So far, this year has been “The Year Without Fiction” for me, or nearly so. Since I usually read a couple of novels a month, to have read less than a handful by this time of year is pretty much unprecedented. There are a variety of reasons for this, some work-related, some otherwise, so I’ve had to make a choice when it comes to reading and my choice has resulted in “The Year Of Reading Poetry.”
This summer I determined that it was time to revisit the complete poetry of Anne Sexton, partly in preparation for next month’s session of the 3 Poems By … Discussion group and partly to return to someone whose work I’ve always admired and been deeply moved by since reading her complete poems over 20 years ago.
Sometimes when we revisit the work of an author we cherished when we were young, we come away vaguely or totally disappointed, the reading equivalent of “you can’t go home again.” And then there are times we are still greatly moved and the experience deepens and is richer the second time around, as in the old Sammy Cahn penned, Frank Sinatra sung tune, “The Second Time Around.”
If anything, the work of Anne Sexton is more powerful and resonant today despite, or perhaps because of, the passing years and the now antiquated cultural mores. Like her friend and fellow poet Sylvia Plath, Sexton was very much a product of American pre-women’s liberation culture and, like her friend, was, in effect, broken on the wheel of that culture. The cliché of endless cigarettes and neat whiskey evoked by the Sinatra song give the lie to a romanticized version of America that is currently being deftly chronicled and just as precisely eviscerated on the AMC award winning series, Mad Men, a virtual filmatic expose of 50’s and 60’s life. Alcoholism, madness, unwanted pregnancy, and abuse were the dark underside of those times. Many, if not all of these elements, played a part in Sexton’s life and trials.
I can’t begin to imagine the courage it took for this lone woman to stand up and confront her madness in a public way at a time when most did not want to hear. The cusp of change was rapidly approaching and perhaps the single greatest accomplishment of Sexton’s life was to bring these issues, with the help of psychoanalysis, into the public forum to be engaged, debated, and addressed. She herself did not survive the battle but she helped pave the way for women to come through via the wide ranging influence and unflinching honesty of her work.
When we look at the legacy of that work, the most “important” poems, in fact, deal with madness and her heroic attempt to transcend it, in great part through her verse. Poems such as “You, Doctor Martin,” “Her Kind,” “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Inquire Further,” “The Truth the Dead Know,” “All My Pretty Ones,” “Music Swims Back to Me,” and “Wanting to Die” are that legacy, and rightly so.
But rather than concentrate, at least for the duration of this post, on the well-known work of the foremost practitioner of the “confessional school of poetry,” I would rather remember her for a less famous piece which, though it carries a vaguely ominous undercurrent of things to come, concentrates predominately on a moment in time in a young woman’s life when the promise of possibility still lay ahead.
A thousand doors ago
when I was a lonely kid
in a big house with four
garages and it was summer
as long as I could remember,
I lay on the lawn at night,
clover wrinkling under me,
the wise stars bedding over me,
my mother’s window a funnel
of yellow heat running out,
my father’s window, half shut,
an eye where sleepers pass,
and the boards of the house
were smooth and white as wax
and probably a million leaves
sailed on their strange stalks
as the crickets ticked together
and I, in my brand new body,
which was not a woman’s yet,
told the stars my questions
and thought God could really see
the heat and the painted light,
elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight.
If only the feeling of this moment, poised as it is on the edge of epiphany, might have lasted forever … but, of course, how could that ever be?
Perhaps that feeling is captured in a few lines of acutely rendered, poignant verse … .