional though she might be, the process of working out her relationship to her parents and her childhood was a life's work. Nor did she permit the poetic community to suppose it was only her life's work. If we acknowledged it as hers, and as the legitimate domain of poetry, then we would have to come to terms with the possibility that it might be our own lifelong process as well. Blind as Teiresias, she revealed to all of us the truth about Laius' murder. As Bruno Bettelheim writes in Freud and Man's Soul, "we encounter in Teiresias the idea that having one's sight turned away from the external world and directed inward—toward the inner nature of things—gives true knowledge and permits understanding of what is hidden and needs to be known."
But it is not Teiresias, finally, with whom I identify Anne Sexton. Rather, it is Oedipus, and specifically the Oedipus of Freud and Man's Soul. Bettelheim attempts yet another re-reading of Freud's Oedipus, and I find it the most moving and accessible that contemporary psychoanalysis has offered to an audience larger than its own members. Freud's Oedipus, through Bettelheim, takes on the luminosity of the prophet, and becomes not merely a tragic victim, but an embattled seer. According to Bettelheim, the suggestiveness and referential richness of the Oedipal story only includes the implication that little boys want to kill the man they know is their father and marry the woman they know is their mother. This "common and extreme simplification" ignores the fact that Oedipus did not know what he was doing when he killed Laius and married Jocasta, and that "his greatest desire was to make it impossible for himself to harm those he thought were his parents." This crucial detail expands the story's mythic power to include "the child's anxiety and guilt for having patricidal and incestuous wishes," and the consequences of acting on such wishes.
As Bettelheim reads both the Sophocles play and Freud's adaptation of it, the central issues are Oedipus' guilt and his discovery of the truth. Oedipus' lack of initial awareness about what he has done is reflected in psychoanalysis' version of the story by the repression in adulthood of both the murderous feelings toward the parent of the same sex, and the incestuous feelings toward the parent of the opposite sex. Oedipus behaved as he did as a consequence of his real parents having rejected him in the most brutal and literal way possible; he loved the parents he thought were his. "It is only our love for our parents and our conscious wish to protect them that leads us to repress our negative and sexual feelings for them."
Bettelheim also emphasizes another portion of the story often glossed over by theory and by practice: when he fled Corinth, Oedipus did not fully heed the temple inscription, "Know thyself," which implicitly warned against misunderstandings of the oracle's prophecies. He was not sufficiently self-aware in his flight, and later acted out his metaphorical blindness by literally blinding himself. So Oedipus, truth-seeker, sought the complex truths too late; or, translated into psychic parlance, self-knowledge requires an understanding of the "normally unconscious aspects of ourselves." It's Bettelheim's conviction and that of psychoanalysis—and here I part company with him and it regretfully—that knowledge really is power, that to know the unconscious is to be able to control it, and more or less completely. "This is a crucial part of the myth," writes Bettelheim: "as soon as the unknown is made known … the pernicious consequences of the Oedipal deeds disappear." That is indeed the most hopeful reading of the cease of pestilence in Thebes, but not the only one. No one, after all, can restore Oedipus' sight to him, and his wanderings toward ultimate peace in Colonus are still torturous and tragic. Not until he awaits death does he find his peace. Bettelheim sees the Oedipus in us all as able to be "free" from our own "destructive powers" and their ability to "harm us." This is, of course, the expression of psycho-analysis' own profound wish that it might provide "cure," a wish that Freud himself became suspicious of near the end of his life. I prefer a more realistic phrasing of what the search for self-knowledge might hope to accomplish: a lessening of the destructive hold of unconscious material over people's lives, and a diminished likelihood that one might single-handedly cause a pestilence in the city.
This important reservation aside, I find Bettelheim's reading of Oedipus convincing and important, if not entirely new: Oedipus is a hero who is fated to feel guilty for something he has done but did not know he was doing and did not mean to do; and, more importantly, he is a quester after truth against tremendous inner and external odds, determined to recognize that truth when he finds it, no matter how painful it may be for him and for other people he loves. That truth is peculiarly his own—Bettelheim points out, through DeQuincey, that the Sphinx posed different problems for different people, so that the answer to the riddle is not merely man in general, but Oedipus in particular. But it is also universal. "The answer to the riddle of life is not just man, but each person himself."
In the Oedipus story, it is the woman/mother/wife, Jocasta, who says that she does not want to know the truth and who cannot cope with it when it is revealed. She kills herself because she possesses unwanted knowledge—not, as Bettleheim points out, the knowledge that she has committed incest, but repressed knowledge that she helped to abandon her son to death years earlier. Perhaps it is ironic that I should see Anne Sexton as Oedipus and not as Jocasta. Anne Sexton killed herself. Yet despite that final irony, the essential characteristics of Anne Sexton's poetry identify her not with the overwhelmed and helpless victim/victimizer, Jocasta, but with the hero Oedipus, whose struggle for the truth was determined and tragic. As Alicia Ostriker says in a comparison of Plath and Sexton, Sexton "fought hard with love, greed, and laughter to save herself, and failed." Her "failure" was heroic rather than pathetic, courageous rather than cowardly, Unlike Jocasta, who is immediately defeated by the revelation of the truth, Sexton grappled with her truth again and again, in a deadly hand to hand combat she might be said, on some terms, to have won.
That Anne Sexton identified herself with Oedipus is evident in only one modest place in her poetry, in the first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back. The epigraph for the collection is from a letter of Schopenhauer to Goethe in 1815:
It is the courage to make a clean breast of it in face of every question that makes the philosopher. He must be like Sophocles' Oedipus, who, seeking enlightenment concerning his terrible fate, pursues his indefatigable enquiry, even when he divines that appalling horror awaits him in the answer, But most of us carry in our heart the Jocasta who begs Oedipus for God's sake not to inquire further …
Sexton's biographer, Diane Middlebrook, reveals the previously unavailable details of the story that led to Sexton's use of this epigraph, and to the poem that opens Part II of Bedlam, which contains the most intensely confessional material in the collection. "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further," was Sexton's ultimate poetic reply to John Holmes' fierce objections to Sexton's "sources and subject matter." She should not, he warned, write about her experiences in mental institutions or her private neuroses; these were not legitimate subjects for poetry, and were more dangerous than useful. Although Sexton could not have known it at the time, Holmes was to be only the first of a series of Jocastas whom Sexton would have to confront in the many years of productivity remaining to her. Her argument in this poem is that of the truth-seeking Oedipus:
Not that it was beautiful,
but that, in the end, there was
a certain sense of order there;
something worth learning
in that narrow diary of my mind,
in the commonplaces of the asylum …
Like Oedipus, Sexton does not pretend to be a seeker after beauty here, though she will seek beauty as well later in her poetic life; she seeks, rather, "a certain sense of order," if knowing the truth about oneself, however awful, can yield a pattern, a structure, that will teach one "something worth learning" about how one's mystery can be unwoven. The "narrow diary of my mind" elicits images of the private person confiding confidences to a small and secret book, and she is aware that in employing this image, she addresses the implicit reservations anyone might have about the divulgence of confidences. Yet it seems to me that straight as this image is, Sexton must have intended some slight irony, angry as she had been during the process that led up to this finally loving, forgiving, giving poem addressed to a father figure, teacher, and friend who was, as she later said, "in the long run, ashamed of me where you might be proud of me." The "commonplaces of the asylum" include the "cracked mirror," in which the beholder must acknowledge the fragmented pieces of the self, held up to the scrutiny of whatever wholeness that perceiver can manage. It also prefigures the next and central image of the poem, which Diane Middlebrook finds central not only to this poem, but to Sexton's entire poetics:
I tapped my own head;
it was glass, an inverted bowl,
It is a small thing
to rage in your own bowl.
At first it was private,
Then it was more than myself;
it was you, or your house
or your kitchen.
Like that other star-crossed poet, Plath, Sexton is trapped in her bell jar, "an inverted bowl." But by the act of tapping it, she tentatively releases powers that reveal to her that her pain is more than private, that she shares with other isolated beings this "small thing" enlarged by sympathy and empathy.
The scene of this coming into connection with others trapped in their inverted bowls is, significantly, the "house," and more particularly the kitchen, locale of so many of Sexton's scenes of recognition, as it was of Plath's. It is not only, I think, that the kitchen is such a female place, but that here the ritual of preparing and eating food takes place: here all modern people are most literally nourished. This is the room in which her world, suburban America, finds itself most at home. The domesticity suggested by the kitchen implies that here, in this most ordinary and yet formally ritualized room, the most extraordinary human truths will emerge, in the midst of simple converse about the everyday matters of commonplace lives. In this respect, the kitchen and the asylum are perhaps closely related. Neither is Thebes or Corinth, but either may be the crossroads at which one kills one's father, or the ceremonial place in which one marries one's mother.
And if you turn away
because there is no lesson here
I will hold my awkward bowl,
with all its cracked stars shining
like a complicated lie,
and fasten a new skin around it
as if I were dressing an orange
or a strange sun.
It is on this passage that Middlebrook bases her contention that tapping the head "produces 'stars,' signs radiant with significance, uniting sufferer and beholder despite the 'glass bowl' that shuts them off from other forms of contact." To that insight, I would add that the cracked stars resulting from tapping the bowl are yet another reflection of the cracked mirror in the asylum, that we all, in kitchens or madhouses, aim toward the same general human truths that shine differently in different lives. The speaker, under the critical scrutiny of the one who has "turned away," must hold her bowl awkwardly, partially disarmed by the withdrawal of an invited commonality. The cracked stars shine "like a complicated lie," Sexton's acknowledgement that we each create our own story, are trapped within our own private perspectives in which we style and shape a truth that has as much of the necessary lie as of authenticity; the lie is "complicated" by our complicity in the egotistical desire to make ourselves, perhaps, the heroes of our stories. There is also a suggestion here, muted from reprimand into plea, that the stars will more likely constitute that "complicated lie," that partial denial of the sought truth, if the invited other rejects the partnership by which a complicated truth might emerge: "And if you turn away …" When the fellow sufferer changes to the detached or disdainful observer, the speaker has no choice but to "fasten a new skin" around the bowl, an action which defensively separates her from him, and blocks any progress that they might together make toward an understanding; yet the stars still shine underneath, a luminous invitation toward truth.
This is something I would never find
in a lovelier place, my dear,
although your fear is anyone's fear,
like an invisible veil between us all …
and sometimes in private
my kitchen, your kitchen,
my face, your face.
