We’re going to start the week with a review of Anne Sexton’s poetry by Diane McCormick who will be contributing to this blog regularly for awhile. Hopefully, I’ll post my review of more Sexton poems tomorrow, though I’m running a little late because of a follow-up surgery last week, a delightful grandson’s birthday, and the sheer amount of time it took to read Richard Wright’s book last week.
The Massachusetts born poet Anne Sexton, 1928-1974, could only briefly be described as the thwarted mother and housewife of the 1950s, stifled at home unable to make her creativity known to the outside world, because before she died she had won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry and a full professorship at Boston College.
It is true she never received a college degree, but Anne wrote her way into the acquaintance of lovers, critics, fellow poets, and psychiatrists.
The best sources of information about her life come from Anne Sexton: a Biography written by Diane Wood Middlebrook, professor of English, Stanford University, and the foreword to The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton, written by long-time friend and fellow poet Maxine Kumin. Two web sites offer additional background, the Diane Middlebrook site and A Brief Biography of the Life of Anne Sexton. There are other web sites that discuss Anne Sexton, but these two seem the best. There is also The Academy of American Poets.
To say Anne Sexton was complex, controversial, and confessional only begins the conversation about her. She appears to have begun her life as an indifferent student who married young and gave birth to a daughter at the age of 25. Her mental illness may have begun with post partum depression, but she has also been called schizophrenic. Alcoholism and drug addiction contributed to her problems. So far I have not seen a picture of her without a cigarette in her hand.
At the age of 29 she began to write poetry at the suggestion of her therapist, a treatment program she followed the rest of her life, but she was hardly the quiet patient, writing to calm her fears and anxieties. She sought attention, doing lectures accompanied by her own rock band, Her Kind. Audio samples of her readings are available on the net at the Diane Middlebrook site.
Her poems were often challenged as just too confessional. Readers need to make up their own minds now that we are beyond the 1950s and 60s. Pick up The Complete Poems. There is something there for everyone. A sample follows of some of her work.
I know Loren has already written about Courage, but I have to add my own words because it is a favorite of mine.
It is in the small things we see it.
The childs first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword youll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and youll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
youll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.
Those of us sturdy for common things as William Stafford wrote, can continue to feel rewarded in Anne Sextons Courage.
For it takes courage to do the common things we do at every time in our lives. Imagine the courage it took to make that first step, an event as awesome as an earthquake. Or the first time we ride a bike, wallowing up the sidewalk.
The stanza continues to portray our courage in more introspective, less physical ways–perhaps times when we needed courage most of all, when we were spanked, instantly separated from a parent who was supposed to only hug us, or when we were teased, called poor or f ¯atty or crazy. You drank their acid and concealed it. Courage gave us strength to conceal the sting of words flung in our faces.
The next stanza refers to the courage soldiers exhibit on the battlefield, references brought to Sextons mind from the Korean War in which her husband was a participant. The men faced the death of bombs and bullets stoically, with only a hat to cover your heart. Courage on the battlefield was a small coal swallowed to keep alive. Then if a buddy dies saving you, his courage is elevated to love as simple as shaving soap.
These metaphors and personifications are the lifes blood of Sextons poems, the words, as awesome as an earthquake, wallowing up the sidewalk, heart went on a journey all alone, drank their acid, courage was a small coal, love as simple as shaving soap, pull the reader into her mind. These are extraordinary images of ordinary things–taking a first step, riding a bike, receiving a spanking, being teased, fighting a war, saving a buddy.
The last two stanzas are just as rich. We ordinary folk show courage when we endure despair, get a transfusion from the fire, picking the scabs off your heart, then wring it out like a sock. The stanza ends with the extended metaphor of caring for an infant, powdering, rubbing its back, putting it to sleep to wake to the wings of roses…transformed.
At the end of life we are the most courageous of all. In the spring we will renew ourselves as long as we can, sharpening our swords, to fight for life; we will love even more and bargain with the calendar. Finally when we cant hang on anymore, we will put on our carpet slippers and stride [not limp or crawl or sneak but stride] out.
The sharpness of the images, the originality are unique but exact. Few can duplicate her imagery, but we can read and appreciate her work.
Courage is found in her book of poems entitled, The Awful Rowing Toward God, the last book published during Sextons life. Sexton wrote nine books of poetry, the titles of which give some insight into the woman: To Bedlam and Part Way Back, All My Pretty Ones (Macduffs line from Macbeth upon learning Macbeth has slaughtered his entire family); Live or Die, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967; Love Poems, Transformations, The Book of Folly,The Death Notebooks, which Sexton originally meant to be published posthumously; The Awful Rowing Toward God, and 45 Mercy Street which was published posthumously. There are more uncollected, unedited poems which her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, has included in her mothers Complete Poems.
Riding the Elevator into the Sky is another from The Awful Rowing Toward God.
As the fireman said:
Dont book a room over the fifth floor
in any hotel in New York.
They have ladders that will reach further
but no one will climb them.
As the New York Times said:
The elevator always seeks out
the floor of the fire
and automatically opens
and wont shut.
These are the warnings
that you must forget
if youre climbing out of yourself.
If you re going to smash into the sky.
Many times Ive gone past
the fifth floor,
but only once
have I gone all the way up.
small plants and swans bending
into their grave;
Floor two hundred:
mountains with the patience of a cat,
silence wearing its sneakers.
Floor five hundred:
messages and letters centuries old,
birds to drink,
a kitchen of clouds.
Floor six thousand;
skeletons on fire,
their arms singing.
And a key,
a very large key,
that opens something–
some useful door–
The extended metaphor, the elevator ascending to heaven and, I think, self knowledge, appeals to me. One must not be warned away if she is to climb out of herself, if she is going to smash into the sky, burst into glory and achievement.
I can believe Sextons confession of her ascent as she goes beyond the fifth floor, cranking upward, past the small plants and swans bending into their grave, past the mountains with the patience of a cat, silence wearing its sneakers, beyond the messages and letters centuries old, a kitchen of clouds, the stars, skeletons on fire, to the key…that opens something…somewhere–up there. Such irony to reach the key that still offers no right or wrong answer, only more mystery– a key that opens something somewhere.
Young and I Remember are printed in her second book of poetry, All My Pretty Ones, 1962.
A thousand doors ago
when I was a lonely kid
in a big house with four
garages and it was summer
as long as I could remember,
I lay on the lawn at night,
clover wrinkling under me,
the wise stars bedding over me,
my mothers window a funnel
of yellow heat running out,
my fathers window, half shut,
an eye where sleepers pass,
and the boards of the house
were smooth and white as wax
and probably a million leaves
sailed on their strange stalks
as the crickets ticked together
and I, in my brand new body,
which was not a womans yet,
told the stars my questions
and thought God could really see
the heat and the painted light,
elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight.
As the title implies this is a remembrance of youth, a thousand doors ago, an adult remembering a summer home, lying out at night, looking up at the stars, mom and dad at home in the house. The house was a favorite, its boards smooth ad white as wax, surrounded by trees with a million leaves that hid the crickets. I hope everyone has such a house in her memory; for me its the old family farm house, to remember a time when we thought God could really see our dreams and our new formed bodies.
By the first of August
the invisible beetles began
to snore and the grass was
as tough as hemp and was
no color–no more than
the sand was a color and
we had worn our bare feet
bare since the twentieth
of June and there were times
we forgot to wind up your
alarm clock and some nights
we took our gin warm and neat
from old jelly glasses while
the sun blew out of sight
like a red picture hat and
one day I tied my hair back
with a ribbon and you said
that I looked almost like
a puritan lady and what
I remember best is that
the door to your room was
the door to mine.
The child in Young is an adult now, drinking gin in jelly glasses, sharing a room with someone, a lover, I hope. There is a sweetness in these two poems that I dont think is commented on enough in Sextons poetry. Her poems about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery, and drug addiction to quote her friend Maxine Kumin, draw much more attention. Of course, she wrote of sex, too. Read the very sensual When a Man Enters a Woman in The Awful Rowing Toward God and note the sadly ironic ending which could only be written by a woman of experience.
Sexton used nature as referenced in Young and I Remember and also in the next poem, Snow.
comes out of the sky
like bleached flies.
The ground is no longer naked.
The ground has on its clothes.
The trees poke out of sheets
and each branch wears the sock of God.
There is hope.
There is hope É everywhere.
I bite it.
Someone once said:
Dont bite till you know
if its bread or stone.
What I bit is all bread,
rising, yeasty as a cloud.
There is hope.
There is hope everywhere.
Today God gives milk
and I have the pail.
A master of the extended metaphor, isnt she? Hope, like snow, is everywhere. At this moment in her life God gave her snow–hope like milk and she had a pail. According to her biographers, she didnt feel this way often enough. Sexton committed suicide.
Finally here is what some critics call her signature poem, Her Kind found in To Bedlam and Part Way Back, 1960.
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain house, 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.
All the roles of woman she has been by the grand age of 32–the bewitched woman, the housewife and mother, fixing supper for worms and elves, whining, rearranging the disaligned. She has been the survivor learning the last bright routes. Note the next to the last lines in each stanza for the ultimate clarity a woman like that is not a woman, quite…A woman like that is misunderstood…A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
The signature of Anne Sexton