Anne Sexton 1972
“Oysters” appeared in 1972 as the first section of the six-part poem “The Death of the Fathers” in Anne Sexton’s sixth published book of poetry, The Book of Folly. Sexton’s earlier work had dealt with the subjects of mental illness, the suicidal impulse, romantic and sexual love, and the sexual connotations of fairy tales, as well as relationships between mothers and daughters. The theme of “The Deaths of the Fathers” was a departure for her. This was perhaps due to the fact that she was working with a woman therapist instead of a man. Or perhaps she felt the need to re-examine incestuous feelings for her father now that she had discovered he was not in fact her biological father.
The central images of the poems in this sequence seem almost like snapshots from a bizarre family photo album. The first is of a girl at fifteen eating a grown-up dinner alone with her father. The second, “How We Danced,” presents the image of a young woman of nineteen dancing at a wedding with her father and discovering that he is sexually aroused by their contact. “The Boat” isolates a dangerous moment for the seven-year-old Anne riding in a sailboat with her mother and her father at the helm. “Santa” conflates the death of the father with the death of Santa. “Friends” examines a memory of a stranger who visited when her father was gone. In “Begat,” the sixth and final poem of the sequence, the poet tries to focus on “father,” to determine who he is. The exploration of the father-daughter relationship becomes increasingly disturbing, logically following the implication of every little girl’s belief that she can grow up to be her father’s wife. “Oysters” marks the confusing rite of passage into the adult relationship between the daughter and the father.
Sexton, the daughter of Ralph and Mary Harvey, was born in 1928 and raised in suburban Boston. When she was nineteen she married Alfred Muller Sexton II. During her early twenties Sexton began experiencing severe bouts of depression. After the birth of her second daughter in 1955 she attempted suicide and was hospitalized under the care of Dr. Martin Orne, who encouraged her to write poems as a form of therapy. Sexton subsequently participated in several writing courses and attended the Antioch Writer’s Conference on scholarship, studying under W. D. Snodgrass. Sexton produced extremely personal verse relating her experiences with mental illness. Her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, was published in 1960. As she gained a reputation as an important new poet, Sexton was invited to teach at high schools and universities, such as Harvard and Radcliffe. She also co-wrote several highly regarded children’s books. And, in 1967, Sexton received the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her third collection, Live or Die. Despite her literary success Sexton continually battled depression and psychosis. Twice her family was forced to have her committed to mental institutions. She ended her own life in 1974.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
The poem inverts the standard syntax, or sentence structure, which would be “We ate oysters,” to open with the word “[o]ysters,” signalling their importance as an image within the context of the poem.
Rather than presenting the oysters as food, the poet describes them as helpless small creatures. The adjective “sweet” is clearly not in reference to their taste, but in conjunction with the word “babies” it must be used in its sense of “dear.” The odd characterization of their color as blue creates a startling image of death with the word “babies.”
This refers to the fact that raw oysters are typically served by the dozen, with lemon wedges and hot pepper sauce. The persona of the poem perceives
- Various audio recordings of Sexton’s readings and interviews are available on cassette, including Anne Sexton Reads her Work (1973) and Anne Sexton Reads Her Kind / Divorce, Thy Name is Woman / Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman & Other Poems (Caedmon Audio, 1973), both released near the time of her death.
- The National Endowment for Television spent several days at Sexton’s house in 1965 filming a documentary about her life titled Anne Sexton (1966). The half-hour film, which was heavily edited in order to portray Sexton as an “ideal housewife and writer,” is available at local libraries
- After her death, another film crew uncovered over an hour and a half of footage cut from the original 1966 documentary Anne Sexton. The version they released in 1973, Sexton, includes revealing out takes and readings that give a more complete portrayal of the talented and tormented poet.
them as round eyes tearing with the sour juice and hot sauce.
Eating raw oysters is an acquired taste, and usually not for children’s super-sensitive taste buds. In this poem the persona associates this food with her adult father. (Other implications of the term “father-food” emerge in lines 10 to 13.) The father’s laugh is, presumably, at his child’s squeamishness.
The sophisticated adult food being consumed is accompanied, for the father, by a sophisticated martini, obviously straight up rather than on the rocks so that the clarity of the liquid in the glass is noticeable to the child, who associates it with the teary running of the oyster-eyes, as well as with some apparent sadness.
This line does double duty, referring to the sedative effect of the martini on the father, as well as going on to describe the beginnings of the taste of the first oyster.
It is obvious from the other poems in the sequence “The Death of the Fathers” (which “Oysters” opens) that a heavy aura of sexuality is meant to surround this poem. For example, it is believed that oysters are an aphrodisiac, a strange food for a father and daughter to be eating alone together. And, given the subject of incest explored in the other poems, it is difficult to read the poem as simply a very detailed description of a young girl eating oysters for the first time. In fact, it seems to be the interpretative consensus that the eating of oysters becomes an analogy for a sexual attraction between the girl and her father, and that the sea taste of the oyster’s “soft medicine” is his semen.
The shock of this realization leads to a retrospective impact of the images of “babies” and “father-food” and “tears.” Some critics read this poem as a mix of fantasy with memory, as a grown woman looks back and admits a sexual attraction to her father, then allows sexual fantasy to color the memory.
Raw oysters are usually served circled on a plate with the lemon wedges and Tabasco in a dish in the middle. Evidently the girl had first eaten the very top oyster, midnight or noon, and then went in an organized fashion from there. It is typical “Anne Sexton” to place such a comic image after the shocking one of the preceding lines. As if to guide the reader further away from the horror, line 15 introduces laughter, although the lightening of the mood does not last for long.
The poet in line 16 introduces herself retrospectively into the girl’s experience to adamantly announce “the death of childhood.” The “blue babies” of line 2 were, in one aspect of their multifaceted image function, a forewarning of something dark and secret and sexual. Now we see them as a premonition of the “death” of the “child” in this young woman. However, the poet next places us matter of factly in the restaurant, and the situation seems unexceptional. But while the poem never returns to the level of the shock of the incest analogy in lines 10 to 13, there is still an ambivalence in the final lines.
Certainly line 22 can be read as a rite of passage as the child learns to begin to adjust her palate to adult food. But line 23 has a strange double meaning. It reads first, perhaps, as though the woman in the persona has won out over the child, and the oysters were eaten to prove her adulthood. However, it can also mean that it is a woman now having dinner with a man, and not a child having dinner with a father. And the phrase can be read as “The woman [was] won,” as in “winning a romantic conquest.” There is enough evidence of misplaced romantic emotions in the other poems in the sequence that it does not seem a stretch to read this line both ways. In fact, given the emotional horror of the later poems, the ambivalence present in this poem seems “true,” and in keeping with the emotional reality of such a father-daughter relationship.
Change and Transformation
In the poem “Oysters,” Sexton details an adolescent girl’s transformation from innocence to adulthood through an account of a single meal eating oysters with her father. At first a simple description of a father and daughter sharing a meal at a restaurant, the poem touches on important themes of sexual maturation and incest as the young speaker discovers the sexually charged implications of her actions. While change can be triggered by many catalysts, it seems here a single but profound realization that signals for the speaker the passing of childhood. This realization takes place as the speaker, sitting with her father, swallows the moist, salty oysters “that came from the sea into my mouth.” This challenge to “eat the father-food” is so laden with sexuality it embarrasses the father and daughter. They both laugh uncomfortably to cover their discomfort.
To make sure both the speaker and reader agree exactly what change took place at that moment, Sexton pauses the scene (as the girl laughs with her father) to say: “and let me take note— / there was a death, / the death of childhood / there at the Union Oyster House.” In every death there is rebirth, and in every defeat a side wins out. In this case “the woman won,” Sexton concludes, though we know the opponents really inhabit the same body. Like
Topics for Further Study
- Write a poem about a food that you especially hated eating when you were young and describe a time when you could not avoid eating it.
- Explain how laughter is used in this poem. Is it a sign of amusement? Does it mean the same thing for each person in the poem?
the shells that litter her plate after she devours the raw oysters inside, the young girl finishes the meal transformed by experience.
Rites of Passage
Each culture has a unique rite or ceremony to mark a child’s passage from innocence into adulthood. Most commonly, traditional rites take the form of a symbolic action; either the youth has to overcome a challenge, complete a journey, or endure physical pain. Although modern American culture may have abandoned most traditional ceremonies, the speaker of “Oysters” discovers a rite of passage in the everyday act of eating a plate of seafood with her father.
The restaurant scene Sexton describes holds several characteristics of ceremony: the young girl invited into the “adult” world; the father challenging her to overcome her fear and eat the slimy and spicy oysters; and finally, the act of eating, which places a part of the sea on her tongue like a sacrament. Through these actions, in turn, the fifteen-year-old girl leaves childhood behind and passes into the world of adults, suddenly a woman in her father’s world. Underlying all of these actions is an uncomfortable sense of sexuality between the father and daughter as they eat the oysters (often rumored to be an aphrodisiac). The act of sex itself is a rite of passage from inexperience to experience.
Many critical interpretations of this poem are based on the action of the speaker eating oysters with her father. From this provocative action, critics conclude that an incestuous relationship between the pair exists. As the line-by-line explication of this poem illustrates, Sexton arranges the details and dramatic movement of “Oysters” in such a way as to craft an underlying theme of sexual attraction between father and daughter.