Whatever truth the speaker seeks, it will not be available in "lovelier places" than the private mind speaking its halting language to another private mind, trying to make contact. What separates them, she knows, is the hearer's fear, "anyone's fear," not only of the sick or mad or sordid; "your fear" is also the subject of the inquiry itself. Although the grammatical construction of the last lines is ambiguous, I read them to mean secondarily that the fear pulls down the veil between them in their kitchens and on their faces, and primarily that this "something," this "special sort of hope," takes place in the kitchen and is revealed, through the mutually cracked glass bowls, on their distorted, human, striving faces.
The two lengthy poems that follow this preface to Part II of Bedlam reveal the "source and subject" of the cracked stars that John/Jocasta does not want to hear. "The Double Image" and "The Division of Parts" show us this other "cracked mirror" of the mother, image of fragmentation and wholeness for the speaker.
… my mocking mirror, my overthrown
love, my first image. She eyes me from that face,
that stony head of death
I had outgrown.
Addressed to her daughter, "The Double Image" tells the story of a thirty-year-old mother who goes to live with her own mother after the speaker's suicide attempt. An "outgrown child," she inhabits her mother's house as an unwelcome guest who must submit to her mother's resentment for her suicide attempt, and who must sit for a portrait of herself to be hung on a wall opposite her mother's portrait, freezing in time her dependence on her mother, herself as reflection of that "mocking mirror," and her stubborn refusal to become that bitter woman. The mother contracts cancer (blaming her daughter), the daughter is institutionalized again, and the mother begins her slow dying. The speaker estranged from her own daughter by her inability to mother her tells herself one of those complicated lies, and then unravels it:
… And you came each
weekend. But I lie,
You seldom came. I just pretended you …
The lesson she learns that she must pass on to her daughter—this complicated truth made up of so many self-serving lies that must be exploded—is "why I would rather / die than love." And this has much to do, she knows, with her relationship to that "overthrown love," and the speaker's need to turn away from her:
The artist caught us at the turning;
we smiled in our canvas home
before we chose our foreknown separate ways.
And this was the cave of the mirror,
that double woman who stares
at herself, as if she were petrified
in time …
If she is to survive, she will have to acknowledge that she is unwillfully guilty of her own mother's sin, passed now to another generation:
And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure
nor soothe it, I made you to find me.
In telling her young daughter this truth, she is giving that child a chance to escape the prison of poisonous identifications handed from mother to daughter to mother to daughter. Mary Gray, Sexton's mother, could not admit or acknowledge this human truth inherent in the reproductive urge; it is Sexton's hope that in admitting her own complicity in this complicated lie, she will provide her child with a way to escape its implications; or if not to escape them entirely, then to know that the trap lies baited for her.
But I have called Anne Sexton Oedipus, and Oedipus wanted to marry his mother, not to harm her. Sexton's Oedipus/Anne knows that the mother is the "first overthrown love" for both sexes, and that the differentiation of desire in males and females occurs later. It is my contention that Oedipus/Anne does "slay" her mother and "marry" her father, just as Oedipus slew his father and married his mother. That Sexton thought herself guilty of her mother's death, and of marrying her father, is explicit throughout her canon. (In "All My Pretty Ones," she also acknowledges the possibility of an unconscious guilt connected with her father's death). Here I will concentrate on her self-perception of this deadly configuration in three poems ranging throughout her career: "The Double Image," (Bedlam); "Those Times …" (Live or Die); and "Divorce, Thy Name is Woman" (45 Mercy Street). In "Double Image," she is accused of her mother's death; in "Those Times" she acknowledges this unintentional sin; and in "Divorce, Thy Name is Woman," she speaks of her "marriage" throughout life to her father. This is what Oedipus must discover himself guilty of: the murder of the parent of the same sex, and forbidden incest with the parent of the opposite sex.
"The Double Image" includes one of the most startling and frightening of Sexton's stanzas, made more so by the clever facility and unexpectedness of the rhyme:
They hung my portrait in the chill
north light, matching
me to keep me well,
Only my mother grew ill.
She turned from me, as if death were catching,
as if death transferred,
as if my dying had eaten inside of her.
That August you were two, but I timed my days with doubt.
On the first of September she looked at me
and said I gave her cancer.
They carved her sweet hills out
and still I couldn't answer.
The speaker of this poem is the same woman who remembers putting "bees in my mouth" to keep from devouring her mother in the nursing process as an infant; who knows that "all my need took you down like a meal"; who, though she does not know it as a child, will utterly defeat her mother in "Those Times …"
I did not know that my life, in the end,
would run over my mother's like a truck
and all that would remain
from the year I was six
was a small hole in my heart, a deaf spot,
so that I might hear
the unsaid more clearly.
The "hole in the heart," that "deaf spot," becomes the poet's source of the knowledge of absence; blocked by childhood indignities from hearing the ordinary music of daily life, she takes on the special sensual acuity of the handicapped: what she will hear is the unsaid, just as blind Oedipus will "see" with the sight of the blind visionary.
And like Oedipus, Sexton did not want to run over her mother's life like a truck, or to give her cancer, or to defeat her, or to slay her; she intended, rather, like Oedipus, the opposite; to protect that beloved if rejecting parent. Oedipus is utterly rejected by his biological parents, who wish to murder him that he might not murder his father; his other parents, unknowingly adoptive, are those he loves and flees Corinth to protect when he hears the Oracle. In so fleeing, he fulfills the prophecy. In the Oedipus myth, then, the parental figures are split; the actual and rejecting parents, and the adoptive and loving ones, who might after all be called the "real" parents. In the normative infant and childhood psyche, these roles of rejecting and loving parents are united, so that reality and imago emerge from the same identities and bodies; it is the real parents we love and wish to protect, their imagos we wish to murder and marry. Seeking this complex truth, Sexton knows that she must make reparation for the split inside her that duplicates the split in the psyches of her parents, who both rejected and loved her, just as she rejects and loves them.
Having "murdered" her mother in the psychic sense, she processed such guilt as if fated to do so. It matters little, I would say, whether or not Mary Gray actually told Anne Sexton that Sexton "gave her cancer," matters equally little whether the mother's trauma over her daughter's suicide attempt actually contributed to the development of her disease. Like Oedipus, she has sought and found her psychic truth: she slew her mother, who had literary aspirations that Sexton would fulfill, who was jealous of this beautiful daughter; and she dearly loved the mother that she slew. That is a hard truth. It is peculiarly Anne Sexton's; it is also mine, may be any woman's. Daughters both "love" and "slay" their mothers.
Oedipus/Anne acknowledges the other half of her sin in the countless father poems distributed throughout the canon. Having detailed this intense and lifelong romance elsewhere, I will here rely on the late poem, probably composed almost fifteen years after "The Double Image," in which she most explicitly acknowledges her marriage to the father. Part of the sequence in 45 Mercy Street called "Eating the Leftovers," "Divorce, Thy Name is Woman" begins in the aftermath of that lifelong marriage:
I am divorcing daddy—Dybbuk! Dybbuk /
I have been doing it daily all my life …
In this poem, Sexton constructs a kind of allegory for woman in western culture. The marriage of daughter to father is represented as literal.
When blood and eggs and breasts
dropped onto me,
Daddy and his whiskey breath
made a long midnight visit
in a dream that is not a dream
and then called his lawyer quickly.
Daddy divorcing me.
The "dream that is not a dream" is a psychic fact, a fact of mental life, something that "actually happens" in the netherland of unconscious primary process. The father seduces the daughter, then rejects her, disowning his own passion and hers. "I have been divorcing him ever since" in the interior world of psychic realities, where the Mother is her witness in the courtroom. The daughter keeps on divorcing him, "adding up the crimes / Of how he came to me, / how he left me." Sexton's speaker takes on the voice of any woman working out her childhood love for her father, any woman still
waiting, waiting for Daddy to come home
and stuff me so full of our infected child
that I turn invisible, but married,
To be born a woman in a patriarchy is often to be compelled to live out precisely this ritual. The maternal urge becomes a parody of its first manifestation in the desire to present the father with a child. This, in the tortured psychic world of the poem, is the only true marriage; all others are only pale and inadequate reflections of this primal union. To marry one's father is, indeed, to "turn invisible," for it means that the daughter, becomes not herself, not her mother, but an inverted parody of herself and her mother, of wife and daughter. Acknowledging the incestuous foundations of romantic love on which not only the family, but all western culture is based, Sexton exposes the underbelly of the myth—that we are all "the infected child" of incest, that we all become "invisible," effaced, in the need to "marry, at last." Marriage is the sanctification of incest, the sacred profanity whose nature we expend our sublimated energies denying. We are all possessed by the dybbuks of our personal and cultural pasts. What Sexton speaks of here is as narrow as the room of each womb we come from, and as broad as our dedication to Classical culture. We are all implicated, fathers and daughters alike, all dwelling in a shadow world in which the realities we perceive are shadows of original forms—and of original desires. We stay in the cave willingly, perceiving reflected forms, because we cannot look upon those forms directly without becoming "invisible." Yet we seek that original form, that original desire, never quite content with its substitute.
While Sexton breaks this ultimate taboo, thereby acknowledging her self-effacement, her speaker also wants to affirm the divorce. The "solution" of the poem is a continual process of divorce, an unending courtroom scene, but one which always returns from courtroom to bedroom, where the woman is "opening and shutting the windows Making the bed and tearing it apart." Before and after the divorce of man and wife is this continuous marriage to and divorce from the father, a permanent oscillation between two conflicting desires: to divorce and be done with; and to "marry, at last."
Far from being done with the horrors he discovers in his pursuit of truth when he does indeed uncover it and blind himself, Oedipus does not find peace until he awaits death at Colonus, in the wake of years of blind wandering. The Jocastas in Anne Sexton's life begged her not to inquire further; when she did, psychoanalysis held out to her the hope of which Bettelheim speaks on behalf of psychoanalysis: that knowledge of the truth will set one free. Her truth, tougher by far than either the willed ignorance of Jocasta which cannot endure revelation, or the mandated "liberty" of analytic cure, is more like that of the original Oedipus: complex, tragic, visionary. Sexton did not, like Jocasta, find the sought truth and simply die of it; in the many years between her first exploration of truth in Bedlam and her death in 1974, she triumphed over her guilt and her ghosts again and again. The "strange goddess face" of the slain mother whom the infant ate—"all my need took / you down like a meal"—is redeemed in a dream of reparation and mutual forgiveness in "Dreaming the Breasts:"
The breasts I knew at midnight
beat like the sea in me now.
