Featured Poem: The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

Fishing Boat

(Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay )

Emily Dickinson once wrote, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.” Now, I am not prone to literary chills, but I do know a thing or two about feeling overwhelmed when one encounters truly wonderful art.

One poem, in particular, never fails to evoke a visceral reaction from me—and that’s The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop. I’ve read this poem so many times, but with each reading, I still find myself inexplicably choked up and teary-eyed. The lines, “He didn’t fight./He hadn’t fought at all,” just gets to me every time.

It’s a beautiful poem rife with riveting imagery and layers of meaning. I can only hope that this analysis will do it some justice.

A Brief Background on Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is one of the most celebrated American poets in history. She began her long and illustrious career in 1946 at the publication of her first book of poems, North & South. The book, which won the Houghton Mifflin Prize for poetry, showcased Bishop’s exceptional writing style—a fine mixture of in-depth and eloquent prose coupled with guarded, almost detached storytelling.

At a time when confessional poetry was on the rise, Bishop stood out as a writer who could write about personal experience while maintaining a certain ‘distance’ from the work. Opting to draw the reader in through meticulous and vivid description, providing visuals so good you can picture and feel the moment, while also maintaining a level of neutrality and objectivity in the narrative. This is something we see clearly in one of her most well-known works, The Fish.

Style and Tone

Written in free verse and first-person, The Fish consists of seventy-six lines. While the poem itself is highly descriptive, each line is made deliberately brief, allowing the eye to linger and process the details of the poem and the intricacies of the fish’s anatomy. The narrator somehow fades into the background. Though it is her voice that we hear and her actions that set the scene—I caught/I thought/I looked/I admired/I saw/I stared/I let the fish go—there is undeniable impartiality to her tone.

We are left to infer how the persona feels about the fish and why she would let such a prize catch swim away. I believe this is intentional. By maintaining some level of distance, our narrator allows us to focus on the fish and to commiserate with its plight. We are given the opportunity to put ourselves in the fisherwoman’s shoes. To see through her eyes why this fish is different, why it deserves to live, without overtly directing us to the answer.

The occasional dash provides an even bigger pause point for the reader, conveying the natural cadence and interruptions of a person’s speech and thought, or rather, afterthought process. This, along with Bishop’s use of alliteration (backed, packed/breathing in, terrible oxygen/caught, fought), repetition (wallpaper, gills, rusted, and rainbow), and internal rhymes, creates a rhythmic and almost musical reading experience.

Further analysis of The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

The poem begins with a straightforward statement—I caught a tremendous fish. In a way, it almost sounds like a brag. It’s as if the persona is telling us with pride that this is a special fish, a prize catch. She goes through the motions of pulling the fish up to reel it into her boat. Then, the tone quickly shifts and slides into mild confusion. He didn’t fight./He hadn’t fought at all.

Now, the reader doesn’t need to be a seasoned fisherman/woman to understand that this isn’t normal behavior for caught fish. Normally, a fish would instinctively thrash and resist its being pulled out of water. But this fish was different. He simply hung a grunting weight, as if it were resigned to its fate. The lack of fight in the fish pushes the fisherwoman to closely inspect her catch.

She first notices its age. This fish was no youngling. She describes the fish as being battered, venerable, and homely, with brown skin like ancient wallpaper, speckled with barnacles and even infested with sea-lice. Notice the curious word she uses to describe the fish—venerable, which means esteemed and revered. Somehow, in her observations, the tone had shifted to awe. Even as she speaks of its frightening gills, its coarse white flesh packed in like feathers, its shiny entrails, and eyes that don’t look so much as simply tip into the light, the persona has already begun to identify with the fish. To see it, not as a catch, but as a living, breathing being, much like herself.

It is when the persona begins to admire the fish’s jaw—grim, weaponlike, but also aching—that Bishop heavily hints at the deciding factor for the fisherwoman—why she let the fish go. In painful detail, she describes the five old pieces of fish-line embedded firmly in the fish’s mouth. She likens them to medals or a five-haired beard of wisdom, thereby conjuring images of a weathered warrior or veteran. This was a fish who had fought time and again for its survival. The fact that it seemed to have finally given up now doesn’t make the realization less poignant. If anything, it heightens the relatability of this poor, battered creature. (For who among us haven’t felt bogged down and beaten by life at times?)

