Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Saying that you like Anne Sexton is a bit like saying you like pie.

Of course you like pie, and liking Anne Sexton's work is fairly common. I'm certainly not going to hold that against her (as some would); I think there's something to be said for being successful as an artist. Though I think we should move on from our national obsession with confessional poetry and remember that there are other forms out there, I don't hold that against Sexton, either.

So, let's talk about the poem "Young" originally published in 1962, but more easily found in the contemporary volume, Complete Poems:


A thousand doors ago
when I was a lonely kid
in a big house with four
garages and it was summer
as long as I could remember,
I lay on the lawn at night,
clover wrinkling over me,
the wise stars bedding over me,
my mother's window a funnel
of yellow heat running out,
my father's window, half shut,
an eye where sleepers pass,
and the boards of the house
were smooth and white as wax
and probably a million leaves
sailed on their strange stalks
as the crickets ticked together
and I, in my brand new body,
which was not a woman's yet,
told the stars my questions
and thought God could really see
the heat and the painted light,
elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight.

So many great lines in this one; lines that cut straight through me. That line about thinking God could really see the heat and light (indicating that now the speaker has a different belief about God) slays me every time I read this thing. Sure, it feeds into that "children always believe in God, adults do not" stereotype, but here it feels personal rather than default, if that makes sense. Maybe I'm just willing to forgive Sexton anything.

It's that last line that I remember every time I think about this poem, though. Notice how this "brand new body" is present, here, and not discounted simply because it is not a woman's, yet. Each part almost standing in for an entire sentence. But, notice, too, how the body and the dreams are equal. Elbows are present, check. Knees present? check. Dreams? Yes. But then the speaker does something really wild--she moves from thinking of her own body to caring about the rest of the evening for the reader. That seems a little cheeseball, maybe, but think about that move: the speaker indicates that she is done speaking before the poem has ended, but is still speaking. She addresses the reader directly as she leaves. I read this as the speaker taking the power of the narrative: I am done speaking, she says, and I wish you well the rest of your evening. She then leaves the stage (or, for a kid, goes in). You can almost hear the front door close before you, yourself, leave.

To me, that means that we weren't just listening to a monologue: we were on the lawn, whispering at the stars with her. This poem gives me chills for that very reason: that last word creates a connectivity with the speaker of the poem that so many other poems just lack.


Devon said...

What I like about Sexton's art is that even when confessional, it feels genuine. There's something incredibly naive and authentic about her voice in this poem. That's what endears me to her, because she speaks to that little girl part of me as well as the rebellious and insecure grown up.

J. Campbell said...

That's exactly it; her confessions seem more genuine--that's what I was searching for as I was writing the entry.