It is the realization of this attraction which perhaps changes the speaker that afternoon at the Union Oyster House. The details of the scene resemble a sexual encounter between the two: the girl afraid to “eat this father food”; the half-drunk man laughing (though what he drinks reminds her of tears); and the salty, moist and plump oysters which she swallows down “like a large pudding.” Reinforcing this interpretation is the presence of terrible guilt or grief which would naturally accompany such a relationship.
“Oysters” is written in free verse. It is constructed in one stanza of 23 lines, punctuated as five relatively middle-length sentences and one long final sentence extending from lines 15 to 23.
The lines vary in length from four syllables to ten, and lineation focuses an image per line, such as “and Father laughed” in line 6, “and drank down his martini,” in line 7.
The poet utilizes alliteration as a means of focusing attention on the images of “blue babies” in line 2; of “father-food” and “Father” in lines 5 and 6; of “martini,” “medicine,” “mouth,” and “moist and plump” in lines 7, 9, 10, and 11; and of “woman won” in line 23. She uses internal rhyme in “clear as tears” in line 8 to the same purpose. The repetition of the word “laughed” three times with “Father,” then “I,” and then “we” charts an emotional progression in lines 6 through 15, and the repetition of “death” in lines 17-18 emphasizes this emotional rite of passage.
The poem is written in the first person “I,” although this is not evident until line 5. Furthermore, it is not revealed that the “I” is fifteen years old until line 20, after the rite of passage has been established.
“Oysters,” published in 1972, is not informed as much by the historical events of the decade in which it was written as much as it was influenced by the movement of writers of which Sexton was a central figure. Known as the Confessionalists, this group of New England writers which gained popularity during the 1950s and early 1960s also included W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath. Together they turned poetry in a direction so completely introspective and intimately revealing that many critics of the time admitted being too embarrassed by the details of sexual trauma and psychological illness to comment objectively on the books reviewed. As details from her biography account, Sexton suffered severe bouts of depression which led her to several suicide attempts. She finally succeeded in 1974, only two years after publishing “Oysters” and barely a decade after her close friend Sylvia Plath took her own life.
Plath and Sexton met in Robert Lowell’s graduate writing seminar at Boston University, where they both learned how to use confessional poetry as a means of dealing with mental illness and emotional trauma. Plath attempted suicide so many times as to think of herself a artist at the craft of dying. In her poem “Lady Lazarus,” written several years before Sexton wrote “Oysters,” Plath confesses:
…The second time I meant To last it out and not
come back at all. I rocked shut
As a seashell. They had to call and call And pick
the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Dying Is an art, like everything else. I do it
There is little doubt Sexton read Plath’s poems before publication, and perhaps offered workshop suggestions to the fellow poet. Possible too is the chance Sexton had the image of her friend “rocked shut / As a seashell” in the back of her mind as she began the poem that would describe a young girl sitting at a table with her father, a plate of fresh oysters between them.
The popular psychoanalytical method of Sigmund Freud is a significant component to the critical interpretations of “Oysters.” Ironically, Sexton may have been including Freudian imagery in her poems as a direct response to her years of psychotherapy. Sexton participated in various forms of therapy with a variety of doctors during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and even in 1972 it was not uncommon for psychiatrists to use Freudian psychoanalysis to help patients search out the roots of their illness.
This method often depends on a list of set symbolic images or relationships in order to interpret our actions. For example, Freud claimed that all water and fish images are “feminine” sexual symbols
Compare & Contrast
- 1972: Britain imposes direct rule over Northern Ireland after thirty years of fighting between Catholics and Protestants. Over 467 Northern Irish are killed during the year, including thirteen Catholics shot dead by British troops at the Londonderry riots on January 30th, the day to be known infamously as “Bloody Sunday.”
1978: The Irish Republican Army (IRA) regularly attacks British Government officials in protest of British rule over Northern Ireland. IRA terrorists plant a bomb on Lord Mountbatten’s yacht, killing the cousin of Elizabeth II, his young grandson and a friend. Later the same year IRA members ambush and kill eighteen British soldiers on a road south of Belfast.
1998: After years of violence, both IRA and British leaders hope for peace by signing an agreement on April 9th which will turn direct rule of Northern Ireland back over to Irish officials.
- 1972: President Nixon signs a bill January 5th authorizing a $5.5 billion, 6-year program to develop a space shuttle that will lift off as a rocket and return to earth as an airplane.
1984: The space shuttle Discovery, the world’s first spacecraft with the capability to be piloted back to earth, launches its maiden voyage. Television networks cancel a majority of the day’s regular programming to offer viewers live coverage of the launch.
1985: A horrified national audience watches live from home and schools as space shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after take-off, killing all crew aboard.