In that shining moment, the fish ceases to simply be somebody’s trophy or the catch of the day. The persona sees it for what it really is—a survivor. A creature that deserves her respect, admiration, and mercy. She identifies with the fish, for its story is a lot like that of mankind’s. A long and painful struggle to stay alive.

Bishop describes this moment of realization as something overwhelming. She writes about how spilt oil, a common occurrence in fishing boats, transforms into something spectacular—Rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! The moment is so powerful that the persona finds herself unable to do anything but bow to this newfound awareness and simply let the fish go.

The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
And held him beside the boat
Half out of water with my hook
Fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
Battered and venerable
And homely. Here and there
His brown skin hung in strips
Like ancient wallpaper,
And its pattern of darker brown
Was like wallpaper:
Shapes like full-blown roses
Stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
Fine rosettes of lime,
And infested
With tiny white sea-lice,
And underneath two or three
Rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
The terrible oxygen
–the frightening gills,
Fresh and crisp with blood,
That can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
Packed in like feathers,
The big bones and the little bones,
The dramatic reds and blacks
Of his shiny entrails,
And the pink swim-bladder
Like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
Which were far larger than mine
But shallower, and yellowed,
The irises backed and packed
With tarnished tinfoil
Seen through the lenses
Of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
To return my stare.
–It was more the tipping
Of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
The mechanism of his jaw,
And then I saw
That from his lower lip
–if you could call it a lip—
Grim, wet, and weaponlike,
Hung five old pieces of fish-line,
Or four and a wire leader
With the swivel still attached,
With all their five big hooks
Grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
Where he broke it two heavier lines,
And a fine black thread
Still crimped from the strain and snap
When it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
Frayed and wavering,
A five-haired beard of wisdom
Trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
And victory filled up
The little rented boat,
From the pool of bilge
Where oil had spread a rainbow
Around the rusted engine
To the bailer rusted orange,
The sun-cracked thwarts,
The oarlocks and the strings,
The gunnels—until everything
Was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

Featured Poem: Love after Love by Derek Walcott

Love After Love

Love After Love by Derek Walcott

The time will come

When, with elation

You will greet yourself arriving

At your own door, in your own mirror

And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

And say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored

For another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

The photographs, the desperate notes,

Peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

 

Diane Von Furstenberg once said, “You’re always with yourself, so you might as well enjoy the company.” The advice seems simple and logical enough. But how many of us actually find comfort in being alone? How many of us can safely say that we are whole and happy, just as we are, outside of a relationship?

Self-love, for so long, has been regarded as a negative trait associated with self-absorption and selfishness. For centuries, the idea of loving someone has meant an emptying of one’s self, a relinquishment of the ego. Society has drilled in us the idea that the highest form of love is one that is rooted in self-denial and sacrifice.

But the conversation is changing. Nowadays, mental health and productivity experts are extolling self-care and self-acceptance, both of which are necessary aspects of loving oneself, as being integral to a person’s growth and well-being. While compromise, compassion, and respect are still considered as cornerstones to a successful relationship, it is just as important for a person to retain a healthy sense of self.

Loving someone should never mean losing one’s entire self in the process. For when that love is gone and past, as most loves tend to go, if one has given up everything in pursuit of that fleeting romance—however sweet or long or passion-filled it may have been—what then is left for the brokenhearted?

Today’s featured poem, Love After Love by Derek Walcott, aims to answer that question. Now, I first stumbled upon this gem while doing research for a 2017 post on The Most Romantic Poems of All Time. Suffice to say, it’s been one of my favorite poems ever since.

First seen in Walcott’s 1976 poetry collection, Sea Grapes, Love After Love is a poem that stays true to its title. It talks about the love that you find at the end of a relationship. It reminds you of the importance of loving and accepting your self—the person so worthy of your love, which you have forgotten while in pursuit of the love of another. Through gentle instruction, it reassures the reader that however bad things may get, however broken your heart may be, things will be okay. You will be whole again.

Written in free verse and following the natural cadence of speech, the poem eschews traditional structure and rhyme. It opts, instead, to present its message of self-acceptance and recognition through the simple but effective imagery of coming home and ‘feasting on one’s life.’

Love After Love also puts emphasis on certain areas of the work through clever line breaks, which force the reader to stop and ruminate on the layers of meaning found in the text. By using a gentle and advising tone, Walcott walks the reader through the process of finding one’s ‘forgotten self.’

First Stanza

The poem begins with the image of a homecoming. Now, we’re all familiar with the saying, ‘Home is where the heart is.’ This idea of a return to one’s roots and an acceptance and appreciation of one’s past is a concept frequently used in literature, music, and film. But in Derek Walcott’s Love After Love, this homecoming is a metaphor used to represent rediscovering one’s self.

Walcott begins the poem with the line, ‘The time will come,’ as if to acknowledge that this self-rediscovery isn’t going to be a quick process. But the use of the word elation, coupled with the final line where ‘each will smile at the other’s welcome,’ reassures the reader that however long this process may take, ultimately, it’s one that will yield a positive and a necessary reunion.

Throughout the work, Walcott also uses the future tense will, expressing a solid certainty in his words. ‘The time will come,’ ‘You will greet yourself arriving/ at your own door,’ and most tellingly, ‘You will love again the stranger who was your self.’ (Notice the break between your and self—once again an emphasis of how we tend to forget ourselves when in a relationship with another.)

Second Stanza

In the second stanza, the persona instructs the reader to ‘sit and eat.’ He urges the reader to ‘Give wine,’ and ‘Give bread,’ as if to partake in some eucharistic meal with and of one’s self. Now, the Eucharist or the Holy Communion is a Christian sacrament that hearkens back to the Last Supper where Jesus had instructed his apostles to eat bread and drink wine, symbols of the body and blood that He would give up for mankind.

Now, while Walcott may not have been referring to Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice in these lines, what he is asking the reader to do is to partake in himself/herself. To take in one’s self and be whole again. To solidify this point, he follows this verse with, ‘Give back your heart/ to itself, to the stranger who has loved you.”

Third Stanza

By the third stanza, Walcott drives the point home of how this stranger, one’s forgotten self, is also deserving of the reader’s love and care. For the stranger is one ‘who has loved you/ all your life, whom you ignored for another.’ This stranger is the one that knows the reader ‘by heart.’

These simple but comforting words are there to remind its readers that no matter how alone, unloved, or broken we may feel, we are whole and loved. We must only remember to accept and love ourselves too. And while this poem may have been written for people still recovering from a bad break up, I find that it’s one that applies to those of us who are in loving relationships too. It’s a reminder to love and love freely, and yes, love completely, but not to the degree that you lose all sense of self in the process.

Final Stanza

 

And lastly, as if the previous lines weren’t enough to act as the light at the end of a long tunnel, Walcott continues to bring a dose of positivity to one’s experiences—no matter how harrowing they may have seemed at their onset and immediate aftermath. The persona tells the reader to ‘Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,/ the photographs, the desperate notes.’ This is an invitation to remember, to accept, and to appreciate all the moments of one’s life. For as heartbreaking as some of these memories may be, these moments are what makes us who we are. These are what will allow us to finally, peel our own images from the mirror, to accept ourselves as we are and become whole again.

As a parting message, Love After Love leaves us with the immortal line—“Sit. Feast on your life.” An unspoken reassurance that yours is a life worth loving and celebrating.

 

Featured Poem: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

Are moving across the landscapes,

Over the prairies and the deep trees,

The mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

Are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

Over and over announcing your place

In the family of things.

(1986, Dream Work)

Last January 17, the world lost one of its brightest and finest literary luminaries. At 83, the National Book Award- and Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver passed away at her home in Florida. Oliver was undeniably one of the most well-loved and influential poets of the last century. She was also an incredible rarity; a titan of literature who enjoyed both commercial and critical success throughout her lifetime.

