Anne Sexton’s Early Poems

Reading Richard Wright’s complete poems last week, despite the hours it consumed, I was impressed with how good it felt to be immersed in his poetry, in his life. The experience empowered me to re-examine my own life, to discover my own symbols, and to re-discover the themes of my own life.

Unfortunately, reading Selected Poems of Anne Sexton did not produce the same feeling. At times I found it difficult just to continue reading. At times I felt exactly the way I used feel when listening to Alana Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. Stop, before I slash my wrists!! Perhaps, though, it was more like taking pain pills. In small doses they provide blessed relief from pain; in large doses they result in hallucinogenic nightmares.

Simply put, I prefer Anne Sexton in small doses. Some of her poems, ones I’ve previously cited on this blog, for instance, are among my favorite poems. Other poems seem to offer genuine insight into mental illness and its causes. The best of her poems capture the religious doubts many of us have endured in our spiritual journey. Too many of the poems, though, seem overly melodramatic, overly depressing, or, worst of all, simply irrelevant to my life.

However, one theme I could consistently identify with in the earlier poems was the search for self-identity. Man or woman, this is a search we all have to make. Being a man, I suspect that this search may be even harder for women in our society because society has traditionally denied women the same freedom it gives to men:

Self in 1958

What is reality?
I am a plaster doll; I pose
with eyes that cut open without landfall or nightfall
upon some shellacked and grinning person,
eyes that open, blue, steel, and close.
Am I approximately an I. Magnin transplant?
I have hair, black angel,
black angel-stuffing to comb,
nylon legs, luminous arms
and some advertised clothes.

I live in a doll’s house
with four chairs,
a counterfeit table, a flat roof
and a big front door.
Many have come to such a small crossroad.
There is an iron bed,
(Life enlarges, life takes aim)
a cardboard floor,
windows that flash open on someone’s city,
and little more.

Someone plays with me,
plants me in the all-electric kitchen,
Is this what Mrs. Rombauer said?
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? Their warmth is not a friend!
They pry my mouth for their cups of gin
and their stale bread.

What is reality
to this synthetic doll
who should smile, who should shift gears,
should spring the doors open in a wholesome disorder,
and have no evidence of ruin or fears?
But I would cry,
rooted into the wall that
was once my mother,
if I could remember how
and if I had the tears.

Today we’re all very conscious of the Barbie Doll stereotype, so it should come as no surprise that Sexton felt pressured to become an eye-fluttering, smiling “plaster doll,” who dressed in the proper I Magnin clothes. Nor should it come as a surprise that she felt pressured to become a “homemaker” in the suburbs. Forced into these synthetic “roles,” is it surprising that she questions reality, or is it surprising that more women didn’t question it?

As an ex-high-school teacher, I am all too aware just how brutal this search for identity is when there is constant pressure to conform to an image that doesn’t fit you. Much to my consternation, I have had delightfully bright, attractive teenage girls reveal to me that they have never felt accepted in high school, that they don’t identify with their class or with their school, all because they felt too bright, because they didn’t fit the teenage ideal. As a parent, I resisted the pressure to treat my daughter differently than my son, reasoning that both would be confronted with similar life crises that demanded strength of character. Sometimes I still feel guilty about that, but I would probably do the same thing all over again.

This question of what is reality is carried another step further in “Her Kind,” where Sexton recognizes the different roles that she has played in her life, though none of them ultimately represent who she truly is:

Her Kind

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves;
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

In all three stanzas, the narrator envisions herself as a “witch,” a symbol Sexton uses throughout her poetry to represent female alienation from society. The first stanza presents the traditional image of a witch flying over the rooftops dreaming of evil. But what person hasn’t roamed the night, lonely, dreaming of “evil,” or at least dreaming of “love.” In the second stanza the narrator imagines herself as a housewife, but as a housewife living in a cave who unhappily serves “worms and elves.” Finally, the witch is burned at the stake after being publicly embarrassed by being hauled “nude” through the village in cart. These seem to represent the narrator’s feeling that she is less than a woman, that she is misunderstood, and that she wants to die. Talking about herself in the third person like this, “her kind,” instead of “my kind,” also indicates that the narrator lacks a true sense of identity.

An even more dramatic statement of this alienation is found in “Consorting with Angels.”

Consorting with Angels

I was tired of being a woman,
tired of the spoons and the pots,
tired of my mouth and my breasts,
tired of the cosmetics and the silks.
There were still men who sat at my table,
circled around the bowl I offered up.
The bowl was filled with purple grapes
and the flies hovered in for the scent
and even my father came with his white bone.
But I was tired of the gender of things.

Last night I had a dream
and I said to it …
"You are the answer.
You will outlive my husband and my father."
In that dream there was a city made of chains
where Joan was put to death in man’s clothes
and the nature of the angels went unexplained,
no two made in the same species,
one with a nose, one with an ear in its hand,
one chewing a star and recording its orbit,
each one like a poem obeying itself,
performing God’s functions, a people apart.

"You are the answer,"
I said, and entered,
lying down on the gates of the city.
Then the chains were fastened around me
and I lost my common gender and my final aspect.
Adam was on the left of me
and Eve was on the right of me,
both thoroughly inconsistent with the world of reason.
We wove our arms together
and rode under the sun.
I was not a woman anymore,
not one thing or the other.

