Friday, October 15, 2021

Poetry/Poet Study - Anne Sexton

During September, Olivia learned about Anne Sexton and read six of her poems. 

Anne Sexton (born Anne Gray Harvey; born on November 9, 1928 and died on October 4, 1974) was an American poet known for her highly personal, confessional verse. In 1967, she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her book Live or Die.  

For much of her life, Sexton suffered from severe bipolar disorder, with her first manic episode taking place in 1954 (when she was 26 years old). After a second episode the following year, she met Dr. Martin Orne, who became her long-term therapist at Glenside Hospital. Orne encouraged Anne to write poetry. Through her work, Sexton wrote and disclosed her struggles with mental illness. Sexton also included important yet overlooked topics that touched on the overall experience for a woman. 

Below are six poems written by Anne Sexton and Olivia's thoughts:


Inside many of us
is a small old man
who wants to get out.
No bigger than a two-year-old
whom you'd call lamb chop
yet this one is old and malformed.
His head is okay
but the rest of him wasn't Sanforized?
He is a monster of despair.
He is all decay.

He speaks up as tiny as an earphone
with Truman's asexual voice:
I am your dwarf.
I am the enemy within.
I am the boss of your dreams.
No. I am not the law in your mind,
the grandfather of watchfulness.
I am the law of your members,
the kindred of blackness and impulse.
See. Your hand shakes.

It is not palsy or booze.
It is your Doppelganger
trying to get out.
Beware . . . Beware . . .

There once was a miller
with a daughter as lovely as a grape.
He told the king that she could
spin gold out of common straw.
The king summoned the girl
and locked her in a room full of straw
and told her to spin it into gold
or she would die like a criminal.
Poor grape with no one to pick.
Luscious and round and sleek.
Poor thing.
To die and never see Brooklyn.

She wept,
of course, huge aquamarine tears.
The door opened and in popped a dwarf.
He was as ugly as a wart.
Little thing, what are you? she cried.
With his tiny no-sex voice he replied:
I am a dwarf.
I have been exhibited on Bond Street
and no child will ever call me Papa.
I have no private life.
If I'm in my cups the whole town knows by breakfast
and no child will ever call me Papa
I am eighteen inches high.
I am no bigger than a partridge.
I am your evil eye
and no child will ever call me Papa.
Stop this Papa foolishness,
she cried. Can you perhaps
spin straw into gold?
Yes indeed, he said,
that I can do.
He spun the straw into gold
and she gave him her necklace
as a small reward.
When the king saw what she had done
he put her in a bigger room of straw
and threatened death once more.
Again she cried.
Again the dwarf came.
Again he spun the straw into gold.
She gave him her ring
as a small reward.
The king put her in an even bigger room
but this time he promised
to marry her if she succeeded.
Again she cried.
Again the dwarf came.
But she had nothing to give him.
Without a reward the dwarf would not spin.
He was on the scent of something bigger.
He was a regular bird dog.
Give me your first-born
and I will spin.
She thought: Piffle!
He is a silly little man.
And so she agreed.
So he did the trick.
Gold as good as Fort Knox.

The king married her
and within a year
a son was born.
He was like most new babies,
as ugly as an artichoke
but the queen thought him in pearl.
She gave him her dumb lactation,
delicate, trembling, hidden,
warm, etc.
And then the dwarf appeared
to claim his prize.
Indeed! I have become a papa!
cried the little man.
She offered him all the kingdom
but he wanted only this -
a living thing
to call his own.
And being mortal
who can blame him?
The queen cried two pails of sea water.
She was as persistent
as a Jehovah's Witness.
And the dwarf took pity.
He said: I will give you
three days to guess my name
and if you cannot do it
I will collect your child.
The queen sent messengers
throughout the land to find names
of the most unusual sort.
When he appeared the next day
she asked: Melchior?
But each time the dwarf replied:
No! No! That's not my name.
The next day she asked:
Spindleshanks? Spiderlegs?
But it was still no-no.
On the third day the messenger
came back with a strange story.
He told her:
As I came around the corner of the wood
where the fox says good night to the hare
I saw a little house with a fire
burning in front of it.
Around that fire a ridiculous little man
was leaping on one leg and singing:
Today I bake.
Tomorrow I brew my beer.
The next day the queen's only child will be mine.
Not even the census taker knows
that Rumpelstiltskin is my name . . .
The queen was delighted.
She had the name!
Her breath blew bubbles.

When the dwarf returned
she called out:
Is your name by any chance Rumpelstiltskin?
He cried: The devil told you that!
He stamped his right foot into the ground
and sank in up to his waist.
Then he tore himself in two.
Somewhat like a split broiler.
He laid his two sides down on the floor,
one part soft as a woman,
one part a barbed hook,
one part papa,
one part Doppelganger.

