Madwomen poets and me

This term I am taking a class called “Madwomen Poets” in which we are reading and discussing Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. It is technically a freshman-level class although I do not think there are any freshmen in it.  There are 9 students so it is about the perfect size.  The professor is Dr. Jeanne Emmons.

These are the books we’re using:
Plath, Sylvia. 2004. Ariel : the restored edition. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Sexton, Anne. 2000. Selected poems of Anne Sexton. Ed. Diane Wood Middlebrook and Diana Hume George. 1st ed. A Mariner Book. Boston  MA: Houghton Mifflin.

We started with Plath and read her poems over four weeks and have now been on Sexton for four weeks with one class left.

Each week we pick two poems from those for the week and answer the following questions about them:

  • What experience or event is the poem talking about? Be specific and detailed.
  • What feelings does the poem express about that experience? Show how you know this.
  • (A and B)  Identify two metaphors from the poem that you found powerful or effective.  Why was each metaphor effective?
  • How is each poem similar to other poems we have read by the same author?  Identify the other poems by title, focus on similarities in imagery, metaphor, idea, feeling.  Be specific.
  • Discuss experiences / feelings/  observations of your own that relate to the experiences / feelings / observations in these poems?  Explain.

We also have to keep an ongoing file of themes from each poet.  What I have ended up doing is more of a cross between and index and a concordance.  It turned into a ridiculous amount of work; particularly since the class is a one credit hour course.  ::shrug::

My ‘index’ allows me to find an answer to question 4 quite easily and to make connections I would miss otherwise.

I have really enjoyed this class and the assignments have helped me immensely in accepting, understanding, and relating to the poetry of these two poets; highly functional as poets but both immensely dysfunctional as individuals.

I am hoping that this small taste of the benefits of actually working at the reading of poetry will stick with me.  Since taking up poetry just a couple of years back I have read a fair bit but I rarely spend any real quality time with it.  I knew I should work harder, spend more time, think about it, reread each poem several times, and so on.  But I mostly don’t.

Thanks to this class I now not only know that that would be a good idea but have actually experienced it to be so.  My concern is that I will treat this much like physical exercise.  Having been a certified fitness trainer (by the American College of Sports Medicine) I have a depth of knowledge about how exercise benefits the individual.  Having actually been in quite good shape a couple of different times I also know firsthand how being in shape benefits me; less aches and pains, far fewer headaches, more energy, better sleep, less colds and other illness, and so on. I even have a decent understanding of sports motivation and psychology. Except I can not make that work on myself. I am out of shape far more often than I have been in shape.

Thus my concern is that I will ignore what I have learned about the rewards of working at poetry. But I have some ideas. I was going to spring one on you right here but after a discussion this morning with my new writing partner (as in writing group) I might try something local first.

As an example of what I did in this class, here is my second poem for last week:

For My Lover, Returning to His Wife

1.  This is a description of how the narrator feels about how she as the other woman must let her lover return to his wife.

2.  False value, as in paste jewelry; cheap and tawdry goods.  Although the narrator is “A luxury” she is also a “momentary” and fleeting, rapidly dissipating one “like smoke from the car window.  One of the guiding images of the poem is of art.  The wife is described with images of “the potter’s wheel,” “Michelangelo” and his monuments and painted chapel ceilings.  “She is solid” and enduring like pottery and marble statues.  In contrast the narrator is “momentary” and like “a watercolor” simply washes off.  Around the time this poem was written do-it-yourself paint-by-numbers watercolors (and otherwise) were all the rage.  Anyone and everyone was encouraged to pick up a brush and fill in the outlines; anyone could be a painter!  As for as art, lasting art, goes, little of value was produced by this fad.

3. A.  “for the drunken sailor who waits in her left pulse”  I take this to be a metaphor for the desire and lust, the quickened pulse, of the wife that will issue “the curious call” that draws the husband to her for their own lovemaking.

B.  “As for me, I am a watercolor. I wash off.”  Especially situated within the larger image of art this metaphor states that the other woman is ephemeral and is unstable, impermanent, as a watercolor left out in the rain.  Perhaps also that, in effect, she can be simply rinsed away in the shower before the husband goes home to his “solid” and “monument[al]” wife.

4.  Sexton became infatuated with breasts in Love Poem; five of the thirteen poems we have from it have breast references: The Breast, The Papa and Mama Dance, Mr. Mine, Song for a Lady, and Eighteen Days Without You (December 18TH).  We also find a breast reference in Rapunzel.

In this poem it is a more tender, although jealous, image as it is referring to her lover returning to his wife; “when you will burrow in arms and breasts … and answer the call, the curious call.”  Rapunzel’s use is also tender, although deviant as it refers to an older aunt loving a young girl, “Old breast against young breast….”  There are several images in The Breast but the most important in relation to this poem is “Later I measured my size against movie stars. I didn’t measure up. Something between my shoulders was there. But never enough.”  Neither does she measure up against her lover’s wife in this poem.  For another tender reference in a, I hope, more equal lesbian relationship, we find “On the day of breasts and small hips … we coupled, so sane and insane” in Song for a Lady [I really hope this is about one of her adult affairs and not about Nana.]

5.  As I stated above, one of the primary feelings engendered by this poem is one of false value.  The narrator knows that she is, at least to her lover, of far less value than the wife.  This feeling, and its reciprocal of being valued far more highly than one should, are ones I felt in a deeply existential way upon reading Pablo Neruda’s Las manos de día / The Hands of Day.  This book, originally published in 1968, is some of his late work.  In it he questions, seriously and deeply, just what value he has been, just what it is that he has given the world.  Unflinching, honest, sometimes scathing, he asks of what value his life and his poems have been?  He has never made a broom, a chair, in fact, none of the objects he touched throughout his life; someone else made them all.  His disappointment and shame for not engaging with the world more is clearly evident.  As the translator, William O’Daly, says in his introduction:

“… don Pablo’s hands integrate experience, intellect, intuition, and feeling into a poetry that unites peoples of different languages and cultures by giving voice to his longing and to theirs, to what we struggle against or become, what we must embrace or eventually betray” (xi).

I read this book in October of 2008.  It was a very difficult time for me, as I had not gotten back to my thesis and, despite wonderful things—mainly Sara—entering my life, many others had gone wrong.  Sara was of two disparate minds about our relationship still, I had learned a fundamental lesson about my communication skills in a particularly harsh way, and I was again suicidal.  Reading these poems of Neruda’s was both uplifting and almost soul destroying, often at the same time.  Just what had I given the world?  Of what use had I been?  Of what use could I still be?

Sexton seems to see to be aware of the same sense of false value in being the other woman.  She knows that she has betrayed her lover, his wife, and even herself.  There are no questions in this poem, only statements.  She is stating that she knows she has truly given neither the world, nor her lover, anything of value through this relationship.

Lost, I navigate
in the solitude they left me.
And because I made nothing,
I stare in the darkness toward so many absences
that have slowly turned me into shadow.

Ending of XI The Absent Ones – Pablo Neruda The Hands of Day 2008 Copper Canyon Press

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