Postmodernist Concepts in the Poetry of Anne Sexton
Written by: Enesa Mahmić
Translated by: Lena Ninković
“All those pseudo-creatives use the same tricks, only in different manner. Truly creative people are those loyal to their original phantasms, those who never stop recalling and transforming them.”
If we type “Poetry of Anne Sexton” into the Internet browser, Google will give us the following information: “Studied at the women’s boarding school”; “A model”; “A housewife who accidentally stumbled upon lyrical poetry due to her second nervous breakdown”; “She was, unfortunately, never able to overcome her mysterious mental illnesses”; “With her beauty and elegance, as well as her uncontrollable energy of a born performance artist, Anne Sexton simply, as witnesses claimed, captivated audience that was able to perceive in her an extremely unusual blend of the popular Jackie O. and the cursed poetess Sylvia Plath”; “Took her own life by carbon monoxide poisoning in her garage, while holding a glass of vodka and radio playing at the front seat of her red Mercury Cougar”. We would not find out much about her poetry, only some unreasonable statements of the type: “It is intriguing that this desperate house wife’s poetry collections, according to the Houghton Mifflin publishing house statistical data, had been sold in more than half a million copies by the mid-1990s of the past century, which would’ve been a huge success even for poets with much neater biographies”. It is evident from this quote that significant work of this poetess remained in the shadows due to sensationalistic and commercialist society which was more interested in “the dirty laundry”, than values of a literary opus.
Anti-traditionalism and (anti)mimesis
At the first encounter with poetry of Anne Sexton, we may perceive that she doesn’t hold on to conceptual, philosophical, or academic discourse, but that her writing is rather blunt, without any puritan barriers regarding themes of sex, marriage, maternity, abortion, masturbation, adultery, usually in Ich-form, which is both thematically and stylistically different from the literary conventions of the contemporary American literature which placed value on male discourse. Male discourse is usually a discourse of representation (because male position relative to castration is different from that of a woman, and a different position in relation to castration results in different discourses). Serge Leclaire links castration with phallus -phallus not being a penis (although this is a common opinion). He rather calls it “God”. We do not see God, cannot conjure his image. “God” (phallus) is invisible, therefore the relationship with phallus is characterized by a relationship that can not be formalized, a relationship of exclusion. Everything that is in relation to phallus is at the same time in relation to “God”. Due to the common idea of phallus as a penis, a man is inclined to forget the fact that the phallus – “God” is invisible, elusive, cannot be named. A woman doesn’t think like this, because her connection to phallus is less concealed.She is less tempted to forget that phallus is always absent. Thus, male and female attitude towards castration is completely different, as is their discourse.
Woman’s writing is thus realized fourfold: a woman accepts the usual male writing, in which she adds something of the typical female sensibility. She may complain about the phallus, hating the “owners” of the same (i.e., the owners of the common idea of a phallus as a penis), and in her poetry introduce something resembling frustration, seeking to bring down an unfair order of things, or find a series of substitutes for the penis – a representative of the phallus, so that her own body, or its parts, become phallic substantives. It is uncommon for a poetess to be in search of her own language (her own, conditionally speaking, since there is no personal language,only collective, which is “male”, since it is under male dominance). In the poetry of Anne Sexton, there are all four aforementioned positions on castration. Thus both critics and readers get confused and shocked over and over again by her poetry, no matter how laconic her style of writing seemed at first glance. Her work is characterized by her commitment to question the foundations. From her earliest to her latest work, she upholds the theory that old fundationalistic arguments are no longer sufficient, and that meaning is not some metaphysical essence or substance, but that it is a work of inter-subjective and inter-textual relations. Sexton deconstructs traditional cultural notions in a single ironic tone, simultaneously rejecting linear temporality in the name of new understanding of identity and the process of subjectivation.
(Jesus Raises up the Harlot)
Jesus knew that a terrible sickness
dwelt in the harlot and He could lance it
with His two small thumbs.
He held up His hand and the stones
dropped to the ground like doughnuts.
Again he held up His hand
and the harlot came and kissed Him.
He lanced her twice on the spot.
He lanced her twice on each breast,
pushing His thumbs in until the milk ran out,
those two boils of whoredom.
The harlot followed Jesus around like a puppy
for He had raised her up.
Here, Sexton questions the credibility of the Biblical story about Virgin Mary and Jesus in two ways: whether those characters truly existed, and if they did, whether their representation matches reality. At the same time, Sexton places all “male gods worldwide” into the image of Jesus, and all “harlots worldwide” into the image of Virgin Mary. Each break in semiotization involves a break in sexuality. Everything that breaks something, everything that disrupts the established state of affairs is directly or indirectly connected to sexuality. In her cycle of poems about Jesus, we may notice the operational meaning of postmodernism: not to recognize the existence of any objective fact (in practice, quite selectively), or any independent social structure; rather replace them with the discovery of “meaning”, both at the level of the research object, and at the level of the researcher. Therefore, subjectivity is given double emphasis – it forms the world of the person we do our research on, the world of the researchers’ texts, and ultimately, the world of readers or listeners.
Such a way of deconstruction is a two-edged sword. How to expose (deconstruct) the oppressor while, at the same time, accepting the conventions of the era one writes in, if that era constantly emphasizes the Otherness?! Indeed, an ungrateful job for a writer. Her poetry was seen as sacrilege and betrayal of faith, as ultimate treason and a true failure. Sexton was perceived as a superficial positivist who managed to repress the Other with her own meanings, making him inferior and downgraded, also proving her insensitivity to infinite idiosyncrasy of meanings, as well as to great difficulty of writing about them or carrying the meaning across the horrid abyss separating the area of one meaning from the other.
Postmodernist concepts are based on a theory that metaphysical systems aren’t sustainable. All values are relative. Meanings must be decoded and deconstructed while paying attention to its contradictions, which is a difficult task for an author. The author should doubt everything, and be aware that things aren’t always as they seem to be, or how they are presented to us. In her poem “Ghosts”, the poetess in an interesting way deconstructs the notions of a ghost and a witch, and our understanding of them. She questions the relevance of the “old” meanings and leaves some space for the “new” ones. Reminding us of the associative connections we use, the poetess at the same time alludes to the fact that much of our “subconscious” is written into language (the “subconscious” being the consequence of our collective, i.e. imposed notion about things, not the individual one).
Some ghosts are women,
neither abstract nor pale,
their breasts as limp as killed fish.
Not witches, but ghosts…
Meaning becomes everything, and everything becomes meaning, with hermeneutics being its main proponent. All that is – is by the meaning given to it. Meaning pulls it out of the primordial torrent of uncategorized existence, shaping it afterwards into a recognizable object. All ghosts are transparent and white based on their assigned description (meaning). If we give them meaning of being “colorful” and insist on it, they will in time become “colorful”. It isn’t by chance that Sexton mentions ghosts, witches, and women in the same stanza. In this way she places them on the same level, alluding that not only witches and ghosts are “fictional characters”, but also women. More specifically – the notion of women. In the poetry of Anne Sexton, it is easy to recognize a female voice of jouissance (pleasure), as well as her wish to free her own sexuality – the needs which arise from this specific type of reaction to requests and expectations of her oppressor. However, she sometimes falls into a trap by taking over mimetic approach typical of male discourse she condemns. This is quite contradictory, and the opposers of the feminist movement may ask: What do women actually want? Do they want a discourse of power? The example of such mimetic act we may find in her verses where she depicts female sexuality as super-powerful, almost fatal, and where she reduces her sexuality to a certain body part:
Loving me with my shoes off
means loving my long brown legs.
(Angles of Beach Houses and Picnics)
Once I was young and bald
And left hundreds of unmatched people out in the cold.
In women’s case, ideology goes as far as making them correspond – with their minds and bodies, with every trait of character – to the idea of nature imposed on them, eventually transforming the “deformed” into the “natural”. It is evident that Anne Sexton sometimes unconsciously succumbs to this ideology too, forgetting that a woman maintained her bodily surface, body jouissance and satisfaction greater than man’s. He concentrated his libido on the moment of ejaculation: “I owned you”, “I had you” – this is no longer the totality of the body surface that is taken into account; it is only a sign of power: “I ruled over you”, “I marked you”. And such logic is usually not typical of women’s thinking.
In literature, as Calvino argues, sexuality is a language in which what isn’t said is more important than what is said. (Post)modern readers don’t need boring wet depictions or romantic twists. Sexton is the master of brief, minimalistic descriptions – simultaneously strong and effective. She uses “strong” and (un)usual phrases from everyday speech nobody had used in the poetics of contemporary American literature: Eyes of a whore; showing their innocent bottoms, wailing
for Lucifer; the couch – tired of the whore exercising on it; in front of the breast taunt over the melon; then he bit me in the buttocks and took over my soul; do you care for salami?; you come to wake me on my signal; being sixteen-in-the-pants.
However, she also uses traditional symbols: Fireflies bit one another; roosters were crowing all day; pecking for love; moon’s juice;gingerbread lady; galloping passion; sucking the crazy rings; our fingers naked as petals; you fed me with your breathing;
There is a noticeable influence of psychoanalysis in her use of the following symbols: In my dream I milked a cow; a great rubber lily; he waived with his umbrella,etc.
The erotic poetry of Anne Sexton is characterized by the game of Eros and Thanatos – played by two polar opposites. Fear is ever-present (of death, old age, degradation, disappearing), and therefore sexuality is hedonistic: extremely fluttering and absolutely painful. In her poem “Old”, she combines these two opposites to form complete contrast: death and laughter, youth and old age, rubber sheets and a cry of youth:
I’m afraid of needles.
I’m tired of rubber sheets and tubes.
I’m tired of faces that I don’t know
and now I think that death is starting.
Death starts like a dream,
full of objects and my sister’s laughter.
We are young and we are walking
and picking wild blueberries.
all the way to Damariscotta.
Oh Susan, she cried.
you’ve stained your new waist.
Sweet taste –
my mouth so full
and the sweet blue running out
all the way to Damariscotta.
What are you doing? Leave me alone!
Can’t you see I’m dreaming?
In a dream you are never eighty.
Although Anne Sexton’s poetic expression can sometimes be rather sharp, physis is moved into the area of aesthetics – metaphors and other rhetorical devices, separating her poems from the pornographic ones aiming at entertaining and arousing the reader.
Postmodernist disorientation in big spaces
Christopher Butler sees human condition in postmodern world as being “lost in a big hotel” and postmodernism as a doctrine for the metropolis, within which a new climate of ideas has arisen and brought with it a new sensibility.
The subject used to be a sort of a shelter, a wall of defense from the uncertainty of the outside world in which s/he could only be shielded by his/her own emotions, thoughts and ideas. But in postmodernism, this comes to an end: Our self-hood is no longer a place of safety and rest, since our feelings, thoughts and impressions are born out of an inexplicable and incomplete raw material coming into existence only after ascribing meaning to it, and which is realized as a contradictory cultural package. The Cartesian wall has fallen!
In the poetry of Anne Sexton there is this feeling of insecurity, a need to firmly hold on to something, to build a wall all over again:
(Sickness unto Death)
I kept saying:
I’ve got to have something to hold on to.
People gave me Bibles, crucifixes,
a yellow daisy,
but I could not touch them
But how is it possible to oppose a certain value system, while simultaneously seeking shelter in that same value system?! This leads to even bigger confusion. Confusion aims at solution, but since it cannot be reached, absolutely all positions of power, including God, are negated. Atheism is especially emphasized in the poem What the Bird with the Human Head Knew:
I went to the bird
with the human head,
where is God?
God is too busy
to be here on earth,
His angels are like one thousand geese assembled
and always flapping.
Due to some of its characteristics, her poetry could be called relativistically absurd. It is relativistic because of the remaining clarity, the hostility she expresses as opposed to the idea of a unique, exclusive, objective, external or transcendental truth. In her opinion, truth is polymorphic, inner, subjective… and probably a lot more. It is absurd in the inability of the lyrical subject to find her way out of the social (un)reality.
(Killing the Spring)
My eyes, those two blue gods,
would not come back.
My eyes, those sluts, those whores,
would play no more.
I could not see the spring.
I could not hear the spring.
I could not touch the spring.
Once upon a time a young person
died for no reason.
I was the same.
Critics resented Anne Sexton’s destructive energy which showed no respect for the Other in her advocacy of values of individuality. They also resented her morbidity. Journalists reduced her work to sensationalistic stories. However, what must be acknowledged is this author’s special talent manifested in her ability to recognize the sickness of the era she lived and wrote in. In Sexton’s case, there is one Nietzsche’s maxim especially appropriate: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.”, and its modified version: “He who fights with the ‘ill’ should look to it that he himself does not become ‘ill’.”
Enesa Mahmić was born in 1989. She writes essays, poetry and travelogues. Member of PEN BH and the Poetas del Mundo world writer association. Her published books are: Faust’s Daughter (2015), Maps of Alma Karlin (2016), At the Place Which Causes Sighs (2016), and Dolores (2017). Her poetry is translated into English, French, German, Italian, Slovakian, Turkish, Albanian, Hungarian, Hindi and Arabic, and her work is published in dozens of journals and anthologies around the globe. Awarded several times.
Translator, Lena Ninković: Graduated from the Department of English language studies at the University of Belgrade, Faculty of Philology. In her free time, when she’s not busy contemplating life, she writes poetry, plays the piano, and reads books. She is interested in linguistics, literature, gender studies, and translation.
Translation edited by: Dejan Mujanović
Read the other texts published in the Book Review section.
This article was originally published in Serbian and you can read it here. Translated into English by Lena Ninković.