Olivia's thoughts:

- At first it sounded like it sounded like the devil on your shoulder. After listening to more of the poem, it was like listening to a modern story or a modern take on the fairy tale. 

- The Jehovah Witness part stood out. Also the line "Gold as good as Fort Knox" and the part about where she would die and wouldn't see Brooklyn. I wasn't expecting them. I didn't think it was set in the U.S. - with the Jehovah Witness and Brooklyn. It was interesting and something new.



You always read about it:
the plumber with the twelve children
who wins the Irish Sweepstakes.
From toilets to riches.
That story.

Or the nursemaid,
some luscious sweet from Denmark
who captures the oldest son's heart.
from diapers to Dior.

That story.

Or a milkman who serves the wealthy,
eggs, cream, butter, yogurt, milk,
the white truck like an ambulance
who goes into real estate
and makes a pile.
From homogenized to martinis at lunch.

Or the charwoman

who is on the bus when it cracks up
and collects enough from the insurance.
From mops to Bonwit Teller.
That story.

the wife of a rich man was on her deathbed
and she said to her daughter Cinderella:
Be devout. Be good. Then I will smile
down from heaven in the seam of a cloud.
The man took another wife who had
two daughters, pretty enough
but with hearts like blackjacks.
Cinderella was their maid.
She slept on the sooty hearth each night
and walked around looking like Al Jolson.
Her father brought presents home from town,
jewels and gowns for the other women
but the twig of a tree for Cinderella.
She planted that twig on her mother's grave
and it grew to a tree where a white dove sat.
Whenever she wished for anything the dove
would drop it like an egg upon the ground.
The bird is important, my dears, so heed him.

Next came the ball, as you all know.
It was a marriage market.
The prince was looking for a wife.
All but Cinderella were preparing
and gussying up for the event.
Cinderella begged to go too.
Her stepmother threw a dish of lentils
into the cinders and said: Pick them
up in an hour and you shall go.
The white dove brought all his friends;
all the warm wings of the fatherland came,
and picked up the lentils in a jiffy.
No, Cinderella, said the stepmother,
you have no clothes and cannot dance.
That's the way with stepmothers.

Cinderella went to the tree at the grave
and cried forth like a gospel singer:
Mama! Mama! My turtledove,
send me to the prince's ball!
The bird dropped down a golden dress
and delicate little slippers.
Rather a large package for a simple bird.
So she went. Which is no surprise.
Her stepmother and sisters didn't
recognize her without her cinder face
and the prince took her hand on the spot
and danced with no other the whole day.

As nightfall came she thought she'd better
get home. The prince walked her home
and she disappeared into the pigeon house
and although the prince took an axe and broke
it open she was gone. Back to her cinders.
These events repeated themselves for three days.
However on the third day the prince
covered the palace steps with cobbler's wax
and Cinderella's gold shoe stuck upon it.
Now he would find whom the shoe fit
and find his strange dancing girl for keeps.
He went to their house and the two sisters
were delighted because they had lovely feet.
The eldest went into a room to try the slipper on
but her big toe got in the way so she simply
sliced it off and put on the slipper.
The prince rode away with her until the white dove
told him to look at the blood pouring forth.
That is the way with amputations.
They just don't heal up like a wish.
The other sister cut off her heel
but the blood told as blood will.
The prince was getting tired.
He began to feel like a shoe salesman.
But he gave it one last try.
This time Cinderella fit into the shoe
like a love letter into its envelope.

At the wedding ceremony
the two sisters came to curry favor
and the white dove pecked their eyes out.
Two hollow spots were left
like soup spoons.

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story.

Olivia's thoughts:

 - Sounds like that was told INto the Woods - that Cinderella story. Instead of the step-sisters cutting off their toe and heel, it was the stepmother who did that.

- It was also weird that they don't mention how the dad died.

- I like the analogy of where the prince was almost like a shoes salesman. That was funny. 

- This version is interesting. I don't love it, but it's not bad either. 

- I imagine the Grimm version did the same with painting more graphic images.


Jesus Cooks

Jesus saw the multitudes were hungry

and He said, Oh Lord,

send down a short-order cook.

And the Lord said, Abracadabra.

Jesus took the fish,

a slim green baby,

in His right hand and said, "Oh Lord,

and the Lord said,

Work on the sly

opening boxes of sardine cans.

And He did.

Fisherman, fisherman,

you make it look easy.

And lo, there were many fish.

Next Jesus held up a loaf

and said, "Oh Lord,

and the Lord instructed Him

like an assembly-line baker man,

a Pied Piper of yeast,

and lo, there were many. 