Oliver was an exceedingly skilled and introspective poet. Her poems often garnered favorable comparisons with the works of the legendary Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson, Oliver had no qualms delving deep into the human psyche. She would use sharp and beautiful imagery that often featured the elements of nature to help illustrate mankind’s unbreakable connection to his environment.

Now, Mary Oliver’s extensive literary repertoire is stock-full of stellar poems. But for this post, I’d like to feature a piece that’s very close to my heart. It was a gift from a treasured friend, (hi, Lauren!), and is one that I keep coming back to. Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese is one of those poems that hold in their words a wellspring of wisdom and meaning. It’s one that gives me immeasurable comfort when I’m feeling down and inspires introspection when I’m stuck in a rut. At the risk of sounding cheesy, to me, Wild Geese is an effective balm for the overthinking mind. A much-needed breather we all can use once in a while.

An Analysis of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”

In Wild Geese, Oliver demonstrates her keen understanding of man’s restless pursuit of purpose and innate sense of displacement. She urges the reader to look to nature for the answers to his/her unspoken questions. Written in simple verse, the poem is both an easy and comforting read.

Now, in terms of structure, there’s really not much to dissect here. Wild Geese is written in freestyle with eighteen lines and a single stanza. It’s devoid of rhymes and reads more like advice from a wise friend rather than a traditional poem that begs for translation or analysis. But don’t let its simplicity and straightforwardness fool you. For what Wild Geese may lack in grammatical or structural complexity, it certainly makes up for in depth and impact.

Now, one of the things I love most about Wild Geese is its incredibly strong and unforgettable first line—You do not have to be good. As far as first lines go, that one is pretty golden. In my opinion, it ticks a lot of boxes. What do I mean by this? Well, by using the word You, Oliver is both able to command the reader’s attention while establishing both an atmosphere of intimacy and urgency in the work. It’s almost as if the line tells you, “hey, listen for a moment. This is important and this is for you.”

And then there’s the actual message—You do not have to be good. It’s a bit unsettling, isn’t it? A little left-field and off-kilter. First off, the line carries a certain level of gravitas that you usually find in the middle or at the end of a, particularly poignant piece. It’s almost in media res, as if you blinked and suddenly found yourself already in the middle of an existing and serious existential conversation. And then the line sinks in and it’s strange advice. Almost as if the poem is urging you to unlearn one of the first lessons you’re taught in school and at home—be good/do good.

The rest of the stanza continues in this vein, before culminating into solid advice:

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves.

I could be over-reading, but in this humble reader’s opinion, the words good and repent, and the image of walking on one’s knees through the desert, seem suffused with religious subtext. It might be the Catholic in me, but to be good and to repent for one’s sins are basic moral requirements of the faith. As for the kneeling, it seems to suggest both worship—an acquiescence and prostration to some societal/moral/religious higher power—and penance for sinning, which if you think about it, aren’t most of the seven deadly sins essentially products of giving in to our baser “animal instincts?” And then you have the final two lines of that stanza—“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

I’m 150% sure that Mary Oliver isn’t encouraging us to throw all mores and scruples to the wind and to lead sinful and meaningless lives. But I do believe that she’s telling us that if we want to be happy, we need to shrug off any and all unrealistic and irrational expectations and demands that society may have of us. We need to trust our own judgment and instincts to define and direct our lives.

To illustrate, I sincerely believe that there is “being a good person” and then there’s society’s idea of what being a good person (woman, wife, mother, daughter, son, husband, father, etc.) would entail. And the very notion of ‘good’ being somewhat subjective allows for its multitude of definitions and descriptions. As the definition of good expands, so too does its conditions and caveats—and sometimes, these caveats are antiquated or have very little to do with the notion of good itself. So, why then, do we have to be burdened by outdated, irrelevant, and unhelpful societal expectations? Through Wild Geese, Mary Oliver tells us, “It’s okay. Go ahead and drop that ball.” Pretty darn good advice, if you ask me.

Now, apart from urging us to unburden ourselves of society’s demands, Mary Oliver also encourages us to look to Nature for comfort and guidance. As we fret and fuss over the direction of our lives, as we lie awake at night feeling anxious about the future and feeling so very alone, as we go through the numerous human crises that will plague us in one lifetime—identity, quarter life, midlife, late life, etc.—

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

Are moving across the landscapes,

Over the prairies and the deep trees,

The mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

Are heading home again.

Through this beautifully written passage, Oliver encourages us to find comfort in nature. See how its many elements and creatures remain unperturbed—absolutely sure of their place in this earth. Like the wild geese, we are called to “head home” back into nature. To regain our appreciation and sense of awe when faced with its wild beauty and undeniable order. There is no need to be lonely, because as Oliver reassures us, we are not alone. We are a part of something bigger.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

Over and over announcing your place

In the family of things.

 

Featured Poem: Homage to My Hips by Lucille Clifton

In a world so determined to dictate its standards onto one’s person, it’s always refreshing to find literary works—essays, poems, short stories, and novels—that encourage the celebration of one’s individuality. And if said works could be both empowering and entertaining, then all the better.

For over a decade, my ‘feel-good poem’ has been Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman. It’s a poem that I like to write down in all my journals. That way, if I was having a lousy day and needed a quick pick-me-up, all I had to do was reach into my bag and give the piece a swift read. Instant mood and confidence boost! But now that my current journal is down to its final pages, I’m thinking that for my next one, Maya Angelou’s famous poem will have to learn to share the spotlight. See, I think I’ve found the perfect accompanying piece to Phenomenal Woman, and that’s Homage to My Hips by Lucille Clifton.

Homage to My Hips

By Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips.

they need space to

move around in.

they don’t fit into little

petty places. these hips

are free hips.

they don’t like to be held back.

these hips have never been enslaved,

they go where they want to go

they do what they want to do.

these hips are mighty hips.

i have known them

to put a spell on a man and

spin him like a top.

Just like Phenomenal Woman, Homage to My Hips is a poem that’s built to be said out loud in a tone oozing with sass, good humor, confidence, and cocksure conviction. It’s a piece that positively thrums with joy. Just watch how Lucille Clifton delivers it, and tell me that you didn’t crack at least one smile throughout her reading.

Much like Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman, Homage to My Hips is a celebration of womanhood. It is a poem that urges women to take ownership of their bodies—to love themselves, just as they are. Big hips and all.

Now, at first glance, the poem itself appears to be very straightforward. So straightforward, in fact, that Clifton cannot be bothered with capitalizations and multitudes of metaphors, flowery language and line breaks that are pregnant with meaning. The poet knows what she wants to say and says it directly to her audience. She leaves no room for argument or even the possibility of discussion. She says everything as fact—and rightfully so. Who better to know the effects of one’s body than its wearer?

Clifton starts the poem with the simple but effective declaration: these hips are big hips. Now, even in 1980, when the poem was published in Clifton’s award-winning book of poems, Two-Headed Woman, big hips weren’t exactly de rigueur. In fact, the body ideal during this period had just begun shifting from the soft and slight curves of the 1970s dancing queens to the leggy and athletic Amazonian proportions of the 1980s supermodels.

During that period, there was hardly any room for women with big, bold hips in fashion magazines. But that didn’t really matter to Clifton. See, her hips need space to move around in. Her hips don’t fit into little petty places. She wasn’t about to let anyone tell her that her how her body was supposed to look like, because her hips are free hips. Those are hips that were never enslaved by something as petty as convention or the standards of fashion. She didn’t care about measuring herself by anyone else’s specifications—and why would she, when she had her own yardstick to measure herself against. She knew perfectly well that her big hips were mighty and magical hips, powerful hips that have put a spell on a man and spin him like a top.

Now, it’s interesting to note how Clifton had zeroed in and written an homage about a very specific body part. It begs the question, (for this reader, at least), of Why the hips? If Clifton’s point was to urge women to celebrate their bodies as a way of celebrating their entire selves—for, really, try as we may to separate the physical from the spiritual/mental, our bodies are the tangible representations of our inner selves—why stop with that one bit? Why not talk about breasts, waists, hands, and so on and so forth?

