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.

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