Back in college, quite some time ago, there was this little game I used to play called “100 steps.” I would pace around the university library, meandering through the maze of towering shelves, one hand lightly touching the fabric, paper, and leather spines of the books I would walk past. I would mentally count each step, only stopping on the hundredth mark. Then, I’d pull out and peruse whatever tome I ended up touching last. Not the most fun game around, sure. But it was a great way to find new and interesting reads.
Through this little game, I learned quite a bit about a variety of random but fascinating topics. We’re talking South American courtship practices, the history of polygamy, modern-day bigamy, and my personal favorite—the rise of eating disorders in women during the Victorian era. This little practice also made it easier for me to discover amazing poets like Dorothy Parker, Maya Angelou, and the genius behind today’s featured poem, the controversial and unforgettable Anne Sexton.
A Few Words on the Poet
Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was a Pulitzer-winning American poet known for her incredibly potent and oftentimes dark verse. Like my favorite poet of all time, Sylvia Plath, most of Sexton’s works comprised of confessional poetry that touched on difficult and deeply personal themes like mental disorders, suicide, depression, social stigmas, the struggles faced by women during that period, and the complex and sometimes scarring relationships between the writer and her loved ones.
And just like Plath, Sexton had no trouble mining, exhuming, examining, and using her experiences to say what was generally unsayable. No topic appeared taboo to Sexton—although she did request that The Awful Rowing Toward God be published only after her death. And she really did have a very deep well of experiences to draw from. Throughout her short life—sadly shortened by her own hands, no less—Sexton struggled against multiple episodes of severe manic and depressive attacks.
It was during her second spiral into mania in 1955 that she met her therapist, Dr. Martin Orne. During their therapy sessions, Dr. Orne began encouraging Sexton to take up writing. The poet attended John Holmes’s poetry workshop, where it was discovered that she had an incredible knack for poetry. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Her Kind: A Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis
Anne Sexton’s famous poem, Her Kind, explores the struggles of its persona to conform to the societal expectations and norms levied against women during the early to mid-20th century. During this period, women were expected to live a certain way—to grow up to be future wives, mothers, and homemakers, with little wiggle room to be anything else. In other words, a woman’s path was paved but incredibly narrow, bright but harshly lit, with a lobotomy waiting at the end of it. But the voice of Her Kind is unwilling, or maybe even unable, to minimize herself to fit the strict confines of society’s definition of woman. She cannot and will not be boxed in.
Now, to illustrate the character’s defiance, Sexton divides the poem into three sections, with each stanza showing a specific side of the persona. In the first stanza, the persona presents herself as a lonesome suburban witch. The next stanza, she’s a lonely housewife or mother. And finally, in the last stanza, the persona paints herself as a defiant adulteress about to face her execution. Written in the first person, Her Kind reads more like a declaration of self, an affirmation of identity, rather than a simple retelling of the character’s life. It is the persona’s rebellion against the dictates of a society seeking to restrict her identity by telling her who, what, and how to be.
First Stanza: the Solitary Witch
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 stanza, the persona talks about being a possessed witch. It’s an interesting use of the word possessed. The word implies a lack of choice, a need to act a certain way. Possessed hints at the persona’s inability to turn away from her deepest desires and basest cravings. And yet, despite this helplessness, the witch has a keen enough sense of self-preservation to haunt the streets at night. She confesses she is “braver at night;” out of sight and hidden from the public’s judgmental eyes.
With the way the houses are described in the poem—“plain houses, light by light”—it is easy to imagine a suburban setting where sameness is not so much a suggestion as it is a requirement. And going with that idea, one can see why the witch must remain hidden and solitary. It is a matter of survival. It must also be pointed out that even among witches, the persona considers herself an oddity. Twelve-fingered, she is a freak, banished into solitude and struggling to maintain her sanity.
She goes on to say that a woman like her “is not a woman, quite.” She is a misfit. Not a woman, at least not the type of cookie-cutter woman that society expects her to be. She is lonely. And yet, despite seeing herself as the ultimate outcast, she knows there are others like her. As the persona puts it, “I have been her kind.”
Second Stanza: the Lonely Mother/Homemaker
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.
In the second stanza, the persona describes herself as a miserable housewife making her home in the inhospitable caves of the woods. She makes ‘home’ out of nothing, taking on the task of populating the house with all the requirements of docile domesticity. She hangs up her skillets, mounts her shelves, fills them with carvings, hangs up her silks in her closets. All the innumerable (material) goods that turn house into home. She does what is expected of her—quietly assuming the roles of wife and mother.
She cares for her young. Fixing suppers for the helpless worms and elves in a move reminiscent to how Snow White established order in the seven dwarves’ lives and dwelling. The housewife appears to be a natural at all this, solving all problems within her makeshift kingdom with robotic resourcefulness.
And yet she claims that “A woman like that is misunderstood.” For while everything at surface level may appear fine and orderly, inside she experiences an inner tumult borne out of loneliness. A housewife with no one to turn to, the poem’s persona has also been her kind.
Third Stanza: the Defiant Adulteress
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.
And finally, in the last stanza, the persona dons the cap of the adulteress on her way to her own execution. “I have ridden in your cart, driver, | Waved my nude arms at the villages going by.” The persona makes her stand. She is subjected to medieval torture methods—the flames biting her thighs, the wheels winding ‘til her ribs crack. And yet, despite all the hardships sent her way, she keeps her head held high. She knows only too well the stigma and the crueler punishment that awaits women who have committed adultery. When it comes to this particular ‘sin,’ oftentimes a harsher sentence is levied against the fairer sex.
This, the persona knows. This, she accepts. As she says in the poem’s penultimate line, “A Woman like that is not ashamed to die.” And for the final time, she repeats the one line that ties all the poem’s stanzas together—“I have been her kind.”
Solidarity in Solitude: I have been her kind
Through her poem, Her Kind, Anne Sexton gives voice and gravity to the experiences and the lives of women outside what has been afforded to them. She reassures her readers that as lonely as they may feel, they are anything but alone. As Sexton assures her readers, “I have been her (your) kind.”