For example, in Phenomenal Woman, Maya Angelou enumerated and exalted in the reach of her arms, the span of her hips, the bend of her hair, and even the curl of her hips. In doing so, Angelou had painted a complete portrait of a woman. You could imagine this phenomenal woman and slip into her shoes easily. And to be fair, the same could be said about Lucille Clifton’s big hips. Any woman could identify with, wear, and sashay in those hips. And I guess that’s what makes Homage to My Hips so amazing—and maybe that’s also the answer to my previous question.

Why the hips? It’s because much of a woman’s identity in history is actually tied to her hips. Maybe I’m over-reading or overreaching here, but the way I see it is that the hips are home to what a lot of writers like to refer to as the woman’s core. Personally, I think vagina works just fine, but potatoes, po-tah-tos. The hips are the center of a woman’s sexuality. And for a long time, what those hips could produce—a child!—was also seen as the largest measure of her worth and her identity. Why else would our ancestors be so obsessed with child-bearing hips?

And I’d like to believe that the poem, more than celebrating a woman’s form, whatever that form or shape may take, is also a way of urging women to take charge of their sexuality and their identity. Buck the body trends, and more importantly, create your own definition of who you are as a woman. Don’t let society impose its standards on your person. Instead, create, and more importantly, live your own story.

That, and of course, big hips (no matter their actual size) are fabulous and beautiful hips.

Featured Poem: Her Kind by Anne Sexton

Her Kind

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.

Continue reading

Featured Poem: Woman to Man by Ai

Powerful, violent, gritty, gut-wrenching, and polarizing—these are just some of the words that come to mind when I think of Ai Ogawa’s poetry. The narrative poet is known for her short and intense dramatic monologues, her chilling offerings of a slice of someone else’s life. The fact that her poems are also told in first person narrative allows both Ai and the reader to step into her characters’ shoes. And bear in mind that these shoes are far from comfortable.

When Ai chooses her characters, she does so from the most marginalized and disenfranchised groups in the country—the outsiders, the downtrodden, the forgotten, the racially profiled, and the voiceless. She probes and exposes the underbelly of American culture and society, choosing to write about ‘taboo’ topics like abortion, child abuse, murder, and spousal abuse. Ai then, gifts her narrator with a voice so violent and so strong the reader cannot unhear it. The echo of her stories stick with you and into you like invisible needles, long after you’ve forgotten the actual words.

Now, for today’s poetry review, we’re doing an analysis of the poem, Woman to Man. The poem was first published in 1973 in Cruelty, Ai’s first collection of poetry. When Cruelty first came out, it did so in the midst of the second wave of feminism, and in the same year, the National Black Feminist Organization was founded.

Continue reading

The Most Romantic Poems of All Time (Part 2)

lovepoems2

Here’s the continuation to my post on the most romantic poems of all time. Again, in no particular order, another ten love poems guaranteed to make you a little weak in the knees.

To My Dear and Loving Husband by Anne Bradstreet

I prize thy love more than the whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

This short poem from Anne Bradstreet reads like a beautiful and passionate love letter. The poet talks about the intense happiness one can derive from being with the person one loves. The persona also claims that her esteem for her husband is eternal—for it is the type of love that can never be surpassed. It is his love alone that can satisfy her. She also expresses tremendous gratitude to her husband for this life-changing and immortal love.

Meeting at Night by Robert Browning

A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each.

In my previous post, I had included Sonnet 43 (How do I love thee) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This time around, we have an entry from her husband, Robert Browning. Meeting at Night speaks of a rendezvous between lovers. More accurately, it talks about the persona’s journey to his lover’s place and the excitement they feel upon seeing each other.

At the start of the poem, the persona describes what he sees and experiences without disclosing his intended destination. It is only in the last two sentences that we realize it is a joyful and somewhat secret reunion between him and his loved one (tap of the pane, quick sharp scratch).

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;

Here’s a small confession from this reader—I can’t quite decide if this ‘love poem’ is sweet or not, but what I know is that its persona is persistent. To His Coy Mistress, a poem published posthumously in 1681, is one of the most well-known poems from Andrew Marvell. In it, the persona is in pursuit of his ‘coy mistress.’ He starts the poem declaring the breadth and depth of his love for her and then attempts to convince her to give in to his seduction by presenting the rather harsh imagery of death. He asks her to love him before it’s too late for both of them. Sweet or not, this poem earns high points for its morbid persistence.

Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

More sad than sweet, Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe explores the theme of a love that continues even after death. The poem, which is about the death of a beautiful woman, is believed to have been inspired by Poe’s own loss. His wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, was just 24 years old when she succumbed to a bout of consumption.

In the poem, the persona remembers and relives the loss of his beloved. They had been in love as children, and had maintained a love so strong that even the angels were envious of their happiness. The angels then sent down a wind that chilled and killed the beautiful Annabel Lee. Despite her death, the persona insists that their love remains strong; for nothing could ever sever his soul from the soul of Annabel Lee.

A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luv thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

A Red, Red Rose was written by Robert Burns in 1794. Despite actually being a song and not a poem, its lyrics and consistent publication in literary sites has landed it a place in my top 20 love poems list. With its charming imagery of red roses in June and rocks melting in the sun, the poem depicts the sweetness of true and lasting love.

I Loved You First: but Afterwards Your Love by Christina Rossetti

For verily love knows not ‘mine’ or ‘thine’;
With separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’ free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:

In I loved you first: but afterwards your love, Christina Rossetti writes about the oneness that comes with being in a relationship with the right person. The persona addresses her lover directly, confessing that while she may have loved him first, it was his love that outsoared hers. But ultimately, there is no need for “weights and measures,” for as Rossetti puts it:

Rich love knows nought of ‘thine that is not mine’;
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one.

 A Glimpse by Walt Whitman

…And I unremark’d seated in a corner;
Of a youth who loves me, and whom I love, silently approaching, and
Seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand;

True to its name, A Glimpse by Walt Whitman reads like a beautiful scene from your favorite romance novel. Just one moment of sheer happiness and contentment as the rest of the world continues its hustle and bustle, its flurry of movement. One scene of love immortalized in time.

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sonnet 18, alternatively titled as Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, is perhaps the most well-loved of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. In the poem, the persona addresses his lover and compares his beloved to a lovely summer’s day. But ultimately, he points out that his dearest is fairer and more everlasting than the short season, beautiful as summertime may be. His words also prove prophetic when he claims that his beloved will be immortalized through this text, as both Shakespeare and Sonnet 18 have become a permanent fixtures in the ever-evolving literary landscape.

That I Did Always Love by Emily Dickinson

That I did always love
I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived—Enough—

Fact: Emily Dickinson is one of the finest (and most eccentric) poets to have walked the earth. Also a fact: with her unique use of syntax and capitalizations, her poems are shrouded in an esoteric curtain that begs to be lifted. Well, perhaps more than a curtain, each work is an onion that begs to be peeled layer by layer. Now, the beauty of That I Did Always Love is its rawness and straightforwardness.

Through this poem, she proves to her beloved that she has always loved him. She tells him, almost directly between her em dashes, that what gives life meaning is love, and that should he doubt her love for him then she would feel nothing but immense suffering.

Love After Love by Derek Walcott

You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored

 And finally, rounding up this list is Love after Love by Sir Derek Walcott. Dare I say it? This is probably my favorite love poem of all—for it is a love poem for one’s self. In this poem, the persona talks to the reader directly and reminds the reader that when everyone else is gone, there is one other person that deserves your love—yourself.

It is easy enough to forget oneself when in love. We give and we give and we empty ourselves in the hopes of reciprocity. But in the midst of a whirlwind or a soft and lingering love affair, it is important to once in a while, “Sit. [and] Feast on your life.”

(See Part I of The Most Romantic Poems of All Time)