POETS Day! Anne Sexton

McLean Hospital, MA Photo by John Phelan, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

I don’t want to alarm anybody, but our kids are on the cusp of vacation, assuming they paid attention in biology class and don’t have to repeat that fetal pig desecrating nightmare stuck in a lab all summer while their friends jeep blissfully to the lake to see what the girls in class look like partially clothed. I wouldn’t wish those institutionalime hydroclorosmelling tiles on anyone. They’ll be leaping all over the place while the adults drudge away. Child is father to the man – take the lesson. You may not get a whole summer but pilfered weekday added to a weekend serves as a salve of some sort. Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. Dissemble, obfuscate, fudge the truth, and gleefully trespass the norms and delicate pieties that preserve our hopefully durable civilization. Nearly all means are justified by the urge to prematurely escape the bonds of employment and settle in at a friendly neighborhood joint a few hours before even happy hour begins, lay comfortably in the grass at a local park, go to the lake “for a swim,” or God forbid, go for a light jog. It’s your weekend. Do with it as you will, but in homage to the mighty acronym may I suggest setting aside a moment for a little verse? It’s a particularly good way to pass time waiting on friends who may not run as roughshod over the delicate pieties and were not as successful as you were in engineering an early exit.


It was pointed out to me last week that Robert LowellSylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton all spent time in McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital, in Massachusetts. McLean also claims Ray Charles, David Foster Wallace, and James Taylor as alumni. That I went to the same high school as Kate Jackson seems suddenly less impressive. But I did. Bea Arthur once grabbed my ass.

The three Confessional Poets also shared a classroom, the two suicides as students and Lowell as professor, at Boston University. Plath and Sexton struck up a friendship. From Sexton’s poem “Sylvia’s Death” written the same February, 1963, that Plath took her own life:

Thief! –
how did you crawl into,

crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long,

the death we said we both outgrew,
the one we wore on our skinny breasts,

the one we talked of so often each time
we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston,

I can’t say how Lowell got along with either. His second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, didn’t seem to care much for Plath (“What an awful girl! What rage and hatred.”) but her feelings could be directly or indirectly related to her husband’s like or dislike of the younger poet. Lowell wasn’t kind to Sexton in print. Sexton friend and fellow poet Maxine Kumin, in the essay “How It Was,” writes “In a terse eulogy Robert Lowell declared, with considerable ambivalence it would seem,” which gives sense, at least to Kumin’s assessment, of the relationship, if any, between Sexton and Lowell. She quotes Lowell,

“‘For a book or two, she grew more powerful. Then writing was too easy or too hard for her. She became meager and exaggerated. Many of her most embarrassing poems would have been fascinating if someone had put them in quotes, as the presentation of some character, not the author.’”

For those keeping score at home, that was me quoting Maxine Kumin quoting Robert Lowell suggesting that Anne Sexton should have quoted herself.

Suicidal poets are a voyeur’s guilty playground. The best open a window on to suffering we acknowledge but fear to empathize with. They’re the cliff edge we keep a reassuring distance from. In Areil, Plath gave us a mythology of galloping horses, echoes, elms, mirror images, and arrows shot through with blue. She assaulted us with spontaneous metaphor and it was terrible. I don’t think I’ve come across a more engrossing collection of poetry. The individual poems are impressive, but together they’re devastating.

Similarly, the poems in Sexton’s Live or Die, the 1967 winner of the Pulitzer for Poetry and the book I’m focused on this week, are better in company than standing alone. Where her classmate painted in abstraction, Sexton’s gift is narrative. There are extended metaphors, of course, but used occasionally, as she does with meter, alliteration, rhyme, and the rest of the quiver, to remind us that she’s writing verse. A lot of her poetry is immediate or reminisced vignettes.

It’s hard to find a sustained rhythm in her work. There are dramatic beats and occasional melodic refrains, but much seems to be prose with considered indentations. Kumin wrote,

“She strove to use rhyme unexpectedly but always aptly. Even the most unusual rhyme, she felt, must never obtrude on the sense of the line, nor must the normal word order, the easy tone of vernacular speech, be wrenched solely to save a rhyme.”

But, again, it’s not just rhyme. There are successive lines of measured feet followed by free association of unmetered clauses. More from Kumin:

“The impetus for creation usually came when Anne directly invoked the muse at her desk. Here, she read favorite poems of other poets—most frequently Neruda—and played certain evocative records over and over. One I remember for its throaty string section was Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” Music acted in some way to free her to create, and she often turned the volume up loud enough to drown out all other sounds.”

