Friday, August 22, 2014

Anne Sexton as a Love Poet

Readers don’t normally think of Anne Sexton as a love poet. Confessional, yes. Powerful, definitely. Romantic? Not really. The author of poems such as “Her Kind” is better known for verses that show the grittier side of the psyche, rather than the smooth surfaces of love.

Anne Sexton 
Recently I stumbled across a book of hers I didn’t know, Love Poems, published in 1969, five years before Sexton’s death. This is not the face of Anne Sexton we usually see, as in the portrait on her Wikipedia page, staring off intently into space, looking slightly abstracted. Love Poems reveals a passionate Sexton, making a headlong effort to connect to other individuals:

Then I think of you in bed,
your tongue half chocolate, half ocean

from “Eighteen Days without You: December 11th

In Diane Middlebrook’s Anne Sexton: A Biography, Sexton is quoted in an interview as saying, “The love poems are all a celebration of touch…physical and emotional touch.” The sensuality in these poems is about linking deeply with another person.

Of course there is a confessional side to Sexton’s love poetry as well. This book is not about love in marriage, but her various affairs with men and with at least one woman. The lesbian poem, “Song for a Lady,” ends with this couplet, with its play on the word knead/need:

Even a notary would notarize our bed,
as you knead me and I rise like bread.

Nothing apologetic here about this affair with another woman.

The poems are often about missing an absent lover. Sexton’s “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife,” is the ultimate Other Woman poem, the language electrified by emotion. A mixture of compassion, admiration, and fury, the poem describes the wife the speaker’s lover retreats to:

           She is all harmony.
She sees to oars and oarlocks for the dinghy,

has placed wild flowers at the window at breakfast,
sat by the potter’s wheel at midday,
set forth three children under the moon,
three cherubs drawn by Michelangelo…

There is something a little too perfect about this ’60s Normal Rockwell domestic scene, particularly since we know that her lover was driven to escape it.

What struck me most about these love poems is that the image commonly presented of Anne Sexton as the madwoman—not in the attic but in the knotty-pine suburban den—is often not accurate. Sexton wrote verses of the greatest fulfillment, as well of poems of emotional desperation. Here, in full, is my favorite of Love Poems:


I was wrapped in black
fur and white fur and
you undid me and then
you placed me in gold light
and then you crowned me,
while snow fell outside
the door in diagonal darts.
While a ten-inch snow
came down like stars
in small calcium fragments,
we were in our bodies
(that room that will bury us)
and you were in my body
(that room that will outlive us)
and at first I rubbed your
feet dry with a towel
because I was your slave
and then you called me princess.

Oh then
I stood up in my gold skin
and I beat down the psalms
and I beat down the clothes
and you undid the bridle
and you undid the reins
and I undid the buttons,
the bones, the confusions,
the New England postcards,
the January ten o’clock night,
and we rose up like wheat,
acre after acre of gold,
and we harvested,
we harvested.

I love the contrast between the snow outside and the hothouse lovemaking indoors, by the gold light of a fire or a sunset. Then there is the archaic language: crown, slave, princess, psalms, bridle, gold. The poem's diction has a formal dignity, which acts as a foil to enhance and ennoble the sensuality. What an image: “I beat down the psalms”! The repetition of the final phrase, “we harvested,” is such a triumph. Unlike many poems in the collection, there is no note of guilt or nostalgia in that ending, just fruition.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Monday, August 11, 2014

Noël Coward's Collected Stories

I recently came across Noël Coward’s The Collected Short Stories in the library. I never knew that Noël Coward wrote short stories. I thought of him mainly as a delightful writer of plays, many of which were adapted for the movies, and as the author of screenplays for several films. Coward’s credits include the script of the play and movie Design for Living, as well as the play Private Lives and the script for the theater that was adapted into the wonderful movie Brief Encounter.
Noël Coward
Coward was a witty and knowing writer, so I thought I’d give his short stories a chance. I wasn’t disappointed. There are several wonderful selections in the book, but I’d like to highlight one that I think has an interesting message for writers, for artists of all sorts, and for practically anyone, come to think of it.
The first story in the collection, “Traveller’s Joy,” concerns a character named Herbert Darrell, an actor past his prime, staying in a theatrical boarding house in a provincial city in England. This could potentially be quite a sad story, since the actor has fallen on fairly hard times since his days as a romantic leading man in the West End of London. Darrell is now reduced to playing character roles in tours of the provinces in whatever play he can land a part.
The dilapidated boarding house where he is staying is owned by a middle-aged spinster with a hunchback, a Miss Bramble, not a glamorous leading lady by any means. Still, she plays an important role in the story, but more on that in a moment. 

We first see Herbert Darrell putting on his makeup for the evening’s performance, rehearsing in his memories his successes and failures in the theater and in love. Darrell may have slipped into a life that is a poor imitation of his former stardom, but he still has high points (not to mention several Guinesses) to float him over those moments when life’s failures swamp him with gloom.

Noël Coward then switches point of view in the story to Miss Bramble’s thoughts the next morning. (Coward, perhaps influenced by film, is very fluid in the way he approaches point of view in his stories.) We realize through her recollections that she ended up spending a night of passion with Herbert Darrell, who fell asleep while she slipped out of his room. Coward describes in a moving way how, for Miss Bramble, this night was literally once in a lifetime: “Again she shivered, this time with the sudden chill of clear realization that she wanted him again, that every nerve in her body was tingling with an agony of desire.”

Even though Darrell gives her a cold and piercing look when she returns with his breakfast in the morning, Miss Bramble was prepared for this snub. Nothing will prevent her from preserving this night in her memory like a delicious jam of summer figs, just as Darrell has nourished himself through his ups and downs in the theater with his recollections of glamorous opening nights and love affairs with stars.

The take-away for artists, writers, and others is this—life is full of the shoves and slices of the quotidian. What can sustain a writer through these wounds is to keep a recollection of first learning about an acceptance, seeing a new book in print, receiving words of gratitude after a reading, or hearing praise from an admired colleague. Those moments are easy to shrug off, overlook, or forget if we don’t think we deserve the acceptances or accolades, but the way to keep going is to genuinely savor and remember those small but important treats. That, for me, is the takeaway of Noël Coward’s story.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer