Sunday, February 14, 2016

Spivack, Sexton and the Troubadours

Toward the end of her life, Anne Sexton had a $60,000 Psychiatric bill so she went on the road in order to acquire enough money to pay it.  She would saunter up onto the stage, kick off her shoes, light a cigarette, take a puff, breath it out as she looked about at the audience and then in a beautiful husky voice say something like, "you need to know what kind of of poet I am; so if you aren't looking for my kind you may as well leave now.  Here's the kind of poet I am," and then she'd quote her poem,

    I have gone out, a possessed witch,
    haunting the black air, braver at night;
    dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
    over the plain houses, light by light:
    lonely thin, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
    A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
    I have been her kind.

    I have found the warm caves in the woods,
    filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
    closets, silks, innumerable goods;
    fixed the suppers for the worms and elves:
    whining, rearranging the disaligned.
    A woman like that is misunderstood.
    I have been her kind.

    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.

And of course the audience exploded.  They loved her and they loved her poem.  I read this poem way back when I first bought To Bedlam and Part Way Back and wasn't terribly impressed, but upon reading Kathleen Spivack's description of Sexton's "performance" I was much much more so.  I would have applauded like the rest had I been there to here her, but since I wasn't, since I had just the bare words to read back when I first read it, I was not nearly as impressed.  Even now if when I try to divorce myself from the image  of the performance Spivack created I don't know that I would class the poem as great.  It has definitely gone up in my current estimation but there is something of her psychosis in it, the last two lines especially.  She wrote about death a lot and then later on committed suicide.  It is possible to read the poem as though she were a sort of combat veteran.  She survived her wars and therefore is to be admired as a person.  But from our vantage point she didn't survive.  Does that fact affect worth of this poem.  I feel ambivalent when asking myself that question. 
    Spivack wrote, "Anne committed suicide partly as a reaction to her psychiatrist's making love to her during her sessions and then suddenly jilting her when he was afraid his wife would find out.  The violation of Anne's trust by at least two of her psychiatrists was appalling.  Not only were they unable to help her during her life; they seem to have been unable to control their lust for sex, financial profit, and notoriety through her.  It is blind profiteering that has led others to justify this exploitation.  What is clear is the extreme violation of ethics."
    Spivack admits that these psychiatrists were only partly responsible because Anne was truly psychotic, if clinical depression is a psychosis and I think it is.  The same thing was true of Sylvia Plath but in her case it was her husband Ted who engaged in "profiteering" after she committed suicide.  One notorious example is his completing her novel "The Bell Jar" after her suicide in order to use the profits to buy a vacation home for his new wife and family. 
    And then back in 1994 I read the excellent History of Provencal Poetry, the 1860 translation by G. J. Adler of C. C. Fauriel's French original.  It had a powerful effect, probably more so than I can remember or describe, but I recall that very little is known about those early troubadours.  Some poems have come down to us in the Provencal language but not the music that went with them.  Troubadours went through something that would today be called Troubadour school.  Perhaps they would make up the melodies as they sang, or sing melodies that would change from troubadour to troubadour. 
    The troubadours sang about love.  Fauriel (translated by Adler) wrote, "Arnaud de Marveil is one of that very limited number of Trobadours who are known to have admired and celebrated one lady only.  This unity of object would give an additional interest to his pieces, if all of them were yet extant, or if we could only succeed in arranging those which are left us according to the order in which they were produced.  Sweetness and an elegant correctness constitute the principal characteristics of his poetry."
    These troubadours wrote their own material.  I don't recall if troubadours borrowed each other's stuff.  Since they were singing their deepest love to some particular lady it doesn't seem reasonable that they would, unless they were being devious. 
    Moving back into these modern times, it seems that we can now preserve not only the words of songs but the singing of them as well -- a very recent development.  If one listens to the poor recordings of opera singers of the 1920s one must take the word of critics who claim they were great, for we can't tell it from the very poor recordings.  But these singers, we now note, were the performers of the music written by others and if they lived before technology made it possible to listen to them at their best, their performing ability has been lost but not so the written compositions.  The creative artists were the composers who may or may not have performed their work as well:  Rossini, Mozart, Bellini, Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, etc.
     But today it seems enough, more than enough, to be an excellent performer, actor, singer.  We don't care so much about compositions any longer and of course poetry is all about composition so who needs it?  We could say that Anne Sexton was a superb performer, but that wasn't her goal.  She was doing it to pay the Psychiatrists who were hastening her death.
    Now it is true that if a poet acquires celebrity, grows her name, it will benefit her in the eyes of those who aren't poets.  But the day will come when some professor like Hughes will ask his class, "what do you think of Anne Sexton, major or minor?" And when no one in the class has the courage to voice an opinion, he will waggle one of his hands and say, "minor, I will say," though her poems and the biographies about her will maintain her celebrity in good condition, probably for a long time.

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