Few established poets nowadays have a background as nonspectacular as that of Anne Sexton (1928-1974), a mediocre student who neither went to college nor formally studied literature. For a time she worked as a fashion model. Emotional, impetuous, she even eloped at the age of 19.
Anne Sexton began falling to pieces in her early 20’s after the births of her two daughters. Her psychiatrist recommended writing poetry as a form of therapy; she took to the typewriter at the age of 26 and never looked back.
Anne worked indefatigably to learn the craft and enrolled in a now-legendary summer workshop with Robert Lowell at which she met Sylvia Plath (whom she influenced profoundly; it wasn’t the other way around) and the woman who would be her lifelong friend and co-conspirator in verse, Maxine Kumin. These two remarkable suburban ladies would inspire and delight a generation of poets: my generation.
I’ll never forget my first encounter with Sexton’s work in the 1970’s. Just two of her poems were included in one of my textbooks of modern poetry. One was “The Addict,” a soliloquy spoken by a troubled woman as she downed her nightly cocktail of potent pills. The poem’s imagery, its tone of emotional extremity, its immediacy, the dread and longing behind its every line—I’d never read anything like it. Soon I snapped up Sexton’s first two books, To Bedlam and Part Way Back and All My Pretty Ones, reading them constantly and closely, as if my life depended on it. Probably it did.
Her poems excited me; they showed how a woman’s experience—body, psyche, soul—could be source material for poetry. They showed me how rhyme and meter could be employed in subtle and colloquial ways. They showed me how psychological shortcomings could be redeemed by art. Eventually, though, her poems taught me not only what to do but what to avoid. Sexton’s writing got sloppy over the years and it became clear that her madness had no romance in it. It weakened the work and diminished the life. Her suicide in 1974 was a freezing thing.
It was a turn-off for Anne Sexton to be pigeonholed as a “confessional poet”; nevertheless, even she admitted, eventually, that she was the most confessional of all poets. She told us what it was like to go crazy, to be institutionalized, to fail as a mother, to love as a mother, to obsess, to peek and sneak, to live in a female body, to turn a female gaze on a man’s body, to love, to lust. A sculpture called “Woman Wailing” was featured on the cover of one of her books. She told. She told.
Anne Sexton’s signature confessional poems are very well known; therefore, I have chosen to feature poems which have a more uncanny quality; they dwell more in that cloud of unknowing readers of this site know I like to visit. Do join me in Anne’s personal cloud.
Kind Sir: These Woods For a man needs only to be turned around once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost. . . . Not til we are lost . . . do we begin to find ourselves.”—Thoreau, WaldenKind Sir: This is an old game
that we played when we were eight and ten.
Sometimes on The Island, in down Maine,
in late August, when the cold fog blew in
off the ocean, the forest between Dingley Dell
and grandfather’s cottage grew white and strange.
It was as if every pine tree were a brown pole
we did not know; as if day had rearranged
into night and bats flew in sun. It was a trick
to turn around once and know you were lost;
knowing the crow’s horn was crying in the dark,
knowing that supper would never come, that the coast’s
cry of doom from that far away bell buoy’s bell
said your nursemaid is gone. O Mademoiselle,
the rowboat rocked over. Then you were dead.
Turn around once, eyes tight, the thought in your head.
Kind Sir: Lost and of your same kind
I have turned around twice with my eyes sealed
and the woods were white and my night mind
saw such strange happenings, untold and unreal.
And opening my eyes, I am afraid of course
to look — this inward look that society scorns —
Still, I search in these woods and find nothing worse
than myself, caught between the grapes and the thorns.
What’s ThatBefore it came inside
I had watched it from my kitchen window,
watched it swell like a new balloon,
watched it slump and then divide,
like something I know I know —
a broken pear or two halves of the moon,
or round white plates floating nowhere
or fat hands waving in the summer air
until they fold together like a fist or a knee.
After that it came to my door. Now it lives here.
And of course: it is a soft sound, soft as a seal’s ear,
that was caught between a shape and a shape and then returned to me.
You know how parents call
from sweet beaches anywhere, come in come in
and how you sank under water to put out
the sound, or how one of them touched in the hall
at night: the rustle and the skin
you couldn’t know, but heard, the stout
slap of tides and the dog snoring. It’s here
now, caught back from time in my adult year —
the image we did forget: the crackling shells on our feet
or the swing of the spoon in soup. It is as real
as splinters stuck in your ear. The noise we steal
is half a bell. And outside cars whisk by on the suburban street
and are there and are true.
