Spotlight on: Anne Sexton, The Ambition Bird

This is something I wrote for my Facebook page a while ago. It came to mind because of a book I found at the library recently, which made this year appear quite promising for poets and poetry, given that it was displayed in bold, at the counter. It was Edward Hirsch’s, ‘100 poems to break your heart.’ I was curious to read his analyses of some American poets that I have come to learn of quite recently, one of them being Anne Sexton. My Facebook post has been edited, to include as well, some of Hirsch’s views, on Sexton’s poetry based on his analysis of another of her poems.

Sometimes, random images can prompt a poem I write, at other times they work as a starting off point to explore the poetry of others. While scrolling through my photo archive I came across a bird house from months earlier, taken at the Van Vleck House and Gardens. It was, as I looked for bird house poems, that I chanced upon the work of Ann Sexton, specifically her poem, ‘The Ambition Bird’ [1]. This of course took me, as is my wont, through an archive of information related to the poem ~ an interesting podcast by the BBC comparing the confessional nature of Sexton’s work to that of Sylvia Plath, both of whom were gifted with the lyricism of language, both had mental illness issues as per the experts, both of whom committed suicide. I find the term confessional poetry, a bit off putting. I believe the inner resonance of a poet seeps into the work as in any creative endeavour but there’s more to a poem than just personal flavour.


Here, I would like to reiterate Simone de Beauvoir’s observation on the female artist, as she explained in her book, ‘The Second Sex’. She believed that the female artist prostitutes herself in the sense that her life is open to scrutiny in her work. Needless to say, another of the artists mentioned in the podcast I listened to [2] was Irish poet, Seamus Heaney and there was very little spoken of his private life, as much as was said of the personal lives of Sexton and Plath, who by the very nature of their words make themselves available to public scrutiny, receive less credit for their poetic technique in comparison and sadly, have many of their poems classified as ‘confessional’ poetry. Another podcast had speakers run the gamut of analyses through situating ‘The Ambition Bird’ in Sexton’s ideas of feminist narrative of the sixties to labeling the words as self sabotaging depression, to revealing childhood abuse, personal melancholia etc.

Edward Hirsch, in the analyses of poems touching sensitive subject matter and in light of his own personal loss, has this to say about the nature of confessional poetry in his preface to the book, that the distinction between the artist of the craft and the narrator, blurs. Yet, he also cites Emily Dickinson’s warning to Thomas Higginson about the representative of the Verse being a supposed person, and not the poet herself. That said, Hirsch did select a poem that would appear strongly confessional in Anne Sexton’s case, as it was about her impending suicide. Her subject matter is dark, soul searching and raw. It is what draws me to her, her unabashed way of looking at death, in this case, her own.

On nomenclature ~100 poems to break your heart by Edward Hirsch
Anne Sexton ~ Wikipedia

Sexton was not educated in any literary tradition [3], she wasn’t an academic but through the dint of her prolific work was part of many schools of poetry. She was born to a well to do family in the USA, attended boarding school, tasted success at an early age and also won the Pulitzer prize. As observed by the the American novelist, Erica Jong, one of Sexton’s earliest champions, who says of her “She is an important poet not only because of her courage in dealing with previously forbidden subjects, but because she can make the language sing”, and “…There are many poets of great talent who never take that talent anywhere … They write poems which any number of people might have written. When Anne Sexton is at the top of her form, she writes a poem which no one else could have written.” That quite summed up Anne Sexton for me.

I have excerpted lines from The Ambition Bird, interpretations are open to the reader, some of the poem deeply resonated with me.

So it has come to this –
insomnia at 3:15 A.M.,
the clock tolling its engine

like a frog following
a sundial yet having an electric
seizure at the quarter hour.

It’s the witching hour Sexton speaks of, an electric seizure of the senses despite being latched on to the cycle of day. The poem contains eight tercets and eight couplets elegantly arranged.

The business of words keeps me awake.
I am drinking cocoa,
the warm brown mama.

I would like a simple life
yet all night I am laying
poems away in a long box.