0 daughters of Jerusalem,
the king has brought me into his chamber.
I am black and I am beautiful.
I’ve been opened and undressed.
I have no arms or legs.
I’m all one skin like a fish.
I’m no more a woman
than Christ was a man.

Though the theme is similar to the one in “Self in 1958,” the images here are much more dramatic, dynamic, and confusing. Though the first stanza seems relatively traditional, the repetition of “tired” and the images that suggest sexism at its worst, particularly the reference to possible incest, make an effective introduction to the more radical images that follow. The dream in the second stanza where Joan of Arc is crucified for taking on a man’s role and where strange, unique angels appear transitions nicely to the third stanza where the narrator is “chained” between Adam and Eve (is this one of those “deep images”? that Sexton acquired through her friendship with Richard Wright?), and somehow is “not a woman” anymore, is both male and female, or neither. The poem climaxes with the narrator being transformed into a non-sexual “fish,” a traditional symbol Christ often found on the back of cars, and the heretical, at least when this poem was written, suggestion that Christ, God, was neither man nor a woman. Now I don’t find this too shocking because I doubt that the human “soul” has any sexual orientation, but it’s a daring metaphor, none the less.

Thank God most of us have not suffered the same degree of alienation described in these poems, but we have all suffered enough alienation to empathize with Sexton’s feelings and those of others who suffer the same feelings. At the very least, we should come away with an understanding of how our societal values, how our stereotyping, engender these feelings in others.

28 thoughts on “Anne Sexton’s Early Poems

  1. All I can say it I stopped reading this article after the second paragraph. Sadly, as many one does not want a dose of a faceless person. Of course you would not understand this. So go run in some flowers and puddles.

  2. Cassandra, you should appreciate that there is anything there at all. And if you wish to criticize a service someone is doing for you, then at least do it constructively. There’s no reason to be negative about the content of this website.

  3. It’s okay, Carolyn, it taught for 30 years and am not too sensitive about criticism.

    I can take out any comment that actually offends me, too.

    But if “cassandra” had done a little more searching s/he would’ve found that there is a lot more about Sexton than this one article on this web site.

  4. I would like to say anne sexton, and her poetry are inspirations. I just finished reading briefly about her life, i recomend it to everyone. thank you.

  5. i’ve read the poems, too bad there isn’t more.
    her poetry seems honestly open and revealing a
    part of the soul, most do not care too. anne
    has a haunting grasp in expressing, in telling,
    her views of life.

  6. Anne Sexton is definately one of the major 20th century poets. No doubt about it. Even more than Snodgrass and Lowell, I think she pushed the confessional genre to its greatest form, precisely, because as even Plath herself realized, Sexton was not weighted down by the formalism and “breathing down your neck” rigidity of the poetic canon. She was largely self taught and highly disciplined, teaching herself a various unique forms which eventually freed up Plath to write the pathbreaking poems in Ariel. A remarkable poem which is THE forerunner to Plath’s DADDY is an early Sexton Poem published in the late 50’s in the Antioch review called ” My Friend, My Friend.” It is very very difficult to locate on the Internet

  7. how impressive. I am currently preparing a poetry analysis for school and am focusing on the poet Anne Sexton. We were told to choose 2 poems by our major poet, and Her Kind and Consorting with Angels is here!!! I’m delighted. Your interpretation of the last stanza in Her Kind is certainly different than mine. I thought it represented aduletery

  8. Just wanted to let the author of this page know that the “Her Kind” poem is copied with the line “A woman like that is not a woman, quite.” is in the wrong spot. Just realized it after I was reading it repeatedly for my paper.

  9. Thanks, tomboy, I changed that.

    Not quite sure how that happened since I scan the poems, not type them in myself. This is a pretty old entry, though and has been converted through several different blog systems, so the formatting of the entry was really off when I went in to correct the placement of that line.

  10. very very helpful analysis, i had just chosen “her kind” for a school report when i came across this page and discovered the real greatness of anne sexton. really, you truly got me hooked.
    many thanks,
    zack

  11. In “Her Kind,” one of the questions I was asked is “what crime has the witch committed?” Straight off, I do not see any crime. Explanation?

  12. Andrew,
    The crime is in BEING a witch. Witchs need no commit any crime because just existing, the abominations that they were, was criminal against humanity.

    You might have seen the article that appeared in the last several weeks about a Northern European woman that was exonerated of the charge of being a witch — 300 years after her execution.

  13. This website is amazing. My literature teacher suggested this site and I’m really glad that she did. It helps me so much. I am only in high school and sometimes I have a hard time interperating some poetry! This is such a help!!

  14. Thank you for the article. Unfortunately, it is not long enough, but I found it very useful. I liked “Her KInd,” but I did not like the other two poems at all.

  15. “eyes that open, blue, steel and close.” <- It’s a beautiful line, but I can’t figure out if ‘close’-a heteronym-is referring to the nearness of the eyes or stating that they shut as well as open…

  16. Mary Jane, please. Jason posted one of the most intelligent and sincere “comments” here. What – afraid of a little reading that goes beyond just a line or two?

    Jason, completely agree (obviously).
    Though Lowell and Snodgrass were inspirations to Anne, (espeically Snodgrass) – she did take the art to another level. Opening the wound further, to expose more flesh, if you will.

    Some people spend more time criticizing other comments than comments on the subject at hand, don’t they? 🙂

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