Mother, I put bees in my mouth
to keep from eating
yet it did you no good.
In the end they cut off your breasts
and milk poured from them
into the surgeon's hand
and he embraced them.
I took them from him
and planted them.
The planting of the mother's severed breasts enables "those dear white ponies" to "go galloping, galloping, / wherever you are;" and the daughter, for the moment of this poem, is renewed into her own life, free of guilt and pain. In "All My Pretty Ones," the daughter discovering her father's flaws after his death in her mother's diary is able, by coming to terms with them and with their small duplications in her own life, to reach some kind of catharsis of pity and fear:
Only in this hoarded span will love persevere.
Whether you are pretty or not, I outlive you,
bend down my strange face to yours and forgive you.
If this act of mutual forgiveness with mother and father must be repeated more than once, this is not a sign of weakness of resolve and will and heart, but of their strengths and determination. No resolution is ever quite so permanent as humans might wish. Anne Sexton could not be utterly and finally freed of her ghosts and her guilt in this life, and her poetry thus reveals these other "complicated lies:" of poetry as celebration only, of knowledge as ultimate freedom. "What forms the essence of our humanity—and of [Oedipus Rex]—is not our being victims of fate, but our struggle to discover the truth about ourselves." What forms the essence of Anne Sexton's poetic achievement is not her status as victim, but her struggle to discover the truth about herself, to turn her blindness into insight. And unless we "turn away," like Jocasta, like John Holmes, there ought indeed to be "something special" in "this kind of hope," perhaps in private.
my kitchen, your kitchen,
my face, your face.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3535
SOURCE: "Summoning the Body: Anne Sexton's Body Poems," in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4, Summer, 1987, pp. 511-24.
[In the following essay, Hankins explores Sexton's response to patriarchal oppression and search for feminine identity in her portrayal of the female body. According to Hankins, "Her body poetry represents her journey to herself, for in accepting and learning to love her body, she is accepting and learning herself."]
Robert Boyers so aptly said of Anne Sexton, "There is something awesome, even sublime in a woman who is not afraid to sound crude or shrill so long as she is honest, who in her best work sounds neither crude nor shrill precisely because she is honest." Mrs. Sexton reliably and openly confesses in her work; she seldom, if ever, yields to distortion or illusion. Her poems reflect the intimacy and complexity of her life and her struggle; she dares to set it in verse with the same force with which she lived it. Although many critics have been drawn to Mrs. Sexton's attraction to madness, they have repeatedly failed to deal with her femininity—her intimate search into herself for redemption. She found her answer in her work, not in suicide, through search and affirmation. Her solution lies in the long journey into herself when she transcends in verse the limitations of the physical and when the temple of her body becomes her ideological universe. She summons usage and experience, the world, through her body poetry.
Weston and Wellesley, Massachusetts, like Salem, or even Atlanta or Meridian, are proper settings in terms of absorbed religiosity, leftovers of the fitful, raging sermons of Jonathan Edwards, of the whispered accusations of Salem. Mrs. Sexton, and Sylvia Plath as well, reached maturity surrounded by and rooted deeply in the Puritan tradition of New England. It is from this tradition of expectations (especially those for women), that this tension, this order and balance that much of the content of modern American poetry derives. The Puritan ethos provided the lens through which the poet viewed his/her poetic world—its subjects, messages, choice of language, technique, and style. Its transparency reveals a man basically corrupt, living his life in a world which is equally corrupt and which offers little or no hope for salvation. Puritan poetry, whether Robert Lowell's or others', focuses on man's limitations and corruption, and usually uses complex and metaphysical compositions. Humans are basically evil living with the Adamic legacy whose only salvation must come through suffering. There is no holy self, as there exists only personal corruption from within and without. There is no vision of a New Jerusalem, unlike John Donne's assurance of the cleansing of the soul in God's abode. Man drowns in a sea of sin which offers only doom. Mrs. Sexton, as others, is victimized by her own madness which seems to have resulted from an effort to cope with her feelings of sin and guilt in this hopeless world devoid of hope of salvation. When she summons herself through her body, she approaches metaphysics as her body becomes ideas leaving the isolated self behind on the physical plane. She transcends history, rationality, society, and assumes her own unique identity—she becomes through her body and its parts.
The militancy of seventeenth-century England, when militancy was no longer useful or necessary, seemed to turn itself inward and within the Church—churchmen converted their militant drives into doctrine and dogma. Women became convenient, silent recipients of that former militant enthusiasm. They were assigned roles of submission and reproduction to perpetuate and enhance the patriarchal institution. Sinful woman was to make her retribution by quietly accepting domination. Her role was prescribed by biblical complainers like Martha, who dared to question, who was shamed into submission.
Mrs. Sexton's search for herself in her poetry and her life led her in many directions. Her efforts to comply with the expectations of others were admirable, one supposes, as she said in a 1968 interview:
All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children…. I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can't build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out.
Although Mrs. Sexton's poetry does not cry out with the same timbre of rage as does that of Adrienne Rich, a large portion of her work deals with the role of women in a patriarchal society. Only a female can possibly know what it is like to be female in a society which says just such femininity is inferior and must be dominated. Admittedly males suffer and feel and cry also, but they do so on male terms.
Anne Sexton's works, especially the poetry contained in To Bedlam and Part Way Back and Love Poems, clearly contain her efforts at defining herself as a woman—the daughter, mother, wife, lover. As a daughter she alludes to her drunken father and her masochistic memory:
You have worn my underwear.
You have read my newspaper,
You have seen my father whip me,
You have seen me stroke my father's whip.
Looking at her own baby picture she wonders "Anne, / who were you?" Often vulnerable, often guilty, often a victim of circumstance, she becomes a mother herself and looks upon that role as being a daughter once again:
I, who was never quite sure
about being a girl, needed another
life, another image to remind me.
And this was my worst guilt; you could
not cure nor soothe it. I made you to
(To Bedlam and Part Way Back)
Her Love Poems underscore her Puritan upbringing to be a wife. She constantly strives to be the good wife, the wife of submission, the dominated lover, carrying out her instructions just as she was taught:
Swift boomerang, come get!
I am delicate. You've been gone.
The losing has hurt me some, yet
I must bend for you. See me arch.
I'm turned on….
Draw me good, draw me warm.
Bring me your raw-boned wrist and your
strange, Mr. Bind, strange stubborn horn….
She is a lover in the lesbian affair of "Song for a Lady," and outlines a tenderness for her own body as it is reflected by an identical one:
On the day of breasts and small hips
the window pocked with bad rain,
rain coming on like a minister,
we coupled, so sane and insane.
We lay like spoons while the sinister
rain dropped like flies on our lips
and our glad eyes and our small hips.
'The room is so cold with rain,' you said
and you, feminine you, with your flower
said novenas to my ankles and elbows.
You are a national product and power.
Oh my swan, my drudge, my dear wooly rose,
even a notary would notarize our bed
as you knead me and I rise like bread.
Again as a lover, alluding to the objectification of her body in "You All Know the Story of the Other Woman," she is used by a man:
He puts his bones back on,
turning the clock back an hour.
She knows flesh, that skin balloon,
the unbound limbs, the boards,
the roof, the removable roof.
She is his selection, part time.
You know the story too! Look,
when it is over he places her,
like a phone, back on the hook.
In "For My Lover, Returning To His Wife," she is a temporary and inconsequential lover in comparison to the legal wife:
She is so naked and singular.
She is the sum of yourself and your dream.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.
As for me, I am a watercolor.
I wash off.
In the process of defining herself, Mrs. Sexton comes to regard the female body as an object which, she feels, is somehow owed to men. She, however uneasily, comes to define herself by her sexual relationships with men and by the extent to which her body is offered and used as a sacrifice. She is unsure about her body in regard to her prescribed feminine role—she shows it, uses it, permits it to be used, ignores it. She searches with her body for answers in men, in marriage, and in tradition. She contrasts almost enviously her femaleness with maleness in these lines from "The Fury of Cocks":
Whereas last night
the cock knew its way home,
as stiff as a hammer,
battering in with all
its awful power.
Today it is tender,
a small bird,
as soft as a baby's hand.
She is the house.
He is the steeple.
When they fuck they are God.
When they break away they are God.
When they snore they are God.
She is an object again in "Barefoot":
I drum up and down your back.
In the morning I run from door to door
of the cabin playing chase me.
Now you grab me by the ankles.
Now you work your way up the legs
and come to pierce me at my hunger mark.
In "Man and Wife" she sees the entrapment of being a wife; marriage provides no answers either:
Now they are together
like strangers in a two-seater outhouse,
eating and squatting together.
(Live or Die)
Mrs. Sexton, the constant female persona in these poems, strikes back in her own poetic/creative way against the oppression of men, against the Puritan tradition that continues to make demands of her womanhood. She often sees her body as grotesque, repulsive, and ridden with the sin and guilt possessed by all women. These lines are from "Those Times":
I lived in a graveyard full of dolls,
my body, the suspect
in its grotesque house.
She is repelled by the notion of her own nudity in "The Nude Swim":
The walls of that grotto
were every color blue and
you said, 'Look! Your eyes
are seacolor. Look! Your eyes
are skycolor.' And my eyes
shut down as if they were
The woman sees herself, her body, in the eyes of her lover and is ashamed. Paul's message to the Corinthians concerning the body as a temple reminds Mrs. Sexton of her guilt and her sense of sin. Sometimes, as in "The Nude Swim," the body corrects the mind's mistakes.
She tries over and over again "to lead a conventional life," but the burden of sin seems to be ever present in a haunting, ghost-like shadow from which she can find no escape. She strokes the whip of her father because little girls are so carefully taught the uniquely female traits of obedience and submission, and that women's identity is complete only with men.
The hope for Mrs. Sexton (and other women as well) lies in accepting and loving herself—as a woman, as a vessel into which she chooses to pour others' love. It is in this hope that she may become herself, not because of someone else, but because she is; she has achieved an identity apart from that dependence on someone else. Her body poetry represents her journey to herself, for in accepting and learning to love her body, she is accepting and learning herself. There is no one there to help her—it is a process of being feminine, of being alone, and of searching. Her Puritan ideals, her men, her womanhood, all prove useless until she faces the judges in the courtroom of her body and all of its parts.
In a 1965 interview with Patricia Marx, Mrs. Sexton refers to Franz Kafka's letter from which she quotes in All My Pretty Ones:
The books we read are the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves. A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.
