Critical Overview

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In the last three weeks of January 1973, Sexton wrote all of the poems in The Awful Rowing Toward God, including “Courage.” Though many of her friends, including poet James Wright, made unfavorable comments about the manuscript as a whole, Sexton submitted it anyway, and it was accepted for publication. The collection received mostly negative reviews. Reviewing the book for Modern Poetry Studies, Steven Gould Axelrod writes, “These poems resemble episodes of consciousness rather than completed, unified objects.” Axelrod, like many others, argued that the poems “should be seen as psychological jottings and prophetic notes.” Sexton’s close friend, poet Maxine Kumin, points out that the poems were written in an almost manic phase of Sexton’s life and agrees with Axelrod, noting, “There is no psychic distance between the poet and the poem.” Critic Kathleen Nichols makes no judgment as to the aesthetic value of the poems; rather, she considers them as evidence of Sexton’s “poetic descent into the unconscious.” Nichols claims that “What she imaginatively attains at the end of the volume is a wish-fulfilling reunion with her lost soul or ‘divine’ father on a sigh-shaped island floating in and surrounded by the archetypal amniotic fluid of her preconscious, maternal origins.” Caroline King Barnard Hall, in her book-length study of Sexton, notes that Sexton admitted in her letters that the poems in the collection are “raw” and “unworked.” Hall notes, “Creation of a dramatic situation by which to realize theme is another strength of many of Sexton’s best poems.” However, Hall concedes that “Such strengths are largely absent from The Awful Rowing Toward God.”

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Essays and Criticism