Anne Sexton Poems
Power and the Powerless in Transformations
The Grimm fairy tales have been interpreted in endless ways since they were first written, and probably for good reason—the blood and gore of the original fairy tales do not necessarily make for ideal bedtime stories. However, Anne Sexton’s re-imaginings in her poetry collection Transformations are unique—slangy and irreverent, revealing new depths to the stories with which most people are so familiar. Often, Sexton accomplishes these “transformations” by contradicting the stereotypes, traditional roles, and outdated portrayals of femininity featured in the Grimm fairy tales. For instance, she points out how ludicrous it is for a princess to choose a husband based on a contest given for strangers, and then goes on to mock the inaccurate fairy tale image of princesses always demanding more and more difficult tasks to be performed simply to win their favor. Often, these challenges to fairy tale representations of women has the result of giving the poems a feminist slant, especially when one of the main characters in the poem is a young woman. Sexton’s versions of Grimm women have depth, intelligence, and a new sense of strength. For instance, in “Hansel and Gretel,” Gretel kills the witch to prevent further abuse of herself and her brother. In “Rumpelstiltskin,” the miller’s daughter (later the queen) escapes a seemingly impossible situation by tricking the men who have previously taken advantage of her, and ends the poem in a position of power without losing her son. Snow White, likewise, exacts revenge on the evil queen who has tried to murder her three times, forcing her to dance on red-hot roller skates until she burns to death. Finally, Briar Rose escapes her father’s restrictions and implied abuse and begins to heal from her past on her own terms. In all four of these poems, Sexton depicts a young girl reclaiming power and agency in the face of violence and abuse, and allows her readers to see that when faced with such a situation, one must do anything in one’s power to get out.
Sexton begins her “transformation” of “Hansel and Gretel” in the same manner as the original fairy tale—their family is starving, and the mother decides to prioritize. In lieu of trying to support her entire family with insufficient food, she chooses to allow herself and her husband to eat more comfortably by purposefully leaving her children in the middle of the woods to die. At this point, Gretel is a passive character. Although neither of the children have yet spoken in the poem, Hansel is the one to try and save them. He is the one to overhear the mother’s plan, and he manages to bring them home at first by dropping pebbles to mark their path. However, when he drops bread crumbs that are eaten by birds, the two children are finally lost, “blind as worms” (102). When they stumble upon the witch’s cottage, and she locks up Hansel in preparation for eating him, he is described as “the smarter, the bigger, the juicier” child, although here Sexton employs free indirect speech and makes it ambiguous whether that is the opinion of the witch or the narrator (103). Either way, Gretel continues to be underestimated. However, as the witch begins to taunt her about the approaching death of her brother, telling her “how a thrill would go through her as she smelled him cooking” and other gruesome details, Sexton quietly acknowledges Gretel’s potential, writing, “[s]he who neither dropped pebbles or bread bided her time” (104). Finally, when the witch decides to eat Gretel as well, and tells her to climb into the oven, Gretel speaks for the first time in the poem and tells her, “Ja, Fraulein, show me how it can be done” (104). By feigning obedience, she tricks the witch into climbing into the oven herself, then locks the door and lets her burn to death. Not only does Sexton allow Gretel to display ingenuity and strategic thinking, but she also demonstrates a need for a certain kind of bravery—a hardness that allows Gretel to endure not only the abuse and danger she faces from external sources, but also the horror of what she herself must do to escape and return home.
In “Rumpelstiltskin,” a miller’s daughter is forced to endure imprisonment and the threat of death until she is able to trick both the king and the dwarf, two men who have created her impossible situation. At the opening of the poem, she is abandoned by her father, who tells the king she can spin straw into gold. Although she is unable to do so and her father provides no proof, the king locks her in a room full of straw and tells her to “spin into gold or she [will] die like a criminal” (18). She is given no opportunity to discredit her father’s claims and no way to escape, save for the dwarf who appears as she cries. To save herself, she is forced to give away first her necklace and then her ring in exchange for him spinning the straw. However, when she finds herself locked in the largest room yet, faced with both the threat of death if she fails and the promise of becoming queen if she succeeds, she has no choice in that moment but to promise the greedy dwarf, who is “on the scent of something bigger,” her future child, despite how unfair her predicament is (19). At this point in the poem, she has successfully tricked the king, and although one can imagine she doesn’t feel a great deal of affection for him (an inference Sexton doesn’t contradict), at least she has attained a position of power, from which she can begin to regain autonomy. When her son is born, he is “as ugly as an artichoke, but the queen thought him a pearl” (20). With a son she loves and the threat of death no longer hanging over her head, she is finally happy. When the dwarf comes to “claim his prize,” she tries to offer him anything else so he will leave her son alone, but he refuses (20). However, she cries “two pails of sea water” until he begins to pity her, then sends messengers into the kingdom to find unusual names to escape from this new agreement with the dwarf. When one of them succeeds in discovering Rumpelstiltskin’s name, the queen is able to keep her son, and the dwarf tears himself in half in anger. Finally, Sexton shows the miller’s daughter’s success—although men had placed her in a dangerous and unfair position of what was essentially slavery, she was able to endure long enough to no longer depend on her father, share power with the king, and thwart the dwarf once and for all. Sexton demonstrates that due to the queen’s willingness to barter everything and sacrifice extensively, she is able to emerge unscathed with a child she loves.
Snow White is not portrayed in a particularly flattering manner throughout the poem that tells her story. Sexton refers to her as a “dumb bunny,” and she seems to be celebrated by both the dwarves and her prince for her beauty alone. However, although not explicitly celebrated, the poem does demonstrate a kind of endurance on her part (8). For instance, when the evil queen’s mirror declares that Snow White is now the fairest in the land, and she vows to kill her, the thirteen year-old girl walks for seven weeks in the woods to reach safety. Although threatened by wolves and snakes and harassed by lewd birds, she manages to escape by skill, force of will, or plain luck, and sleeps for the first time in almost two months at the dwarves’ cottage. She doesn’t demonstrate this kind of survival instinct again for most of the poem, surviving being strangled by lacing, poisoned by a comb, and killed with a poison apple only because of the dwarves and the prince. At no point in the story does Snow White outsmart the queen, but she does live because her beauty, the most obvious tool she possesses, causes others to protect her. However, after the final attempt on her life, it is implied that she has learned from the experience, and will not allow herself to be put in harm’s way again. To ensure her own security, she welcomes her stepmother to her wedding feast by forcing her to dance on red-hot roller skates until she “[fries] upward like a frog,” dying gruesomely in front of the other guests as Snow White blithely glances into her mirror (9). Ultimately, the princess isn’t saved by intelligence, or even by beauty. Sexton shows that Snow White’s real strength lies in her tenacity—the seven-week walk and the ability to stomach burning the queen to death are how she finally is able to guarantee her own safety. Once again, Sexton depicts a young girl forced to escape persecution by whatever means necessary.
“Briar Rose” has a less clear-cut ending than many of the other poems in Transformations, and represents an alternate approach to abuse and misfortune than the three other young women take. Cursed by a fairy at her christening, Briar Rose is fated to prick her finger on a spinning wheel at fifteen and sleep for a hundred years. Terrified, her father tries to protect her with a huge number of rules and restrictions, but only succeeds in being overbearing and creating a claustrophobic environment for his daughter. Sexton tells us that “each night the king bit the hem of her gown to keep her safe,” and that the princess “dwelt in his odor, rank as honeysuckle” (109). Despite his efforts, the curse is fulfilled anyway, and Briar Rose’s life has been consumed by her father in the meantime. When she finally wakes up from her hundred-year sleep, it is because the prince kisses her while she lies unconscious, a violation that causes her to cry out. After their marriage, she fears sleep, calling it “that brutal place,” but tries to deal with her fear by having medicine prescribed and staying away from the prince while she sleeps (111). Here, Briar Rose begins to construct her own boundaries for her life, and regain some semblance of control. Meanwhile, Sexton allows the princess to speak in first person for a large portion of the end of the poem, a privilege characters in other poems aren’t given. Although Briar Rose doesn’t take action against her father and the prince like Gretel or Snow White, she is given a chance to express the difficulty of her past. The second-to-last stanza of the poem, she implies a childhood of abuse as well as rigidity, telling the reader, “[t]here was a theft,” and describing the king “drunkenly bent over [her] bed, circling the abyss like a shark… thick upon [her] like some sleeping jellyfish” (112). Following this disturbing revelation, the poem ends without a clear resolution—Briar Rose doesn’t triumph like her counterparts, but her voice has been heard clearly. The king is still alive, she is still afraid of sleep, and the prince that kissed her while she lay unconscious is still her husband. The last lines of the poem are questions, expressing her confusion as to where she’s meant to go from here. Asking “What voyage this, little girl? This coming out of prison? God help—this life after death?” she exhibits a clear desire to move forward and move on, but is unsure how to proceed and achieve real freedom from her past (112). In “Briar Rose”, Sexton’s “answer” to the reader is the same—one should do whatever one can to escape abusers and the trauma they cause—but she recognizes as well that sometimes wounds are too raw and victims not yet strong enough to entirely rid themselves of pain and those who cause it. Sometimes, privately trying to heal against all odds is equally as brave.
In “Hansel and Gretel,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” and “Briar Rose,” Sexton relays the stories of young girls escaping abuse, imprisonment, and attempted murder by relying on their own grit, agency, and emotional strength. She makes it clear to her readers that although they may not be faced with a witch trying to eat them, they may experience analogous situations in the real world, where women often have the most to fear. Her answer to this problem is deceptively simple—sacrifice anything and do whatever you can to save yourself. Even when one isn’t able to escape the people causing one harm immediately, one can still express agency and make one’s story heard in an attempt to begin to heal. Ultimately, Sexton’s answer has less to do with specific actions, and much more to do with reaffirming women’s belief in themselves and their right to agency, love, and respect.
Jealousy in Jane Eyre, ‘For My Lover Returning to his Wife’, and ‘After the Lunch’
Across Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and ‘For My Lover, Returning to His Wife’ by Anne Sexton, jealousy is presented as both resulting in self-deprecation and anger. Whereas in ‘After the Lunch’ by Wendy Cope a form of love that does not contain jealousy, but does present love in a similar way to the form of love which jealousy takes over in the other texts. Bronte presents jealousy as causing self-deprecation, while the other, modern writers maintain radically different views.
In Jane Eyre, Jane becomes jealous of Mr Rochester’s courtship of Miss Ingram. Bronte presents to us that Jane has not yet realised her self-worth. Contextually the society of 1848 would have negatively viewed the marriage of two individuals from different classes, so Jane’s jealousy is emphasised through society’s expectation of Mr Rochester to marry Miss Ingram. This jealousy manifests itself through a comparison by Jane of herself to Miss Ingram in which she focuses on Aesthetics. Bronte emphasises this jealousy of aesthetics though Jane’s portraits, where Jane excessively emphasises the material differences between the two women. Underneath the portrait of herself, Jane writes ‘Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain’ and underneath her portrait of Miss Ingram she writes ‘Blanche, an accomplished lady of rank’. This shows that Jane hasn’t yet learned the value of her own spiritual and intellectual superiority. Jane describes herself, “I am poor, obscure, plain, and little” showing clear self-deprecation as a direct result of her jealousy.
Sexton also presents jealousy as casing self-deprecation in the individual. ‘For My Lover, Returning to His Wife’ presents the mistress’ jealousy of her lover’s wife. The jealousy itself can be seen in the possessive nature of the title, through Sexton’s use of ‘my’ and ‘his’ which are possessive pronouns. This jealousy leads her to blame herself, Sexton presents this through a semantic field of self-deprecation. During the 1960s when this poem was published the sexual revolution was affecting western culture and influencing society. This poem presents a side to an affair rarely before seen due to the sexually repressed society that existed before the mid-1900s. While this poem presents sexual liberation, it also presents the consequences of this love that the mistress has for her lover cannot continue as he is already married, leading to her jealousy. A contemporary reader would view the presentation from the mistress’ view as shocking as adultery was no longer seen as taboo but still disapproved of. Equally, due to the sexual liberation of the era, they may not be surprised by the voice of the mistress shown within the poem.
However, jealousy is presented as causing anger in these texts also. In ‘For My Lover, Returning to His Wife’ the speaker seems controlled, but occasionally explodes, “bitch” is used by Sexton to show her rage escaping from the steady and controlled structure of the poem. Additionally, Sexton wrote this in free verse which allows the rambling thoughts that are comorbid with jealousy to be presented through the voice of the mistress. In this way, anger is presented as being caused by jealousy. Furthermore, in Jane Eyre, Jealousy also manifests itself in anger and rage. Bertha resents Jane and Rochester’s love as she is held captive by Rochester making their love impossible. In regarding Jane and Rochester, Bertha sees their love develop and this causes her to become jealous. Bertha’s “unchaste” sexual desire results in her jealousy of Jane, as it is Jane who Rochester wishes to marry. Bertha sees this desire of Rochester’s to marry Jane as a direct threat to herself as Mr Rochester’s first wife. Bertha’s jealous rage is presented by Bronte in the destructive fires that Bertha lights. In Bertha’s final and successful attempt to burn down Thornfield, she starts the fire in Jane’s old room. This act directly reflecting her resentment of Jane and Rochester’s love through her jealousy, “Bertha escaped and set Jane’s old bedroom on fire.” Contextually, the fires would be blamed on Bertha’s insanity due to the repression of sexuality that led to Bertha’s imprisonment in the attic. However, it can be argued that Bronte uses the metaphor of fire to show the destruction jealousy can cause. Although in ‘After the Lunch’ Cope presents a preliminary form of love, in which the speaker realises they’re in love. This is presented through a battle between the head and the heart, “The head does its best but the heart is the boss”. The speaker rejects reason and logical thought as love here is presented as not being logical. The speaker here in rejecting their “head” and following their “heart” puts themselves in a position similar to the character driven by jealousy in the other texts due to jealousy being emotional and illogical also. However in this poem Cope emphasises a preliminary form of reciprocated love and falling in love. This directly contrasts to these other forms of love that are presenting a further stage of love where jealousy has taken control.
In all three texts, jealousy is presented as having different consequences. No single text took one approach to jealousy. Both Jane Eyre and ‘For My Lover, Returning to His Wife’ looked at anger and self-deprecation in relation to jealousy. Additionally in ‘After the Lunch’ Cope also presents a jealousy but contrastingly through a lack of jealousy but with the emotional vulnerability presented through the other texts.
Fathers and Father Figures in Women’s Confessional Poetry
In his preface to Lyrical Ballads,William Wordsworth describes good poetry as being “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (6). The style of confessional poetry seems especially fitting to this description; to think that confessional poets merely transcribe powerful emotions onto paper is, however, a misconception. This paper attempts to examine the field and themes of confessional poetry, focusing on the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds. A common theme in the works of these women appears to be the subject of (incestuous) fathers and father figures; by analyzing their works relevant to this study and placing them in the context of previous research this paper seeks to explore and explain this motif from an angle of social oppression.
Confessional poetry, a writing style that emerged in the United States in the late 1950´s, can be described as “the poetry of the personal or ‘I’”; it deals with highly personal subject matter that would ordinarily be kept out of the public domain. Themes like depression, suicide, mental trauma and abuse, which weren’t traditionally openly featured in poetry before, are discussed from an angle of private experience and emotion. As well as dealing with taboo or shocking subject matter, confessional poetry reduces the literary distance between the author and the narrator of the poem; as the term confessional suggests, the poems seem to be a direct translation of the author’s feelings and experiences on to paper. However, it should not be assumed that confessional poems are simply the poet’s confession of his personal problems and complications; according to Zane, the poems should be seen “as a means of defamiliarizing the reader and the reader’s conventional assumptions about the domestic” (261). It is questionable whether confessional poetry can be called (partly) autobiographical; Uroff claims the narrator of Robert Lowell’s confessional poetry is not a literal but a “literary self” (105), which nonetheless mimics Lowell’s own person to a significant degree. Zane adds: “Much of Plath’s work is autobiographical, but that does not necessarily mean that she is the speaker of each poem, and that the feelings and events are true to her own life” (260). Khalifel argues for a broader view of the influence of the life story of the poet on the works; he claims experiences not only influence the narrative, but create “an aesthetic identity in the poems, which are rooted in real life” (iii). The confessional poets were not merely transcribing their emotions; craft, form and construction are highly important. “Poetic form serves as a vehicle for previously tabooed content rather than . . . an organic extension of content” (Parini 52).
Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are two major names associated with confessional poetry. Both were students of Robert Lowell, for whom the term confessional poetry has been coined (Uroff 104), and admitted their writing was influenced by his works (Poets.org). Controversial, private topics are addressed in their works; Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” and Sexton’s “Sylvia’s Death” openly discuss suicide, Plath’s “Daddy” and Sexton’s “Daddy Warbucks” both use Nazi imagery whilst dealing with father figures. Sharon Olds is a contemporary poet and has denied the confessional label in several interviews. She disagrees with the definition of the term, explaining: “I believe that a confession is a telling, publicly or privately, of a wrong that one has done, which one regrets. And the confession is a way of trying to get to the other side and change one’s nature . . . I would use the phrase apparently personal poetry for the kind of poetry that I think people are referring to as “confessional.” Apparently personal because how do we really know? We don’t” (Blossom 31). Apart from challenging the name, then, Olds does not deny the concept that underlies it; her apparently personal poetry deals with taboo subjects—her poem “The Victims”, for example, discusses divorce and scorn for a father—and reduces the literary distance between narrator and author, suggesting that, whether she agrees with the choice of words of not, Olds can be read as a confessional poet.
Since the poetry of all three of these women is—at least partially—confessional, their poetry is bound to deal with similar topics in the broad sense. Remarkable is the fact that Plath, Sexton and Olds all wrote poems about fathers or father figures, as well as ascribing incestuous tendencies to these characters. Swiontkowski argues the “incestuous Daddy figure” in the poetry of these women “is not identical to the biological fathers of these four women. This Daddy is a shared archetype, a symbolic embodiment of one form of communal experience” (iii). This poetic figure symbolises far greater (social) experiences precisely because he does not represent an objective historical account but is created out of a subjective, emotional subconscience.
In one of Plath’s most famous poems, “Daddy”, she uses Nazi imagery and terms to describe her experiences and relationship with her deceased father, as well as her husband, who takes on the role of a father figure. She paints a harsh picture by comparing her ‘Daddy’ with a “black shoe/In which I have lived like a foot”, suggesting he has constrained her, “Barely daring to breathe or Achoo”. Several critics have implied the foot should be seen as a phallic symbol which suggests her incestuous desire. The fear of her father extends beyond his character: “I thought every German was you./And the language obscene/An engine, an engine/Chuffing me off like a Jew”. This extending of characteristics becomes more significant in the tenth and thirteenth stanza, where the focus shifts from ‘Daddy’ to a new abusive father figure: “Every woman adores a Fascist,/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you/. . . I made a model of you,/A man in black with a Meinkampf look/And a love of the rack and the screw./And I said I do, I do”. Marrying a man she compares to her father has a strong connection to Freud’s Oedipus complex, again implying an incestuous tone. The tone of this poem is increasingly dark and full of anger; interestingly, before composing “Daddy”, Plath wrote another poem seemingly addressed to her father, which describes her loss in a different tone. “The Colossus” projects the father as an enormous statue, which has fallen to ruin; the poem opens with the line “I shall never get you put together entirely”, conveying her hopelessness at reconstructing (the memory of) him. The statue cannot speak comprehensively: “Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles/Proceed from your great lips.”. Even thirty years have not been enough “To dredge the silt from your throat.” By projecting the image of her father on such a humongous structure, she seems to acknowledge his power and the place he still holds in her mind; however, she struggles to piece together the memory of him and stresses his incapability to add anything to her life by muting him. The shift in tone between these two poems is explained by Khalifeh by claiming that “Plath‘s literary relationship with her father changed after her husband‘s betrayal. Following this crucial event, Plath started to attack the father instead of being submissive to him” (276).
Anne Sexton’s “’Daddy’ Warbucks” seems to address a father figure, in the fashion of a rich sugar daddy who has fought in the war. Annie, the narrator of the poem, is orphaned, filling the empty space of the father with a ‘Daddy’, of which she “knew your money/would save me”. Sexton uses words with sexual connotations to talk about his money: “because you’ve got the bucks, the bucks, the bucks./You let me touch them, fondle the green faces/lick at their numbers and it lets you be/my ‘Daddy! ‘ ‘Daddy! ‘”. The seemingly incestuous tone continues more explicitly in the second stanza, where Sexton writes “And all the men out there were never to come./Never, like a deluge, to swim over my breasts/and lay their lamps in my insides./No. No./Just me and my ‘Daddy’/and his tempestuous bucks”. Like Plath, Sexton uses a Nazi reference: “I died,/swallowing the Nazi-Jap animal”. The narrator does not judge her ‘Daddy’, but seems entirely compliant with their relationship. In “How We Danced”, Sexton suggests incest in her description of dancing with her father. The dance starts innocently, “and we danced, Father, we orbited./We moved like angels washing themselves.”, but near the end of the poem this image is corrupted: “You danced with me never saying a word./Instead the serpent spoke as you held me close./The serpent, that mocker, woke up and pressed against me”. The serpent here is a clear phallic symbol; her father’s erection turns the dance from an expression of an endearing moment between father and daughter to a shocking snapshot of incestuous tendencies.
Sharon Olds’ tone towards her father seems relatively uncorrupted at the start of “Looking at My Father”. His character is judged, but apparently all this does not matter for the narrator, who enjoys looking at her father: “I do not think I am deceived about him,/I know about the drinking, I know he’s a tease,/obsessive, rigid, selfish, sentimental,/but I could look at my father all day/and not get enough”. The poem goes on to describe in detail the features of her father’s face. At the end of the poem, however, the incest motif surfaces: “I know he is not perfect but my/body thinks his body is perfect”, followed by “What I know I know, what my/body knows it knows, it likes to/slip the leash of my mind and go and/look at him, like an animal/looking at water, then going to it and/drinking until it has had its fill and can/lie down and sleep.”. The narrator does not condemn her father, but rather seems to consent willingly. In “Late Poem to My Father”, Sexton mediates between the alcoholic father to whom she says “even at 30 and 40 you set the/oily medicine to your lips/every night, the poison to help you/drop down unconscious” and his former self, a boy of seven: “helpless, smart, there were things the man/did near you, and he was your father,/the mould by which you were made”, suggesting a sense of understanding if not forgiveness for what he’s become. Whenever she thinks of what her father as an adult did to her and her family, she remembers “that/child being formed in front of the fire”, whom Sexton suggests has been hurt: the bones of his soul broken, “the small/tendons that hold the heart in place/snapped”. The poem ends with the lines “When I love you now,/I like to think I am giving my love/Directly to that boy in the fiery room,/As if it could reach him in time.”. The title of this poem suggests the forgiveness has come too late.
As the passages above illustrate, the ways in which Plath, Sexton and Olds write about fathers and father figures share certain characteristics, such as the use of the incest motif and in some cases an aggressive, dark tone. Poems such as Olds’ “Looking at My Father” and Sexton’s “‘Daddy’ Warbucks” show a submissive or compliant narrator, whereas Plath’s “Daddy” and Olds’ “How We Danced” seem to condemn the father and his actions. A forgiving tone can be read in Olds’ “Late Poem to My Father”. According to Swiontowsky, all three women relate incest to “social responsibility[,] . . . social power and often to affluence”(14). In “‘Daddy’ Warbucks”, the father figure ensures Annie’s compliance through his wealth, in “Daddy” the father is compared to a Nazi and his daughter is depicted as a Jew. “In both cases, male authorities benefit socially and psychologically from conflict and from victimizing others, and women benefit secondarily only to the extent that they comply with the male authorities, their social Daddies” (Swiontowsky 14). This sense of (forced) submission to a Daddy can be interpreted as an umbrella metaphor for women’s lives in a patriarchal society; incest becomes a symbol for the daily, lifelong repression by male authoritative figures. In this sense, Plath’s “Daddy” can be seen as a break from oppression, especially when considering her mentioning killing this father figure, and the content of the last line: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”. In all poems thus far mentioned, the Daddy exerts control over the speaker of the poem in one way or another; physically and/or mentally, the narrators are at Daddy’s mercy. The use of an incestuous father figure to demonstrate, discuss and even oppose social oppression of women is a device used by Plath, Sexton and Olds in these confessional poems; this controversial, arguably shocking way of addressing and emphasizing personal experiences and issues seems typical for confessional poetry, and these three women demonstrate that the style goes far beyond recording personal experiences and emotions.
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Anne Sexton: A Poet of Personal Conflict and Self-Expression
“Live or die, but don’t poison everything”. These words were said by Anne Sexton, a 20th century poet, whose poems dealt with the complexities of her tragic personal life, including the dysfunctional and often disturbing relationships with her children, husband and parents. Born to a wealthy family in Massachusetts in 1928, Sexton dealt with severe depression all throughout adulthood and actually began writing her poems as a coping mechanism, first suggested by her therapist at the time. She was consumed by the idea of death, especially her own impending one, an obsession of hers which largely influenced much of her work. She specialized in confessional poetry, a style that emerged and found popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, also seen in the works of other famous poets at that time such as Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. Finding enormous success within her genre, Sexton joined the celebrity ranks of poets as the poems she had begun writing as a hobby became a full-time occupation with an unexpectedly large audience. However, some did not welcome this new style of confessional poetry because of the sense of intense intimacy Sexton’s poems created through their connection with her personal life. Despite the criticism she received, Sexton left a legacy as leading pioneer to the genre following her tragic suicide in 1974, at the age of forty-five. Through her brutally honest poetry, Sexton was able to portray themes most relevant to her life by creating a sense of duality between the themes in her poems and her reality while also addressing her most violent fears and desires.
In the poem Words, Sexton utilizes several literary devices to create a sense of duality in the role words or language play in her life, recognizing that while her poetry saved her in many ways it still remains her worst enemy. Sexton depicts words as the necessary foundation to her own sanity, stating “they can be as good as fingers(…) as trusty as the rock(…) the trees, the legs of summer(…) the sun, its passionate face”(6-7, 13-14). By creating these comparisons with nature through metaphorical language, Sexton suggests that words are the very essence of life and not just an essential basis for her but also the functionality of society. The comparisons to nature also emphasize the constant and inescapable presence of words in her life. Following her declaration of love for words in line 10, the tone of the poem shifts as Sexton introduces words as an antagonist as well as her lover. She warns that while she will always have an undying love for words, they often fail her. “Sometimes I fly like an eagle but with the wings of a wren”(20-21). Here, she describes how words harbour a dangerous capability and can certainly be used as weapons. In the final line she states “words and eggs must be handled with care. Once broken they are impossible to repair.”(24-26). The fragility, instability and transience of words can also be interpreted as Sexton’s sanity and the dependence she had on words. With this poem, she accepts the tragic love story she shares with words/poetry in her life as a sort of necessary evil because despite the harm they cause, they are ultimately the only thing keeping her alive.
Old, written by Sexton in 1960s, deals with her struggle in accepting the inevitability of the loss of youth as she paints old age in a tragic light, revealing her own fears of aging. Confrontational in nature, Sexton’s poems allow her to face the biggest fears, among them the fear of aging and gradual decline in quality of life. She is not afraid of death as a concept, but the natural process of aging terrifies her, as confirmed by this poem. Her fear is addressed in the first few lines, in which she talks of the hardships of old age. Next, the leading image of the poem is introduced, as Sexton states that “death starts like a dream”(5). She then goes on to draw a picturesque image of her vibrant life in the days of her supposed carefree youth, as the poem begins to detach itself from the reality of dying a slow, painful death. In line 7 Sexton nostalgically speaks of a time where she and her sister “are young and we are walking”(7). This is a stark contrast to the situation at the beginning of the poem, one of death and decay, to the dream in which she finds herself, where youth and growth reign. In the last few lines, Sexton is drawn out of her dream world by the harsh reality of impending death. The poem ends with “in a dream you are never eighty”(18), a final attempt by Sexton to emphasize her distaste for aging. Tragically, Sexton took her own life in 1974 but a link between the revelations of this poem and her suicidal thoughts, eventually driving her to actually commit suicide, can be found, as Sexton may have killed herself to avoid aging and finding herself in the same predicament as the self-portrayal of herself in Old.
Throughout her entire life, Sexton dealt with depression and suicidal thoughts, as portrayed in a raw portrayal of her most desperate desire in Wanting to Die. In this poem, she talks honestly and openly about her ongoing battle with suicidal thoughts and depression. Much like in Words, she personifies the subject of the poem, in this case suicide or death generally, and gives it a sense of duality, painting it as an enemy to be fought as well as a friend who can be trusted. In the first two stanzas, Sexton shares the overwhelming desire to die that consumes her every thought with the reader. She compares the act of committing suicide to a “voyage”(2), one that she possesses an “unnameable lust”(3) for, something she describes as out of her control at this point in her battle with depression. In the third stanza, Sexton personifies suicide or the overwhelming desire she has to commit suicide, mostly as a coping mechanism in helping her fight the temptation. She depicts the internal struggle between life and death within her mind through metaphorical imagery such as labelling suicide as “the enemy”(11) in one line and later contradicting that label completely, calling it “magic”(12). Imprisoned by her own thoughts as well as those of society, she dreams about the finality of death, at this point a fantasy for her. She even goes so far as to compare suicide or suicide attempts as “a drug so sweet, that even children would look on and smile”(20-21). It’s drug-like quality can be recognized in the fact that Sexton is addicted to the thoughts of her own suicide and the children metaphor introduces innocence to the equation and defines the simplicity of her desire to die. In the end, for her the only logical option was death because after a lifetime of hosting a tortured mind, death was the ultimate relief and she believed the deserved the peace. Looking back on this poem today, it is obvious Sexton attempted to portray the impossible battle she struggled with internally as suicidal thoughts consumed her psyche completely, eventually killing her in 1974.
Sexton illustrated her personal battle with suicidal thoughts she struggled with for many years through her poetry, it being the only outlet where she could vent honestly on the themes that caused the most distress for her without fear of judgement. In this way, her poetry saved her by staving off many of her suicidal thoughts and causing a distraction. However, in the end the appeal of emptiness and finality she envisioned in death won her over, bringing an end to an internal struggle that had raged within her since her teenage years. This duality becomes especially apparent in poems like Wanting to Die and Words, in which friend and foe merge into one, confusing and unrecognizable collection of thoughts for Sexton to ponder.
The Form and Meaning in “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator”
“The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator” is a confessional poem by Anne Sexton, in which she explores her intimate feelings about masturbation during a post-break-up era in her life. The poem is noteworthy because of its ability to bring forth the taboo subject of female sexuality with an organized structure resembling that of a traditional ballad, and while doing so, evoking vivid images that furthers our understanding of her painful situation.
The poem consists of seven stanzas of six lines. The rhyme scheme is strict, as it follows the pattern of ABABCC, DEDECC, and so on. The structure seems rigid in terms of lines and stanzas, but the number of syllables in each line varies without a pattern. In addition, we cannot talk about a certain meter, either, for the lines have different variables of stressed and unstressed words. For example, the first line “The end of the affair is always death” is written in iambic pentameter, five feet of unstressed and stressed syllables, but we see trochees in the fourth and fifth lines, and also spondees in the phrases like “the knock-kneed broom”. Moreover, enjambment is the foregrounded prosodic element in the poem, due to which, the sentences begin and end in the middle of the lines, and run-on to the next ones at the end. Thus, the full stops we encounter midway in a line, prevents the poem from flowing with the harmonic and repetitive sounds of a metered work. Instead, by playing with a traditional form, the poem gives us an appearance of structure at the first look on the page, and a feeling of uncertainty and abruptness in its sound.
The language of the poem is colloquial, and fairly easy to grasp. The whole poem goes around the idea of sex and masturbation, yet we do not have the word sex even once, and the word masturbation appears only in the title. The poet skillfully delivers all these meanings without using the words themselves but rather by using a suggestive language overall. The metaphor for sexual satisfaction is `being fed`, which is extended from the beginning to the end of the poem. The refrain of the poem “At night, alone, I marry the bed” becomes a euphemism for masturbation, and is repeated at the end of each stanza. The last stanza is striking in that it builds up the scene for sex so vividly that it becomes apparent for us that the poet does not need the word sex to talk about sex. The agents of the act are generalized as ‘the boys and girls’, and sex is described as being ‘one’. The image is strengthened with references to taking off the clothes, and we return to the conceit of eating with the line “They are eating each other. They are overfed”. The refrain following this overly satisfactory scene juxtaposes our poet, who is troubled with loneliness and heartache, to the passionate lovers, making the contrast between them even more distinct.
The imagery in the poem, though it is not the prevailing element, helps it further insert the dominant feelings. For instance, we know right from the start that the speaker is lonely, and reminiscing her ex-lover. Yet, when we get to the line “I am spread out. I crucify”, it immediately makes us imagine her in the bed, arms and legs opened up, extremely vulnerable and in agony, as suggested by the idea of crucifixion. Another significant image is in the fifth stanza, where the poet describes the new lover of her ex. The woman is ‘black-eyed’, and likened to a goddess as ‘the lady of water’ with the power of creating music as well with the piano and the flute. This description creates an image of a beautiful and pure goddess with musical skills, and the poet set herself as a ‘knocked-kneed broom’ side by side with the image of a goddess. Through this juxtaposition of the images, the feelings of abasement and humiliation come to the surface, and we imagine the poet perhaps as an ugly witch, suggested with the reference to a broom.
In conclusion, this poem seems to be extremely sincere and coming out of the deepest parts of the poet’s psyche. The themes of loneliness, humiliation, and jealousy are common to us all, and the way she conveys these feelings onto the page is remarkable. The use of female sexuality as the subject matter evidently requires courage for her part, writing this poem at a time when it is considered a taboo. The images throughout the poem helps us to visualize her pain, therefore supplementing our connection to and empathy with the poet’s feelings in general.
Love as Failed Imagination in ‘The Passion’ and in Sexton’s Poetry
The notion of love is something that evades language, yet has been a staple theme in literary works all over the world. Writers have struggled to express this abstract feeling in language and accord it with a definition so that it can finally be understood. However, in Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion and Anne Sexton’s poems, “The Interrogation of the Man of Many Hearts” and “That Day”, it is suggested that trying to capture love may very well be a futile act. The Passion follows the journey of Henri, a soldier in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. Although he is initially passionately in love with Bonaparte, Henri is later disillusioned by the latter’s cruel acts and deserts the army. He meets and finds passion in Villanelle, a Venetian woman, but his love is ultimately left unfulfilled, as Villanelle does not return his feelings. Sexton’s poems, similarly, play with the idea of unfulfilled desire. In “The Interrogation of the Man of Many Hearts and “That Day”, the character of the beloved is conspicuously absent, leaving the lover in an attempt to sculpt the beloved into existence using language. Both Winterson’s novel and Sexton’s work portray the lover as attempting to recreate or remember their beloved from past memory. Love is shown to be something that fails, as the lover has nothing to go by but interpretations and images that do not have any inherent meaning – resulting in their failure to arrive at the essence of love, and the creation of a beloved who does not exist.
In The Passion, Winterson exposes conventional acts of love to be arbitrary ones with no particular meaning. By juxtaposing the relationships between Villanelle and Henri, as well as Villanelle and her female lover, the Queen of Spades, the arbitrary nature of conventional acts of love is highlighted. When Villanelle is kissing the Queen of Spades, she describes their connected mouths to be “the focus of love”, suggesting that the act of kissing is an act of love (Winterson 67). However, this idea is turned on its head later on in the book, when Henri and Villanelle are trying to avoid detection after Henri kills the cook (135). Whenever they pass by anyone, Villanelle would “[throw Henri] against the wall and [kiss him] passionately, blocking all sight of [his] body” in order to prevent people from seeing “the blood on [his] clothes” (136). Here, the act of kissing takes on a whole new meaning. Instead of connecting two people who are in love with each other as an expression of their love, Villanelle uses it as a means of survival. Similarly, sex means completely different things to Villanelle and Henri, as evidenced by the way she says, “He gave me pleasure, but when I watched his face I knew it was more than that for him.” (148) To her, making love with him is only a way for her to feel good, but for Henri, it is an act that conveys his love for her. The contrast between the different ways that conventional acts of love can be viewed undermines their credibility as a means of validating love; as they could potentially hold other meanings as well, the lover can no longer use these acts of love to prove the existence of love.
Sexton complicates this argument in “That Day”, showing that not only is love impossible to capture in the moment, it is even more elusive after the moment has passed. In the poem, the speaker comments on “the typewriter that sits before me / where yesterday only your body sat before me” (Sexton, “That Day” 3-4). The typewriter, symbolising language, has taken over the beloved’s spot, implying that after the moment has passed, love can only be revisited through language. Indeed, the speaker proceeds to try to recreate the beloved in the form of language, piecing him together through images of “[his] red veins and [his] blue veins” (15), his “shut eyes”, “mouth”, “chest and its drummer” (35-37). However, even as she attempts to recreate her love, she ends off the poem with the line: “and love is where yesterday is at” (47), suggesting the impossibility of actually going back to the time when she is “[drawing] I LOVE YOU on [his] chest and its drummer” (35-36). According to Jacques Derrida, everything we have access to in this world is a text, as we require language in order to conceptualise it (158). Hence, although objective reality exists, we are unable to access it; all we have is a representation of it brought about by language (158). In line with this train of thought, not only is the speaker unable to return to the actual moment of love, when she uses language to recreate it, she is actually travelling further away from the authentic moment, as all she has now is an arbitrary representation of it.
The Passion emphasises this point with Henri’s diary. When he first starts to keep a diary in order to preserve his memories, Domino, his friend, tells him that “every moment [he steals] from the present is a moment [he has] lost forever. There’s only now” (Winterson 29). Indeed, when Henri tries to recount the first night he makes love with Villanelle, he “lose[s] sense of [his] work, writing this story, trying to convey to [the reader] what really happened. Trying not to make up too much” (103). He implies that in every attempt to recreate a scenario, one cannot avoid the embellishment of facts; all he can do is try “not to make up too much” (103). This highlights the subjective nature of language, and suggests that any attempt to think about a moment of love can only fail, as the subjective medium of language prevents one from returning to the unadulterated moment. As Jean-Luc Marion says, “We can give love only an interpretation, or rather a non-interpretation, that is purely subjective, indeed sentimental.” (71) By thinking about love through the medium of languages, one is already attempting to participate in the act of interpretation; love thus fails as no one person can reach a pure, unmediated state of love.
Sexton’s “The Interrogation of the Man of Many Hearts” goes further to suggest that it is not just the act of love that exists as an arbitrary interpretation; the beloved only exists as the lover’s interpretation as well. In the poem, the speaker enagages in a conversation with another unknown speaker, trying to describe what kind of person the beloved is in many different ways:
She’s my real witch, my fork, my mare, my mother of tears, my skirtful of hell, the stamp of my sorrows, the stamp of my bruises and also the children she might bear and also a private place, a body of bones (Sexton, “The Interrogation of the Man of Many Hearts” 24-28)
Interestingly, the beloved is given many identifiers, but all of them are given to her by the speaker. Although she is physically present as “that one in [his] arms” (Sexton, “The Interrogation of the Man of Many Hearts” 2), she does not have a voice throughout the whole poem; the speaker is the one who speaks for her. This indicates that whatever identity she is given in the poem is merely the speaker’s intepretation of who she is. Here, the beloved literally only exists as the lover’s creation, an imagined existence conjured from the speaker’s mind. The speaker acknowledges this when he says:
I called her the woman in red. I called her the girl in pink. but she was ten colours and ten women. I could hardly name her. (85-89)
He admits that although he calls her many things, he can still “hardly name her” (Sexton, “The Interrogation of the Man of Many Hearts” 89), implying that all the identities he accords to her are simply his own interpretations of her, and inaccurate ones at that. The speaker’s repeated attempts to name the beloved convey a sense of anxiety at not being able to pinpoint her identity, and also a sense of futility in trying to do so. He considers that “maybe I shouldn’t have put it in words” (92), suggesting that as long as he is using language, he will never be able to describe the beloved as she truly is. However, as Derrida mentioned, language is the only thing one has to make sense of the world (158). The speaker can never truly reach the beloved while using language, yet language is the only tool that he has. From this, it can be inferred that the lover, being imprisoned by language, will always only be able to access an interpretated version of the beloved that he conjures up himself. The real person behind the beloved is forever unattainable, thus leading love to fail.
This is further emphasised in “That Day”, as the speaker literally attempts to piece together her beloved in a series of fragmented images. She recalls his “tongue that came from [his] lips” (Sexton, “That Day” 11), “the doorway of [his] heart” (13), and his “red veins and [his] blue veins” (15). The poem focuses on various parts of the beloved’s anatomy, but never features a full image of him. This reflects the impossibility for the lover to create a complete, or true image of the beloved’s person. Just like in “The Interrogation of the Man of Many Hearts”, the beloved here is an object of construction, a fictional character created by the lover.
Marion expands on the idea that the beloved is a fictional construct created by the lover. According to him, the lover sees “not [the beloved] but the sum of lived experiences, for which she is only the accidental cause and of which [the lover’s] consciousness is the real measure” (77). It is not the beloved who matters, but the lived experiences that the lover associates with the beloved. In The Passion, Henri states that he was willing to die for Bonaparte because he loved him, and “when [they] go to war [they] feel [they] are not a lukewarm people anymore” (Winterson 108). This can be linked to the beginning of the story, when Henri is still living with his mother. He describes himself and his fellowmen as “a lukewarm people” who “long to be touched” (7). He also tries to go to confession at church but dislikes the lack of “fervour” there, thinking that one should “do it from the heart or not at all” (7). Here, Henri displays a want for something more passionate and grand than what his current life is. He later suggests that romance is “an explosion of dreams and desires that can find no outlet in everyday life” (13), implying that the reason he loves Bonaparte is because of his own lived experiences, which he associates with the latter. He does not want to lead a lukewarm existence, and thus pins his hopes and dreams onto Bonaparte, believing that going to war with him would save himself from continuing to be part of “a lukewarm people” (7). Indeed, later on, when his monarchist mother starts to look up to soon-to-be King Bonaparte, he notes: “I understood her hopes. We all had something to pin on Bonaparte.” (32) He acknowledges that he is essentially projecting his desires onto Bonaparte, loving what he stands for – passion and grandeur – rather than Bonaparte himself as a man.
However, this also means that Henri’s love for Bonaparte is destined to fail, as the object of his love does not really exist. While Henri envisions Bonaparte as a great man who cares for his troops, waking “before [them] and [sleeping] long after [them]”, as well as “rallying [them] personally” (Winterson 19), the truth is not so. As Henri later realises, Bonaparte is a cruel man who does not mind sacrificing recruits; after killing 2,000 of them in a senseless move, “2,000 new recruits marched into Boulogne” the very next morning (25). He also thinks that losing 20,000 of his soldiers are “good odds” because he is “used to losing that number in battle” (20). To Bonaparte, the soldiers are nothing more than easily replaceable cattle. This discrepancy between Henri’s envisioning of Bonaparte and what the latter is really like dooms Henri’s love to failure right from the start. It is a love that cannot be, as Henri’s beloved is not Bonaparte, but a self-made vision that he imagines to be Bonaparte.
While Henri’s creation of a non-existent beloved makes his love doomed to fail, “The Interrogation of the Man of Many Hearts” argues that it is possible for the lover to recognise this condition. The speaker talks about how he has “tied [the beloved] down with a knot” (Sexton, “The Interrogation of the Man of Many Hearts” 42). This knot is associated with things like “[his] mother’s apron”, and his “daughter’s / pink corduroys” (48-51), things that are a part of his daily life and lived experiences. This suggests that the “knot” stands for the images that he projects onto the beloved because of what he has experienced in life. However, the speaker comes to realise what he is doing, as he admits, “I sang her out. I caught her down. / I stamped her out with a song” (55-56). He is aware that by conjuring up his own image of the beloved, he is wiping away the existence of her person. Hence, the poem implies a hope for the lover to break out of the tendency to ignore the beloved’s humanity as he projects his desires onto her, making it possible to create an authentic love that will not fail.
However, The Passion suggests that there is no way for one to prevent the failure of love, as Henri repeats his mistake with Villanelle, despite thinking that he knows better. At the end of the book, Henri states that he has learnt about the difference between “inventing a lover and falling in love” during his encounters with Bonaparte and Villanelle, saying that “the one is about you, the other about someone else” (Winterson 158). Just like the speaker in “The Interrogation of the Man of Many Hearts”, he appears to be enlightened about his act of projecting his desires onto Bonaparte, and claims to be “in love with [Villanelle]; not a fantasy or a myth or a creature of [his] own making” (157). Despite so, he is shown to simply be repeating his mistakes all over again. He “[falls] in love with her” when she tells him that snowflakes are “all different” (87-88). The reason that he falls in love with Villanelle seems shallow and almost unbelievable, but the reader will remember when Henri first mentions the snowflakes. Back when he goes to the church with Patrick at Boulogne, he thinks about the deaths that he has witnessed, and how Domino tells him to “forget it” (42). Then, he suddenly shifts to wondering about the snowflakes: “They say every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could the world go on? How could we ever get up off our knees? How could we ever recover from the wonder of it?” (42-43) The quick shift from thoughts about death to snowflakes suggest that they are Henri’s form of defense mechanism. Only by thinking about the beauty in the world, can he forget the horrors that he has seen in war.
This theory is reinforced by the second appearance of Henri’s thoughts about snowflakes. It comes right after he sees the Russian village people who are “singing songs” as they sit “by the frozen rivers”, driven out of their homes to die because the Russians are destroying their villages in order to stop the French Army from looting them (Winterson 81). Once again, Henri thinks about how these villagers are dying because of them: “We had killed them all without firing a shot” (81). Immediately after, he thinks, “Is every snowflake different? No one knows.” He turns to the snowflakes as a defense mechanism, bringing his mind to a place of safety, where he does not have to contemplate the many deaths that he has witnessed.
The idea that snowflakes symbolise the beauty and peace in a war-wrecked world for Henri, sheds new light onto his reasons for falling in love with Villanelle. She tells him to “think of [snowflakes]”, he does so and immediately falls in love with her (Winterson 88). At this point of time, he does not even know her name; all he knows is that she is a “vivandiere”, one of the girls kept at the camp in order to satisfy the sexual needs of the officers (87). There is no reason for him to fall in love with her, which suggests that he only does so by associating his lived experiences with her, connecting her with the comfort and peace that the snowflakes bring him. Similarly, on the night when they first make love, Henri thinks of how Villanelle lets her hair “fall all over [him]”, and how it makes him feel like he is “lying in the long grass, safe” (103). By comparing her hair to the long grass, he associates her with his memories of “the fields that ripen at harvest” back in his hometown (27), which causes him to feel safe.
As such, I argue that Henri’s love for Villanelle is not truly different from what he felt for Bonaparte, even if he believes it to be. He is still projecting his desires and wants onto her without even really getting to know her. What he loves is the safety and comfort that he thinks Villanelle stands for, and not her person – Henri once again creates a figure of the beloved that does not exist, dooming his love to failure. The Passion suggests that even when one is aware of the ideal form of love, the one that is “about someone else” and not yourself (Winterson 158), the lover ultimately cannot refrain from projecting his desires onto the beloved. Thus, love will always fail in the end, as the non-existent beloved that the lover creates is not capable of returning his feelings.
Winterson and Sexton’s works largely focus on the relationship between the lover and the beloved, as well as love and language. Through the portrayal of conventional acts of love and language as arbitrary systems, the credibility of these sign systems as an indicator of love is challenged. Without any form of medium to confirm the existence of love, it is then impossible for any lover to arrive at the pure essence of love, resulting in it being a futile act. Furthermore, love is revealed to be an extremely subjective act in both the poems and the novel. Not only do no two people view love the same way, it is portrayed as inevitable that the lover attempts to project his desires onto the beloved. The person that is the beloved is completely wiped out, and instead, replaced with the illusion that the lover creates for himself. This brings up the problem of alterity – can one truly love another person, or does one merely project bits of themselves to create a whole new non-person? While Sexton’s work expresses the potential for humankind to learn to relate to the other as they are one day, The Passion paints a much more pessimistic outlook. The novel suggests that the failure of love may be something that is inevitable and unstoppable, for as humans, even being aware of the ideal way to love, we ultimately fall short in practice.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
Marion, Jean-Luc. Prolegomena to Charity. New York, Fordham University Press, 2002, Google Books, books.google.com.sg/books?id=wqo56sja2quc&lpg=pp1&pg=pr3#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Sexton, Anne. “The Interrogation of The Man of Many Hearts.” Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems, Mariner Books, Boston, 1999, pp. 176–180. —. “That Day.” Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems, Mariner Books, Boston, 1999, pp. 180–181.
Winterson, Jeanette. The Passion. London, Vintage, 2014.
Religion in “With Mercy for the Greedy”
Anne Sextons confessional lyric poem, “With Mercy for the Greedy” (1962) displays many ways of how she interprets life around her. Sexton tries to believe in religion to have a sense of believing in something, mostly because of her friend “Ruth”, who urges her to go to a Catholic confessional. Sexton realizes that “Need is not quite belief” (19) when she tries to accept the cross given to her but cannot connect to the true meaning of the cross. Sexton cannot confide in the cross so she is constantly searching for something or someone to confide in without feeling judged. In this particular poem, it is hard to not see that her religion is writing poetry, writing is her confessional. A reason for feeling without hope could be because she cannot bring herself to finding the true meaning of religion like her friend Ruth does. Sexton is almost mocking faith in this poem, emphasizing that real earthly relationships are more important to her. She has a hard time understanding the true meaning of religion because God is not right there in front of her, whereas her friend Ruth is. She feels the need to be able to confide in someone that will give her feedback without judgement, she favors human connection.
The main reason why Sexton is having a hard time accepting this cross is because she cannot get herself to accept what Christ represents. In the poem she says, “He is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef” (16). Sexton is mocking the fact that Christians praise the suffering body of Christ, that people cannot see or speak to. Therefore, Sexton does not want to be held accountable to God because she cannot have a body-to-body relationship with him. Instead she wants to be held accountable by her friend Ruth that will not judge her the way she feels that God would. She does not believe in this spiritual relationship mostly because it is something that she cannot physically see. Her poetry is where she confesses and allows herself to be truthful and honest. This is interesting because most people just blindly believe in faith even though people cannot physically see God, instead Sexton believes there’s no reason to believe in God when she can confide in personal relationships.
Here I will argue how there are other examples of Sexton expressing her feelings about faith. In one of Sextons other poems, “Rowing” (1975), she talks again about not wanting to conform to believing in religion like other people do. It is important to recognize the name of the book that “Rowing” was published in, The Awful Rowing Toward God, this already displays her opinion on religion to her readers. In this poem, Sexton is basically saying that she is seeking God but, must walk her readers through her turns and complicated interpretations. An example of Sexton walking us through her journey is when she says, “the nagging rain, the sun turning into poison/ and all of that, saws working through my heart, / but I grew, I grew” (21-23). This is asking readers to interpret the struggles that she went through in trying to find her way to God. Using words like “saws working through her heart” (22), implies that it was not an easy experience but using words like “I grew” (23) implies that these rough times only made her grow stronger as a person. This is just another way that Sexton is proving that maybe the pain and struggles are not worth believing in a higher being. There is no reason for her to go through the painful path of believing and trusting in God, when she has earthly relationships with people that give her feedback and truly care about her.
There is a complicated feature about Anne Sexton that keeps readers interested because there is always a somewhat mysterious edge in her writing. The word choice that she uses to describe her spiritual journey almost keeps her readers guessing on what the next chapter in her poetry is going to bring about. Sexton dedicates a whole section of her book to “The Jesus Papers”that are all about Jesus and his journey as a person that are detached from the typical interpretation of Jesus being this “divine” being. This section is often criticized because it is seen as disrespectful to God’s word, the Bible, and often even considered “blasphemous”. These writings are recognizing Jesus as a living breathing human being just like everyone else in the world. Sexton cannot wrap her head around the concept of Jesus being a divine individual. She sees Jesus as just another person that started at birth, lived, and died. Readers can see Sextons feelings very clearly in this series because she is more straight forward with the way that she presents her ideas. For example, the titles of the poems say enough in themselves like “Jesus Suckles”, “Jesus Asleep”, and “Jesus Cooks”. Sexton tries to portray Jesus as a man that did everyday things just as other people did and belittles the divine aspect of Jesus. This is just another example of how little she believes in the aspect of blind faith and also how unnecessary she thinks believing in a God really is.
There are several lines in “The Jesus Papers” that can be analyzed for examples to imply that Jesus is just another regular being. For example, in “Jesus Suckles” Sexton says,
I am small
and you hold me.
You give me milk
and we are the same
and I am glad. (15-19)
This is where baby Jesus is “talking” to his mother, Mary, telling her that in fact he is not divine but, just another person. I argue that Sexton believes that the more she belittles the story of Jesus, the more she is basically defending her beliefs. She does not feel the connection that others feel to religion, so if Sexton makes other people understand her point of view, there will be less people like Ruth trying to push her to do more religious things, like the catholic confessional. Sexton needs the personal connection that she gets with people like Ruth, she does not believe that someone can have that personal and intimate relationship with someone that people cannot see and have a conversation with. The thought of religion is almost mundane to her, she has no interest in even entertaining the thought of Jesus being “divine”. Her mind is made up and there is no point in trying to change it. However, she will give her attention again to the concept of religion if someone that she deeply cares about asks her to give these religious ideas thought, such as Ruth.
In “With Mercy for the Greedy” it is hard to understand why Sexton chose this title for this poem, considering the poem, on the surface, has nothing to do with greed. It can be argued that the poem is in fact about the opposite of greed because Sexton entertains the idea of religion solely because her dear friend Ruth is passionate about the Catholic faith. Just because Sexton is entertaining the idea does not mean however, that she is enjoying giving religion a shot. Early in the poem a cross is given to Sexton from Ruth, this is where Sexton calls the cross “your dog bitten cross, / no larger than a thumb” (5-6). The meaning behind the use of this particular phrase is hard to understand because it can be argued that this phrase can mean several things. One of the valid arguments being that she referenced the size because she was also referencing the small amount of interest in her faith that never quite develops. Sexton is very careful and deliberate with her word choice to convey a very specific message in all of her poems.
Sexton’s religion was her poetry, getting feedback from many readers and critics about her poems, and being able to confess to all her readers about her deepest darkest feelings. This started because of a priest that once told her “God is in your typewriter”, this gave Sexton all the confidence to awaken her readers spiritually and hoped her readers would interpret her writing as “mystical”. The true definition of “mystical” is “having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence” which is exactly what Sexton does when she digs deeper than the surface to describe her feelings. As shown previously it can be concluded that Sexton argued against religion so much because of the way that it had impacted her throughout her life. She was so invested in her writing that she wanted others to understand her passion and be inspired to become passionate about believing in human interactions and confessional poetry rather than divine spirits.
Serpas, Martha. “Martha Serpas’s ‘Paradise Almost Found: on Anne Sexton’s ‘Rowing’.’” Voltage Poetry, 11 June 2014, voltagepoetry.com/2013/03/19/martha-serpass-paradise-almost-found-on-anne-sextons-rowing/.
Sexton, Anne, et al. Selected Poems of Anne Sexton. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.