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Anne Sexton's "Courage," "Her Kind," and "Music Swims Back to Me"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "Courage"

In religions and philosophical traditions, the lifetime of a human being is often sectioned into four stages: (1) childhood, (2) young adulthood, (3) family life, and (4) old age.

Each stage prepares the individual for the next succeeding stage. In Anne Sexton’s, "Courage," the speaker focuses on these stages in four verse paragraphs (versagraphs).

The first and fourth versagraphs look at childhood and old age. While these two versagraphs might well represent a majority of human experience, the second and third versagraphs are more limited to a particular life.

Courage

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off our heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

Reading of “Courage”

Commentary on "Courage"

Sexton’s "Courage" focuses on the four stages of life, often categorized in philosophical and religions treatises.

First Versagraph: Beginning as a Child

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

The speaker claims that courage is on display in the everyday events in life. She backs up this claim by referring to the first step taken by a child, finding that first step, "as awesome as an earthquake."

Other childhood events that demonstrated courage were learning to ride a bike, taking that first spanking, which is momentous, for the speaker metaphorically claims that the young child's "heart / went on a journey all alone." That lonely journey, then, shows the courage of the young child enduring that spanking.

And then when some bully at school called her that name, "fatty or crazy," and made her feel that she did not belong, the child showed courage again by drinking "their acid" and hiding her pain of feeling like an outcast.

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The speaker emphasizes the starker occasions by representing them with strong metaphors, as in the lines, "The first spanking when your heart / went on a journey all alone," and "you drank their acid."

Second Versagraph: The Life of a Soldier in the Battle of Life

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

The second verse paragraph moves on to the next stage in a human life. This particular life is that of a soldier in a war zone. The speaker again shows how in little ways even the soldiers’ courage is displayed.

Even though he is there to protect the flag of his country, he is there with only some protective gear, and again the speaker stresses the act of courage by metaphorically likening it to a "small coal" that the soldier must continue to swallow.

About the act of courage that most citizens would deem the greatest, the act of saving a fellow soldier's life, this speaker claims that act was not courage at all but love: "it was love; love as simple as shaving soap."

Third Versagraph: Those Who Have Suffered Much

Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off our heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

In the third versagraph, the speaker delineates the activities of the person who has simply suffered; we do not learn the cause of the suffering because it does not matter.

The speaker metaphorically focuses on the heart and circulatory system saying that the suffering was like getting a transfusion of fire, which caused the heart to bleed and then the sufferer had to pick scabs off the heart and then wring it out like a wet sock—an interesting mixed metaphor/simile here that actually works well.

Then again, the speaker personifies the sorrow which the sufferer gives a back rub and covers with a blanket. After the sorrow was allowed to sleep awhile, it woke to some relief, . . . "to the wings of the roses / and was transformed."

Fourth Versagraph: As the End Approaches

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

The fourth versagraph focuses on old age and death and how the person will show courage in small ways in the face of these inevitable facts of life: the person will want spring to be sharp like a sword, and she will love her loved ones with greater affection.

The final small detail is that at the very end, after death has finally called, the speaker will simply slip out the back door wearing her house slippers. The smallest detail yet accompanying the greatest event!

The speaker has taken the reader/listener through a life showing how this life was lived with courage in the small details of life.

Its audience, naturally, becomes very aware that this poem represents just one person's view. The speaker's interpretations of what is a small thing might be open to challenges.

Further Reading

Anne Sexton’s grave at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

Anne Sexton’s grave at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

"Her Kind"

In Anne Sexton's poem, "Her Kind," the speaker creates three caricatures, dramatizing through colorful imagery an identity akin to that seen through fun-house mirrors. Despite the nature of these kinds of woman, the speaker finds no shame in professing that she is also that kind of woman.

Introduction and Text of "Her Kind"

Anne Sexton's "Her Kind" features a tight structure, three septets (seven-line stanza), with the rime scheme, ABABCBC. Each stanza features the refrain, "I have been her kind," in each of the closing lines.

This poem is structured to allow the speaker to distance herself from the character, or perhaps caricature, that she is dramatizing. She can describe the character from what may seem to be an objective reality.

Yet no reader is fooled into believing the speaker is not describing herself. And to drive the fact home, the speaker has appended that haunting line, flatly stating that she has been that kind of woman whom she is describing.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Her Kind

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 reading "Her Kind"

Commentary on "Her Kind"

Anne Sexton creates a speaker who describes three types of women, each more resembles a caricature than a character.

First Septet: On the Prowl for Evil

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.

In the first septet, the speaker portrays herself as "a possessed witch," who has gone out prowling the night in search of evil.

On her metaphorical broomstick, the speaker has flown over the "plain houses," looking "light by light" for something that she cannot identify, perhaps some way to fill what she perceives as a hole in her soul.

The speaker describes herself as a "lonely thing," a deformed thing with "twelve-finger[s]." While extra fingers should add to the hands' dexterity, it merely demonstrates her separation from what she imagines is reality.

The speaker also asserts that as this "lonely thing," she is "out of mind," an ambiguity implying that she is not in the minds of others or they do not think much about her, thus the assertion of loneliness, and also hinting that perhaps she is the one who is "out of (her) mind."

In attempting to define the speaker's perceived qualities, she hopes to arrive at what she truly is. The speaker then concludes that this anomaly that she is describing in not a woman at all, yet she adds again that she has been this kind of woman who does not quite add up to real womanhood.

The speaker's assessment is that when she behaved as a slattern, who went out witchlike searching for evil, she, in fact, was not behaving like a woman, at least not quite. But she admits, or confesses, that she has been that kind of woman.

Second Septet: Melodramatic Isolation

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.

The second caricature of identity dramatizes a domestic persona, who has set up housekeeping in "warm caves in the woods." She shrouds the domestic scene in a melodramatic isolation, locating it "in the woods," but at least the metaphorical houses (caves) were warm.

The speaker has cooked and maintained the household for the "worms and the elves." The Snow-White fable morphs her family, for whom she has performed the domestic chores, into another threat to her reality.

And as the housewives who lead those lives of hushed anxiety are misunderstood, so is she; the refrain reiterates, "I have been her kind."

Third Septet: An Ersatz Triumph

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.

The final septet offers a view of the speaker that jars the reader's sensibility. She reports that she had "ridden in your cart, driver." Only in this final septet does the speaker address another individual, and that person is a cartdriver.

The second line's image of "nude arms" waving "at villages going by" suggests a beauty queen on a parade float, smiling and waving at the spectators. But then the speaker reports that as she waves beauty-queen-like at spectators, she is "learning the last bright routes," as a "survivor."

Yet the speaker feels the driver's fire is burning her leg. The Joan-of-Arc allusion soon gives way to a poor battered peasant woman whose "ribs crack" under the wheels of the cartdriver's cart. The upshot of all this maddening juxtaposition of contradictory imagery is that the women whom she has been describing can die unashamed.

The speaker has offered no fake victimhood for her lot. She is simply describing the condition and the mindset for the character of each of the women. Unlike the characters of Spoon River, who try to rehabilitate their reputations post-death, this speaker simply offers fairly objection descriptions.

That she considers herself that same kind of woman does not imply that she is judging herself: her attitude is simply "it is what it is." In that attitude, however, she experiences an ersatz triumph.

She has been that kind and so what? It takes all kinds, and she is content and even unashamed by the knowledge of what her kind is.

"Music Swims Back to Me"

Anne Sexton's poem, "Music Swims Back to Me," dramatizes the experience of a woman in a mental institution. Her little drama features colorful imagery that both startle and enlighten, revealing the workings of a troubled mind.

Introduction and Text of "Music Swims Back to Me"

Anne Sexton's eerie piece, "Music Swims Back to Me," consists of three free verse paragraphs (versagraphs). Like most of Anne Sexton's poetry, this one belongs to the confessional style, which focuses on the intimate personal experience of the poet's life.

Sexton began writing at the behest of her psychotherapist as a way of refocusing her suicidal tendencies to give her a reason to live. Famously, this strategy did not conclude successfully as the poet ended her own life after many years of therapy with a variety of therapists.

Because Sexton did spend time in mental institutions, this poem, no doubt, expresses her actual experience, at least to a point.

The poets of confession employ poetics in their craft, even though they are expressing their real experience. However, their speakers still must be evaluated as independent speakers of their poems, just as the speakers of other styles of poems are understood.

Music Swims Back to Me

Wait Mister. Which way is home?
They turned the light out
and the dark is moving in the corner.
There are no sign posts in this room,
four ladies, over eighty,
in diapers every one of them.
La la la, Oh music swims back to me
and I can feel the tune they played
the night they left me
in this private institution on a hill.