She says in reply, "I feel my poetry should do that. I think it should be a shock to the senses." Her body poems, true to their confessional nature, do just that—shock us with their honesty, yet take us along into herself, into her search for womanhood.
The harvesting within her body, the letting of blood, the cessation of the menses, marks her realization of completing one phase, yet continuing on a journey of a different kind. She puts away fertility from within in order to perceive it somewhere else in "Menstruation at Forty":
The womb is not a clock
nor a bell tolling,
but in the eleventh month of its life
I feel the November
of the body as well as the calendar.
In two days it will be my birthday
and as always the earth is done with its harvest….
weaving a web over your own,
a thin and tangled poison.
(Live or Die)
When reproduction ceases, does her body as a woman cease to exist? Only until she is willing to seek further within herself for an answer. In "Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman," she gives to her oldest daughter advice on womanhood that she herself has not followed:
as in a dream
the conversation of the old wives
speaking of womanhood.
I remember that I heard nothing myself.
I was alone.
I waited like a target.
Oh, darling, let your body in,
let in tie you in,
What I want to say, Linda,
is that women are born twice….
there is nothing in your body that lies.
All that is new is telling the truth.
I'm here, that somebody else,
an old tree in the background.
She begins to admit to herself things that she has been refusing to admit. In "The Breast" she gives in:
This is the key to it.
This is the key to everything.
In "In Celebration of My Uterus" she simply "sings" for that female part:
in celebration of the woman I am.
and of the soul of the woman I am
and of the central creature and its delight
I sing for you. I dare to live.
She is approaching unity with her ideological self. She begins to glorify her body instead of feeling guilty because of it.
In "Hurry Up Please It's Time" she is back to the beginning of the search and role-playing Eve, except the fruit is an orange this time, and, once again, the body is somewhat threatening. Thinking as an Eve, she swallows an orange, yet records it more as a Lillith might:
I dream I'm a boy with a zipper.
It's so practical, la de dah.
The trouble with being a woman, Skeezix,
is being a little girl in the first place.
Not all the books of the world will change that.
I have swallowed an orange, being woman.
You have swallowed a ruler, being man.
Through the miles and miles of journeying, Mrs. Sexton comes full circle from the exploration of herself in her many different roles to the realization that she must, indeed, allow herself to love herself and her body. These lines are from "The Double Image":
… And I had to learn
why I would rather
die than love….
(To Bedlam and Part Way Back)
In order to love oneself, one must, in particular, women must, as she says, be "fastened to the earth, listening for its small animal noises." The ax for the frozen sea is beginning to hone itself when Mrs. Sexton finally realizes that she has a need for herself, her body and all its parts—she must reserve some of herself for herself. She says to her young daughter Joyce in "The Double Image":
… love your self's self where it lives.
… The time I did not love
myself, I visited your shoveled walks; you held my glove.
There was new snow after this.
(To Bedlam and Part Way Back)
"The Farmer's Wife" portrays Mrs. Sexton's new awareness that sometimes a woman can find strength in being alone, in being a woman. The old humdrum routine does offer hope to the farmer's wife:
… she has been his habit;
as again tonight he'll say
honey bunch let's go
and she will not say how there
must be more to living
than this brief bright bridge
of the raucous bed or even
the slow braille touch of him
like a heavy god grown light,
that old pantomime of love
that she wants although
it leaves her still alone,
built back again at last,
mind's apart from him, living
her own self in her own words
and hating the sweat of the house….
The old woman, although still obliged to perform sexual and wifely duties to her husband, finds herself "Built back again at last." Afterwards she is herself and Anne Sexton begins looking to herself again, this time in utter honesty in "The Hoarder": "There is something there / I've got to get and I dig down / into the depths to find it" (Book of Folly). It is the acceptance she is after, and in "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator" she is alone, touching her body, and admitting it. She has transformed all her fears, her confusion, her Puritan upbringing, and in this moment has come to realize that all of her body—her uterus, her brown legs, her hands, her feet, her breasts, her fingers, are hers and hers alone. She is beyond her attitude of before when in "The Touch" she says: "For months my hand had been sealed off / in a tin box" (Love Poems). She transcends biology and approaches the metaphysical at the instant of realization that her body has become ideological. Everything else in her life has seemed somewhat trivial and undependable until this moment. Her femaleness, her body, offer her stability in the wake of madness and the middle-class obsession for suburban life. They come to represent everything—her ideals of femininity, her craft as a poet, her link to the physical reality of life. In "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator" Mrs. Sexton deals with the body as an idea when she "breaks out of my body this way." Once again the body corrects the mistakes of the mind:
The end of the affair is always death.
She's my workshop. Slippery eye,
out of the tribe of myself my breath
finds you gone. I horrify
those who stand by. I am fed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.
Finger to finger, now she's mine.
She's not too far. She's my encounter.
I beat her like a bell. I recline
in the bower where you used to mount her.
You borrowed me on the flowered spread.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.
I break out of my body this way,
an annoying miracle….
So, to Mrs. Sexton, the poetess, the searching madwoman, came the realization that one must first love oneself, that it is the first step in learning and loving others. One must journey far down into the depths of one's soul, past history, community, society, and the guilt imposed by these and more. Mrs. Sexton, in glorious but fleeting moments, got in touch with herself through her body—her female body. In those moments her body acquired ideological power enabling the poet to rise above all the limitations of the earthly life for women—sin and guilt, suppression and domination. That transcendence truly and surely became her "ax for the frozen sea within" her.
One wonders, going one step further, if perhaps Mrs. Sexton was not contemplating or even suggesting the Phoenix-like rebirth of an androgynous being, for she makes numerous references to such. In "Begat" she writes: "Red. Red. Father, you are blood red. / Father, / we are two birds on fire" (Book of Folly), and in "Angel of Fire and Genitals": "Fire-woman, you of the ancient flame, / … Mother of fire, let me stand at your devouring gate / as the sun dies in your arms and you loosen its terrible weight." Phoenix-like, through her metaphysical union between the body and the mind, this woman will shuck the bonds of gender, and will rise from the ash as in "Consorting With Angels" she dreams:
I was tired of being a woman,
tired of the spoons and the pots….
But I was tired of the gender of things.
… I was not a woman anymore,
not one thing or the other….
I'm no more a woman
than Christ was a man.
(Live or Die)
One is reminded of sui genesis, the rebirth, or self-birth alluded to in "The Breast":
Ignorant of men I lay next to my sisters
and rising out of the ashes I cried
my sex will be transfixed!
Mrs. Sexton has run the gamut in the search for herself, her female identity. She finally summons herself through her body, and in so doing, transcends physical limitations—her body becomes mental, metaphysical, in that it places her in absolute touch with herself. It almost possesses super powers, thus enabling her to entertain thoughts of self-birthing, regenerating as a mental or spiritual force forging the "ax for the frozen sea within."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3818
SOURCE: "Anne Sexton: The Making of 'The Awful Rowing Toward God,'" in Rossetti to Sexton: Six Women Poets at Texas, edited by Dave Oliphant, University of Texas at Austin, 1992, pp. 223-35.
[In the following essay, Middlebrook discusses Sexton's friendship with James Wright and the composition The Awful Rowing Toward God.]
Between 10 and 30 January 1973, Anne Sexton wrote—"with two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital"—an entire volume of poems. Eventually titled The Awful Rowing Toward God, this proved to be the last book Sexton saw into print. A few hours after correcting the galleys on 4 October 1974, she committed suicide. Important in its own right as Anne Sexton's "last" book, this volume gains great interest from being viewed in the context of collections of worksheets, correspondence, and other items in the Sexton archive at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin.
The HRHRC acquired the Sexton archive in 1980, sixteen years after the poet's death. Sexton's elder daughter Linda, executor of the estate, decided that all manuscripts and correspondence and miscellany—including Anne Sexton's library—should be sold together. She rightly assumed that Sexton's voluminous papers would interest scholars, since Sexton, virtually an autodidact, kept careful track of her own progress as an artist and businesswoman—and as a patient in psychotherapy.
The Sexton archive offers an unusually full range of materials pertaining to the poet's life and work. Born Anne Gray Harvey in 1928 in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Sexton acquired a love of books from her mother, Mary Gray Staples Harvey, who collected fine editions. Sexton's maternal grandfather Arthur Gray Staples was a writer, and for many years editor of a newspaper in Lewiston, Maine. During her teenage years, Anne began keeping letters, pictures, and memorabilia in scrapbooks, many of which made their way into vertical files in the HRHRC's Sexton archive. At age 19, Anne Harvey married Alfred Muller Sexton II (nicknamed "Kayo"); they had two daughters: Linda Gray Sexton, born 1953, and Joyce Ladd Sexton, born 1955. Anne Sexton's career as a poet began with treatment for a "nervous breakdown" in 1956, when her first psychiatrist, Martin Orne, suggested writing as a form of therapy.
A resident of suburban Boston, Sexton sought formal training in local workshops, and rapidly developed a very professional attitude toward writing. From the outset, she kept letters she received from other writers, and made carbons of her own letters; thus, both sides of Sexton's correspondence are available to readers at the HRHRC. Moreover, she was a careful steward of her own manuscripts. Abundant worksheets for each published volume of Sexton's work make possible a full view of the development of many individual poems and all of her books. In addition, the HRHRC contains worksheets and completed versions of stories and plays by Anne Sexton, most of which remain unpublished, as well as voluminous unpublished business correspondence which provides a detailed view of the economics of her career. Finally, the Sexton archive contains numerous audiotapes and films that convey the poet's skills as a performer of her own work.
At the time Anne Sexton wrote The Awful Rowing Toward God, she was preparing to leave her marriage of twenty-five years. Her husband Kayo, a wool salesman whose hobbies were hunting and fishing, had never taken much interest in poetry or poets. Both daughters—Joy now age 18, Linda 20—had left the family home for boarding school and college. Like many couples of their era, Anne and Kayo found that the departure of their children opened a void across which they measured how little else they had in common. Moreover, career success had given Anne Sexton the confidence and financial security to make divorce a viable option. By 1973 she held a position as Professor of Creative Writing at Boston University, and had made herself one of the best-paid performers on the poetry circuit that burgeoned on American campuses during the 1960s. Correspondence with universities shows Sexton setting fees at the level James Dickey had established when he moved into the poetry business out of advertising. In 1973, Sexton regularly demanded $1200-$1500 for any reading that required airplane travel or an overnight stay out of town. Letters to her department head at Boston University regarding raises and job security show Sexton calling attention to the three honorary degrees she received in 1970–1971 and threatening—just a joke, of course—to post a feminist fist on his office door if her salary did not rise to meet that of her male colleagues. The daughter of one salesman and the wife of another, Sexton knew how to deal in the literary marketplace. That, indeed, was the theme of many poems in the new book she had in press in January 1973, The Death Notebooks, which bore an epigraph from Ernest Hemingway's A Movable Feast: "Look, you con man, make a living out of your death."
