Anne Sexton ~ Summoning the Self through the Body

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Anne Sexton

As a confessional poet, Anne Sexton exploited the intimate details of her life for her poetry. “Poetry milks the unconscious,” she said. Sexton lamented and celebrated female identity, sexuality and power by revealing painful and shocking personal details about her life. Though she always insisted that her poetry was not autobiographical, her exploration of difficult and tabooed female subjects, such as: abortion, menstruation, menopause, masturbation and desires, was done with such frankness that most readers and critics felt the line between Anne the woman and Sexton the poet was often blurred.

According to Sexton, “poetry should shock the senses. It should almost hurt.” Sexton’s life was one with many deep hurts; hurts that drove her to madness and to her eventual successful suicide attempt. “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 for me. But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out,” Sexton said.

Sexton struggled to indentify her voice and its volume. A large portion of her poems deals with the role of women in a patriarchal society. Her process of interpreting life and creating poetry consisted of how Anne the woman and Sexton the poet, though separate entities with different ambitions, merged into one female voice through the subject matter that was Anne’s life. This voice was trying desperately to define itself in a society where male voices have always been more powerful.

In this essay, I will discuss the concept of female identity through poems that are focused on the body. These emotionally fierce and sexually liberating poems about the physical female form transcend the topic of Sexton’s personal life and journey into the profound. In order to show her strength, Sexton stripped the woman, leaving her without armor. She claimed a place for womanhood by first removing the clothes that restrain and hide the bodies as if they were a source of shameful secrecy; and then, without apologies or shame, she exposed both the beautiful and ugly functions of these bodies. As a result, she helped spark a much needed dialog on the value of women, thus, assisted in the chipping away of gender prejudices. And though, Sexton was received with shock and disapproval, she did succeed in heightening the understanding of female needs, encouraging women to claim their identity and sexuality, which was a necessary step toward to societal acknowledgement of female empowerment.

I will use the poems “In Celebration of my Uterus,” “Menstruation at Forty” and “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator,” which are all body poems, to point out various examples of where Sexton’s poetry backs up my claim on how female identity is summoned through the stripping of the female speaker in order to reveal the body underneath, exposing the prejudices and limitations that women are subjected to in their everyday life. These poems not only depict the female body as a source of celebration but also as a bearer of pain and a natural shell for complex emotions and desires.

In Sexton’s “In Celebration of my Uterus,” the speech used is conversational, “They wanted to cut you out/ but they will not. They said you were immeasurably empty/ but you are not.” This keeps the poem in a domestic, common place. By using this type of language, attention is called to the fact that this topic should be a natural, everyday conversation. However, though the speech is conversational, “will not” and “are not” are used instead of the contractions “won’t” and “aren’t”, resulting in the emphasis of the words “not” at the end of both lines. “…they will not” and “…you are not,” through the stress on the words “not,” the speaker claims what is her. Immediately, from the very beginning of the poem, the speaker’s voice is one in the position of power over her own body.

“There is enough here to please a nation./ It is enough that the populace own these goods.” The repeated usage of the “s” sounds throughout the poem gives the diction a soft female quality. Though this is a noticeable contrast to the position of power of the first four lines, it works. The contrasting quality between the softness of the sounds and the strength of the speaker’s voice is representative of the conflict between societal expectations on how a woman should behave and her own desire to attain strength and control over her body.

The end rhyme of “not” and “not” is also the most stressed rhyme in the stanza, which helps to reiterate the point the speaker is making about the state of her uterus. Though there are no rhyme schemes present in the poem, end rhymes can be found throughout, such as: “wings” and “dying,” to which “wrong” is a slant rhyme. “Wrong” is also a slant rhyme of “torn.” In the same way, “bird” rhymes with “girl” and “out” rhymes with “not.”

Everyone in me is a bird.
I am beating all my wings.
They wanted to cut you out
but they will not.
They said you were immeasurably empty
but you are not.
They said you were sick unto dying
but they were wrong.
You are singing like a school girl.
You are not torn.

The rhymes and conversational speech in the poem work cohesively together to create a smooth and easy reading experience, especially when the poem is read aloud. The reader is taken through the poem without coming across any language or sonic road blocks. These devices fool the reader into a false comfort. The speaker ends up digesting big chunks of the speaker’s uterus without realizing that what is bitten off, under normal circumstances, would be something very difficult to swallow.

With the repetition of the phrase “one is,” the poem becomes incantatory. Sexton pays homage to Walt Whitman as the women chant praises to their healthy uterus:

…one is in a shoe factory cursing the machine,
one is at the aquarium tending a seal,
one is dull at the wheel of her Ford,
one is at the toll gate collecting…

There is a dark underlying humorous approach to a serious subject in this poem. Is a woman defined by her ability to produce children? If this is so, then is a woman’s body only an object, which owes its ultimate purpose to men? Is the only way for a woman to identify herself is through her sexual, breeding relationship with men? What about her desires, her needs for love and self expression? Is a woman’s identity and spirit based solely on the functioning or malfunctioning of an organ? Sexton’s approach to raising these questions is through the chanting of absurd incantations about the uterus. The humorous tone lightens the mood in the poem, but it does not take importance away from the message of the poem.

Sweet weight,
in celebration of the woman I am
and of the soul of the woman I am
and of the central creature and its delight
I sing for you. I dare to live.
Hello, spirit. Hello, cup.

Sexton satiric wit shines through as the women go on and on with their chants. The poet’s uncanny ability to disassociate herself from her body, yet without manifesting a disdain for her own flesh, creates for the reader a whole image of a woman. Even though she’s been accused of crudeness, the utterly honest and feminine approach Sexton took allowed for an undistorted look at the struggles of being female, which in turns, helps to counter her crudeness.

On the crudeness of daring to be too female, Robert Boyers said the following about Sexton, “There is something awesome, even sublime in a woman who is not afraid to sound crude or shrill so long as she is honest, who in her best work sounds neither crude nor shrill precisely because she is honest.”

Sylvia Plath also had comparable praises about Sexton’s aesthetics and subject matter. Plath said that Sexton’s “are wonderfully craftsman-like poems and yet they have a kind of emotional and psychological depth, which I think is something perhaps quite new, quite exciting.”

Similar to “In Celebration of my Uterus,” the theme of summoning the female identity through the body is also found in “Menstruation at Forty.” This poem is also intensely physical; the language is rooted in the speaker’s body. The poem shocks the reader with its candid portrayal of the speaker’s hopes and dreams, dreams which traditionally, often get tangled up inside the womb. This poem allows the reader an opportunity to journey with the speaker in her search for womanhood.

The womb is not a clock
nor a bell tolling,
but in the eleventh month of its life
I feel the November
of the body as well as of the calendar.

The strength of the speaker in this poem comes from her positive self discoveries. The harvesting within the body marks the realization that even though one phase of life was ending, another journey of another kind continues. This point reiterates the value of a woman as more than just baby-making machines. The speaker puts her fertile self away, in order to find a new and different version of herself in the other aspects of her life. As a result, she makes the important statement about how a woman’s identity is not intrinsically connected to the insistent, clicking clock inside her womb.

Aside from the intense subject matter, this poem is also strengthened by its images. “Images are the heart of poetry,” said Sexton. Her images, like her poetry, came from the unconscious. They are raw like “the legs from Michelangelo” and surprising like “blood worn like a corsage.” The following lines jump off the page, painting an image that cannot be contained:

…The never acquired,
the never seeded or unfastened,
you of the genitals I feared,
the stalk and the puppy’s breath.

In the Contemporary Poets of the English Language, Sexton said, I prefer to think of myself as an imagist who deals with reality and its hard facts.”

There is a loose iambic rhythm found throughout this poem. However, there are a few lines where the iambic meter is very strict, “This time I hunt for death” and “a thin and tangled poison,” but for the majority of the lines, the iamb is present, but without being too imposing. However, the iamb is flip to trochaic in instances when a central point needs to be emphasize. A few examples of where the lines are forced out of rhythm are: “You! The never acquired,” “Love! That red disease—” and “David! Susan! David! David!” These detours from the iambic rhythm create hot spots in the poem where the reader is directed to pay attention to what is being said. These instances are where the speaker asserts her voice. She speaks of her blood and of her babies; and she wants to be heard.

Though a rhyme scheme is not present in the poem, the music of the poem can still be felt in the like and unlike sounds bouncing off one another. The differences are created in the sonic contrasts between Germanic root words and Latinate root words.

All this without you—
two days gone in blood.
I myself will die without baptism,
a third daughter they didn’t bother.
My death will come on my name day.
What’s wrong with the name day?

In reading the lines above aloud, the reader can intuitively distinguish between the contrasting sounds of German sounding root words such as, “blood,” “death” and “wrong,” which are associated the body to Latin sounding root words such as, “baptism,” “daughter” and “brother,” which are associated the emotion. And in the intermingling of these sounds, a tone depicting the speaker’s conflicting emotions is generated; a tone that can be perceived on a deeper level than the meanings of the words themselves. The reader is invited to understand the female speaker intimately, not just from the knowledge of her body through the words used, but also through the sounds her heart makes in the way that the music of the poem is being played out.

Sexton has been disregarded as a craftsman by many critics. Some claimed her poetry is mostly driven by the open-wound approach to highly intense subject matter, but that it lacks the aesthetics of a technically trained poet. In “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator,” Sexton proved her critics right. In this form and this instance, there are qualities in the construction of the poem that proves to be lacking.

I believe this poem would benefit from a more consistent meter along with slant and/or more surprising end rhymes. The power in this poem comes from the sense of control that is imposed upon the reader by the end rhymes, which are all true rhymes. Without being in stricter verse, the refrain along with the rhyme scheme feel unnaturally restricted. I believe this poem would be stronger had there been a more dominant and consistent meter to contain it.

The poem is made up of seven six-line stanzas with an ABABCC rhyme scheme. The sixth line in each stanza is rhymed to the refrain, “At night, alone, I marry the bed,” which is repeated in the seventh line of each stanza. The music in this poem is heavily dependent on the rhyme scheme, but the poem lacks the central heartbeat of a strict meter. The end rhymes are also expected and unsurprising. There is only on instance where the reader is not greeted at the end of a line with a word or an idea that takes the breath away. It is in the rhyme between “together” and “feather” in the third stanza.

Take for instance this night, my love,
that every single couple puts together
with a joint overturning, beneath, above,
the abundant two on sponge and feather,
kneeling and pushing, head to head.
At night alone, I marry the bed.

To make the poem even less interesting structurally, the internal rhymes feel accidental, such as: “overturning,” “kneeling” and “pushing.” And so, with all true end rhymes and few enjambments, a sing-song quality is created. It is inescapable. It resonates throughout the poem and overwhelms the seriousness of the subject matter. The underdeveloped form feels as if it is poking fun at the speaker.

Though the poem’s construction shows weaknesses in form, the subject matter being discussed is undeniably powerful. The tile is bold and declarative. Yes, the speaker is lonely, her affair, sexual in nature, has ended; but she is taking back control of her pleasures. She is in charge of her body, claiming that even though “I horrify/ those who stand by. I am fed.” Though she may be a woman in desperation, breaking “the way a stone breaks,” “at night, alone,” she is still filled with desires, which she chooses to satisfy. In acknowledging her sexuality and needs, the speaker claims her power and identity, and because this power is claimed at a moment of weakness, the speaker is made more powerful.

The speaker’s pleasures are not tied to those of the man who had left her. And her satisfaction does not have to wait to be fulfilled by the next man who comes along. She is her own fulfillment. Referring to her body in third person, the speaker claims:

Finger to finger, now she’s mine.
She’s not too far. She’s my encounter.
I beat her like a bell. I recline
in the bower where you used to mount her.
You borrowed me on the flowered spread.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

The “other woman” in this poem is also a strong figure, “She took you the way a woman takes/ a bargain dress of the rack.” Who is this woman who has come into this relationship and yanked the man away from the speaker? We do not know. All we know is that she is a woman, and she too feels a sense of entitlement to her desires. She has taken what she wanted because it gives her pleasure.

This poem is also brave in its explicit examination of female sexuality. Written at a time when a woman’s sexuality is seldom recognized nor discussed in the public arena, when a woman is expected to be a happy baby-maker without needs or desires of the flesh needing to be addressed, I find this poem poignant in both its power and loneliness.

This last stanza feels devastatingly lonely.

The boys and girls are one tonight.
They unbutton blouses. They unzip flies.
They take off shoes. They turn off the light.
The glimmering creatures are full of lies.
They are eating each other. They are overfed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

Outside in the night, youths are feeding on each other, while inside, this woman is alone, finding a way to feed herself. “They are overfed./ At night, alone, I marry the bed.” Loneliness usually spawns from the comparison of the things we do not have or have lost to the things that others have but are taking for granted.

Sexton’s voice and poetry is a mixture of honesty and pain. She was her own persona in her poems. Sexton used her life, her feelings, body and poetic voice to strike back against oppression. She made demands of womanhood by exposing its crudeness, beauty and repulsiveness. Her courage to use her own life as subject matter allows the reader to examine the journey of female discovery and the search for womanhood with a clarity that is untainted by self-consciousness or the desire to censor oneself in order to please others. Through the personal explorations and confessions, Sexton comes full circle with her journey. Through all her roles and realizations, at the end of it all, Anne the sad woman is taken by the hand by Sexton the powerful poet and was told to love herself and her body.

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