Anne Sexton’S Rowing Toward God

Since 1967, when she won the Pulitzer Prize, Anne Sexton has been recognized as a major American poet. She began to write almost by accident in her late twenties, after an early marriage, two children, and a psychotic break during which she tried to kill herself. Her short career has followed the pattern of a shooting star flashing against the backdrop of a dark universe. Her first volume, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), was followed by All My Pretty Ones (1962), Live or Die (1966), Love Poems (1969), Transformations (1971), The Book of Folly (1972), and The Death Notebooks (1974)—all published by Houghton Mifflin. Mercy Street, a play, was produced in New York in 1969.

At first, poetry was only therapy for Sexton as she attempted to relieve her psychic pain. In time she could claim that “poetic truth is not necessarily autobiographical. It is truth that goes beyond the immediate self.” She seemed to choose creation over destruction or poetry over suicide: “Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem.” Poetry thus became a vehicle to find, to reclaim—to save the self. “When I’m writing,” she told an interviewer, “I know I’m doing the thing I was born to do.” (Prose quotes are from an interview published in the Paris Review, 1971.) “There is something there/ I’ve got to get and I dig/ down … / … and because/ of this I am a hoarder of words” (The Book of Folly, p. 34).

But in the end, even poetry could not rescue her from the death that beckoned her. “It is snowing and death bugs me/ as stubborn as insomnia./ … I hear the filaments/ of alabaster. I would lie down/ with them and lift my madness/ off like a wig. I would lie/ outside in a room of wool/ and let the snow cover me” (Folly, p. 7). Anne Sexton took her own life in 1974.

The publication in 1975, again by Houghton Mifflin, of another volume, The Awful Rowing Toward God, revealed Sexton as a profoundly religious poet. Many critics, interested in the poet’s primitive, confessional nature, had not paid attention to the theological thrust of her writing, but these poems simply bring to fruition themes that go back as far as 1960. “The Division of Parts,” written after her mother’s death, has a Good Friday setting, and Sexton’s persona declares: “The clutter of worship/ that you taught me, Mary Gray,/ is old, I imitate/ a memory of belief/ that I do not own” (To Bedlam and Part Way Back, p. 63).

Belief, however fragile, came to be hers. She commented: “There is a hard-core part of me that believes, and there’s this little critic in me that believes nothing. Some people think I’m a lapsed Catholic.” Although she was raised as a Protestant, her poems contain strong criticism of the mildness of the type of Christianity she first knew (e.g., “Protestant Easter”). When asked if the death of her mother had forced her to confront her own belief in God, she replied affirmatively. “The dying are slowly being rocked away from us and wrapped up into death, that eternal place. And one looks for answers and is faced with demons and visions. Then one comes up with God. I don’t mean the ritualized Protestant God, who is such a goody-goody … but the martyred saints, the crucified man.”

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An attraction toward Catholicism and the suffering Christ is evident in several poems. A prayer addressed to Mary is entitled “For the Year of the Insane.” “The black rosary with its silver Christ/ lies unblessed in my hand/ for I am the unbeliever./ … O Mary, permit me this grace,/ this crossing over,/ although I am ugly,/ submerged in my own past/ and my own madness” (Live or Die, p. 44).

Critics have frequently coupled Anne Sexton with Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. Both women studied under John Holmes and Lowell; both deal with their split psyches, with a dark, ugly side often full of self-loathing, that contrasts with their public image as charming, middle-class young women. Sexton referred to much of her life during which she conformed to the image of the “woman of the American Dream” in the terms of “Those Times:” “At six/ I lived in a graveyard full of dolls,/ avoiding myself” (Live or Die, p. 29). Lowell, Plath, and Sexton have written uncompromisingly of madness, and Sexton sometimes linked her poetic gift to her dark visions, calling writing “The Black Art.” But she minimized the influence of Lowell and Plath upon her, emphasizing that poetry finds its roots in the subconscious.

Because of the frankness with which she deals with the body, feelings, and her personal past, some have criticized Sexton as self-indulgent, unable to create aesthetic distance in her poems. At the same time, the form of her work varies tremendously, ranging from carefully crafted poems using rhyme to open-ended transcripts of the metaphors of the psyche. But her best work is controlled and marked by penetrating images drawn from the New England landscape and middle-class American culture; it embodies the psychic malaise of our era and underscores the link between that malaise and spiritual hunger. “Small Wire” is constructed on the basic comparison between the poet’s faith and a weight suspended on a fragile wire. “God does not need/ too much wire to keep Him there,/ just a thin vein,/ with blood pushing back and forth in it, and some love./ … He will enter your hands/ as easily as ten cents used to/ bring forth a Coke” (The Awful Rowing Toward God, p. 78).

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Anne Sexton confessed that she had religious visions. Although she refused to discuss them in detail, she implied that they were extensions of herself but also enveloped her in a reality larger than herself. “I have visions—sometimes ritualized visions—that come to me of God, or of Christ, or of the Saints, and I feel that I can touch them almost … that they are part of me.… I feel very much in touch with things after I’ve had a vision. It’s somewhat like the beginning of writing a poem; the whole world is very sharp and well-defined, and I’m intensely alive, like I’ve been shot full of electric volts.”

She thought that eventually people would be more shocked by her mystical poetry than by her so-called confessional poetry. Pieces such as “In the Deep Museum” (All My Pretty Ones) and those in the series called “The Jesus Papers” (The Book of Folly) portray a Jesus who is “postfigured”—humanized by the author’s twentieth-century imagination. If readers think them blasphemous, they must read the epigraph Sexton affixed to the poems. “ ‘And would you mock God?’ ‘God is not mocked except by believers.’ ”

The Awful Rowing Toward God is given a framework by the first and last poems, “Rowing” and “The Rowing Endeth.” The motif of the quest for God permeates the book and highlights, in turn, the poet’s moments of doubt, ignorance, despair, love, and joy. The poet’s persona is never irrevocably cut off from God, but separation from him equals homelessness, and ignorance of him, madness. “The place I live in/ is a kind of maze/ and I keep seeking/ the exit or the home” (“The Children,” p. 5). The poet speaks to a walking fish, telling him that she has a vague memory of a country she has lost. The fish replies: “You must be a poet,/ a lady of evil luck/ desiring to be what you are not,/ longing to be/ what you can only visit” (“The Fish That Walked,” p. 21). There is a sense of imprisonment in the false bourgeois world, in the body, in the self, in madness—and a longing to escape to permanent identity, to joy, to love, to God. “Take off your life like trousers,/ your shoes, your underwear,/ then take off your flesh,/ unpick the lock of your bones./ In other words/ take off the wall/ that separates you from God” (“The Wall,” p. 47).

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God is transcendent, yet strangely present. Love between humans, joy among the objects of everyday life—these emotions give evidence of him. “I wouldn’t mind if God were wooden,/ I’d wear Him like a house,/ praise His knot holes,/ shine Him like a shoe” (“Is It True?,” p. 51). In contrast, the poet sees herself as having grown “like a pig in a trenchcoat” and as being devoured by a gnawing, pestilential rat, but “God will take it with his two hands/ and embrace it.” Like a fallen angel she is “both saved and lost,/ tumbling downward like Humpty Dumpty.”

Two moments of grace illuminate the book. In “The Sickness Unto Death,” Sexton depicts the nadir of her life, when God “went out” of her. “My body became a side of mutton/ and despair roamed the slaughterhouse.” She thus transforms a crisis of madness into a religious crisis when self-revulsion leads the way to the disappearance of self and renewal through the kiss of grace. “So I ate myself,/ bite by bite,/ and the tears washed me,/ wave after cowardly wave,/ swallowing canker after canker/ and Jesus stood over me looking down/ and He laughed to find me gone,/ and put His mouth to mine/ and gave me His air” (p. 40). The final poem depicts Anne Sexton’s joyful union with God. She docks her rowboat at the island of God and—“can it be true”—plays poker with him. “I win because I hold a royal straight flush./ He wins because He holds five aces./ A wild card had been announced/ but I had not heard it/ being in such a state of awe” (p. 85). The universe joins God in rollicking laughter over his win.

Readers can only leave to God’s infinite understanding the untimely end of Anne Sexton’s life when they hear the rhythms celebrating God’s gamble of love in the final stanza of The Awful Rowing Toward God. “Dearest dealer,/ I with my royal straight flush,/ love you so for your wild card,/ that untamable, eternal, gut-driven ha-ha/ and lucky love.”


Patricia Ward teaches French and comparative literature at the Pennsylvania State University, University Park.

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