In contrast, The Awful Rowing Toward God is a book exclusively about religious belief. Though in 1973 Sexton belonged to no established church, spiritual questions engaged her deeply. She exulted to a friend that the thirty-nine poems of Awful Rowing emerged from "two and a half weeks of frantic, devout inspiration." Religious themes had appeared in Sexton's work from the beginning, and had recurred with increasing significance in each succeeding volume, attracting the interest of priests, nuns, and other religious people with whom Sexton enjoyed corresponding; particularly rich are letters Sexton exchanged with Brother Dennis O'Brien, F.S.C., between 1961–1963, on deposit at the HRHRC. But nowhere are Sexton's questions about religious faith pursued with the urgency expressed in Awful Rowing. In these poems Sexton aggressively probes the possibility of God's immanence in the secular world of her daily life. If God is everywhere, the devout must be able to find him even in their kitchens, even in themselves at their worst.
I will take a crowbar
and pry out the broken
pieces of God in me.
Just like a jigsaw puzzle,
I will put Him together again
with the patience of a chess player.
How many pieces?
It feels like thousands,
God dressed up like a whore
in a slime of green algae.
God dressed up like an old man
staggering out of His shoes.
God dressed up like a child,
even without skin,
soft as an avocado when you peel it.
Characteristically scatological, transgressive, exhibitionistic, the poems of Awful Rowing struggle to bring God down to a level with Sexton's sense of the evil that inhabited her body in the forms of obsessional neuroses, depression, addiction. The principle that united Sexton with God, in her personal system of belief, was the gift of language that could connect anything to anything else, via the syntax of metaphor. She states the principle simply in a poem from Awful Rowing: "the typewriter […] is my church / with an altar of keys always waiting."
Language and imagery were rampant in Sexton during those weeks of composition, and the craft of association she had developed permitted the poems to lengthen down the page without false starts or revision. Rapidity resulted in thematic focus: the poems of Awful Rowing are organized around congregated images of the body in pain: references to veins, blood, skin, tongue, hands, eyeballs, nakedness recur in the poems (as in "The Big Heart": "The artery of my soul has been severed / and soul is spurting out …"). A worksheet Sexton filed carefully with the first draft of the book shows her calculating her output: on several days in January 1973 she wrote as many as three different poems. The abundance was unusual even for her; in earlier work, Sexton would typically put every poem through many drafts. (For example, the HRHRC files contain 38 worksheets spanning four years for Sexton's "Flee on Your Donkey," before its acceptance at The New Yorker and its appearance as a major poem in the Pulitzer-prizewinning volume Live or Die, 1966.)
Sexton considered another title for the book: Washing the Feet of God, suggestive of a relationship between the speaker of her poems and Mary Magdalene, the "fallen" woman who wiped the feet of Jesus with her hair. She also considered titling it The Life Notebooks, to point the contrast between this devotional volume and its immediate predecessor The Death Notebooks. But in several of the poems themselves, metaphors of rowing and swimming are used to express intense, laborious struggle toward a longed-for ground of faith. Worksheets reveal Sexton shuffling and reshuffling the order of the poems; eventually she decided to open and close the volume with "Rowing" and "The Rowing Endeth."
By early February the manuscript was ready to send to her agent Cindy Degener at Sterling Lord Agency. It was Degener who would negotiate the contract with Sexton's publisher, Houghton Mifflin Company, and who would try to market any unsold poems to high-paying magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Vogue. Sexton herself began doling out several pages at a time to Howard Moss for consideration at The New Yorker, where she had held a "first reading" contract since 1961. Sexton always dealt personally with editors she knew well, such as Moss.
Following her usual practice, Sexton also sent the manuscript to poets whose advice she trusted, hoping for detailed criticism. Her first editor, George Starbuck—now her "boss," as head of Creative Writing at Boston University—received a copy, as did John Malcolm Brinnin, a senior colleague at B.U. who had the office next door to her own. Perhaps on impulse, Sexton also decided to request criticism from her old friend James Wright. Wright's very interesting response is well-detailed in the manuscript collection at the HRHRC; to grasp its importance requires a bit of background.
Anne Sexton's friendship with James Wright had begun in February 1960, when she impulsively sent a note praising his new book of poems, Saint Judas:
Dear Mr. Wright, I doubt you remember meeting me at Robert Lowell's class and later at a party at John Holmes' house, but at any rate … I am writing to say in a I sincerity, having re-read your book for the six[th] time thou wast born altogether a great poet.
This fan letter inaugurated what quickly turned into a passionate correspondence; in the next eleven months Sexton wrote and received from Wright what she described as "several hundred 'faintly scarlet' letters." Most of these letters disappeared mysteriously after her death. However, enough remain in the Sexton archives at the HRHRC to reveal that, for a time in 1960, Wright filled an enormous void at the center of Sexton's life. Offering her what quickly developed, on paper, into a blend of mentorship and courtship, Wright answered her hunger for affectionate recognition with a hunger of his own.
In his surviving letters, as in person, Wright was garrulous, gossipy, warmheartedly pedantic. His advice about music and reading came complete with serial numbers of recordings by favorite conductors, his reading notes convey a quirky, avid intelligence. Introducing Sexton to a pair of translations of Neruda's "Walking Around," Wright thought it useful to inform her,
[Neruda] is a South American Communist, which is a historically complicated kind of creature. In any case, he is, like, say, Mayakovsky in that his directly political poems are so bad as to be, not funny, but distressing, as if you were seeing Sir John Gielgud forget several lines at the very dramatic crisis of Hamlet.
Wright was translating Neruda at this time, as part of an effort to transform his formal style into a poetry more spare and imagistic. His own early work had been snubbed for its "plodding sincerity" by James Dickey in a review that roused a controversy in the Sewanee Review for a few issues, before Wright, endearingly, decided he agreed with Dickey's judgment and gave up the argument. Wright then turned to translating poets such as Georg Trakl, an Austrian writer whose imagery had an immediacy he admired. In this undertaking he found an ally in Robert Bly. At the time Sexton and Wright were becoming ardent correspondents, Wright and Bly were collaborating on several volumes of translations from Trakl, César Vallejo, and Neruda.
The formation of Wright's friendship with both Sexton and Bly occurred at an important phase of transition in his life, when he was leaving his marriage and attempting to reach some authentic mode of expressing his own inwardness in compelling imagery. He was, briefly, disposed to find in Sexton a muse who reconnected him to inspiration. Wright's name for Anne Sexton—"Blessing," sometimes "Bee," or "B,"—was also the title of a much-admired poem he wrote during the period of their intimacy. "My beautiful kind Blessing, my discovered love," he called her. "In the midst of everything you do you can know you are utterly loved. […] I survive by sitting and thinking of you." Sometimes they wrote each other two or three letters in a single day. "It was wonderful for her: an enchantment," Maxine Kumin remembered. Wright's feelings in these documents are not so much for Sexton herself—whom he knew only through letters and phone calls, not from any day-to-day contact—as for the sense of himself that writing to her gave him. This is manifest in the remarks that accompanied his gift to her in July of a book he treasured, the collected poems of Edward Thomas, now at the HRHRC:
Ten years ago I secretly bought and hid this book and another copy which is identical to it […] I also had an old, very personal copy of Whitman. But once about a year ago, in despair, I tore the Whitman to pieces and thrust it down into the rankest mucky bottom sludge of an old garbage can near a dirty railroad track in Minneapolis; then I burned my manuscripts. Years of them. A symbolic suicide, if there ever was one. […] But whatever in me has been worthy of life, for ten years, clings to each page of this book. I always (even in the worst times) hoped to be worthy of giving this book to somebody. Oh, I knew you would come. But it was a long time. Thank you for being alive and for letting me give you this book. Because, in letting me give the gift, you give me at the same time a gift in return: myself.
For many months this feeling was completely mutual. Wright held a place of magical significance in Anne Sexton's development as a poet, for the first book of poems she ever bought for herself—long before sending him that first fan letter—was James Wright's The Green Wall, prizewinner in the Yale Younger Poets series in 1957, her copy of which is at the HRHRC. In one of her long letters to Wright, Sexton recalled that one day she had made $2.75 selling Beauty Counselor Cosmetics door to door: "I wasn't poor, but I had to work awfully hard selling face cream to strangers who wouldn't open the door and besides I'd just come out of the booby hatch and I was nervous with strangers, I was even nervous with face cream." She'd taken the job in order to pay her psychiatrist's fees. On the way home that particular day she went into a bookstore to look at poetry.
I had never heard of you … but I had never heard of Yeats either. I read SHE HID IN THE TREES FROM THE NURSES (I think that is right) and a few others. I took out my face cream money and bought the book. At first I didn't read it, that day I didn't. I was saving it. The next day I went to visit my mother who lived on top of a large rock that overlooked the ocean. I went to spend a weekend with her. It is funny how I have forgotten all this. But the clear memory was when I left my mother's very nicely cruelly perfect living room (don't think I didn't love her—it was just that now I had something of my own to do. I had a book of poems and they were mine … unlike her perfect room.) I went out on the rocks, high over the sea and found a little nitch [sic] there, hidden from the land in a way. I [sic] little place, such as children find to hide in and to keep themselves in. A MY place. I took a pack of cigarettes and this green book that I had bought with my face cream money. The sea was there, and the sun and wind. It was a nice day. It was my place, my book, words written for me, to me. I held it in my hand and it moved, not like the sea below me, but like a small mechanical heart might. I say that, extravagant or not, because the book told me who I was, who I could be. The book was more alive than all the ruined sea.
On her own side of the correspondence that they were conducting in 1960, Sexton fed her deep hunger for growth as a poet on Wright's unflagging attention. Just beginning her second book in 1960, she was anxious for new sources of encouragement, new models, a wider intellectual horizon. Under Wright's tutelage Sexton read eclectically in world poetry: many worksheets for poems written in 1961 and 1962 have carbon typescript translations from other poets on the back, which Wright probably either sent her or recommended to her.
