Excerpted Criticism

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Greg Johnson on: "The Truth the Dead Know"

In that strange, bitter elegy, "The Truth the Dead Know," Sexton seems to eschew the common rituals of mourning: "Gone, I say and walk from church, / refusing the stiff procession to the grave"; she prefers, instead to "cultivate myself" and to avoid such a powerful intimation of mortality as the death of both parents within a few months. The poem ends, however, by emphasizing not her own refusals but those of the dead, and into her voice creeps something like envy. . . .

From "The Achievement of Anne Sexton." The Hollins Critics (1984)

J. D. McClatchy on: "The Truth the Dead Know"

All My Pretty Ones opens on "The Truth the Dead Know," which is their absolute isolation, against which the poet fights to save both herself and her dead parents. Her father's death, three months after her mother's, intervened not only between the different concerns of these first two books but also between the completed realization of her inheritance: in the fine print of their wills, the poet fears to find her father's alcoholism and her mother's cancer, which would at the same time prove her their daughter and destroy her. The sins of the father are revisited in the title poem, which blends memories and objects like snapshots out of order to invoke the man's loss and, again, her guilty. . . .

From Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Ed. J.D. McClatchy. Copyright © 1978 by J.D. McClatchy.

Jane McCabe on: "Her Kind"

Anne Sexton was brought up to be an affluent, middle-class, suburban housewife. In a 1968 interview, she said,

All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children.... I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can't build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out.

And I think that Sexton differed from most of her successful female peers in that when she wasn't in the hospital, she lived in comfort behind the white picket fences. She was not urban; she was not an academic (her formal education ended at Garland Junior College); and she was not really an intellectual. She lived very comfortably--a sunken living room, a swimming pool--in suburban Weston, Massachusetts: the look of the country, the convenience of town. But this life worried her; she felt personally at odds with its rather dismal comforts. And although she played her part--"I ... answered the phone,/ served cocktails as a wife/ should, made love among my petticoats,/ and August tan . . . "--she was also concerned with the pressure of isolation and uneasy with the particular kind of social expectation that faces a suburban housewife, especially one who is also a poet. She defined her alienation as witchery, and as a "middle-aged witch" she had the magic of words with which to transform even the calmest and most orderly of suburban lawns into a landscape of both nightmare and vision. And this often led her to explore the dangerous borderland between imagination and insanity:

I have gone out, a possessed witch,  haunting the black air, braver at night;  dreaming evil, I have done my hitch  over the plain houses, light by light: lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.  A woman like that is not a woman, quite.  I have been her kind.

And that kind is "a woman who writes." So, although I would not suggest that Anne Sexton is a feminist poet, I think that her poetry catches the feminist's eye and ear in special ways. Many of her experiences and feelings are the product of a society that oppresses women. The anger and excess that run through so much of her poetry are uniquely hers, but there are echoes of the same kind of rage in the poetry of many of her more explicitly feminist contemporaries.

From "'A Woman Who Writes': A Feminist Approach to the Early Poetry of Anne Sexton." In Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Ed. J.D. McClatchy. Copyright © 1978 by J.D. McClatchy

Greg Johnson on: "Her Kind"

Does Sexton imagine any way out of this impasse, any way to escape the debilitating terrors of a consciousness plagued by a conviction of its own evil? One possibility is to replace self-loathing with an open acceptance of evil—even admitting the likelihood that she is "not a woman. " What is remarkable, however, is not this admission itself but the lively, almost gleeful tone in which it is uttered:

I have gone out, a possessed witch,  haunting the black air, braver at night;  dreaming of evil, I have done my hitch  over the plain houses, light by light:  lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.  A woman like that is not a woman, quite.  I have been her kind.

"A woman like that is misunderstood," Sexton adds wryly, but the poem is a serious attempt to understand such a woman--her sense of estrangement, her impulse toward death--by internalizing evil and giving it a voice: a chortling, self-satisfied, altogether amiable voice which suggests that "evil" is perhaps the wrong word after all. Sexton's witch, waving her "nude arms at villages going by," becomes something of value to the community, performing the function Kurt Vonnegut has called the "domestication of terror." Unlike Plath's madwoman in "Lady Lazarus"--a woman at the service of a private, unyielding anger, a red-haired demon whose revenge is to "eat men like air"--Sexton's witch is essentially harmless. Although she remains vulnerable--"A woman like that is not afraid to die"--she rejects anger in favor of humor, flamboyance, self-mockery. She is a kind of perverse entertainer, and if she seems cast in the role of a martyr, embracing madness in order to domesticate it for the rest of the community--making it seem less threatening, perhaps even enjoyable--it is nevertheless a martyrdom which this aspect of Sexton accepts with a peculiar zest.

