Thursday, November 27, 2014

On Sexton’s “Music Swims Back to Me”

I read Tiffany Anne Tondut's "close reading." you posted. That closeness seems too heavy-handed. The poem is a slight little thing about being crazy -- not up to that level of analysis -- not that I think Tiffany is right, I don't.

Years ago I read about a woman standing in a museum looking at a famous painting. She said she wasn't sure she liked it. A museum attendant happened to hear her and said "Madam, that painting isn't on trial, you are." [or something like that.] Does any poem have that stature? I don't think so. I've heard writers say they didn't like Shakespeare's plays or Paradise Lost without suffering ridicule. But perhaps in the case of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton their positions as Women's-Movement-icons places their poetry at the same level as the painting. Anne Sexton's “Music Swims Back to Me” isn’t on trial, you are. Tiffany Anne may be of that ilk. She doesn’t say whether she thinks the poem is good or not, that seems to be assumed. But I didn’t assume it when I first read To Bedlam and Back years ago and don’t now that I have, apparently, all of Sexton’s poems.

Reading a normal poet and not an icon it would impress me to find several poems in a volume I think are good. It would be too much to expect them all to be. I recall vaguely the term “success” being used in the past. The critic thus externalizes his views and doesn’t have to say whether he liked the poem or whether he thought it good. He can say that the poem accomplishes its intent with appropriate language “successfully.” The poem is a success. There is no need to compare it to Dante’s Inferno. That approach seems weak but it would be a better approach to the poems in To Bedlam and Back.

Sexton wasn’t writing as an icon, she was at least partially, perhaps mostly doing it as therapy. She was encouraged to do that by her therapists, if memory serves me. Someone with her level of talent could produce a poem that could then be used as a point of discussion – as part of the healing process. “Music Swims Back to Me” looks as though it was written after she was released, but a subsequent therapist might have looked at it to see if Sexton has divulged anything that might aid the healing process.

Perhaps, “Where is home? Your parents both died and you had to sell their house; so where is home? Is it just where you live now? It seems more important than that in your poem. Have you been lost out on the road and looked at street signs, playing music on your radio while you did? Was this poem more than the discovery about being committed? Could you really see the sky in the institution and were there really bars? Did they really strap you in a chair? Or were these constraints poetic images of the restriction you felt at the time.

Maybe this poem was only marginally “successful” in disclosing anything to a therapist. I think it only marginally successful as a poem.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Stuff of dreams


I drew in the sail
a curtain trailing
rolling till it fit
neatly in its bag
and started the engine.
It was a fair night
light chop, nothing to frighten

someone watching the stars
and the mast lights
or the darkness of land
beyond.  After we got
there who could say?
It wasn’t an important
ending it always ends

that way and for much
the same reason.
Then in its slip
it was mere fiberglass
and wood not the
stuff of stars
and unending dreams.

It was left back
there and neglected.
Slipping over the side
I would see
another point of view,
you looking about
and not finding me.

Sexton’s “Music Swims Back to Me”

I have been unfair to Sexton, thinking of poems I didn’t like. There were many I did like. Here is one such from her first volume To Bedlam and Part Way Back, 1960. At the time I read this I was under the impression, as apparently most readers were, that Sexton learned to write in a mental institution.  According to Kumin that wasn’t true. She was a poet before she got there:

Music Swims Back to Me

Wait Mister. Which way is home?
They turned the light out
and the dark is moving in the corner.
There are no sign posts in this room,
four ladies, over eighty,
in diapers every one of them.
La la la, Oh music swims back to me
and I can feel the tune they played
the night they left me
in this private institution on a hill.

Imagine it. A radio playing
and everyone here was crazy.
I like it and danced in a circle.
music pours over the sense
and in a funny way
music sees more than I.
I mean it remembers better;
remembers the first night here.
It was the strangled cold of November;
even the stars were strapped in the sky
and that moon too bright
forking through the bars to stick me
with a singing in the head.
I have forgotten all the rest.

They lock me in this chair at eight a.m.
and there are no signs to tell the way,
just the radio beating to itself
and the song that remembers
more than I. Oh, la la la,
this music swims back to me.
The night I came I danced a circle
And was not afraid.