What else is this, this intricate shape of air?
calling me, calling you.
To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to TriumphConsider Icarus, pasting those sticky wings on,
testing that strange little tug at his shoulder blade,
and think of that first flawless moment over the lawn
of the labyrinth. Think of the difference it made!
There below are the trees, as awkward as camels;
and here are the shocked starlings pumping past
and think of innocent Icarus who is doing quite well:
larger than a sail, over the fog and the blast
of the plushy ocean, he goes. Admire his wings!
Feel the fire at his neck and see how casually
he glances up and is caught, wondrously tunneling
into that hot eye. Who cares that he fell back to the sea?
See him acclaiming the sun and come plunging down
while his sensible daddy goes straight into town.
Somewhere in AfricaMust you leave, John Holmes, with the prayers and psalms
you never said, said over you? Death with no rage
to weigh you down? Praised by the mild God, his arm
over the pulpit, leaving you timid, with no real age,
whitewashed by belief, as dull as the windy preacher!
Dead of a dark thing, John Holmes, you’ve been lost
in the college chapel, mourned as father and teacher,
mourned with piety and grace under the University Cross.
Your last book unsung, your last hard words unknown,
abandoned by science, cancer blossomed in your throat,
rotted like bougainvillea into your gray backbone,
ruptured your pores until you wore it like a coat.
The thick petals, the exotic reds, the purples and whites
covered up your nakedness and bore you up with all
their blind power. I think of your last June nights
in Boston, your body swollen but light, your eyes small
as you let the nurses carry you into a strange land.
. . . If this is death and God is necessary let him be hidden
from the missionary, the well-wisher and the glad hand.
Let God be some tribal female who is known but forbidden.
Let there be this God who is a woman who will place you
upon her shallow boat, who is a woman naked to the waist,
moist with palm oil and sweat, a woman of some virtue
and wild breasts, her limbs excellent, unbruised and chaste.
Let her take you.. She will put twelve strong men at the oars
for you are stronger than mahogany and your bones fill
the boat high as with fruit and bark from the interior.
She will have you now, you whom the funeral cannot kill.
John Holmes, cut from a single tree, lie heavy in her hold
and go down that river with the ivory, the copra and the gold.
Just OnceJust one I knew what life was for.
In Boston, quite suddenly, I understood;
walked there along the Charles River,
watched the lights copying themselves,
all neoned and strobe-hearted, opening
their mouths as wide as opera singers;
counted the stars, my little campaigners,
my scar daisies, and knew that I walked my love
on the night green side of it and cried
my heart to the eastbound cars and cried
my heart to the westbound cars and took
my truth across a small humped bridge
and hurried my truth, the charm of it, home
and hoarded these constants into morning
only to find them gone.
Welcome MorningThere is joy
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
and I mean
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
What the Bird with the Human Head KnewI went to the bird
with the human head,
where is God?
God is too busy
to be here on earth,
His angels are like one thousand geese assembled
and always flapping.
But I can tell you where the well of God is.
Is it on earth?
Yes. It was dragged down
from paradise by one of the geese.
I walked many days,
past witches that eat grandmothers knitting booties
as if they were collecting a debt.
Then, in the middle of the desert
I found the well,
it bubbled up and down like a litter of cats
and there was water,
and I drank,
and there was water,
and I drank.
Then the well spoke to me.
It said: Abundance is scooped from abundance,
yet abundance remains.
Then I knew.
CockroachRoach, foulest of creatures,
who attacks with yellow teeth
and an army of cousins big as shoes,
you are lumps of coal that are mechanized
and when I turn on the light you scuttle
into the corners and there is this hiss upon the land.
Yet I know you are only the common angel
turned into, by way of enchantment, the ugliest.
Your uncle was made into an apple.
Your aunt was made into a Siamese cat,
all the rest were made into butterflies
but because you lied to God outrightly —
told him that all things on earth were in order —
He turned his wrath upon you and said,
I will make you the most loathsome,
I will make you into God’s lie,
and never will a little girl fondle you
or hold your dark wings cupped in her palm.
But that was not true. Once in New Orleans
with a group of students a roach fled across
the floor and I shrieked and she picked it up
in her hands and held it from my fear for one hour.
And held it like a diamond ring that should not escape.
These days even the devil is getting overturned
and held up to the light like a glass of water.
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