From "The Achievement of Anne Sexton." The Hollins Critic (1984)

Diane Wood Middlebrook on: "Her Kind"

Because Sexton's writing seems so personal she is often labeled a "confessional" poet and grouped (to her disadvantage) with poets such as Lowell, Berryman, Roethke, and Plath. But Sexton resisted the label "confessional"; she preferred to be regarded as a "storyteller." To emphasize that she considered the speaking "I" in her poetry as a literary rather than a real identity, Sexton invariably opened her public performances by reading the early poem "Her Kind."

[. . . .]

No matter what poetry she had on an evening's agenda, Sexton offered this persona as a point of entry to her art. "I" in the poem is a disturbing, marginal female whose power is associated with disfigurement, sexuality, and magic. But at the end of each stanza, "I" is displaced from sufferer onto storyteller. With the lines "A woman like that ... I have been her kind" Sexton conveys the terms on which she wishes to be understood: not victim, but witness and witch.


From "Poets of Weird Abundance" Parnassus (1985)

Diane Wood Middlebrook on: "Her Kind"

Sexton stayed in the Boston suburbs, where she and Maxine Kumin provided each other with unflagging support as they built what Kumin called their "cottage industry" into successful careers. Of the four, Sexton was the first to tap the constraints women felt in conforming to prevailing feminine stereotypes, perhaps because she was developing her art under the psychological influence of a mother identified not with self-sacrifice but with writing. The last poem Sexton wrote for the manuscript of Bedlam, "Her Kind," shows her trying to do just that.

Bedlam was due at the printers on 1 August. At the eleventh hour Sexton was still frantically shuffling poems in and out and worrying about Lowell's advice to supply fifteen or so new ones. In arriving at the final manuscript, she shrewdly discarded work that she had been proud to send out for serial publication just a few months earlier. She also made a policy decision: "not a love lyric in the lot," she wrote to Snodgrass cheerfully. She divided the book into two parts, roughly of early and recent work. That first section worried her, because it lacked a keynote, a dominant image, a theme. Riffling through what she called her "bone pile" of discarded efforts, she picked up a piece of sentimental verse that had started life in December 1957 as "Night Voice on a Broomstick" and that she had sent to literary journals without success. In July 1959 she retitled it "Witch" and reworked it into a sixteen-line quasi-sonnet form. Then she broke those lines up into very short pieces with irregular but striking rhymes; in that thirty-eight-line version, "Witch" ended

  Who see me here this ragged apparition      in their own air see a wicked appetite,        if they dare.

This is the sort of poem Sexton had been writing for workshops throughout her apprenticeship. Like "The Farmer's Wife," "Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward," "For Johnny Pole on the Forgotten Beach," and "The Moss of His Skin," "Witch" is spoken through a mask by a dramatic persona and offers a psychological portrait of a social type. Sexton polished the poem through several revisions, but something about the short lines bothered her. She lengthened them again, this time trying another structuring principle, punctuating the stanza breaks with a refrain: "I have been her kind." The poem now began this way:

I have gone out, a possessed witch,  haunting the black air, braver at night;  dreaming evil, I have done my hitch  over the plain houses, light by light:  lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.  A woman like that is not a woman, quite.  I have been her kind.

Through the use of an undifferentiated but double "I," the poem sets up a single persona identified with madness but separated from it through insight. Two points of view are designated "I" in each stanza. The witch (stanza one), the housewife (stanza two), and the adulteress (stanza three) are those who act, or act out; in the refrain, an "I" steps through the frame of "like that" to witness, interpret, and affirm her alter ego in the same line. The double subjectivity of "Her Kind," as Sexton now called the poem, cleverly finds a way to represent a condition symbolized not in words but in symptoms that yearn to be comprehended. "Her Kind" contains its own perfect reader, its own namesake, "I."

Sexton liked this version. The poem had been through nineteen pages of drafting; as she noted on the final manuscript, "took one week to complete." From that time on, "Her Kind" served as the poem with which she began her readings, telling the audience that it

would show them what kind of woman she was, and what kind of poet. It was a most dramatic gesture, and one that Maxine Kumin disliked (she thought Sexton's readings were hammy), but it was the way Sexton stepped from person to persona. The subjectivity in the poem insists on a separation between a kind of woman (mad) and a kind of poet (a woman with magic craft): a doubleness that expressed the paradox of Sexton's creativity. "Her Kind" is not spoken through a mask, nor is it a first-person narrative like "The Double Image." It calls attention to the difference between pain and the representation of pain, between the poet onstage in print--flippant, glamorous, crafty-- and the woman whose anguish she knew firsthand. "Her Kind" was Sexton's debut as witch; it made the ideal keynote poem for To Bedlam and Part Way Back.

From Anne Sexton: A Biography. Copyright © 1991 by Diane Wood Middlebrook.

Cary Nelson on: "Twenty-One Love Poems"

The sequence begins with what sounds like a typical speaking voice in the presence of an American city's decay. "Whenever in this city," she writes, "sirens flicker / with pornography ... we also have to walk" (DCL, 25). The passage may appear to be a complaint, but "have to" actually serves as ethical insistence: "We need to grasp our lives inseparable / from those rancid dreams." The mode, as with so much of contemporary American poetry, is an ironic continuation of the Whitmanesque embrace in a landscape that has degenerated into tenements and "rainsoaked garbage." She does not, however, want the irony to blunt the discomfort of the contradictory impulses, and the last lines state her willed hopefulness dramatically:

No one has imagined us. We want to live like trees,  sycamores blazing through the sulfuric air,  dappled with scars, still exhuberantly budding, our animal passion rooted in the city.

This tension between desire and actuality persists in Rich's poetry no matter how thoroughly her emotional aspirations are countered by American history. From the negative poems about America in Necessities of Life through the more decisively compromised poems in The Will to Change, her despair and anger at American culture coexists with her wish for a renewed vision of American commonality. It is not until Merwin that we find an unremittingly bleak inversion of the Whitmanesque aesthetic. Yet even Rich's feminist version of Whitman's democratic interconnectedness is convincing only when it is completely interwoven with historical impossibility. Rich works steadily at this effort to depict female power amidst "the earth deposits of our history" (DCL, 13) through the recent poems in Poems Selected and New, and The Dream of a Common Language. One failed version of the effort is "Not Somewhere Else, But Here," which is almost a feminist recapitulation of the technique of "Shooting Script," but with its associations transcribed too loosely:

Death of the city        Her face sleeping     Her quick stride     Her unning Search for a private space    The city caving from within The lessons badly learned     Or not at all The unbuilt world This one love flowing    Touching other lives     Spilt love     The least wall caving

In "Twenty-one Love Poems" we can see where this work must lead. Through most of the sequence, she succeeds in interweaving the ordinary, unspectacular environment, the special social pressures always at the edge of her awareness, the historical forces ranged against two female lovers, and their shared intimacies. The relationship is always "a flute / plucked and fingered by women outside the law." Yet she reserves a privileged site--sexual intimacy--for a poem that voices the desire to break free of public history, their individual past, and the politics of the relationship. Between the fourteenth and fifteenth poems she places "(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)." Enclosed, as its title is in parentheses, it is surrounded by and grounded in the twenty-one numbered poems. It is at once protected and threatened by them, and its opening and closing lines provide a passage to and from the concerns of the rest of the sequence: "Whatever happens with us," she writes at first, "Your body / will haunt mine," and closes with "whatever happens, this is" (DCL, 32). The sequence as a whole testifies widely to the paradoxical stresses in whatever happens," but this single poem, like Duncan's "Sonnet 4," reaches for a temporality all its own. The sequence's structure simultaneously gives and denies this poem that inviolability. This is Rich's most overtly erotic poem to date, and she may have simply been unable to politicize its intimacies:

[Nelson quotes "The Floating Poem"]

Except possibly for one excessively sentimental phrase "the innocence and wisdom of," a phrase whose conventionality suggests how difficult Rich found the poem to write "(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)" succeeds in being both tender and sensual. The comic playfulness of the alliteration in "half-curled frond / of the fiddlehead fern" and the edge of comic self-regard in "insatiate dance" give the poem's rapture a tonal complication from which it benefits. We may even hear in these lines a wry echo of the pervasive garden imagery of her earliest work, but in this poem at least we are not altogether removed from those "paths fern-fringed and delicate" of A Change of World where "innocent sensuality abides."

One reads the first part of the sequence wondering if any of the poems will risk more frank physical description. Given that sense of hesitant anticipation, it is emotionally appropriate that this pivotal poem be unnumbered and symbolically free of all historical entanglement. Yet one can also say that Rich has left the sequence with a project unfinished and perhaps still to come, one that would be even more challenging to her audiences historicizing of erotic pleasure. As Foucault has argued, the privileging of sexuality as a special site for authentic self-expression is itself historically determined. Foucault's challenge to our confidence in the ahistorical character of sexuality is implicit in much that Rich has previously written about relations between the sexes. Indeed her recognition here that lesbian sexuality is "outside the law" is historicized exactly as Foucault argues: it is both a prohibition and an inducement to a form of sexuality conceived in opposition to the dominant culture. As Rich herself has written, lesbianism is a conflux "of the self-chosen woman, the forbidden 'primary intensity' between women, and also the woman who refuses to obey, who has said 'no' to the fathers" (OLS, 202); the impulse toward "the breaking of a taboo" cannot be separated from that "electric and empowering charge between women"--"an engulfed continent which rises fragmentedly to view from time to time only to become submerged again." If Rich follows this project through to completion, it may lead her to write poems about female sexuality that have the deconstructive force of poems about American history like "(Newsreel)."

Yet Rich will have to acknowledge the cost of these insights--both to herself and to her audience. For where history and politics are concerned, knowledge does not necessarily produce freedom. And history touches even our simplest pleasures. "The moment when a feeling enters the body," she writes, "is political. This touch is political" (WITC, 24). By focusing on what the poem itself can actually do (or fail to do) in the presence of that unacceptable, undeniable reality, Rich also creates a compelling record of our other human options. They are fewer and they are more problematic than her exhortatory poetry would lead us to believe. Yet we are also more driven to choose that small ground on which some witness can be given, for we are ourselves already being chosen by "the cruelty of our times and customs" (PSN, 234).

From Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Hayden Carruth on: "Twenty-One Love Poems"

The heart of this book is a sequence of sonnetlike love poems--no, call them true sonnets. For if they do not conform to the prescribed rules, they certainly come from the same lyrical conception that made the sonnet in the first place, and it is long past time to liberate the old term from its trammeling codes of technique. Here is one from the sequence:

[Carruth quotes No. 11 from "Twenty-One Love poems"]

It is an outstanding poem but typical as well of Rich's way of writing: the genuinely literate sentences woven into genuinely poetic measures, cadences, and patterns of sound; the easy, perfectly assimilated classical allusion; the sense of immediate, unique experience; the details--here the female mountain and flower--turned into generalized insights of humane value. These are the resonances we find in all the poems. A mind is here, a loving mind, in and of this world, including all this world's cultural inheritance, yet still asserting, firmly and calmly, its own independence and newness.

From Harper’s (1978).

Jane Vanderbosck on: "Twenty-One Love Poems"

Poem XI of "Twenty-One Love Poems, presents the female landscape in miniature. The She is both the "volcano" and the women who "scale the path." The "jewel-like flower" that grows on the side of the mountain has a physical corollary in the clitoris. Again, the female is not one thing any more than it is one place. It is everywhere, any place that women perceive to be "eternally and visibly female." Existing on the land and in the body, it is both Nature and Woman.

What is interesting about this particular lyric is not only how Rich parallels the natural and the womanly (the flower and the clitoris, the burning core and the glowing arteries), but also her belief that women have the power to name their environment as well as themselves. When Rich and her friend define the "jewel-like flower," the poet pointedly reminds the reader that the flower was "nameless till we re-name[d] her." "Renaming" is analogous to "re-vision" here; the flower--like an "old text" is seen "with fresh eyes" and given a fresh name. Like the sybils of ancient Greece, these women prophesy a mysterious vision that is not of this world. In the case of these modern sybils, the vision is an exclusively female one which they (rather than the male priests of the Greek sanctuaries) interpret by the act of naming.

From Jane Roberta Cooper, ed. Reading Adrienne Rich. (University of Michigan Press, 1984).

Alice Templeton on: "Twenty-One Love Poems"

"Twenty-one Love Poems" especially challenges dominant cultural values and discourse while it exemplifies the internally dialogic, self-reflexive motion of Rich's poems. These short poems concern a relationship between two women which prospers but later disintegrates, a love made possible and impossible by the forces "within us and against us, against us and within us." In breaking silences about lesbian sexuality, "(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)" not only resists being coopted into the heterosexual cultural system it challenges but also resists being systematized even within the structure of "Twenty-one Love Poems." By dialogically resonating or "floating" as a detached signifier of desire throughout the entire collection, the poem keeps the collection from being facilely subsumed into a heterosexual system or being received as a mere trope of that system. Yet, again, the twenty-one poems rely on the readers' recognizing the ideologies associated with heterosexuality and conventional ways of reading against which these love poems position themselves.

From The Dream and the Dialogue. Copyright © 1994 by The University of Tennessee Press.