Welcome, Sister

Last week, Anne Sexton showed up and informed me that she is part of my family now.

Some educated readers may be saying “How can you not have read Anne Sexton before?”

But remember, I am new to the more avid pursuit of poetry. I have had no courses, no structure; no homework to guide me. I don’t read poetry to educate myself, although I want and need to learn more about the art of poetry. Educating myself is not a strong enough yearning to keep me reading when intense depression makes learning feel pointless.

I read it because it brings people like Anne Sexton into my life in a way that time, death, or dysfunction cannot take away.

Anne Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and took her own life in 1974. She had a long history of psychiatric hospitalizations, and credited the practice of poetry with extending her life by many years. She wrote about everything you might imagine, with occasional emphases on themes such as fairy tales and God. She was a confessional poet, shocking people at the time, and an important force in feminist psychology.

I don’t like everything of hers that I’ve read so far. As with many poets, it’s a case of little gems popping up here and there.

But she is one of my circle now; her words belong to me and live in the house of my imagination. She joins all of my sisters and brothers, created by words and shaped into my council of meaning.

T.S. Eliot is pouring her a cup of tea. Sharon Olds hangs up her wet raincoat and offers her a towel. John Donne bows and kisses her hand as Emily Dickinson moves over to make space on the sofa.

Welcome, Anne, and thanks for coming.

Poe-etry

It belonged to my husband’s paternal great-grandfather, I think. There are several inscriptions, all with the same surname, inside the cover. A thin book, number 199 of the Riverside Literature Series, it proclaims itself to hold “The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher and other Poems and Tales by Edgar Allan Poe.”

It was published in 1897, forty-eight years after Poe’s death. Forty-eight years is a long time, but there must have been people still alive who remembered Poe the man, or learned from those who did. The introduction discusses Poe’s life in far greater detail than I have usually seen, and the tone is more personal. Poe is portrayed as a figure of great controversy, rather than the staple of literature he now seems more to be.

He had his admirers and his detractors; he made friends and enemies. His life was punctuated by brilliant successes inevitably followed by excesses or derelictions that brought things tumbling down. He tried again, and again, painting the familiar tapestry of an addict’s struggles as he danced with alcohol and opium throughout the years. Today, doctors would probably also have pegged him as having bipolar qualities.

I’ve written about seeing and judging the poet in the poem. Here, in this fragile old booklet, I see how much it happens. The editor, himself, seemed to think of this when he wrote:

“…it is perhaps equally idle at present to try to bridge over the chasm that separates his lovers from his detractors. Men will long continue to dispute about his life, and they will not cease to assert or to deny his greatness…but it is equally true that it is of the essence of sound criticism that, as the years go by, we should be able to judge more and more dispassionately the men and works of the past; and we may at least hope that our grandsons will be more agreed as to Poe’s merits and demerits than we are.”

Wisely written. But I wonder if he would have predicted the development of Poe’s place in the world of literature? Would he be surprised to see him in school textbooks, or to know that “Annabel Lee” may be the first love poem many of us ever learned?

Poe was only forty when he died from the effects of his addictions. Those of us who read him now may know that he was a troubled person, or even have studied biographies, but the thousand small failures and offenses are blurred by time. His poems stand more on their own, ready for us to project meaning onto them.

“Who am I to write poems?” we might think. Well, who was Poe to do so?

Meter in the Bathroom

Ah, reading poetry…truly it seems as if the very phrase evokes an image of leather chairs, delicate teacups and classical music playing in the background. Or perhaps a bohemian-looking cafe, rich and dark with philosophy and angst. One way or the other, there’s a feeling that reading poetry is somehow a more serious and elevated activity than reading other things.

I’m not immune to this canalization, which is why I feel so sheepish about the amount of poetry I read in the bathroom. At this moment, the bathroom contains the collected works of Eliot and Yeats, a thick Penguin anthology, and two recent issues of Poetry magazine. I admit it–sometimes the bathroom is the only place I read any poetry during the day. It seems somehow disrespectful.

But is it? Naturally, it’s better to read it there than not at all. And why should there be any requirement for where, or how, we allow poetry to speak to us? Elevating and intellectualizing it too much may dissuade the neophyte from trying it out. Perhaps it’s not bad to enjoy it in such a mundane, casual way. Not all the time, of course, but kind of like the balance between the “quickie” and the longer lovemaking sessions in a sexual relationship.

All right, then, I’ll try to get over my sheepishness. When I grab a book or a magazine in that most humble of libraries, I’ll just imagine it as a hurried tryst. “Missed you too, babe, but I’ve only got a minute.” It’s still a good minute.