1998: With very few mishaps since the Challenger disaster, NASA’s space shuttle program schedules dozens of regular launches and reentries of its small fleet of craft. Television coverage of the launches on national networks now rarely consists of more than brief blurbs about the event.
- 1972: A new Surgeon General’s report first warns of the dangers of “second-hand smoke” after studies warn that the carbon monoxide and other toxins are actually more harmful to non-smokers than to the smokers themselves. The news forces agencies to reconsider where smoking should be allowed, which at the time included grocery stores, airline flights and city offices.
1998: Both state and federal government agencies seek compensation from big tobacco companies for billions of dollars spent treating smoking-related illnesses. Smoking is banned in all government buildings, most airline flights, and in many restaurants and bars.
and that many young girls, like mythical Elektra, are sexually attracted to the first males they love—their fathers. Whether this was true or not for Sexton is debatable, but it is highly likely her intensive therapy during the same years she published “Oysters” included discussions in which this Electra complex relationship with her father may have been discussed. She considered poetry a form of therapy and may have been using the prevalent analytical method of the time to handle her own confusion and obsession surrounding this complex relationship.
Many critics have applauded confessional poetry for its move away from typically “academic” or intellectual contemporary poetry. In fact, a feature of confessional poetry is that it is very personal. Consequently, the question for many readers of confessional poetry is just how much of the work is autobiographical. While it is instructive to know Sexton’s life story in order to grasp the technique and craft operating in her poems, J.D. McClatchy makes it clear in Anne Sexton: The Artist and HerCritics that “Sexton is sharply aware … of the difference between factual truth and poetic truth—of the need to ‘edit’ out, while trying not to distort.” McClatchy is adamant that the value of Sexton’s poetry is “as art, rather than as mere self-expression.”
Lynette McGrath, like McClatchy, sees real value in the open forms of Sexton’s later poetry. She notes in Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton that “as Sexton’s poems become less structurally controlled, they begin to incorporate the loose syntax of conversation .…” McGrath maintains that Sexton’s earlier formal structures closed out the reader, whereas later poems such as “Oysters” “encourage the reader to participate in or learn from the poet’s own experience.”
Helen Vendler, on the other hand, states in The New Republic that such a poem sequence as “The Deaths of the Fathers” “sounds entirely too much like an echo of [confessional poet Robert] Lowell, and a bad one.…” Even such an appreciative critic as Katha Pollitt in The Nation, who admires the “daring rhymester” of Sexton’s early work, suggests that, while it is commendable to want to grow as a writer, Sexton has “moved away from form as she matured, but without having worked out ways of achieving in free verse what form makes so easy: the use of structure and sound to delimit a drama, intensify emotion and clarify meaning.” Pollitt is only one of many critics to see Sexton’s later free verse as self-indulgent rambling. The fault is thought to be Sexton’s approach to her work as more therapy than poetry.
J. D. McClatchy in Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics, however, sees “The Deaths of the Fathers” as “one of Sexton’s triumphs, daring in its explorations and revelations, its verse superbly controlled as the voice of each poem is modulated to its experience.” According to McClatchy, “Oysters” is set in childhood and written in “the declaratives of a child.”
While it presents Sexton’s initiation, a rite of passage into the adult world, it simultaneously examines both her memory of her father’s response to her and her own desire for him as a father, and a fantasy of adult desire for him as a man. “She is,” as McClatchy sees it, “Daddy’s Girl having lunch with her father at a restaurant.” She “fearfully eats her oysters—‘this father-food,’ his semen.”
Furthermore, McClatchy believes “that the patterns [the later poems] assume [in open forms] and by which they manage their meanings are those which more closely follow the actual experiences they are recreating—forms that can include and reflect direct, personal experience.…” It is his opinion that there is such a “blend of memory and fantasy” in the poems of this sequence that each interpenetrates and thus reinforces the other. For him, “Oysters” and the other poems of “The Deaths of the Fathers” are “the culmination of Sexton ’s confessional style.”
Chris Semansky teaches writing and literature at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon, and is a frequent contributor of poems and essays to literary journals. In the following essay, Semansky asserts that “Oysters” is a “confessional” poem that explores Sexton’s childhood relationship with her father.
In the 1950s and 1960s poets such as Theodore Roethke, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman began writing and publishing poems that detailed intimate aspects of their personal lives. Unlike other poets who wrote about their own experiences, circumstances, and situations, these poets wrote about such taboo subjects as sex, mental illness, and drugs. Because these subjects often form the staples of psychoanalysis—a kind of talk therapy—the poets who wrote about these subjects were labeled confessional. Readers, then, were put in the position of therapist and the poet was the patient, or client. This relationship is especially appropriate for confessional poet Anne Sexton, who used her poetry to delve into her own troubled relationships and personal history.
The first poem of a six poem sequence called “The Death of The Fathers,” from her 1972 collection, The Book of Folly, “Oysters” imagistically recalls a key event in the author’s emotional development—the poet’s memory of eating oysters with her father at the Union Oyster House when she was a young girl. For Sexton, this seemingly mundane event marked her own growth from adolescence to adulthood, from innocence to experience.
Poets often use imagery to make their writing concrete. Teachers of both poetry and fiction writing are fond of telling their students to show, not tell. This (theoretically) enables the readers to reexperience the event described rather than having it explained to them. Poetic imagery, however, is not only language used to describe what we see; it refers to all the objects and qualities of sense perception referred to in a poem or work of literature. These qualities can include touch, taste, smell, hearing, sensations of movement, etc. Sexton uses imagery associated with all of the senses, not just vision, to produce a poem meant to be read with the whole body, to be felt as well as understood. So, for instance, when she describes the oysters as “sweet blue babies, / twelve eyes look[ing] up at me” we understand the comparison between oysters and human babies while also being a little repulsed by the description. Sexton plays with this kind of tension throughout the poem as she recounts her sexual fantasies about her father.
The scene of the poem has all of the adult trappings so mysterious to children: not only oysters themselves (and the associations they have as an aphrodisiac) but the butter and lemon and tabasco, the father’s martini, and the fact that they are eating alone. If, as some critics suggest, the oysters can be considered the father’s semen, the scene takes on a more mysterious aura. If Sexton actually did eat her father’s semen, we would be appalled. Incest, after all, remains taboo in almost all societies, but because Sexton’s description merely uses her memory of oyster eating with her father to suggest desires that are often misunderstood, we are instead intrigued, drawn into a poem that can be read no other way than as confession.
Themes of passage and healing inform the poem. Swallowing oysters—“a soft medicine / that came from the sea into my mouth, / moist and plump”—not only suggest the act of incestuous fellatio, but it also suggests doing something that you might not like but that is good for you. For Sexton, this is expressing the desire she had as an adolescent to please her father, to be an adult like him and to do adult things. Sexton’s use of tactile imagery—her description of the food and how the oyster went down “like a large pudding”—underscores the link between sex and food and keeps our attention focused on the body. Just as food passes through the body, so too has Sexton passed through adolescence into adulthood.
Similarly, the line “Then I ate one o’clock and two o’clock,” not only describes the position of the oysters on her plate, but it also highlights the passing of time. By delving into her past, Sexton both waxes nostalgic and unearths memories that might have better been left alone. Psychoanalysis, sometimes called the “talking cure,” works when psychologists prod their patients to remember traumatic
What Do I Read Next?
- In 1958, Anne Sexton attended a poetry workshop that would forever change her writing style. There she worked with W. D. Snodgrass, who’s “Heart’s Needle” she would always credit as a major inspiration for her work.
- A revealing look at Anne Sexton’s life is documented by her own letters to friends and family members. Her daughter Linda compiled and edited many in the book Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters, published in 1992.
- Sexton considered poet Sylvia Plath a good friend. Her similar biography and confessional writing style makes her an ideal next read. Her poem “Mirror” is included in the first volume of Poetry for Students, and her book Ariel is widely available in bookstores.
- Yet another poet included in the “Confessionalists” with Sexton is Robert Lowell. He was her graduate school instructor at Boston University where she also met Sylvia Plath. Lowell’s book Life Studies is perhaps his most famous work.
events in their pasts that supposedly can help to explain their current crises. Sexton was in psychoanalysis and various forms of psychotherapy a good portion of her adult life, and in her own writings she often claimed to make little distinction between poetry and therapy.
Arranged in chronological order, the other poems in the sequence similarly recount events with her father that marked passages in the author’s emotional development. These events both literally and metaphorically detail Sexton’s conflicted relationship with her father. Sexton biographer, Diane Wood Middlebrook, writes that during the holiday season of 1970 an old family friend, Azel Mack, convinced Sexton that he had had a lengthy affair with Sexton’s mother and was in fact Sexton’s biological father. This information touched off powerful emotions for Sexton, emotions that she incorporated into her poetry.
In her Anne Sexton, 1991, Middlebrook writes that “the emotional dynamic in ‘The Death of Fathers’ is complex and radically interesting. The series asserts the reality of various kinds of incestuous wishes in two kinds of fathers, one treacherously fixated by instinct, the other domineering, asserting rough sex play as his father-right.” In “Begat,” the last poem in the sequence, the speaker finally makes peace with the memory of her dead father.
Other writers were not as convinced by the poems. In a letter to Sexton, poet-critic (and friend) C. K. Williams wrote: “There isn’t enough dumbness in the poems, enough of that language that floats just above incoherency, the incoherency of those mysteries of time and love that fatherhood and childhood embody.”