Just as Wright welcomed Sexton's letters, he welcomed manuscripts of her poems in progress, and was liberal, even prodigal, with advice. He would write all over her drafts of poems with a blunt soft lead pencil in tiny script. Wright had direct influence on several of the poems Sexton wrote in 1960 and 1961. Worksheets of manuscripts of Sexton's "The Truth the Dead Know" and "A Curse Against Elegies" suggest that they may have started out as the same poem, titled "Refusal"; in August 1960 a letter from Wright notes their similarity to his own poem, "The Refusal," observing that Sexton's two versions have different themes, and that in following him, she chooses the "narrower and less powerful" theme. He tried to dissuade her from imitation of him. "B. must trust her own imagination: call her own stubbornness to aid!" he advises.
But it was not so much Wright's practical advice as his acceptance of her as a peer that mattered to Sexton, helping her internalize the identity she was rapidly acquiring in the professional world of poetry. Shortly after their correspondence began, Wright sent her a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, with a sibylline inscription:
To Anne Sexton, for whom this book was written—"Let those who may complain that it was only upon paper remember that only upon paper have humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue and abiding love" (G. B. Shaw, on his letters to Ellen Terry)—Jim Wright, Spring 1960.
Wright may have been thinking of Rilke's miserable record as a husband, father, and lover of other human beings, much in contrast with the commitment to love and work that Rilke idealizes in Letters to a Young Poet. Both Wright and Sexton were married to loyal, hardworking spouses, and Wright, a guilty soul, apparently did not acknowledge to others his attachment to Sexton. In any case, his literary advice was excellent. Sexton adopted Letters to a Young Poet as a personal manifesto, and re-read it whenever she wanted to make emotional contact with Wright.
This old connection, then, lay in the background of Sexton's decision to send Wright the manuscript of The Awful Rowing Toward God, in January 1973. She wrote him an affectionate letter and signed it with his old name of endearment, "Bee." Wright's reply was most ambivalent. He returned the manuscript with numerous penciled annotations on various poems; he also returned Sexton's letter, with a terse reply written in pencil below her signature:
Dear Bee, I'm returning your manuscript in faith for you and your poetic genius. I have no intention of excusing your bad verse and your bad prose. There are some poems here that I think are fine. There are some that I think are junk. The choice between them is yours.
Pedantic, impassioned, Wright argued both with Sexton's craft and her theology. "Leave God his own poems, and cut these lines out. God damn it Bee, stop trying to be a saint. Be a poet, and get rid of the junk.—Cf 'The Sea,' by Cecilia Moraes (of Brazil)." Regarding "The Earth Falls Down" he commanded, "Delete this poem. For Christ's sake, Bee, read Jung's analysis of Job." He urged her to abandon all but three lines of "After Auschwitz," adding, "Bee, what I ask is a terrible sacrifice. But listen, listen; trust your own strange voice."
Wright's commentary generated a second and third layer of marginal glosses as Sexton reacted with irritation and chagrin to his exhortations, then passed along the manuscript to Maxine Kumin. Around the margins of this draft, a small but heated war goes on, with aggressive reactions to Wright in the neat handwriting of Kumin and in Sexton's big scrawl. "The Fallen Angels" had elicited from Wright a whole column of irritable dispute over the nature of heaven, culminating in the advice, "Bee, stop making stupid cute remarks about angels. We don't even know enough about each other." Sexton had penned a big black X through the poem; but Maxine came to its defense in the left margin: "I like this poem—it isn't intended as a deep theological investigation but a way of hoarding up the good signs, or omens to keep going." The poem stayed, as did other poems and stanzas and images that Wright rejected.
Undoubtedly, Sexton should have given Wright's advice more weight; reviewers would echo Wright's privately-voiced criticism of the poems. But Sexton was in a hurry to finish this book. Her divorce from Kayo proved psychologically damaging in ways she might have foreseen, and did not. Both inspiration and health deserted her in the months following their separation; and worries about money distracted her constantly. Most of the Sexton correspondence dating from 1973–1974 is concerned with the business of poetry, not the process of creation.
Nonetheless, the final version of The Awful Rowing Toward God reflected Wright's intervention. Imploring her to "listen, listen" and to "strip the language and shackle accidents," Wright had guided Sexton's attention to arbitrary similes and rhythmically wooden passages which she sometimes decided to revise. Readying the final manuscript for publication, Sexton completed it with a dedication: "For Brother Dennis, wherever he is, and for James Wright, who would know." With Maxine Kumin's help, Sexton corrected the galleys of the book the day she died. Her touching acknowledgment shows that the spirit and not the letter was of use to her as she brought this final manuscript to press, in what were to be the last months, days, and hours of her life.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5735
SOURCE: "As If Day Had Rearranged Into Night: Suicidal Tendencies in the Poetry of Anne Sexton," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 39, Nos. 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1993, pp. 26-41.
[In the following essay, Long examines Sexton's preoccupation with death and suicide as an integral feature of her writing. According to Long, "Her poems clearly reflect her understanding of, and attempt to come to terms with, her mental illness and suicidal behavior."]
as if day had rearranged
into night and bats flew in the sun.
Was Anne Sexton's poetry primarily about the nature of the closed world of suicide? Most critics agree on the fact that Sexton definitely wrote about wanting to die, and the nature of suicide, from a very personal point of view. Many critics believe that at least some of Sexton's poetry reflects this suicidal "lust." According to Diane Hume George, there are "at least twenty poems primarily dedicated to explaining what it feels like to want, or need, to die." Kathleen Spivack, in her article "Poet and Friend" notes that "Anne was obsessed with death—one has only to read Live or Die to see to what extent." Spivack goes on to tell us that:
Ultimately, death took precedence in her imagination. Anne had … almost a what-the-hell attitude toward death: Her wish to destroy herself was a deep compulsion.
So Sexton's deep-seated desire to die is apparent to most, if not all of her critics, and readers. But is it omnipresent, woven into the fabric of all, or nearly all, of her poetry, or is it only in a few pieces?
Sexton resumed writing poetry (she had written as a child and young woman), according to Maxine Kumin's introductory essay in Sexton's Complete Poems, after her first breakdown and suicide attempt. Her psychiatrist Dr. Martin Orne encouraged her writing as a kind of therapy, an emotional outlet, to enable her to return to, or develop, a stable inner life. Therefore all of her published poetry was written after she had entered Allen Alvarez's "closed world of the suicide." This explains the unremitting background of despair and pain that is clearly visible in even the most pleasant of her poems. But the obvious connection between Sexton's urgency towards death and suicide and her poetic expression is blurred in most critics' minds. They fail to analyze Sexton's work based on the fact that since she was suicidal during her entire writing career, her poetry could well be judged by assuming this suicidal nature as foundational to any real understanding.
Was Sexton consciously aware of her desire to die? According to Ari Kiev in his 1971 article about "Suicide Prevention,"
The suicidal act in most of our patients was characterized by impulsivity and the absence of premeditation … patients were often so emotionally disturbed at the time of the attempt that they not only did not consider but could not use the telephone to call for help…. Another factor which cuts across age, sex and diagnostic groups, was non-recognition of an underlying psychiatric illness or emotional disturbance which the patient was experiencing prior to the attempt.
Although this impulsive behavior may have characterized several of Sexton's suicide attempts, the overall thrust of her writing indicates premeditated action on her part. Her poems clearly reflect her understanding of, and attempt to come to terms with, her mental illness and suicidal behavior. She tried to work these conflicts out on paper as well as with numerous therapists and psychiatrists. Another suicidologist, Joseph Richman, discusses the fact that
Suicide itself is a communication. It is a cry for help, an appeal to others, a method of retaliation or revenge, an expression of atonement and a confession … What has been largely overlooked … is the reciprocal, two-way nature of communication…. There also seems to be an imperviousness or non-reception to verbal messages from the suicidal person by the relatives.
This "reciprocal nature" of suicide as communication comes into play not only with the family and friends of Sexton but with her readers since she expressed her despair and her darker nature in her poetry. This communication was used by Sexton to attempt to reach other souls that were as tormented as she herself was.
Sexton, writing as a "confessional poet," undoubtedly used her own persona in much of her poetry. Kumin refers to "Sexton's deeply rooted conviction that poems not only could, but had to be, made out of the detritus of her life." Therefore her poetry can be assumed to be a reflection of her underlying view of life and her deepest feelings about suicide. I will provide an alternative reading for several of Sexton's apparently non-suicidal poems, by isolating Sexton's suicidal tendencies as a major thematic element that runs through not only the "suicide/death" poems, but many of the others, and by analyzing her poetry using data from a study of Suicidal Women: Their Thinking and Feeling Patterns done by Charles Neuringer and Dan J. Lettieri in 1982.
In their study Neuringer and Lettieri postulated that "the key to suicide does not lie in the area of personality and motivational forces but is the product of the cognitive and intellectual organization of the suicidal individual … there is a particular style of thinking … that leads some people to organize their experience in such a way that suicide is the only possible choice for them." Originally Neuringer had also hoped to compare this potential using gender but was unable to as no comparable study had yet been conducted using male potential suicides.
The Neuringer study consisted of forty women, thirty of whom had evidenced definite suicidal tendencies, and a control group of ten who were in crisis but not suicidal. All thirty of the suicidal women had contacted a suicide "hotline" in Los Angeles, and had been analyzed concerning their suitability for this particular study. The potential suicides were divided into groups of ten and ranked from low to high suicide potential. The subjects were then followed for three weeks, on a daily basis, using a combination of questionnaires and personal interviews to monitor their mental and emotional status. The findings isolated data on four "ingredients" and attempted to find the pattern for identifying potential suicides. I will be dealing with the findings for the highly suicidal woman since Sexton clearly fell in this category throughout her writing career.
The first "ingredient" is the subject's attitude toward life, death, and suicide. According to Neuringer the highly suicidal woman does not find life attractive. Her evaluations of life are in the negative zone. Death seems to be perceived as non-frightening, neutral, or even attractive. A desire to escape from her life seems to predominate.
