Poets, I guarantee you, never spring fully formed into their craft. We are all deeply in debt to the writers, thinkers, artists who lend us shape, structure, language; who make our own work possible by broadening our idea of what poetry, and art, is capable of. In this space, I’ll be exploring texts from writers that I consider foundational or important to my own practice. No matter what craft or path we are in pursuit of, I believe one of the strongest acts of community is to talk openly about who you’ve been influenced by, who has helped to carve out the territory that your practice now inhabits. This space will be my attempt to do just that.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the separation of person and poet (and then poet and poem, I suppose), about the importance of biography. I’m firmly of the belief that, no matter how one might try, there can never be a complete removal of one’s self from the work they produce. As readers, we owe it to the work, and our own edification, to understand that. Our interests, our individualized passions and beliefs, the myriad experiences that form our burning spirit are impossible to keep from the things we create. Of course, I do strictly mean biography and not autobiography, for it can often be dangerous to try and twist a poem into something autobiographical when it is not meant to be. In my mind, to say you can separate a poem from its poet is as absurd as saying you can separate a forest from its floor. I haven’t seen many floating groups of trees in my time and I also haven’t seen many poets who managed to keep their work completely divorced from the influence of the important and defining details of their lives.
Jean Toomer’s crisis with identity informs his work tremendously, for example. Understanding how he thought of himself helped me grasp why he never returned to Afro-consciousness and also gave that period extra weight for me, because I was able to trace, in some regard, the poems back to their origins in Toomer’s being. Similarly, knowing what Paul Celan lost to genocide colors his work more richly. For Anne Sexton, her battles with mental illness, her hospitalizations, her desire to have The Awful Rowing Toward God published only after her death, the details of her suicide: they all add to my elucidation and connection with Rowing. Even if she wasn’t a heavily autobiographical poet (which she was) there was no way the acute and overwhelming pain she lived with could stay out of her work. I think to fully know what certain poems are/want to be, you have to know who the poet was and wanted to be. Rowing is entirely about someone that Anne Sexton wants to be and how that’s in tension with who she is. In many ways, that can be the central struggle of life.
In the introduction to Sexton’s Complete Poems, Maxine Kumin mentions the frank physicality that brought Sexton a lot of flak from her male contemporaries, who blanched at menstruation and other things offensive to patriarchy, yet we see very little of that in Rowing. Instead, we get an intense spiritual struggle of a poet trying to wring order from chaos, a person desperately seeking a specific God in a last-ditch effort to survive. Kumin writes:
Years later, when it seemed to her that all else in her life had failed—marriage, the succor of children, the grace of friendship, the promised land to which psychotherapy held the key—she turned to God, with a kind of stubborn absolutism that was missing from the Protestantism of her inheritance. The God she wanted was a sure thing, an Old Testament avenger admonishing his Chosen People, an authoritarian yet forgiving Father decked out in sacrament and ceremony. An elderly, sympathetic priest she called on—“accosted” might be a better word—patiently explained that he could not make her a Catholic by fiat, nor could he administer the sacrament (the last rites) she longed for. But in his native wisdom he said a saving thing to her, said the magic and simple words that kept her alive at least a year beyond her time and made The Awful Rowing Toward God a possibility. “God is in your typewriter,” he told her.
Reading that before any of the poems in Rowing (and I do often read biographical information first) framed the collection for me. It oriented the poems by letting me know, at least partially, where the collection came from, and the circumstances surrounding its existence. The desperation, the sense that every poem is a stay of execution would’ve come through regardless, but knowing the facts about Sexton’s life helped turn feeling and intuition into concrete understanding. Understanding how high the stakes were for Sexton gives Rowing a tremendous amount of gravity.
Rowing functions, often, as testimony—documentation of a struggle with and against mental illness. The manic flourishes of odd joy (i.e., “Riding the Elevator into the Sky”), the wonderful mystic jaunts (i.e., “The Fish That Walked”), and the dazzling and manifold lows (i.e., just about every other poem in Rowing) are all achingly present in this collection. There is also a definite sense of otherness, of multiple sets of desires inhabiting the same being. Sexton makes many references to a duality of sorts, to a creature/being living inside of her that she’d like to cut out and replace with God. This is a beautiful and terrible truth. In this state it often feels as if your body is inhabited, as if there are other agents whose whims you are beholden to—which can breed a ferocity, a desire to tear out the offending voices. Sexton, in this vein, echoes Donne’s great religious conceit in “Holy Sonnet XIV.” An example of this is “The Civil War”:
The Civil War
I am torn in two
but I will conquer myself.
I will dig up the pride.
I will take scissors
and cut out the beggar.
I will take a crowbar
and pry out the broken
pieces of God in me.
Just like a jigsaw puzzle,
I will put Him together again
with the patience of a chess player.
How many pieces?
It feels like thousands,
God dressed up like a whore
in a slime of green algae.
God dressed up like an old man
staggering out of His shoes.
God dressed up like a child,
even without skin,
soft as an avocado when you peel it.
And others, others, others.
But I will conquer them all
and build a whole nation of God
in me—but united,
build a new soul,
dress it with skin
and then put on my shirt
and sing an anthem,
a song of myself.
In this poem we see the language of struggle, of the conflict and confrontation within the speaker’s self and a desire to conquer it. But this poem doesn’t take on the hopeful, straining-against-the-barbed-wire tone of affirmation that it might in the hands of another poet—the language here foreshadows a type of doom. To get at the disparate pieces of God within the speaker, broken for one reason or another, there is no gentle removal, no loving separation from and/or ending embrace of the vessel they’re embedded in. The speaker is going to “take scissors / and cut out the beggar” and “take a crowbar / and pry out the broken / pieces of God.” To combat fracturing, the speaker will fracture further. The effort is earnest and painful—violence laced with a desire to heal. The speaker may locate and reassemble the “whole nation of God” they’re so desperate for but they will break themselves in a new way in the process, discarding the old and unsatisfactory self with a “new soul.” There is a manic drive in “The Civil War” that seems fated to fail. As readers, we feel (and the speaker feels, I’d argue) that beyond the edges of this mania lie the crushing low periods that threaten the breath and blood flow. This isn’t a departure from illness, it’s a part of the cycle. Knowing that Sexton was claimed by her illness only makes that more poignant.
Of course, none of this biographical poignancy matters if her poems are terrible, and even though Sexton uses honesty so well that it becomes a part of her craft, it is supported by the rest of her impeccable skill set. Her most inviting attribute is probably her ability to keep language fresh, what I consider to be a fundamental role of the poet. She’s at her most effective when she’s surprising her reader (which is often) and breaking up her narratives with startling images. Many poets are good at this, but there was a legitimate feeling while reading Rowing that I had no idea where Sexton was taking me and I quite enjoyed that. In that sense, she’s a very “risky” poet—she takes chances with association—but her leaps are certainly measured leaps and no accidents: she is in complete control. Her surprises did sneak up on me, but they felt justified within the text, within the worlds that Sexton is building, and thus were always in service to the poems. In “The Saints Come Marching In,” the saints “come, / as human as a mouth, / with a bag of God in their backs.” In “Mothers”: “Oh mother, / here in your lap, / as good as a bowlful of clouds, / I your greedy child / am given your breast, / the sea wrapped in skin.” Those types of moments, and there are many, serve different purposes in different poems. In “Saints,” they’re part of the heavy playfulness; in “Mothers,” they set the tone for the mother-as-earth theme; in the very serious and painful poems, her images and metaphor offer an interesting way into the subject matter, often to contrast the tone (sometimes to aid it). Every anguish has a different feel to the sufferer and Sexton’s highly specific and unique language is the reason a group of her poems can linger on a similar subject yet remain captivating and distinct. In “The Sickness Unto Death,” she writes:
God went out of me
as if the sea dried up like sandpaper,
as if the sun became a latrine.
God went out of my fingers.
They became stone.
My body became a side of mutton
and despair roamed the slaughterhouse.
It’s one thing to be a confessional poet—to have a tremendous amount of struggle to pull from—but however poignant it may be personally, that pain in a poem serves no purpose unless it can be brought freshly to the reader. Sexton is a master in that regard. She’s able again and again to find the most truthful way to express deep anguish—sometimes it’s head on; sometimes it’s through metaphor; sometimes it’s by creating an echo and trusting her poems to correspond. She sets the desperate and manic tone well enough in the first few poems that their heavy sounds reverberate against Rowing’s lyrical jaunts like “The Fish That Walked” and “What the Bird with the Human Head Knew,” lending them a depth they would not have by themselves. Tone correspondence is part of why the collection works so well as a whole.
Rowing does get a bit scattered toward the end. The weaker poems gather in the back, yet even that aids the whole. By the end of Rowing, I was scattered, I was exhausted, and that fulfills the sense of journey present in the collection. By the time the speaker is finished rowing—and arrived at the island upon which God (the crooked dealer) resides—we’ve been made to feel her exhaustion, the effects of her desperation as fully as she’s felt them. The wholeness of her disease is embedded in Rowing, and it is staggering, both in its skill and in its finality.
Quenton Baker is a poet, educator, and Cave Canem fellow. His current focus is anti-blackness and the afterlife of slavery. He has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Southern Maine and is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He is a former Jack Straw Fellow and a former Made at Hugo House fellow, as well as the recipient of the 2016 James W. Ray Venture Project Award and the 2018 Arts Innovator Award from Artist Trust. He is the author of This Glittering Republic (Willow Books, 2016).