Imagine it. A radio playing
and everyone here was crazy.
I liked it and danced in a circle.
Music pours over the sense
and in a funny way
music sees more than I.
I mean it remembers better;
remembers the first night here.
It was the strangled cold of November;
even the stars were strapped in the sky
and that moon too bright
forking through the bars to stick me
with a singing in the head.
I have forgotten all the rest.

They lock me in this chair at eight a.m.
and there are no signs to tell the way,
just the radio beating to itself
and the song that remembers
more than I. Oh, la la la,
this music swims back to me.
The night I came I danced a circle
and was not afraid.
Mister?

Anne Sexton reading "Music Swims Back to Me"

Commentary on "Music Swims Back to Me"

This poem dramatizes the experience of a woman in a mental institution.

First Versagraph: Confused Personality

Wait Mister. Which way is home?
They turned the light out
and the dark is moving in the corner.
There are no sign posts in this room,
four ladies, over eighty,
in diapers every one of them.
La la la, Oh music swims back to me
and I can feel the tune they played
the night they left me
in this private institution on a hill.

The first line of this poem indicates a confused personality; she is institutionalized, yet she asks some unidentified "Mister," "Which way is home?"

She then immediately begins to describe the eerie details of her surroundings: things seem to move in a dark corner, the room has "no sign posts," there are four diaper-wearing ladies over eighty-years-old.

The speaker then introduces the refrain and poem title as she makes it clear that she has been involuntarily placed in a mental facility: "La la la, Oh music swims back to me / and I can feel the tune they played / the night they left me / in this private institution on a hill."

Second Versagraph: Music Sparks Memory

Imagine it. A radio playing
and everyone here was crazy.
I liked it and danced in a circle.
Music pours over the sense
and in a funny way
music sees more than I.
I mean it remembers better;
remembers the first night here.
It was the strangled cold of November;
even the stars were strapped in the sky
and that moon too bright
forking through the bars to stick me
with a singing in the head.
I have forgotten all the rest.

The speaker commands her listener/reader to "Imagine it." She is referring to the music from a radio and adds that all the inmates of the institution "are crazy." She reports that she was glad to be admitted, and she showed her joy by "danc[ing] in a circle."

The speaker then reports the observation that music sparks the memory; by associating the tune she heard with something in her past, she can recall the events.

Thus, the speaker claims that the music "remembers better," which suggests that the music assists her memory in recalling her first night at the mental institution.

She says, "It was the strangled cold of November; / even the stars were strapped in the sky / and that moon too bright / forking through the bars to stick me / with a singing in the head."

At first, he speaker struggles against being confined in the institution, had to be restrained, and she recalls observing that moon as it shone through the bars of the window.

Because of the music that was recorded by her brain, she remembers those specific details, but she has "forgotten all the rest."

Third Versagraph: Still Confused

They lock me in this chair at eight a.m.
and there are no signs to tell the way,
just the radio beating to itself
and the song that remembers
more than I. Oh, la la la,
this music swims back to me.
The night I came I danced a circle
and was not afraid.
Mister?

The speaker reports that every morning at 8:00 o'clock the hospital workers place her in a chair where she must remain, and she remains confused because "there are no signs to tell the way."

She has no place to put her mind or body. She does not know what to do or where to go. She is not aware that she has nowhere to go and no need to.

Still the music from the radio continues to "beat[ ] to itself / and the song that remembers" more than she does. It takes her back again—it is swimming back to her again—reminding her of that first night when she "danced a circle / and was not afraid."

Once again, she addresses, "Mister?"—questioning where she is supposed to go, but this time without further words.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What are the four stages of life of a human being and what purpose are they?

Answer: In religious and philosophical traditions, the lifetime of a human being is often sectioned into the following four stages: (1) childhood, (2) young adulthood, (3) family life, and (4) old age. Each stage prepares the individual for the next succeeding stage.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 17, 2017:

Thank you, Karkye. Yes, Anne Sexton was a rather skillful poet. A bit gloomy at times, but nevertheless quite readable for the most part.

Krakye Omane Poku from Ghana on December 17, 2017:

A really impressive work done on the commentary. The poem too is a great one.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on October 15, 2015:

Thank you, John. Always love finding out that my commentaries are useful to folks! Have a great, blessed day . . .

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on October 15, 2015:

I love this poem by Anne Sexton., your analysis, and the reading. Thank you for sharing.

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