The second "ingredient" in the suicidal personality is the particular manner the subject chooses to organize her way of viewing the world. Neuringer maintains that this consists of dichotomous thinking carried to one or more extremes. Stark alternatives and extreme polarities of life and death characterize the highly suicidal woman's thinking patterns. "No-Win" situations and severely limited problem-solving mechanisms seem to be part of the pattern. "The massive dichotomous thinking [of the highly suicidal woman] curtails the use of conceptual and intellectual tools that could provide a wide variety of alternative solutions to their difficulties…. For these women life and death are perceived as clear and opposing alternatives; intermediate ways of living are not possible." Howard M. Bogard also describes this dichotomous thinking in his article, the "Collected Thoughts of a Suicidologist" when he describes how differently a situation can appear to a suicidal person. He states that
The loss of jobs, love objects and status must be viewed within the eye and the psychology of the individual involved. The loss of a job will mean something far more devastating to a man who has rigorously over-invested his work … Should a man's career be part of a compensatory struggle to deny feelings of minimal self worth, loss of his position will set off feelings of failure, humiliation, impotence, uselessness, depression and perhaps of suicide. Thus, if I lose my job, I am nothing … if I am nothing I am [or should be] dead.
This is a clear illustration of the fact that alternate ways of living do not appear possible to the suicidal person.
The third "ingredient" of the suicidal personality seems to be the suicidal urge that is more or less present at all times. The desire or urgency fluctuates from day to day but only within a narrow range: "The person never feels free enough from suicidal feelings to develop adequate problem-solving behavior…. The horror continues and will continue, reinforced by the very presence of negative life attitudes and dichotomous thinking. These lethal ingredients to not permit the adoption of life-saving orientations." Allen Alvarez explains this urge very clearly in his book The Savage God:
For them [the suicidal ones], the act is neither rash nor operatic nor, in any obvious way, unbalanced. Instead it is, insidiously, a vocation … there never seems to have been a time when one was not suicidal … so the suicide feels he has always been preparing in secret for this last act.
So death is always in the back of their minds, a viable choice if nothing else works out.
The final "ingredient" is the affective state, the level of feelings and emotions. The highly suicidal woman reports greater suffering, and "seems to be living in a world devoid of interest and [apparently] joyless. They cannot be aroused by stimuli; they are angry and dissatisfied by what they are and what they do; they feel inadequate, they dislike themselves and are profoundly depressed." Otto Rank isolated this tendency in his 1945 book Will Therapy and Truth and Reality when he states that the suicide
perceives himself as unreal and reality as unbearable, because with him the mechanisms of illusion are known and destroyed by self-consciousness. He can no longer deceive himself about himself and disillusions [sic] even his own ideal of personality. He perceives himself as bad, guilt laden, inferior, as a small, weak, helpless creature, which is the truth about mankind, as Oedipus also discovered in the crash of his heroic fate. All other is illusion, deception, but necessary deception in order to be able to bear one's self and thereby life.
Neuringer attempts to find a relationship between these ingredients for the seriously suicidal woman and finds that, in addition to this already "lethal brew" there is one final factor not found in the other women in the study. The "seriously suicidal woman is not oriented toward others … [therefore] possible social restraints in the environment have no inhibiting power for her … [this] allows her to act in socially non-sanctioned ways and … makes the decision to escape from life easy." These findings concur on a scientific level with Allen Alvarez's more colloquial description of the "closed world" of the suicide in his book.
A close examination of Sexton's poems, one about death and suicide, and several others that do not appear to be about death, will reveal Neuringer's five "ingredients."
"Sylvia's Death," written in 1963 is probably the best of Sexton's explorations of wanting to die. Diane Hume George dislikes this poem intensely, making her reasons clear in her discussion of Sexton's so-called "suicide series" in her book Oedipus Anne. George sees the poem as "self-serving, self-pity[ing] and self-aggrandizing" and she feels that she is "overhearing a pathetic competition between suicides, one accomplished and one potential, full of petty jealousy and envy masquerading as eulogy." This view of the poem is echoed by Kathleen Spivack when she discusses Sexton's "jealousy that Sylvia had actually managed to kill herself," but if this poem is viewed as an expression of Sexton's actual feelings about Plath's death, and about her own suicide attempts, then perhaps the apparent pettiness and jealousy could be construed as simply symptoms of the suicidal mind set rather than self-pity.
Neuringer's first "ingredient" can be seen in this poem with Sexton's expressed view of life as "a dead box of stones and spoons," and death as "an old belonging," and finally her view of suicide as "the ride home with our boy." These attitudes reflect a necessary view of death, one which makes suicide a plausible alternative to Sexton rather than simply expressing pettiness and envy.
The second "ingredient" is the dichotomous or polarized view of life and death. This must be assumed in this poem because death is the only subject. Death is not only affirmed as precious, "the death we drank to," but is seen as the only thing of value throughout the poem. Sexton does not remind Plath of the beauties of life, indeed she never refers to any values of life at all. She merely reiterates their previous obsession with death as "the one we talked of so often."
The third "ingredient" is the suicidal urge which appears near the end of the poem: "And I see now that we store him up / year after year, old suicides / and I know at the news of your death, / a terrible taste for it, like salt," Alvarez refers to this endless desire when he quotes an English novelist as saying "For me suicide's a constant temptation. It never slackens … it's been a pattern ever since I can remember."
The fourth "ingredient" is the emotional or affective state of mind of Sexton and she is clearly feeling abandoned by Plath, left behind in this terrifying life where "the moon's bad / and the king's gone, / and the queen's at her wit's end." Death is obviously preferable, and Sexton seems to feel only that Plath has gone ahead, without warning Sexton of her departure for the promised land. Sexton herself had a pact with Maxine Kumin that seems similar. She was to ask Kumin for the "Death Baby" if she ever decided to kill herself again. Possibly Sexton felt that Plath had owed her a similar warning in their suicidal "closed world."
The final factor, according to Neuringer, was the feeling of isolation from the surrounding culture's social mores. This lack of interest in what is important to "other people" seems obvious when Sexton does not remind Sylvia of her obligation to stay alive for her children's sakes. It is also apparent from the fact that Sexton herself, a potential suicide, was completely unaware that Plath was on the verge again. Allen Alvarez (also a member of the "closed society" of which he wrote) refers to his own lack of perception when he admits that he as a fairly good friend of Plath, completely missed the message, and finally he rationalizes this oversight by trying to prove that Plath really didn't mean to kill herself. So Sexton's loss of contact with the world outside could also be assumed by her feeling that she did not have a responsibility to stay closely enough in touch with her friend's pain or terrors to attempt to alleviate or deflect them. So all five ingredients can be found in this "suicide" poem. But can they be found in Sexton's other, less stridently death-oriented, poetry?
Unlike "Sylvia's Death," "The Nude Swim" is a poem that has probably never been classified as a suicide/death poem. It appeared in Love Poems in 1969. William H. Shurr sees the poem as part of a record of a love affair, and although he feels that the poem "derives its setting and quite likely [its] personae from Anne's European trips with her husband," still he perceives the poem on a very superficial "travel documentary" level. The poem does appear to be a momentary break in Sexton's ongoing depressive state, and yet when analyzed according to Neuringer's criteria, it has all of the "ingredients" for a suicidal interpretation. A brief plot summary isolates some of its key elements. Two people swim into an "unknown grotto," where they can "lose all their loneliness," and the "real fish" ignore them. The water is clear and buoyant, and the speaker poses on its surface mimicking a painting of a seductive woman. Her companion tells the speaker that her eyes are "seacolor / skycolor" which then seems to destroy her mood.
Sexton's view of life, death and suicide in this poem appears to be that life is only pleasant when one escapes to an exotic place like Capri, and even there reality looms so large that a further escape to an "unknown grotto" is required to allow the speaker to "release [her] loneliness." Entering the "unknown grotto" can be seen as mysterious or even ominous. Water is a symbol of the subconscious, of oblivion, and can be death-dealing as well as life-giving. Therefore the "clear [and] buoyant" water becomes significant as a symbol when the speaker floats on top of it, plays with it, and finally views it as "a couch as deep as a tomb." Sexton's dichotomous thinking is apparent in the juxtaposition of "real" with unreal fish. The real fish are able to survive in the water, and they ignore these unreal fish as they "trail" over the surface. The speaker and her companion seem only to be pretending to be alive and will never be "real."
The suicidal urge can be traced in the speaker's perceptions of the swim as a momentary release from her loneliness, and yet she knows that she is only posing, only pretending to be a vivid and sensuous woman, while she is floating on the unreal and tomb-like water. Her affective state appears dreamy as she describes this fantasy scene. But her companion destroys the mood by telling her that she is "sky" and "sea colored," a positive view of the speaker basically, and this is a reminder of the living world of which she is a part. This compliment forces her to close her eyes, in an attempt to remain hidden, and then to revert to an ashamed and self-hating state. This is a reenactment of her usual feelings of inadequacy, and worthlessness which are typical of a suicidal person.
The isolation of the cave and the swimmers from the "real world" of Capri indicates that the speaker is oriented away from the world. She has lost touch with others and feels suffocated and constrained by the real world. This freedom of the cave, in reality, is freedom for the speaker to toy with oblivion and death.
In another poem from Love Poems (1969), "For my Lover, Returning to his Wife," Sexton again exhibits the "particular style of thinking" that Neuringer contends leads to suicide. Paul Lacey describes the entire volume of poems as "affirm[ing] the body in a way not to be found in her earlier poetry … the whole body and its separate parts are celebrated and delighted in." Karl Malkoff describes the Love Poems as "further[ing] the reintegration of the self." But within the actual poem itself Sexton's view of life, death, and suicide is again clearly weighted against the speaker's own right to existence. She compares herself to the "Wife" and finds that the wife is "solid" while the speaker is "a watercolor. / I wash off." This also provides a concise view of the dichotomy between the real world of "the wife," and the unreal world of "the mistress" and as usual the speaker loses. She "wash[es] off." She is "momentary," and an "experiment." Therefore, she perceives the wife as the ideal that she, the speaker, cannot attain, and realizes that her only alternative is to disappear. This disappearance is part of the on-going urge toward total oblivion. To die is to lose her awareness that she is not "solid" like the wife, and will enable her to forget that she has been "wash[ed] off" and dissolved.
And in the speaker's muffled anger and rage at being abandoned, there are curious echoes of what she feels she is not. Sexton's own affective state shows in her description of the wife. If the wife is "exquisite," "fireworks," "real," "harmony," and his "have to have," in addition to the "bitch in her," then what is the speaker? The opposite descriptive adjectives are ugly, boring, unreal, and inharmonious, and his unnecessary object. That the wife has a "bitch in her" does not mitigate the speaker's sense of being second-best. And the speaker clearly agrees with the lover that she is less valuable than his wife when she "give[s him] permission … [to] answer the call … [to] climb her like a monument … [because] she is so solid."
Sexton does not consider herself a part of the real world within the context of the poem because she describes herself as "momentary," "a luxury," with her hair "rising like smoke," and her very existence is "out of season." And while she does not discuss suicidal feelings in direct terms, the absence of any rationale that would enable her to live, coupled with her complete invisibility, and lack of worth in her relationship to the lover and his wife, would lead most seriously disturbed people to feel like death was a serious alternative to such despair. Instead of rationalizing her situation, or rejecting and devaluing her lover, she has turned the knife of worthlessness against her own life. Or in the words of Neuringer, the speaker has organized her thinking patterns "in such a way that suicide is the only possible choice" for her.
In "The Double Image" the suicidal undertones are even more markedly present. Published in her first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back in 1960, it is ostensibly a long explanation, addressed to her three-year-old daughter, of Sexton's suicide attempts, and therefore her past inability to be a good mother for the child. Written as though Sexton now felt "together" and stable, the poem's speaker is in reality precariously balanced on the verge of oblivion. Greg Johnson describes the poem as "tender [with a] carefully modulated voice … firmly aligned on the side of health." And although Johnson describes Sexton as aware of her "continued vulnerability" he focuses on her "desire for an affectionate, healthy relationship with the child." In truth Sexton is already isolated from life and unable to relate to her child at all.
Beginning with the first section, and running throughout the poem, her view of life can be seen as strongly negative: nature "goes queer," and autumn leaves do not believe in themselves or else they fall. Life "was an old debt," that is filled with "blame" and "doom," and can be understood only by "witches" and "ugly angels" who tell Sexton what her life means, and what she must do. Sexton warns her daughter that if she doesn't believe in herself she will fall as the leaves are falling. By the second section of the poem life is filled with lies and hypocrisy where one is locked up in the cupboards of a church. Death, on the other hand, is "simpler than [she'd] thought," and will, with the witches' help, "take away [her] guilty soul."
The suicidal view of life as having only one solution or alternative to death is seen in her repeated failures to find a place to be, not only for her daughter, but for herself. Sexton tries to die, she ends up in a mental hospital, she then tries to go home again to her mother's house, again she tries to die, she tries to go back to her husband in Boston, and so on and so on. She seems to be searching for the perfect place in the world for her weary spirit to rest, and exist, and never seems to succeed. The end of the poem remains inconclusive since, although she has her daughter back with her full time, she does not tell the reader where they finally are, or even give the feeling that they really are settled at all.
Sexton's desire to die, and also her separation from the immediacies of the world, are seen in her use of language and imagery that distances, not only the audience, but the speaker, from the story being unfolded. A formal, unemotional retelling of all of these desperate failures of the spirit of Sexton's part creates a sense of disinterest in, or at best, clinical curiosity about, the details of her life. She is not committed to this life, or even to this child. She calls her daughter an "image," a "small piglet," a "butterfly girl," a "splendid stranger," and "a small milky mouse." All terms of endearment to be sure, but also basically non-human terms, and such terms could also serve to remove the child from the immediate world where her mother would feel responsibility for her. So the child could conceivably end up being part of the world that Neuringer feels the suicidal person can ignore. However adorable, who needs to feel responsible for an image or a mouse?
Sexton's affective state is the most easily isolated. It consists of total despair, a complete and over-riding sense of guilt and failure, and a self-image that is disastrous. Sexton sees herself through her mother's eyes, or at least as she imagines her mother sees her, and what she finds is the "stony head of death," "the double woman who stares / at herself, as if she were petrified / in time," and most dreadfully, she sees herself as "rot[ting] on the wall, [her] own / Dorian Gray." Sexton has no hope for her own future or for the future of the relationship with her child. She begins the poem in futility, "all the medical hypothesis / that explained my brain will never be as true as these / struck leaves letting go," and ends it in guilt and confusion: "I, who was never quite sure / about being a girl, needed another / life, another image to remind me. / And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure / nor soothe it. I made you to find me." The final terrifying fact that the reader notices is that the entire poem, with the exception of the opening line, is written in the past tense. The poem ends in the past, not in the present or the future.
Sexton's Live or Die (1966) ends with the poem "Live." Paul Lacey finds that this poem "express[es] a new equilibrium," and Robert Boyers calls it "a triumph of determination and insight, a final resolution of irreconcilabilities that had threatened to remain perpetually suspended and apart … a rebirth of astounding proportions." Most other critics also agree that the poem affirms life and announces Sexton's determination to live. But in this poem Neuringer's five "ingredients" appear clearly, and they do so with even more violence simply because the tone is so strong and positive. This poem does not offer a counter to Sexton's suicidal nature but rather represents her state of mind when she is feeling stronger and more capable of dealing with her problems. Clearly however, her on-going obsession with death, her inability to achieve equilibrium in her life, her vision of the world as joyless and cruel, and her lack of connection with the people around her remain as marked and symptomatic as in her other works.
Beginning with Sexton's view of life, death, and suicide, we see immediately that she remains obsessed with death although she describes it in less seductive terms. Death, relegated to the background like "mud, day after day," is still far from being safely removed from her. The assumption that Sexton is merely setting the stage for her reader in the first two stanzas by explaining her emotional state does not ameliorate her terrifying view of life. She calls herself mutilated, dismembered, "somebody's doll" and says that she has a "dwarf's heart." The only human is the "death-baby," which has been cooked and sewn with "little maggots" by "somebody's mother." And in the subsequent supposedly affirmative stanzas, life remains "a dream," and even less positive, a magic ritual as she "turn[s her] shadow [and not her substance] three times round." Sexton maintains that life has given her "the answer" and she sees it as "moving feverishly." Her tone becomes increasingly angry and even sarcastic as she progresses through the poem and describes her "new" outlook. Sexton's depiction of the sun or life as an egg with a tumbling center is as deadly as her other more obviously negative life images. She ends "Live, Live because of the sun, / the dream, the excitable gift." Such images are not necessarily positive since none of the three is susceptible to man's control, and the effects of these images are equally uncontrollable and unknown. The sun can kill and so can a dream. And what exactly is an "excitable gift?" It is something offered by another person, at their convenience, and for their own reasons. To "excite" means to set in motion, awaken, call forth, or stir-up, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and all these terms are capable of being extremely positive or extremely negative. That Sexton chooses such strong words capable of divergent and polarized meanings is indicative of her true inner mood.
Sexton's view of herself becomes increasingly impenetrable; she decides that she needs a "purifier," and sleeps in a "corruptible bed." While she feels that she is not a "killer," she remains hidden behind an "apron" and carries her kisses inside her "hood." Her role appears to be to "love more if they come," to nurture, to feed, and to provide roses (beauty) from "the hackles" (her inner anger) of her throat. She is not creative in herself she says; her typewriter is the one that writes and does not break. In fact, she herself has frequently broken and been yelled at and told to shut-up by the people in her world. Ironically, the hammer or the power to kill herself has not been discarded because she has come to love life, but because she now understands that "people don't like to be told / that you're sick."
Sexton's mood remains strongly dichotomous as she portrays her world as a heartless place where her pain is used sadistically, or trivialized, by those around her. When she burns, they roast marshmallows over her flames, and when she freezes emotionally, they skate on her in cute little costumes. When she becomes a witch, they paint her pink, disguising her real nature for a moment. Even more indicative of their insensitivity is her comment that rather than help her change or get well, those around her simply oversimplify her complexity, and say that she is as "nice as a chocolate bar" when she is crazy.
But the primary key to Sexton's mood is that the people around her remain inhuman, or at best non-human, throughout the poem. Her lovers are "celery stalks," her husband is a "redwood," and her two daughters are "sea urchins." Even the puppies are not compared to living creatures but are called "cordwood [and] birch trees." So Sexton remains oriented away from those around her, and while she is not going to wear her hospital shift or quote her Black Masses at this time, she does not unequivocably state that they are no longer in her repertoire of life. Suicide and death remain in the recesses of her mind because life continues to be something that she "all the time want[s] to get rid of."
So Neuringer's five "lethal ingredients" can be found in many other Sexton poems, certainly many more than the twenty or so ostensibly "suicidal" poems that the critics cite. And these ingredients may well be present in them all, either wholly or in part. Sexton's view of the world seems always a little askew, and her sense of futility is always very strong. The awareness of all her incapacities, failures, and secret sins, seems to underlie many, if not all, of her poems. And Sexton constantly reiterates her view that death is easy, plausible, welcoming, and so attractive that "I am in love with it" (in the poem "Leaves That Talk"). Perhaps Diane Hume George's theory of the existence of a special language of the suicide is true, and this special language has muffled Sexton's deathly view of life in the minds of critics. Perhaps only someone who has also heard the "green girls" can understand Sexton's language, and agree with her that "They call, they call their green death call. They want me. They need me. / I belong lying down under them. / letting the green coffin fold and unfold / above me as I go out."
Other elements, of course, go into the making of Sexton's, or any poet's work. Gary Blankenburg, among other critics, notes that Sexton's poetry is written primarily from the stance of "mental, physical, and spiritual illness." Sexton suffered severe bouts with mental illness during her entire writing career, and indeed much of her poetry can be viewed from the therapeutic angle. There are numerous critical articles written about Sexton's therapy sessions, her hospitalizations, and her frequent descent into mental distress. But she was also a consummate poet. Anyone capable of writing such lines as "Johnny, your dream moves summers / inside my mind," or "… what / I remember best is that / the door to your room was / the door to mine," was a gifted craftsman of the language. That she also had a strong sense of humor about life and death can be seen by lines such as "the dead turn over casually, / thinking … / Good! No visitors today." These and hundreds of other perfectly crafted lines prove that Sexton's poetry is readable on any number of levels.
But her suicidal tendencies drove her, and ultimately claimed her, and stopped her mouth with death. Ernest Becker seems to be describing Sexton, and all creative geniuses, when he discusses the root of the suicidal wish:
What we call the well-adjusted man has just this capacity to partialize the world for comfortable action … men aren't built to be gods, to take in the whole world; they are built like other creatures, to take in the piece of ground in front of their noses … as soon as a man lifts his nose from the ground and starts sniffing at eternal problems like life and death, the meaning of a rose or a star cluster—then he is in trouble.
And Sexton definitely began sniffing at eternal problems, eternal paradoxes and so lost her way forever. But her poetry remains to tell us about ourselves, the darker parts, the parts of ourselves that we try to ignore. And she tells us, whether we understand her or not, how it feels to live in the endless night of a suicidal nature.
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