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Of Love and Chain Letters (Borderline Ballads)

By Travis Nichols

anne-sexton

madonna_chains_narrowweb__300x4210

The New York Post reported yesterday that the Madonna once called on Anne Sexton’s poem “Love Song” to justify her love of a former bodyguard, Jim Albright.

“In a fax dated Dec. 24, 1993, Madonna wrote to Albright: ‘I was the girl of the love letter/ the girl full of talk of dreams and destination . . . the one with her eyes half under the covers/ with her large gun-metal blue eyes/ with the thick vein in the crook of her neck.’ Sexton’s poem read: ‘I was the girl of the chain letter/ the girl full of talk of coffins and keyholes . . . the one with her eyes half under her coat/ with her large gun-metal blue eyes/ with the thin vein at the bend of her neck.’

The love fax  (!!!) is one of many items up for auction at Gotta Have It Collectibles this week, though presumably the only one related to Anne Sexton (I do envision “Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator” scribbled on a Vogue-era cone bra uncovered one day).  Sexton’s name has come up with unexpected frequency already this summer, most notably when Ange Mlinko compared her to Frederick Seidel in The Nation.

An excerpt:

Hardly read anymore, it seems, outside feminist literature classes, Sexton’s Complete Poems is fatter than Plath’s Collected, and it took the violence of Ariel much further with less talent. From “Again and Again and Again”:

I have a black look I do not
like. It is a mask I try on.
I migrate toward it and its frog
sits on my lips and defecates.
It is old. It is also a pauper.
I have tried to keep it on a diet.
I give it no unction.

There is a good look that I wear
like a blood clot. I have
sewn it over my left breast.
I have made a vocation of it.
Lust has taken plant in it
and I have placed you and your
child at its milk tip.

The poem’s singsong, staccato sentences and cartoonish images prefigure Seidel’s to a T.

Wonder what Seidel would think of that comparison.  I’ll ask him next time I gently place some raw steak on a Ducati engine block and he magically appears out of a puff of cigar smoke and man-musk.  (Quick aside: A friend recently called Seidel “Eminem for the New Yorker set,” to which I replied that Eminem is the Eminem of the New Yorker set, but why quibble?  For pop and poetry, all I really want to know is which poet Justin Timberlake consults when he goes a-wooing.  D.A. Powell? Olena Davis? The folks behind Vowel Movers?)

But back to Sexton.  In an upcoming feature for the website, the poet CA Conrad muses: “it’s interesting how Sexton has been disappearing from the bigger academic world of poetry, and her friends Plath and Lowell and Berryman, they’re all sort of amped up now.”

Good point, Conrad.  I wonder why that is.  With all the Seidel hubub, do you think Sexton is due for a come-back?

Comments (25)

  • On August 6, 2009 at 12:54 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Searching you tube, I found an actual video clip of Sexton; couldn’t find one for Plath, though–was she ever videoaped?

    Lowell, I couldn’t find either, the Berryman clips I found were a bit embarrassing…

  • On August 6, 2009 at 6:20 pm Terreson wrote:

    Good conversation starter, Travis Nichols. It will be interesting to see how the exchanges play out.

    Actually, You Tube has a few clips of Sexton reading her poetry. Viewing them reminded me again what can get lost when the audio record of the poet reading her poems gets lost.

    Unsung
    a poet’s job is
    half-done.

    In print
    lovers are left to
    trace lips.

    Terreson

  • On August 6, 2009 at 7:59 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Sigh. No one gets Seidel. Eminem’s first two records are great, but Seidel is much more Jay-Z (who “only wear[s] Burberry to swim”), with a pinch of Ice Cube thrown in.

    I wish more of my review for the London Review of Books were online, but here’s the link for the opening: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n15/robb04_.html (subscribers can read the whole thing).

  • On August 6, 2009 at 8:01 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Oh, & speaking of Vowel Movers, I have no comment on this: http://vowelmovers.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/the-taylor-swift-of-poetry/.

  • On August 6, 2009 at 8:10 pm Percy Bisque Silley wrote:

    Vulgarity disguised as Style. Quite stale and tedious – otherwise, Bra-vo, as it were…

    Superciliously,
    PBS

  • On August 6, 2009 at 8:52 pm Desmond Swords wrote:

    Luv it dude: Mad-on-na’s the answer to my question on true live poetry; whaddya reck-on

  • On August 6, 2009 at 8:52 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    You are shameless, Robbins.

  • On August 6, 2009 at 8:54 pm Desmond Swords wrote:

    oops: one is extremely apologetic Nic, alls I forgot to do wuz put in the Q mark y’all, yeah Trav, wannit bro?

  • On August 6, 2009 at 9:12 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Yeah, I know. Sorry. But Ange’s article is an argument against what she takes to be the critical consensus on Seidel, of which one of her examples is an earlier review of mine, which, much as I love her, I think she caricatures a bit. So.

  • On August 7, 2009 at 12:04 am michael robbins wrote:

    Also, if posting a link to your review in a comment on a post that discusses a review that quotes you is “shameless,” what is posting your own poetry in comment streams? Just wondering.

  • On August 7, 2009 at 7:53 am Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Michael Robbins said:

    “Also, if posting a link to your review in a comment on a post that discusses a review that quotes you is “shameless,” what is posting your own poetry in comment streams? Just wondering.”

    Kidding, Michael…just kidding. But I do think it’s getting a little boring around here without a poem now and then, don’t you? :-)

    On that subject, here’s something I just posted on another blog that may explain my occasionally apparently irrational behavior:

    “In fact, I intend to abandon my entire ‘voice in the woods’ self-publishing independent poet crusade altogether.

    I have learned that the ‘anti-Po-biz’ people are complete hypocrites. They not only don’t buy (and therefore promote) those of us who intentionally self-published in order to at least try to create some general popularity outside of the ‘business’, but they also fawn on the ‘canonical’ and established poets as much, or even more, than the others. Rather than make a nobody outsider SOMEBODY, they just whine and pout and then turn around and buy an established somebody’s book anyway.

    I started my independence “crusade” as a devoted bibliophile, opposed even to the internet. I soon saw the error of my ways, though, and started using the web. I was inspired by a comment I read (can’t remember where) that average people thought that a poem should be like a prayer…something you get for free. Free poetry! You can’t make a living on it anyway, I thought, so why not? I received almost exclusively positive comments about my poems. People like them, but they won’t buy the books BECAUSE it isn’t Po-biz. No prizes, awards or pub credits = worthless scum, good poetry or not. I had fun, anyway…what I described on Harriet as “a fine madness.” And I learned a lot. For example, I think I will now submit some poems to the New Yorker.”

    And, since it’s the full moon (and I’m sober, BTW) here’s a damned poem!

    Don’t You See?

    Doesn’t anyone see around us
    this unnatural lethargy,
    a nation almost hypnotized
    into digital complacency,
    the loss of all community?
    You look out for you. I’ll look out for me.
    It’s as though we all agreed at once
    to look away.

    Don’t you sense a certain general slow
    decrease in energy, some strange kind of
    supernatural invisibility?
    And so the greedy and ambitious men,
    disengaged from this reality,
    after twenty-thousand years still
    rule the Earth. Still make a mess.

    But if no challenge then no consequence,
    no task to overcome, reason to proceed.
    Then no victory or success.
    Does no one see this debilitating need?
    This desire to run away and hide?

    Being handed what you want is not a challenge,
    or finding it or stealing or having lied.
    Knowing you can’t have it but honestly
    obtaining, that is winning a hero’s rest.
    So how should we obtain, then,
    rise up to take this challenge?
    How do those without greed or blind ambition
    learn to care for what the greedy need,
    this evil then to best?
    How do those without need for dominance
    learn to fight and inflict violence?

    .
    Copyright 2009 – Tall Grass & High Waves, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  • On August 7, 2009 at 1:42 pm Travis Nichols wrote:

    Well, I should clarify that I do like Seidel. And Madonna. And Anne Sexton. And Eminem! Sorta. I mean, the new stuff is just awful, but for a while he was really exciting. Ooga-booga from Amityville! Hey kids, do you like violence? But really tho, what about Anne Sexton? Is she just someone read in a few feminist lit classes, as Ange says, or do other people still read and care about her? Is she, in the terminology of an earlier thread on Harriet, a major poet?

  • On August 7, 2009 at 9:10 pm Terreson wrote:

    Well, okay, Travis Nichols. Anne Sexton is a major poet. She is not just the best poet of her generation, out-stripping Plath, Berryman, Snodgrass, Dorn, Blackburn, Olson, Bishop, Ginsburg, Kunitz, Ashbery and the others. She is a better poet than Pound, Crane, Eliot, Williams, Stevens, and Moore. Her only equal might be Cummings, but not really.

    Sexton is a major poet.

    Terreson

  • On August 7, 2009 at 9:14 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Oh, bullshit!

  • On August 8, 2009 at 2:19 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    C’mon, Michael. You know you like my poetry. ‘fess up. You’ve been following me since Forrest Gander was posting here. Nothing to be ashamed of. Even some famous people whose names you would certainly recognize like my stuff.

    And besides, I’m no threat to you…I’m just a simple philosophical Nature poet and I never even write about alien space bugs! :-)

  • On August 9, 2009 at 3:14 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    So…la de da.

  • On August 9, 2009 at 10:04 pm Terreson wrote:

    Travis Nichols, you get my last post here. Or maybe it’s my next to last. I’ve tried but I cannot abide by the institutionalized snarkiness of the Foundation’s like/dislike button.

    It saddens me your blog starter hasn’t generated more traffic. To me Sexton has become a litmus test. Those who read her and find their eyes dilating pass the test. Those who read her with eyes glassing over fail. It is that simple.

    You ask if she is a major poet. But, of course, the question gets subject to how each of us determines and defines a major poet, right? My estimation of a major poet involves someone who speaks to my whole body: my intellect, my emotions, my psyche, my senses, my groin, my feet, my arms, in brief, my soma. I would submit that Anne Sexton is a major poet because she speaks to every part of my body and in concert. Some poets speak, and speak well, to certain parts of us. Few poets speak to the whole of what it means to be a human. Sexton speaks to the whole of what it means to be a human.

    If I could resurrect that long ago critic, Rosenthal, who attached the label of Confessional to Lowell and company I think I would bring him back from the dead just in order to punch him. The pejorative of his label has done so much harm to American poetry. It has, in fact, stunted the organic growth of American poetry by making poets way too self-doubting. Poetry is confession. Poetry is revelation. Poetry is witness. Poetry, in the final analysis, is duende.

    You know something else just occurred to me. Sexton, through her poetry, might have been the first to get an audience and to say women are human type people too, and people following their own rules of procedure.

    Prosodically speaking, if you are still wondering if Sexton is a major poet, I still think she is. She took from Rimbaud. She took from him and she excellenced his notions.

    Terreson

  • On August 10, 2009 at 1:18 am Terreson wrote:

    My apologies, Travis Nichols. But you are the person who introduced the new like/dislike function. You assured the membership a member could only vote once for or against a post. If I wait twenty-four hours I find I can vote against a post of mine twice, which I just did. Don’t take my word for it. Try it out yourself.

    Terreson

  • On August 10, 2009 at 10:14 am Rebecca Wolff wrote:

    Majorness involves quotient of influentialness, right? “Has influenced such-and-such numbers of currently significant poets”? If so I would say Sexton is certainly major, and not just because she blew my mind over and over when I was in high school and, along with Molly Peacock, provided necessary “permission”–god I hate to use that phrase but it’s so useful!–to do certain kinds of bold disclosures in poems that are not only good for poetry when done with the appropriate art but just plain fun to do! Try it!

  • On August 10, 2009 at 7:07 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    “Travis Nichols, you get my last post here. Or maybe it’s my next to last. I’ve tried but I cannot abide by the institutionalized snarkiness of the Foundation’s like/dislike button.”

    – Terreson

    .
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    And what rough beast, its hour come round at laSt,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

    – William Butler Yeats

    .

  • On August 10, 2009 at 8:35 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Travis, Catherine, Don, et. al.

    My opinions aside about any commentators here who would seem to be “popular” or “unpopular”…

    It does seem, as candidly reported by four or five people now, that the Dislike/Like buttons are available for manipulation by whomever, for whatever reasons– ready, under single posts, to be hit multiple times by single individuals. And one does wonder if this is happening.

    If it is the case that a reader can vote for a post multiple times, then it’s obvious (isn’t it?) that the system is available for abuse.

    I’ve never myself used the function because I think it’s shallow and risks cheapening the atmosphere of discussion. An individual limit of two or three posts per day would be a much more elegant and less “punitive” option for controlling the problem that’s developed over the past number of months.

    Regardless, the issue of the voting-function’s apparent abuse should be addressed.

    Kent

  • On August 10, 2009 at 9:37 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    I don’t think it’s the quantity of posts per day as much as it is the quantity of paragraphs per post.

    And look…even Kent’s bare and simple honesty got negative votes. This field is definitely not level.

  • On August 10, 2009 at 9:41 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    But what I hate the most is that ‘You already voted.’ shit.

    :-D :-) :-D :-) :-D :-) :-D :-)

  • On August 10, 2009 at 9:57 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    And all of this makes one wonder…is insanity a necessary condition for poetry or does poetry make us insane?

    After all, this is Harriet, right? This is free expression among poets, right? The ultimate open-minded intellectual discourse around, right? What could there possibly be to, like, dislike here?

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, August 6th, 2009 by Travis Nichols.