Sexton’s Spiritual Poems

Anne Sexton’s religious poems present some particular problems for me. In some ways, they are my favorite of her poems. In the best poems her use of images remind me of the metaphysical poets in their use of unusual, disparate, images, while her rhetoric reminds me of Walt Whitman’s, with its repetition of key phrases and cataloging.

There is undoubtedly power in these poems. They are in-your-face poems, challenging your very perception of Christ. The God she describes in these poems is not your mother’s, or your father’s, God. There is an angst and anger in these poems that threatens to overwhelm not only Sexton but you, the reader.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem I have with the poems. The truth is that angst and anger are not enough, can never be enough. They are necessary and inevitable, perhaps, but they are not sufficient to carry me across to the other shore.

Personally, I prefer Sexton's poems like:

The Fury of Sunsets

Something
cold is in the air,
an aura of ice
and phlegm.
All day I've built
a lifetime and now
the sun sinks
to undo it.
The horizon bleeds
and sucks its thumb.
The little red thumb
goes out of sight.
And I wonder about
this lifetime with myself,
this dream I'm living.
I could eat the sky
like an apple
but I'd rather
ask the first star:
why am I here?
why do I live in this house?
who's responsible?
eh?


The coldness in the air, the “aura of ice” suggests to me the loneliness and isolation that all of us have felt throughout life, but the ultimate isolation is that of death. Though we struggle to survive each day and to build a meaningful life the sinking sun seems to represent the end of things. At night, awake or asleep, this lifetime seems like a dream, insubstantial. Instead of living we reflect, like the moon reflects the sun , on the day that has passed. Who hasn’t asked the universe, perhaps best represented by those cold, distant stars, “why am I here?” And such doubts ultimately lead to the more basic question, “who’s responsible” for my life, for this feeling of emptiness that comes at the end of each day? Eh? This is the ending that I most fear, a meaningless death after a long meaningless life.

When Sexton says In “Frenzy,” “I am, each day,/typing out the God/my typewriter believes in./Very quick. Very intense,/ like a wolf at a live heart,” I begin to question the very essence of these poems. Why is it “the God my typewriter believes in” rather than the God “I believe in?” What kind of God does her typewriter believe in? A melodramatic God that looks good on the page?

Now, Sexton had great taste in borrowing the title of Kierkegaard's work, and it fits nicely with the idea of sin that pervades her poems:

The Sickness Unto Death

God went out of me
as if the sea dried up like sandpaper,
as if the sun became a latrine.
God went out of my fingers.
They became stone.
My body became a side of mutton
and despair roamed the slaughterhouse.

Someone brought me oranges in my despair
but I could not eat a one
for God was in that orange.
I could not touch what did not belong to me.
The priest came,
he said God was even in Hitler.
I did not believe him
for if God were in Hitler
then God would be in me.
I did not hear the bird sounds.
They had left.
I did not see the speechless clouds,
I saw only the little white dish of my faith
breaking in the crater.
I kept saying:
I've got to have something to hold on to.
People gave me Bibles, crucifixes,
a yellow daisy,
but I could not touch them,
I who was a house full of bowel movement,
I who was a defaced altar,
I who wanted to crawl toward God
could not move nor eat bread.

So I ate myself,
bite by bite,
and the tears washed me,
wave after cowardly wave,
swallowing canker after canker
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.

My kindred, my brother, I said
and gave the yellow daisy
to the crazy woman in the next bed.

Who wouldn’t be struck by images, metaphors and symbols like these? The sun becomes a latrine, polluting all. The narrator becomes a mutton to Jesus’ lamb, and the slaughterhouse is filled with despair. God is even in Hitler, the Satan of the modern world? He must be if the Holy Spirit is everywhere, right? Surely that’s an assertion that tests our very faith. I know sometimes people “feel like shit,” I’ve felt that way myself at times lately, but how does one feel like “a house full of bowel movement?” It may make sense to destroy yourself “bite by bite,” but “canker after canker?” For me, at least, this all becomes too melodramatic, too hysterical, to be believable.

As much as I am moved by Sexton’s poems, I wouldn’t want to use her rowboat as my pilot ship to God. I fear she may well be rowing in the wrong direction. If I were looking for a poetic guide to the unknown, at least a Christian guide, I would prefer John Donne’s holy sonnets or Gerard Manly Hopkins’s poems.

If the truth be told, though, at the moment I am looking to the Zen poets for solace, and perhaps their calm reflection on life and death has biased me against Sexton’s railings against a merciless world that often asks more of us than we are capable of giving.

One thought on “Sexton’s Spiritual Poems

  1. sexton loses her God during her lifetime. when she needs Him, she cannot remember His individuality;is he a whore,child,man or woman. unfortunately many of us fall in identical abyss. the poem ,may be unconsciously, leaves a painful message: keep god within yourself all time and don`t spare it according to one`s need.she cannot find god with this ignorance; if i live her time ,i can show her easy way to have god.god does not need violence or scissors or boat or church to gain it you need only pure two words” forgive me”

What do you think?