Comment: After typing it out and thinking about it as I typed I want to change “like” to “sort of like.”  Reading it the first time the “Mister?” at the end emphasizes shockingly her lostness which struck me as very effective. But I didn’t care for her “la la la.”  I suppose that was to signify her mental breakdown and perhaps she really did sing “la la la” when she was there but it doesn’t seem up to the job in the poem. Maybe there really were four ladies over 80 in diapers but I don’t see how that adds to the poem. They could as well have been in a hospital as a mental institution.

But what about the change to first person in the last stanza? She ends the third stanza with “I have forgotten all the rest” but in the last stanza begins “they lock me in this chair at eight a.m.”  Does this signify that she is having another episode or that she is remembering the earlier episode so vividly that she still needs to ask “which way home . . . Mister?”

Sort of good but not great IMCO (in my current opinion).

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A few biographical notes on Anne Sexton

The following is from the foreword to The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton, written by Maxine Kumin who collaborated Sexton on a number of things:

"Though the reviewers [and not just them] were not always kind to Anne's work, honors and awards mounted piggyback on one another almost from the moment of publication in 1960 of her first book To Bedlam and Part Way Back. [I remember buying that book] The American Academy of Letters Traveling Fellowship in 1963, which she was awarded shortly after All My Pretty Ones was published and nominated for the National Book Award, was followed by a Ford Foundation grant as resident playwright at the Charles Playhouse in Boston. In 1965, Anne Sexton was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in Great Britain. Live or Die won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1967. She was named Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard in 1968 and accorded a number of honorary doctoral degrees. . . ."

"But between the publication of new books and the bestowal of honors fell all too frequently the shadow of mental illness. One psychiatrist left. His successor at first succumbed to Sexton's charm, then terminated his treatment of her. She promptly fell downstairs and broke her hip -- on her birthday. With the next doctor her hostility grew. Intermediary psychiatrists and psychologists came and went. There seemed to be no standard for dealing with this gifted, ghosted woman. On Thorazine, she gained weight became intensely sun-sensitive, and complained that she was so overwhelmed with lassitude that she could not write. Without medication, the voices returned. As she grew increasingly dependent on alcohol, sedatives, and sleeping pills, her depressive bouts grew more frequent. Convinced that her marriage was beyond salvage, she demanded and won a divorce, only to learn that living alone created an unbearable level of anxiety. She returned to Westwood Lodge, later spent time at McLean's Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, and finally went to Human Resources Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. But none of these interludes stemmed her downward course. In the spring of 1974, she took an overdose of sleeping pills and later remonstrated bitterly with me for aborting this suicide attempt. On that occasion she vowed that when she next undertook to die, she would telegraph her intent to no one. A little more than six months later, this indeed proved to be the case. . . ."

"Women poets in particular owe a debt to Anne Sexton, who broke new ground, shattered taboos, and endured a barrage of attacks along the way because of the flamboyance of her subject matter, which, twenty years later, seems far less daring. She wrote openly about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery, and drug addiction at a time when the proprieties embraced none of these as proper topics for poetry. Today, the remonstrances seem almost quaint. Anne delineated the problematic position of women -- the neurotic reality of the time -- though she was not able to cope in her own life with the personal trouble it created. . . ."

Comment: Having read Freud at a very early age I have never been willing to dismiss the idea that if one is raised with a standard of morality, one can not violate that standard without paying a price. Freud's answer was to dismiss the standard, overcome it with therapy. I don't know if the psychiatrists Sexton went to tried that but Kumin tells us they gave up on her -- and then she on herself -- or maybe she gave up on herself before she went to them.

Kumin tells of Sexton claiming (during the time she was producing one poem after the other, sometimes as many as four a day) to be God -- always a risky business if part of that moral standard included Sunday School teachings about Nebuchadnezzar.

Kumin's assessment is the one sentence "Anne delineated the problematic position of women -- the neurotic reality of the time -- though she was not able to cope in her own life with the personal trouble it created." I doubt that Kumin would agree with what I've written here and instead would blame it on the backward times and the verbal abuse directed at her by reviewers and others for what struck them as her excessiveness in bizarre directions. Truman once said that if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. He was speaking about politics, but the same thing would apply to any of us, and in the case of Anne Sexton how could she know she couldn't stand the heat until she had actually entered the kitchen?

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Transplant Surgeon


All of the tests, the prodding
And poking led up to this one
Seeing-all Surgeon.
He asked, checked and made
Up his own mind about it all
Before pronouncing her a
Candidate for a transplant.

Then later he said
Unfortunately there are too
Few organs and she must
Be almost dead before
She can have one --
If there is even one
Her size at the time.

On the way home we
Stopped at the Farm
House Restaurant where
She had a Chili Dog
And I a Breakfast burrito
Thinking what use
The pretense?

Better to make
Her weakness strong
Instill reserves of energetic
Defiance and magnify
My frustration into rage
And transplant

On Coyotes and Cows

    We were hiking,
    And by the dairy
    Was a coyote near some
    Cows who were grazing
    In a field.  Ben bounded
    Down after the coyote
    Who known for his cleverness

    Disappeared.  I studied the cows:
    Weren’t they afraid?  The
    Coyote had been in plain
    Sight but they never looked
    Up except when Ben dashed down.
    But perhaps the coyote wasn’t
    In their line of sight and only in ours

    Or perhaps he moved outside
    Their line of vision or being
    Small perhaps they didn’t care
    And he was bent upon a mouse. 
    Ben returned.  The coyote
    Was gone and the cows
    Continued grazing.  One night

    I was hiking with Ben and
    Duffy and saw them stare
    Into the darkness.  I shined my light
    And the field glowed with
    Scores of coyote eyes watching
    Us.  We watched back and
    There was no disappearing.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


    You’d think theoretically
    She might believe she
     Was at my mercy: not being
    Able to care for herself.
    I made her steak
    And eggs this morning –
    “Seems like I just ate,”
    She said and sounded
    Annoyed.  Of course
    The darkest theories
    Entail many possibilities
    Most of which are irrelevant,
    But the tracks blocked
    Us demonstrably.
    We parked on the road
    With cars from the casino
    Running past while down
    Below a recent rain
    Restricted even more,
    But Ben and Duffy
    Didn’t mind and
    Ran with joy
    Despite my fear.
    I treated it as
    Carefully as I could.
    Those tracks wouldn’t
    Be there always.  Everything
    Fades and washes away.

Saturday, November 22, 2014



I looked good, he said,
And Susan too – is the sort
Of thing they often say.
Am I thinking clearly   
About this: has Susan
Forgotten to take her
Medication?  I’ve set it out.

Then getting  Ben and
Duffy we drove to the river
But they set out stones
Before the entrance
To the trail.  I put on
Gloves and rolled them
Away, but they had been

There okay.  I saw
Their tracks tractor-
Deep in the sand
And wondered
If the setter of stones
Objected to the debris
Or just me.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Medical Thaumaturgy


It’s a trick, isn’t it,
Making us live past
Our allotment so they
Can redeem not just our day?
And we must conform
To get their medications,
Probes, endless tests

And their “we don’t know
But perhaps and this just
Might be” and we
Without their training
Mutely sit and listen
With half our ears
Hoping to be released

And perhaps get some
Dinner at a restaurant
On our long way home.
I opened her door
And helped her out.  She
Wisely couldn’t remember
Where we’d been.

Scientific Waste

            We were of course not

            Attempting to educate,

            Do something to anyone,

            But to pique their curiosity

            So they would seek something

            From what swirled up just as

            I sought whatever it was

            They were doing and then

            (Boredom would come later),

            Do it myself.  Eliot

            Is another instance:

            Abandoning philosophy

            For poetry, or so he thought,

            And making the confusion

            Called his “Wasteland” which

            None of the highly educated

            Could understand – voicing one

            Interpretation after the other.

            Later Eliot said he was just

            Grousing at London and

            Didn’t mean any of those things.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Questions for a first cup of coffee


            How long have people been writing,

            Ten thousand years or so?  Not very

            Long anthropologically, and how

            Long have they been talking?

            Longer sure, but saying what?

            And have they gotten any smarter?

            And if some of them have

            They aren’t writing or talking

            But squirreled away in labs

            Making drones, artificial limbs

            And ships that will fly them to Mars.

            So what about the rest of us?

            Shall we go on talking and writing

            While the earth grinds us to dust?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Illusions of thanksgiving


            A dark shadow like the head

            Of a small black dog

            Moved outside the window

            Behind him who unmoved by

            My remark continued talking.       

            I crossed and looked but like

            The others it wasn’t there.

            Potatoes, ham, stories

            And pictures arrayed

            Across the afternoon

            And into night.  Susan couldn’t

            Be pried away.  “Fine,”

            She said to my objection.

            Do they think this night

            Might be the final one,

            So many celebrations

            And this the last?

            It passed again or so

            It seemed, behind me on the stairs

            And there beside me on the floor

            Awaiting my attention.

El Mirador


            How could we know

            In such a vast construction

            Where to park to abbreviate

            The long trek to the greatest extent,

            And which narrow spaces and darkened

            Pillars to pass by, which elevator

            Plodding on in our search?

            There was something in his hand,

            A needle and a vial, and with a

            Wistful and practiced eye

            He told us what it was

            He would do and how long it would take

            And when I might come back up.

            I withdrew to the depths

            Where heat had accumulated,

            And then went out over

            Causeways where the sky

            Had turned dark

            And was spinning 

            And practitioners dashed

            By me rushing away.

            Haggard and withdrawn

            She was finally released,

            And in the Jeep we too flew

            Beyond the city.  Something

            Was closing in we knew.

            Much would be suffered before

            The end of this endeavor?


            Even when I look inside,
            Or especially when I do,
            There are no clear directions.
            I skitter off fleeing
            Toward locations I
            Suspect aren’t really there.
            Oh I knew it would be chancy
            Back in those days;
            I was quick and clever:
            “Who here has a good
            Sense of direction,” I would
            Ask, and some private
            Not too shy would volunteer.
            Susan was also very good,
            But her liver now
            Won’t keep toxins
            From her blood and she
            Is like me, lacking
            A knowledge of where
            We need to go
            And how to get there.

A Civil Tongue


            Keeping a civil tongue?

            I wonder why, when

            Civilization consists

            Of impersonal rules

            That apply in the

            Aggregate but

            Are enforced on all --

            Without exception!

            And where is the

            Howling that last

            Night lulled me to sleep?

            I heard a solemn

            Sighing and saw

            A sublunary splendor

            Shining on Duffy

            In my lap and Ben

            At my feet.

            I’ve a sharp tongue

            To cut me out of



Janus Hiking


            Janus the crafty

            Looked backward watching the lion

            As I hiked too bored to do it

            On my own humming softly

            As we hiked as one these

            Moments undoing years

            Of having but one mind.

            The lion behind

            Settled down to watch

            But one of us was aware

            And smiling.

            He squatted low with ears back

            As we chuckled softly

            Fingering our Becker BK7.

            A roll of thunder

            Might have covered the thought

            Of his charge but our piercing

            Eyes both fore and aft

            Transfixed him in the rain

            Which rolled off our hat

            In rivulets.

A Fragile Hope


            What will it be like,

            Needing to hang onto God

            But too weak to grip Him

            Properly and with a mind

            To fuzzy and disorganized

            To know for sure

            What it is one has,

            If anything?  Awakening

            To a still-foggy

            Morning I should be

            Hiking and Susan should

            Be getting stronger.

            The longer we wait

            The more tenuous

            The knowledge as well

            As the undertaking.

            Our cleaning lady will care

            For certain things.

            As for the rest

            I’ll let them go and hope

            I’ve not escaped His grasp.

Our hour upon the sand


            I turned seeing the flat

            Wave darkening the brush

            And trees.  Was it rushing

            Toward us or silently

            Waiting ‘till we looked

            Away to crush our

            Simplistic pleasantness?

            An hour upon

            The sand passed.  We

            Passed into the next –

            A dried bone taken up

            With little left to rend

            But there is always

            Someone to try.

            The blood is well hidden

            And deep; whether beneath

            The leaves we crush

            Or tilting in us.

            Listen to our bleeding:

            The wind and whatever else

            Is sweeping us away.

To whom do these shadows belong?


            Perhaps a good day for a hike

            After many weeks of too much heat,

            But my blood is sluggish and Susan      

            Will need to eat later on.

            Ben and Duffy don’t understand

            Or else they do and simply wait

            To see if I’ll take up my gear.

            If we don’t hike they’ll

            At least have jerky sticks

            Which are nearly as good

            As walking through the woods’

            Dim light out of everyone’s

            Sight save those

            Who yip and howl

            At untoward interference.

            Not everyone is comfortable

            Being imposed upon

            By strange ways of living,

            Of speaking, of hunkering down

            In shadows I thought

            Belonged only to me.

Fog Warnings


       The nightly barking throbs

            Fog horn-like warnings:

            Whoever is there

            Must stay away.

            No voice too far

            To hear will

            Order it still,

            Nor would he 

            Obey it in each

            Night’s ebb and flow.

            Whoever it is

            Or not must hear his

            Sorrowful bay-like horn

            Proclaiming fog.

            It will come

            Despite his

            Rock-like teeth

            Prepared to tear the

            Imprudent, deceitful,

            Whoever brashly

            Scoffs at his warnings.

In Progress

            Lacking the certainty

            Of Milton, Wordsworth

            Or even Harold Bloom,

            I drove Susan’s Hyundai

            Toward her first appointment

            Of the day in the desert

            On Bob Hope Drive.

            Pushing her into a machine

            They gave her ear plugs

            And me as well

            Sitting by the wall.

            Then tolled a discordant

            Chime time and again

            While urging her stillness

            And the holding of breath.

            Death was ever on

            Our minds but not quite 

            Yet.  Pulling her out

            They let me help her stand

            And on my arm walk her

            Off on our next venture.

Handle of Osage Orange


            Leaving the Corps at twenty

            I could have gone back

            Or into college or law

            Enforcement.  What did

            I know but the Corps’ training?

            Looking back I would

            Not have been the same.

            Later on I was willing enough

            To fight but not as before  –

            Retired at thirty-five

            Or forty but less preparation

            For introspection and worry

            Better liked perhaps but dull.

            My knife plunged into some

            Old dried wood.  Its handle

            Of Osage orange bright

            And well-cared for

            Amidst the dried

            Wreck of a tree,

            Those parts of me.

Preferring the culture that produced Shakespeare

Consider this from Northrop Frye’s “Antique Drum”:

“The First World War discredited the view that northern, liberal, largely Protestant cultures of England and Germany were, with America, the architects of a new world. Latin and Catholic Europe began to look like a cultural as well as a political ally. The essay on Blake in The Sacred Wood is full of anti-Nordic mythology: Blake’s prophecies ‘illustrate the crankiness, the eccentricity, which frequently affects writers outside the Latin tradition.’ So although Eliot’s view of literature is ‘classical,’ his Classicism regards Latin medieval culture and Dante in particular, as the culmination of the Classical achievement. Dante’s greatness is partly a product of a time when Europe was ‘mentally more united than we can no conceive.’ At such a time literature achieves its greatest power and clarity: ‘there is an opacity, or inspissation of poetic style throughout Europe after the Renaissance.’ So Eliot explicitly prefers the culture which produced Dante to that which produced Shakespeare.”

Why pay any attention to Eliot now? As Bloom writes on page on off Modern Critical Views: T. S. Eliot, “. . . anyone adopting the profession of teaching literature in the early nineteen fifties entered a discipline virtually enslaved not only by Eliot’s insights but the entire span of his preferences and prejudices.” I was a few years behind Bloom and don’t recall an enslavement but Eliot was taken very seriously. But since that time for me was the Unabomber who believed fervently that we should return to an earlier time, a time very much like Frye says Eliot preferred. It is also indicative that (as Bloom I think writes elsewhere) Eliot was opposed to the idea of evolution. There is no “evolution.” We aren’t getting better and better we had best look back to an early perfect or at least better time and strive to return to that.

The Unabomber would have us abandon our technology and return to simpler ways of doing things. Eliot would at least have us exalt an earlier simpler time and the literature that was produced then. Literature produced later is cranky and eccentric. On the other hand evolution is still at work. Richard Leakey in one of his books predicted that Homo Sapiens wouldn’t last much longer than any other species, but he is reasoning from the past and not from ideas the products of evolution are opening up to us. How long will it be before homo sapiens is living in the Moon, Mars and elsewhere in the universe? Some humans eventually will not be subject to the damage done or about to be done to this earth.

And what is the impact of evolution upon poetry. We can’t draw any conclusions but we do know that our minds have been impacted by technology, software, information. There is now something “new under the sun.” We are dealing with matters not conceived of by Dante. We are doing things with our minds we never did before. Is the crankiness and chaos that produced Shakespeare really such a bad thing? Is it impious to predict new sorts of poetry, and poets at least as good as any who have gone before, maybe in a few hundred years, maybe sooner?