Jesus passed among the people

in a chef's hat

and they kissed His spoon and forks

and ate well from invisible dishes. 

Olivia's thoughts: 

- Okay...that was just a little weird. They got the whole part about praying to the Lord for help, but I don't think they had cans of sardines or chef hats.

- There was a weird part about "Abracadabra." It's not what you are expecting God to say. You also aren't expecting God to provide things out of thin air. 

- Depending on how religious some people are, some people may find it funny and others might find it. really offensive. I found it funny, but just a little strange. 


Jesus Dies

From up here in the crow’s nest
I see a small crowd gather.
Who do you gather, my townsmen?
There is no news here.
I am not a trapeze artist.
I am busy with my dying.
Three heads lolling,
bobbing like bladders.
No news,
The soldiers down below
laughing as soldiers have done for centuries.
No news,
We are the same men,
you and I,
the same sort of nostrils,
the same sort of feet.
My bones are oiled with blood
and so are yours.
My heart pumps like a jack rabbit in a trap
and so does yours.
I want to kiss God on His nose and watch Him sneeze
and so do you.
Not out of disrespect.
Out of pique.
Out of a man-to-man thing.
I want heaven to descend and sit on My dinner plate
and so do you.
I want God to put His steaming arms around Me
and so do you.
Because we need,
Because we are sore creatures.
My townsmen,
go home now.
I will do nothing extraordinary.
I will not divide in two.
I will not pick out My white eyes.
Go now,
this is a personal matter,
a private affair and God knows
none of your business.

Olivia's thoughts: 

- Well...this was maybe a little weirder than the last one. (Why?) Just the whole fact that Jesus was dying and he was carrying a normal conversation with the people there. 

- It was strange how this poem was written. I know when he was on this cross that he was okay with it. 

- I guess it makes sense that he doesn't want the townspeople there. 

- I still like the other one - the cooking one - better.


The Witch’s Life

When I was a child
there was an old woman in our neighborhood whom we called The Witch.
All day she peered from her second story
from behind the wrinkled curtains
and sometimes she would open the window
and yell: Get out of my life!
She had hair like kelp
and a voice like a boulder.

I think of her sometimes now
and wonder if I am becoming her.
My shoes turn up like a jester's.
Clumps of my hair, as I write this,
curl up individually like toes.
I am shoveling the children out,
scoop after scoop.
Only my books anoint me,
and a few friends,
those who reach into my veins.
Maybe I am becoming a hermit,
opening the door for only
a few special animals?
Maybe my skull is too crowded
and it has no opening through which
to feed it soup?
Maybe I have plugged up my sockets
to keep the gods in?
Maybe, although my heart
is a kitten of butter,
I am blowing it up like a zeppelin.
Yes. It is the witch's life,
climbing the primordial climb,
a dream within a dream,
then sitting here
holding a basket of fire.

Olivia's thoughts: 

- Definitely sounds nicer than the last one. 

- Interesting that she would yell at the children to get out of her life. I would think that an older lady would say to get off her lawn, but not out of her life. 

- How well does she know them to tell them to get them out of her life? I would think you would need to know someone well enough to tell them to get out of your life. 

- The way that she said her voice was like a boulder. I've never heard anyone describe their voice like that. I have no idea what that would sound like. Maybe deep and heavy. That's all I can think of. 

- Hair like kelp - she has a hair full of seaweed. It reminds me of sandmen that you make on the beach and you'd throw seaweed on top of their heads for hair. I can just imagine her hair. 

- I think everyone has an old lady who is grumpy who lives near them...a grumpy elderly lady more so than a witch.



Blessed snow,

comes out of the sky

like bleached flies.

The ground is no longer naked.

The ground has on its clothes.

The trees poke out of sheets

and each branch wears the sock of God.

There is hope.

There is hope everywhere. 

I bite it.

Someone once said:

Don't bite till you know

if it's bread or stone.

What I bite is all bread,

rising, yeasty as a cloud.

There is hope.

There is hope everywhere.

Today God gives milk

and I have the pail. 

Olivia thought:

- The title sounded nice until you got to the part about bleached flies. Not such a lovely thought. 

- The "each branch wears the sock of God" - I've never heard that before. I don't get it, so I don't really like it. 

- The whole "don't bite till you know what it is" part - is, I don't know. If people bite into chocolate, there is a potential to get something you're not expecting - a fruit, coconut, a nut. There is something inside the chocolate that you're not expecting. 

- Not everyone would agree that when you see snow, you see hope. Most people don't like snow. For me, I don't know if snow brings hope as it brings me joy and happiness. 

- These poems are different than what we've read in the past. They are all different, but in a good way. If there were a bunch of the same ones, that would be boring. The fact that she can tell a story, but as a poem, was fascinating.

No comments: