14 November 2007

Anne Sexton and learning not to be afraid of rhyme

As I said in my last post, I’ve been reading a lot about Anne Sexton and her poetry lately.

She’s a poet whose work I didn’t know very well until now, though I did read her collection Transformations – which is retellings of fairy tales – when I was writing my masters thesis almost 10 years ago (Fairy Tale Intertextuality in Margaret Atwood’s Fiction).

At the time, I found them too bitter.

This time around I’m enjoying her early work a lot. Her language is deliciously rich and full of metaphor – and often also humour. Admittedly, some of her work can be hard going: she was a pioneering ‘confessional’ poet – a lot of her work draws on her own experience (though generally fictionalised in one way or another) and her experience included severe depression, suicide attempts and hospitalisation. Pretty brave stuff to write about back there in the 50s.

One thing that has struck me about her work is her use of rhyme – or rather, it didn’t strike me, because it’s used so subtly. I read the poem ‘Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward’ all the way through its five stanzas before I realised it rhymes with a strict ABABABABABA scheme.

Child, the current of your breath is six days long.
You lie, a small knuckle on my white bed;
lie, fisted like a snail, so small and strong
at my breast. Your lips are animals; you are fed
with love. At first hunger is not wrong.
The nurses nod their caps; you are shepherded
down starch halls with the other unnested throng
in wheeling baskets. You tip like a cup; your head
moving to my touch. You sense the way we belong.
But this is an institution bed.
You will not know me very long.
(from ‘Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward’, by Anne Sexton.)

Sexton said she liked to use strict rhyme schemes, particularly in her early work, as a way of containing the strong emotion. The harder something was to write about, the more restrictive the scheme.

Rhyme is something I’ve generally avoided in poetry. I have a suspicion that the probability of a modern poem being bad increases ten-fold if it rhymes. That said, I certainly don’t write rhyming poetry off completely, though the contemporary rhyming poets I most enjoy tend to use rhyme to add humour: people like Wendy Cope, Harry Ricketts and Scott Kendrick (shameless Seraph Press plug):

So I wrote up a letter saying “I can’t pay;
I feel real sick – might die today.”
They sent back, “Oh we thought you knew
Where clause seven dash six one point two
Says: The client shall not be mislead
Into thinking it’s over when they’re dead.
If your soul’s off tripping in a heavenly way
We’ll work it out so you can pay

Your student loan, which as was shown,
Is taut and tight and tanned and toned.
The rivers may cut away the stone,
But nothing’s gonna cut your student loan
(from ‘Song of the Student Loan’, by Scott Kendrick)

Until a few years ago, if even an internal rhyme had accidentally slunk into a line of my own poetry, I’d exorcise it as soon as I noticed. But lately I’ve become brave enough to play with internal rhyme deliberately. (Though one editor seemed to assume that my carefully constructed internal rhyme running over three lines was some kind of unfortunate accident.) So you never know, maybe I’m on my own slippery slope to rhymingdom.


warmaiden said...

Hi! I was wondering if you could refer me to the source where Sexton said "he liked to use strict rhyme schemes, particularly in her early work, as a way of containing the strong emotion. The harder something was to write about, the more restrictive the scheme." I'm working on an essay and this is exactly the info I'm trying to find, but can't locate. Is it in the biography? Thanks!

Helen Rickerby said...

Hi Colleen

How exciting – an international reader!

I’ve had a quick look at your blog and really enjoyed it. I’ll go back and have a proper look soon, and will add it to my writing-related links.

To your question – it sent me back to the library just to make sure I hadn’t made it all up. Fortunately, I did find some references in the book I thought they were in. Though actually it seems that it was form more broadly, rather than just rhyme, and was really more in her early work – the first collection in particular I think.

The quotes I found, which I’ll include below, are from: No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews and Prose – Anne Sexton, edited by Steven E Colburn, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1985.

Most of the relevant stuff comes from an interview with Patricia Marx (just called ‘With Patricia Marx’) which was also published in the Hudson Review 18, no.4 (Winter 1965/66).

From page 80:

'I used to describe it this way: that if you used form it was like letting a lot of wild animals out in the arena, but enclosing them in a cage, and you could let some extraordinary animals out if you had the right cage, and that cage would be form.

In the same article that you wrote for the Poetry Book Society you said, "Form for me is a trick to deceive myself, not you, but me."

I can explain that exactly. I think all form is a trick in order to get at the truth. Sometimes in my hardest poems, the ones that are difficult to write, I might make an impossible scheme, a syllabic count that is so involved, that it then allows me to be truthful. It works as a kind of superego. It says, "You may now face it, because it will be impossible to ever get out." Almost any accomplished poet can do this. The point is can you get to the real, the sharp edge of the poem? But you see how I says this not to deceive you, but to deceive me. I deceive myself, saying to myself you can’t do it, and then if I can get it, then I have deceived myself, then I can change it and do what I want. I can even change and rearrange it so no one can see my trick. It won’t change what’s real. It’s there on paper.'

And from an interview in the same book, ‘With Barbara Kevles’, page 94:

'In Bedlam, I used very tight form in most cases, feeling that I could express myself better. I take a kind of pleasure, even now, but more especially in Bedlam, in forming a stanza, a verse, making it an entity, and then coming to a little conlusion at the end of it, of a little shock, a little double rhyme shock. In my second book, All My Pretty Ones, I loosened up and in the last section didn’t use any form at all. I found myself to be surprisingly free without the form which had worked as a kind of superego for me. The third book I used less form. In Love Poems, I had one long poem, eighteen sections, that is in form and I enjoyed doing it in that way. With the exception of that and a few other poems, all of the book is in free verse, and I feel at this point comfortable to use either, depending on what the poem requires.

Is there any particular subject which you’d rather deal with in form than in free verse?

[now going on over to page 95]

Probably madness. I’ve noticed that Robert Lowell felt freer to write about madness in free verse, whereas it was the opposite for me. Only after I had set up large structures that were almost impossible to deal with did I think I was free to allow myself to express what had really happened. However in Live or Die, I wrote "Flee on Your Donkey" without that form and found that I could do it just as easily in free verse. That’s perhaps something to do with my development as a human being and understanding of myself, besides as a poet.'

If you can get your paws on that book, you’ll probably find it useful. Otherwise, I hope you’ll find these quotes helpful. Also, I remember reading something similar by Maxine Kumin about her own work, which, if you can be bothered to track it down, was in Always Beginning: Essays on a Life in Poetry, by Maxine Kumin, Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, c2000.

What is your essay topic specifically? All the very best with writing it. I'd love to hear how you go.

warmaiden said...

Helen -

You're the greatest! I'm working on my MFA right now, and we have to write an essay on the 'craft' of each author we read, and I thought there had to be something on using form as a restraint technique when writing about the acutely personal, but I couldn't find anything referencing Sexton specifically (came across a lot of Plath and Edna St. Vincent Millay).

I appreciate all of the cites - my library doesn't happen to own any of those, so I'm inter-library loaning them now (I'm a librarian as my paying job, since poetry hasn't made me famous yet). The essay on Sexton only has to be 2-4 pages long, but I'm considering writing something broader on her, Millay and Plath - could prove to be interesting.

Thanks again for all of the information - it's extremely helpful. I've got your blog tagged as well, and will be looking forward to seeing future posts! (If you prefer direct email to chat sometime, you can find em at warmaiden (at) gmail (dot) com - havea great day, adn thanks again! You're a gem.


Helen Rickerby said...

Hi again Colleen

Your essay sounds really interesting, and I'm sure you'll find lots of really useful material for it in those essays. That's a really good idea - writing essays about the craft of each writer - makes you think about what you're reading in a more focused way than if you're just reading.

I'd definitely like to 'chat' by email sometime. Good luck, and good writing.