Words by Anne Sexton

Be careful of words,
even the miraculous ones.
For the miraculous we do our best,
sometimes they swarm like insects
and leave not a sting but a kiss.
They can be as good as fingers.
They can be as trusty as the rock
you stick your bottom on.
But they can be both daisies and bruises.
Yet I am in love with words.
They are doves falling out of the ceiling.
They are six holy oranges sitting in my lap.
They are the trees, the legs of summer,
and the sun, its passionate face.
Yet often they fail me.
I have so much I want to say,
so many stories, images, proverbs, etc.
But the words aren’t good enough,
the wrong ones kiss me.
Sometimes I fly like an eagle
but with the wings of a wren.
But I try to take care
and be gentle to them.
Words and eggs must be handled with care.
Once broken they are impossible
things to repair.

 

Now, this is another poem that deals with duality; and the ways in which something can be our metaphorical ‘best friend’, but also our very worst ‘enemy.’ Words are such a funny thing, though abstract in themselves they are arguably the most powerful force in humanity and Sexton’s poem serves as an anecdotal warning to ‘be careful of words’ and their delicate nature. Sexton spends most of this poem drawing attention to how amazing words are, despite their dangers; using natural imagery to highlight how words surround us day by day. They can be as ‘trusty’ as rocks and can be ‘the trees, the legs of summer’, they ‘swarm like insects’ all around us and have come to be as easily as the natural world we live in. In drawing parallels between words and nature, we are encouraged to think about the innate essence of language and our astonishing ability to learn and use it from the onset of our lives.

But despite this beautiful facet of words, Sexton ensures to highlight their dangerous capability. She proclaims ‘yet often they fail me’ and the ‘wrong ones kiss me’, which somewhat implies that we are in some ways the victims of language; the wrong words come to us, we do not come to them, we do not kiss them. But Sexton and so many others are ‘in love with words’ and are something ‘holy’ to us and so it is impossible for us to refrain from using them, and perhaps this in itself is the very danger that Sexton is drawing our attention to. If we cannot stop ourselves from using the simultaneously precarious and beautiful thing that is language, we must be prepared to face consequences that resemble either ‘daisies’ or ‘bruises.’ The final lines of Sexton’s ‘Words’ are really definitive: Words and eggs must be handled with care. / Once broken they are impossible / things to repair’, language is to be treated with respect and care, for it can be both the making of us, but also the undoing.

Anne Sexton (1928-1974)

Anne Sexton at her home in Massachusetts

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