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.