It is my immortality box,
my lay-away plan,
my coffin.

My Facebook Page and my blog too, are like a Layaway box for all that I wish to come around to later, to later elaborate on the poets I read, having taken the time to digest them while appreciating their language. Haven’t been schooled in the literary tradition either, I feel this helps me understand how people use language that is within no stricture, to generate that which synchronizes with the rhythm of the human pulse. This, her box contains a lay-away plan in poems. It’s an intensity of purpose that Sexton reveals in these lines, the obsession and single mindedness towards creating poems or simply writing. It is also to be the death of her, this pursuit of poetry and in the poem, she contradicts herself in wishing to live a simple life without having to create and write a lay away plan for immortality.

All night dark wings
flopping in my heart.
Each an ambition bird.

The bird wants to be dropped
from a high place like Tallahatchie Bridge.

In here is a mention of a popular suicide at the time the poem was written, so the poem evidently has social pulse. Yet, it’s a stanza that reveals a deep opposition of intent. One that wishes to soar, in unbridled creative outburst and another that indicates exhaustion of spirit, wishing to be dropped into stillness, while feeling that sinking pit in the stomach as the roller coaster swoops one down or when falling from the highest heights. The words speak of a rush associated with risk. It would appear, both methods lead to the same feeling of exultation.

He wants to pierce the hornet’s nest
and come out with a long godhead.

He wants to take bread and wine
and bring forth a man happily floating in the Caribbean.

He wants to be pressed out like a key
so he can unlock the Magi.

He wants to take leave among strangers
passing out bits of his heart like hors d’oeuvres.

Let’s say, I find interesting the analogy to Christ. There’s a miracle to floating in the blue of the Caribbean. The key to the Magi, this I interpret as the unlocking of esoteric knowledge, cosmic secrets, astrology perhaps, learning what cannot be humanly seen or known. It is interesting that she speaks of the Magi and yet, it’s the martyrdom that follows in giving away the heart to the world, in a last supper or an ultimate crucifixion. Isn’t there immortality inherent in this very act that Christ was committed to when the Magi followed a star to Bethlehem? There’s also a self sabotaging factor to Sexton’s Ambition Bird, a self destructiveness that is dangerously risky yet of potent reward like when it pierces a hornet’s nest. Yet, she strips one of the illusion that it could take any less to achieve such immortality, than decimating the heart to feed others.

He wants to light a kitchen match
and immolate himself.

He wants to fly into the hand of Michelangelo
and come out painted on a ceiling.

Contrary to some of the speakers on the podcast, I think this is a poetic expression of unbridled ambition, perhaps recognizable by souls that are driven to achieve greatness in the surpassing of their own talents, by their own measure, their own yardstick. For Sexton, the pinnacle of a purposeful successful ambitious life is akin to the immortality inherent in Michelangelo’s work, like being inscribed in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for posterity. Yet, in the final lines, she speaks of the fatigue or ennui that accompanies overarching ambition, a sense of illusion, fallibility, faithlessness in oneself …

I find here, a deep seated trust in humankind to grant immortality upon achieving an ambition. Sexton places much faith in humanity to award greatness in social validation, human memory. After all, what would be the Sistine Chapel if not made visible in media or reality, to the countless that admire it’s magnificent art. Here, I think her measure of ambition is based in human reality, bereft of the illusions of creating art for the sake of art. I personally hold that, one creates simply for the pleasure of creation, for the flowering of innate potential, yet I am not unaware of what recognition means to artists, be it social or peer validation. People thrive in gregariously sharing their creations, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it makes a better artist of you but it gives the drive to continue your work, this social sanction and visibility which may possibly lead to immortality.

He wants to die changing his clothes
and bolt for the sun like a diamond.

He wants, I want.
Dear God, wouldn’t it be
good enough just to drink cocoa?

I must get a new bird
and a new immortality box.
There is folly enough inside this one.

This is a poem that stands in for an existential crisis for ambition itself, a loss of purpose, a redefining of purpose. