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

Her Kind by Anne Sexton

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

 

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

 

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

 

© Anne Sexton. All Rights Reserved.

 

When you think about feminist poets, I think I’d likely be correct in assuming that Ms Sexton would be right up there; and Her Kind tackles the very thing that I find the most intriguing about being a woman: our varied dimensions in not only the way in which we present ourselves, but the way in which society as a whole and the media portray us. As Sexton’s is one of the great confessional poets, we can assume that this poem explores her own very personal experiences of womanhood which gives the poem a relatable and intimate tone, especially for female readers. Her Kind compromises of three stanzas, each one examining a different facet of womanhood and Sexton’s personal growth and experiences of these stages.

To me, the first stanza could portray the ‘possessed witch’ that a woman can become in times of heartache and jealously with the word ‘possessed’ suggesting that the woman is not in control of her actions in this state. Sexton depicts this kind of woman as ‘haunting the black air’ and ‘dreaming evil’, crafting sinister images through ‘black’ and ‘evil’ connotations. Perhaps she is characterizing the ways in which this kind of woman deals with hurtful emotions through becoming vengeful and bitter, typifying characteristics one would associate with a scheming witch. Alternatively, of course the stanza also seems to acknowledge a more taboo facet of womanhood in their times of promiscuity. This is suggested through the alternative interpretation of the woman who has ‘gone out, a possessed witch’ and being ‘braver at night.’ The connotations of being braver at night could suggest the woman’s new-found confidence each night to go out and attract the attention of men. As it is the general view in society that promiscuity is a negative trait, Sexton’s metaphorical depiction of this side of womanhood as a witch seems well-fitting as both a critique of ‘a woman like that [who] is not a woman’ as she exploits her sexuality to satisfy her own ego and also of society as a whole in its harsh judgement of female promiscuity which is suggested through Sexton’s hyperbolic imagery.

The second stanza explores the nurturing mother that can come out of womanhood, and the language reflects this. Sexton switches up the tone at this point – in her way – replacing the haunting imagery of the first stanza with the chaotic but comforting images of domesticity, depicting ‘warm caves’ and describing ‘skillets’ as a part of ‘innumerable goods.’ This suggests a positive view of motherhood, but also displays how it can overwhelm women and consume them into becoming solely that kind of woman; a mother only and nothing else. The speaker tells us that she’s ‘fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves’, depicting the typical scene of a mother cooking for her children, but perceiving those children as ‘worms’ and ‘elves.’ Worms epitomize the dirt that the children playing, their connotations also possibly suggest that these children have wormed their way into the mother and have completely taken over her life. The more complex metaphorical image of these children is in Sexton’s depiction of them as ‘elves’, the mythical creatures possessing magical qualities. This seems to counter-balance likening the children to worms, recognizing that although having children means having to sacrifice other elements of yourself and become ‘misunderstood’, you can be rewarded in seeing your children grow, an experience that many parents describe as being magical.

The final stanza of Her Kind is in some ways tragic if you read it in context. Anne Sexton died from suicide in 1974 after suffering from severe depression for many years and even resulted in her hospitalization in 1955. The final stanza portrays a woman who has ‘ridden in your cart, driver’, possibly suggesting that she herself – who is not driving – is not in control of what is happening around her and has succumbed to madness and waving her ‘nude arms at villagers going by.’ ‘Nude’ suggests both vulnerability but also liberation, this woman – Sexton herself – is tired of concealing her true kind. To her, it seems as though life itself is painful to endure as ‘flames still bite [her] thigh / and [her] ribs crack where your wheels wind.’ To me, it seems as though this presence that she is addressing as ‘you’ is life as a personified character, life is her driver who takes her where it wants her to go in fate and the speaker completely scorns this path. She needs to acquire her own fate, and mold it herself; she has ridden in the cart, but now she is ready to leap out of it, she is ‘not ashamed to die’ and is ready to shed the persona she has had to parade for so long.

Anne Sexton (1928-1974)

Anne Sexton (1928-1974)