Thursday, April 12, 2018

Rowing with Anne Sexton

This is National Poetry Month and I’m keeping up with my daily habit of reading a poem (or two or three) a day, as I wrote about earlier at the blog. It’s a routine I strongly prescribe for everyone, even if you think you don’t like poetry. Some of my favorite poets you might want to try on for size: Charles Simic, Jane Kenyon, Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, and Virginia Hamilton Adair. They’re poets for people who hate poetry.

For the better part of 2018, I’ve been working my way through The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton. I fell in love with Sexton’s poetry when I was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon back in the ’80s. I can still picture myself on the fourth floor of the Knight Library, deep in the stacks, fluorescent lights buzzing overhead like trapped flies, holding one of Sexton’s books in my hand. You know that feeling of discovery? That “where have you been all my life” sense of joy? That was me in 1986, leaning against the tall metal bookshelves in the Knight Library. The fluorescent flies hummed, my brain sparked.

I stared at the words on the page, feeling startled, amazed and encouraged. I was a young writer still trying to chart a path forward. Among other things, Anne Sexton taught me to be bold and brazen in my own work. Don’t be afraid, she whispered in my ear. Just lay it all out there on the line: bloody, bare, and shivering. If there is anything in my writing that causes a reader’s eyes to widen with shock, surprise or recognition, that is due, in some small part, to Sexton’s influence. She was one of my earliest and greatest teachers.

This morning as I read The Complete Poems, I reached what is perhaps my favorite collection of hers with what is unquestionably one of my favorite titles of all time: The Awful Rowing Toward God. Here’s a snippet from the first poem (“Rowing”):
I am rowing, I am rowing
though the oarlocks stick and are rusty
and the sea blinks and rolls
like a worried eyeball,
but I am rowing, I am rowing,
though the wind pushes me back
and I know that that island will not be perfect,
it will have the flaws of life,
the absurdities of the dinner table,
but there will be a door
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside of me,
the gnawing pestilential rat.
As anyone who knows the circumstances of Sexton’s life will point out, the poem was written during her final dark period of depression, less than two years before she committed suicide. By that time, the pestilential rat had eaten too far into her soul and the sad end was near. In her biography of Sexton, Diane Wood Middlebrook writes:
Sexton’s demons were pursuing her in full force. Between 10 and 30 January 1973 she wrote “with two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital”thirty-nine poems, a whole volume: The Awful Rowing Toward God. She framed the book in two poems that provided beginning and end, as of a narrative: “Rowing” and “The Rowing Endeth.” The poems between were short, loosely organized explosions of imagery; the theme, if it can be generalized, was self-disgust. Yet the poems flowed from a seizure of energy that felt to her like hope, and the resulting imagery had the urgency of exploration.
All of that is captured in the last line of “Rowing” in which I can practically hearing the slap of water against the bow of the boat:
This story ends with me still rowing.
That’s me, too: still learning, still yearning, still rowing toward the horizon and that perfect sentence.

Painting: The Fog Warning by Winslow Homer


  1. I read Sexton's complete poems for review several years ago. This volume is still my favorite. I love the end poem.

  2. This was perfect way to kick off my day.