I read poetry like I eat dark chocolate. I go through spurts of wild consumption of the stuff, then I don’t touch it for weeks or longer. I spent most of 2014 erratically reading Jack Gilbert. The best thing to get if you want to start reading Mr. Gilbert is Collected Poems. His muscular, hard-hitting poems never fail to strike a chord inside of me. I feel like he speaks to me in a way few writers can. His harrowing descriptions of his experiences of loss and regret often leave my head spinning. Take this series of lines, wherein he writes of finding one of his wife’s black hairs around their home after she had passed away:
… A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.
Brutal. Real. Sad. Uplifting?
Jack Gilbert’s poems breathe with life even as they entertain the grim reality of death and loss. The very bleakness his sometimes dark and gritty poetry evokes acts as a light. How? He reminds us we are not alone. Others have walked this path of frailty, loneliness, and loss. If these tests are a tunnel, you can come out on the other side.
So how to unpack Anne Sexton? Like Mr. Gilbert, she’s a poet of exceeding honesty and skill. Her work combines a delicate, lyrical touch with hard-hitting language and themes. Her career was tragically cut short when she took her own life in 1974. I started seriously reading her stuff late this year. I knew of her, but I had not read much of her work until a friend quoted some lines from her for me. They are from the poem “Her Kind”, and they assert that inherent sense of otherness Ms. Sexton felt:
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
That’s the last stanza of three.
I approached Ms. Sexton’s work with some wariness and without making assumptions. I dug into a lot of CLP’s collection of criticism on her as I read more of her work. I used our literary databases too. They helped. As a man raised in a popular culture steeped in violence and misogyny, I approach the work of poets like Ms. Sexton with caution and care. I will not say that reading and studying her has made me better at understanding the challenges women face. It has served to broaden my perspective.
Jack Gilbert lived through his pain and loss and produced an amazing volume of poetry to catalog it all. Anne Sexton’s poetry explored themes of gender and alienation. She burned brightly for a short time, then left us too soon.
We’ll all write more about our “reading resolutions” for 2015 in tomorrow’s post, but I can rightly say now that Ms. Sexton’s work will be part of my 2015 must-read list.