Such blatant use of biographical material, especially material so sexually explicit, garnered some negative reaction from critics and readers. In Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton, Diana George Hume writes that:
If the response of [Sexton’s] contemporaries to “confessional poetry” was sometimes sharply negative, it was specially inflected with contempt for “her kind.” When [Robert] Lowell confessed, at first we slapped his patrician hand and told him to shape up and put back the stiff in his upper lip. When Sexton confessed, we sharpened the knife and heated the pot.
Indeed, male poets dominated the landscape of confessional poetry before Anne Sexton. One of her own chief influences was W. D. Snodgrass, to whom she wrote in a letter that “I want everyone to hold up large signs saying YOU’RE A GOOD GIRL.” This desire to please men, and the emotional damage it can do to women, formed not only a recurrent theme in Sexton’s poetry but in the poetry of Sylvia Plath as well, whose difficulties coming to terms with the memory of her own father are well-documented in her poems and prose. Commenting on the importance of the father figure in Sexton’s poetry, Hume emphasizes:
Sexton’s search for the traditional Father-God in dozens of poems that may be failures in the feminist sense is an eloquent representation of an entire culture’s quest for the same God. The loving and admonishing Father for whom she searches is the same Father for whom we have all searched.… Even those of us who have rejected him outright in favor of no gods at all—or of gods that offend our sensibilities less, match our politics or gender better, or seem to us truer, more imaginative—catch ourselves wishing, or fearing, that he might exist. Sexton’s failing Father-God is, in short, our own; I cannot see how it could be otherwise in a patriarchy as old and enduring as ours.
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
In the following excerpt, Juhasz discusses the “end of Sexton’s career and poetry” and “looks at the role that her poems played in her life and in ours.”
If you are brought up to be a proper little girl in Boston, a little wild and boy crazy, a little less of a student and more of a flirt, and you run away from home to elope and become a proper Boston bride, a little given to extravagance and a little less to casseroles, but a proper bride nonetheless who turns into a proper housewife and mother, and if all along you know that there lives inside you a rat, a “gnawing pestilential rat,” [as stated in the poem “Rowing,”] what will happen to you when you grow up? If you are Anne Sexton, you will keep on paying too much attention to the rat, will try to kill it, and yourself, become hospitalized, be called crazy. You will keep struggling to forget the rat and be the proper Boston housewife and mother you were raised to be. And into this struggle will come, as an act of grace, poetry, to save your life by giving you a role, a mission, a craft: an act, poetry, that is you but is not you, outside yourself. Words, that you can work and shape and that will stay there, black and true, while you do this, turn them into a poem, that you can send away to the world, a testimony of yourself. Words that will change the lives of those who read them and your own life, too. So that you can know that you are not only the wife and mother, not only the rat, but that you are the poet, a person who matters, who has money and fame and prizes and students and admirers and a name, Anne Sexton.
But what about the mother and wife, and what about the rat, when Anne Sexton becomes a poet? This essay is about the end of Sexton’s career and poetry, and it looks at the role that her poems played in her life and in ours. It is a tale for our times, because it is also about what poetry can do for women and what it cannot do for women. Something we need to know.…
[F]or Sexton the poem existed as a measure of control, of discipline, for one whom she defined as “given to excess.” “I have found that I can control it best in a poem,” she says. “If the poem is good then it will have the excess under control … it is the core of the poem … there like stunted fruit, unseen but actual” [Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters, 1977].
Yet the poem had another function in her life, the one which gives rise to that label “confessional,” which has always dogged her work and is not usually complimentary. Her poetry is highly personal. She is either the overt or the implicit subject of her poem, and the she as subject is the person who anguishes, who struggles, who seems mired in the primary soil of living: the love/hate conflict with mother and father, the trauma of sex, the guilt of motherhood. The person in the poem is not the proper lady and mother and wife who is always trying her best to tidy up messes and cover them with a coating of polish and wax. Rather, it is the rat, a creature of nature rather than culture, who is crude and rude, “with its bellyful of dirt / and its hair seven inches long”; with its “two eyes full of poison / and routine pointed teeth.” The rat person, with her “evil mouth” and “worried eyes,” knows that living is something about which to worry: she sees and tells. In form her poem often follows a psychoanalytic model, as I have pointed out in an earlier essay [titled “‘The Excitable Gift’: The Poetry of Anne Sexton”], beginning in a present of immediate experience and probing into a past of personal relationships in order to understand the growth (and the damaging) of personality. As such, the poem for Sexton is an important agent in her quest for salvation: for a way out of the madness that the rat’s vision engenders, a way that is not suicide.