I listened to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” hoping for revelation. Whatever transmutations occurred to her escaped me, but that doesn’t matter. Hers is poetry interspersed with declarations, presented according to terms she devised and it works… kind of… most of the time. It’s pointed out that she didn’t start with much by way of formal poetic instruction, but so what. She went from a hobbyist whose shrink told her that writing might be a good way to vent to one of the most decorated poets in America in twelve short years. Gaps in education don’t matter much when the educators hold up your work as exemplary.

She was open about things that were transgressive in her time, things that are still called transgressive now but in a watered-down sense where they sit reliably on a shelf for whomever wants to put on the “daring and brave” cap in front of an appreciative audience. Kumin offers a couple of reactions as example. The poet Louis Simpson didn’t like her poem “Menstruation at Forty.” He called it “the straw that broke this camel’s back.” James Dickey wrote “It would be hard to find a writer who dwells more insistently on the pathetic and disgusting aspects of bodily experience …” She wrote about abortion and incest too. Maybe we’re jaded now, but we have to go back to a mindset when mention of certain subjects was the show. Lenny Bruce wasn’t that funny.

She wasn’t a poet who relied on technical precision – I believe as a choice rather than lack of ability – and her shocking admissions are less shocking now, but she endures because she’s such a good read; she sets scenes and infuses them with inuendo and anticipation, often anticipation for something that’s never made clear. Sexton attempted suicide at least twice before getting it wrong and I wonder if there’s a point of decisiveness established so even after a failed attempt the act’s completion looms inevitable. Amends are already made. What can be taken care of has been taken care of. All that remains is anticipation for something best not mentioned. That’s just me armchair analyzing, but in her poems there’s often an implied something coming or something happens that presents as portentous but without a why or what of.

From “Pain for a Daughter:”

Blind with fear, she sits on the toilet,
her foot balanced over the washbasin,
her father, hydrogen peroxide in hand,
performing the rites of the cleansing.
She bites on a towel, sucked in breath,
sucked in and arched against the pain,
her eyes glancing off me where
I stand at the door, eyes locked
on the ceiling, eyes of a stranger,
and then she cries…
Oh my God, help me!
Where a child would have cried Mama!
Where a child would have believed Mama!
she bit the towel and called on God
and I saw her life stretch out…
I saw her torn in childbirth,
and I saw her, at that moment,
in her own death and I knew that she

The poem ends there. Did the daughter see her own future? That her mother saw her future? Her mother’s past? Her mother’s helplessness? All of those? The most interesting possibility to me is that the daughter saw Sexton’s resignation. There was no point in crying for Mama.

Below is my favorite from Live or Die. This one isn’t open ended. Her regret is specifically applied, immersively rendered, and in abandon.

The Wedding Night
Anne Sexton (1928 – 1974)

There was this time in Boston
before spring was ready – a short celebration –
and then it was over.
I walked down Marlborough Street the day you left me
under branches as tedious as leather,
under branches as stiff as driver’s gloves.
I said (but only because you were gone)
“Magnolia blossoms have rather a southern sound,
so unlike Boston anyhow,”
and whatever it was that happened, all that pink,
and for so short a time,
was unbelievable, was pinned on.

The magnolias had sat once, each in a pink dress,
looking, of course, at the ceiling.
For weeks the buds had been as sure-bodied,
as the twelve-year-old flower girl I was
at Aunt Edna’s wedding.
Will they bend, I had asked,
as I walked under them toward you,
bend two to a branch,
cheek, forehead, shoulder to the floor?
I could see that none were clumsy.
I could see that each was tight and firm.
Not one of them had trickled blood –
waiting as polished as gull beaks,
as closed as all that.

I stood under them for nights, hesitating,
and then drove away in my car.
Yet one night in the April night
someone (someone!) kicked each bud open –
to disprove, to mock, to puncture!
The next day they were all hot-colored,
moist, not flawed in fact.
Then they no longer huddled.
They forgot how to hide.
Tense as they had been,
they were flags, gaudy, chafing in the wind.
There was such abandonment in all that!
Such entertainment
in their flaring up.

After that, well –
like faces in a parade,
I could not tell the difference between losing you
and losing them.
They dropped separately after the celebration,
one after the other like artichoke leaves.
After that I walked to my car awkwardly
over the painful bare remains on the brick sidewalk,
knowing that someone had, in one night,
passed roughly through,
and before it was time.

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