Very early in her career, in “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further,” she presents an aesthetics of personal poetry which is conscious that the poem, because it is an object that communicates and mediates between person and person, can offer “something special” for others as well as oneself.…
In such poetry, she warns, there is no “lesson,” no universal truth. What there is is the poem of herself, which, as she has made it, has achieved an order; that very order a kind of hope (a belief in salvation) that might be shared. The poem of herself is, however, not herself but a poem. The imagery of this poem attests to that fact, as it turns self into object, a bowl, an orange, a sun, while it turns the poem about self into a coating or covering that surrounds the self. The bowl is like a planet in a heaven of “cracked stars shining / like a complicated lie”; if he should turn from this poem, she promises to “fasten a new skin around” or “dress” her orange, that strange sun.
Of course Sexton was right when she said that there ought to be something special in that gesture
“She was often, although not always, a good poet, a skilled poet, whose words worked insight upon her subject matter and irradiated it with vision.”
her poems made toward others. People responded to her poetry because she had the courage to speak publicly of the most intimate of personal experiences, the ones so many share. She became a spokesperson for the secret domestic world and its pain. And her audience responded as strongly as it did, not only because of what she said but because of how she said it. She was often, although not always, a good poet, a skilled poet, whose words worked insight upon her subject matter and irradiated it with vision.
But what about herself, in the process? What did her poems do for her?
In a letter [reprinted in Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters] she speaks of the necessity for the writer to engage in a vulnerable way with experience.
I think that writers … must try not to avoid knowing what is happening. Everyone has somewhere the ability to mask the events of pain and sorrow, call it shock … when someone dies for instance you have this shock that carries you over it, makes it bearable. But the creative person must not use this mechanism anymore than they have to in order to keep breathing. Other people may. But not you, not us. Writing is “life” in capsule and the writer must feel every bump edge scratch ouch in order to know the real furniture of his capsule.… I, myself, alternate between hiding behind my own hands protecting myself anyway possible, and this other, this seeing ouching other. I guess I mean that creative people must not avoid the pain that they get dealt. I say to myself, sometimes repeatedly “I’ve got to get the hell out of this hurt”… But no. Hurt must be examined like a plague.
The result of this program, as she says in a letter to W. D. Snodgrass, is writing “real.” “Because that is the one thing that will save (and I do mean save) other people.”
And yet the program is not only altruistic in intent. Personal salvation remains for her an equally urgent goal. As she writes in “The Children,” from one of her last books, The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975):
The place I live in
is a kind of maze
and I keep seeking
the exit or the home.
In describing this position of vulnerability necessary for poetry, she tells Snodgrass that a poet must remain “the alien.” In her vocabulary for herself, that alien is of course the rat. But there is a serious problem here, because Anne Sexton the woman (who is nonetheless the poet, too) does not like the rat. The existence of the rat obstructs salvation. In “Rowing,” the opening poem of The Awful Rowing Toward God, salvation is described as an island toward which she journeys. This island, her goal, is “not perfect,” having “the flaws of life, / the absurdities of the dinner table, / but there will be a door”:
and I will open it and I will get rid of the rat inside
me, the gnawing pestilential rat.
In the “Ninth Psalm” (ED. “Tenth Psalm” in CP) of her long poem “O Ye Tongues” (The Death Notebooks), an extended description of the state of salvation includes this vision: “For the rat was blessed on that mountain. He was given a white bath.”
In other words, Sexton, recognizing at the age of twenty-eight her possession of a talent, turned her mad self to good work (and works): into a writer, an active rather than a passive agent. For she had defined madness as fundamentally passive and destructive in nature. “Madness is a waste of time. It creates nothing.… Nothing grows from it and you, meanwhile, only grow into it like a snail.” Yet the rat who is the mad lady is also the poet. To have become a poet was surely an act toward salvation for Sexton. It gave her something to do with the knowledge that the rat possessed. Left to her silence, the rat kept seeing too much and therefore kept seeking “the exit.” Words brought with them power, power to reach others. They gave her as well a social role, “the poet,” that was liberating. Being the poet, who could make money with her poetry, who could be somebody of consequence in the public world, was an act that helped to alleviate some of the frustration, the impotence, the self-hatred that Sexton the woman experienced so powerfully in her life. The poet was good: how good she was Sexton, as teacher and reader and mentor, made a point of demonstrating.
But the rat was not good; in yet another image of self-identification, Sexton called that hated, evil, inner self a demon.…
The poems can never offer personal salvation for their poet, and she has come to understand why. First, because she defines salvation as a life freed at last from the rat and her pain (“I would sell my life to avoid / the pain that begins in the crib / with its bars or perhaps / with your first breath”), and yet she cannot kill the rat without killing the vision that is the source of her poetry. Second, because the poems themselves are a kind of suicide. She knows that poetry must be craft as well as vision; that the very act of crafting objectifies the poem’s content. What has lived within her, externalized and formalized by art, becomes something other than herself; it is form but not flesh.
She expresses this new knowledge in the only way she knows, by making poetry of it.…
In an earlier essay on Sexton, I maintained that poetry had saved her from suicide. It did, for the years in which she wrote and was the poet. But it is equally true that poetry could not prevent her death, “the exit,” because it could not bring her to salvation, “the home.”
For Sexton salvation would have meant sanity: peace rather than perpetual conflict, integration rather than perpetual fragmentation. Sanity would have meant vanquishing at last her crazy bad evil gnawing self, the rat, the demon. Yet the rat was, at the same time, the source of her art. Its anxious visions needed to be nurtured so that she might be a poet. Sanity might bring peace to the woman, but it would destroy the poet. And it was not the woman, who made the peanut butter sandwiches and the marriage bed, whom Sexton liked. It was the poet. The discipline of her craft and the admiration, respect, and power that it brought allowed her to feel good about herself. That the woman and the poet were different “selves,” and in conflict with each other, she was well aware. “I do not live a poet’s life. I look and act like a housewife,” she wrote. “I live the wrong life for the person I am.” Although this fragmentation of roles wrought conflict and confusion, it nonetheless made possible the kind of poetry that Sexton wrote. But more and more in her final years she seemed to have come to despise the balancing act itself, demanding all or, finally, nothing.
Perhaps the kind of salvation that Sexton sought was unattainable, because its very terms had become so contradictory. Certainly, her poetry could not offer it. In poetry she could make verbal and public what she knew about her private self; she could shape this knowledge, control it, give it a form that made it accessible to others. But she could not write what she did not know, so that while her poems document all the rat has seen, they never offer an alternative vision. They are always too “close” to herself for that. And they are at the same time too far from her. By creating through externalization and formalization yet another self with which to deal, her poetry increased her sense of self-fragmentation in the midst of her struggle toward wholeness.
Yet Sexton’s poetry has offered salvation to others. Personal poetry of this kind, a genre that many women, in their search for self-understanding and that same elusive wholeness, have recently adopted, must be understood to have a different function for its readers and for its writers. Art as therapy appears less profitable for the artist, who gives the gift of herself, than for its recipients. I think that I can learn from Sexton’s poems as she never could. They project a life that is like my own in important ways; I associate my feelings with hers, and the sense of a shared privacy is illuminating. At the same time, they are not my life; their distance from me permits a degree of objectivity, the ability to analyze as well as empathize. Possibly I can use the insights produced by such a process to further change in my own life. For the artist, however, because the distance between herself and the poem is at once much closer and much greater, it is more difficult, perhaps impossible, to use the poem in this way. Salvation for the artist must come, ultimately, from developing a life that operates out of creative rather than destructive tensions. Sexton’s life, art, and death exemplify some of the difficulties faced by women artists in achieving this goal and also dramatically underline the necessity of overcoming them.
Source: Suzanne Juhasz, “Seeking the Exit or the Home: Poetry and Salvation in the Career of Anne Sexton,” in Sexton: Selected Criticism, edited by Diana Hume George, University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 303–11.
George, Diana Hume, Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton, University of Illinois Press, 1987.
McClatchy, J. D., “Anne Sexton: Somehow to Endure,” in Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics, edited by J D. McClatchy, Indiana University Press, 1978, pp. 244-90.
McGrath, Lynette, “Anne Sexton’s Poetic Connections: Death, God, and Form,” in Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton, edited by Francis Bixler, University of Central Arkansas Press, 1988, pp. 138-63.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood, Anne Sexton, Random House, 1991.
Pollitt, Katha, “‘The Awful Rowing,’” The Nation, Vol. 233, No. 17, November 21, 1981, pp. 533-37.
Sexton, Linda Grey, and Lois Ames, eds., Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters, Houghton-Mifflin, 1979.
Stauffer, Donald Barlow, A Short History of American Poetry, E. P. Dutton, 1974.
Vendler, Helen, “Malevolent Flippancy,” The New Republic, Vol. 185, No. 19, November 11, 1981, pp. 33-6.
Markey, Janice, A New Tradition? The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich: A Study of Feminism and Poetry, European University Studies Series 14, Volume 133.
Places interpretation Sexton’s work within the context of two other contemporary women poets in order to reveal a larger scope of feminist criticism often ignored by those studying the Confessionalists.
Sexton, Linda, Searching for Mercy St: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, Little Brown, 1996.
Mixing heart-wrenching biography with objective criticism of her mother’s work, Sexton’s daughter Linda talks about life growing up with the mentally ill and sometimes abusive poet/parent.
Wagner, Linda, Critical Essays on Anne Sexton, G.K. Hall & Company, 1989.
This anthology of essays about Sexton’s work balances both critical interpretation and historical record.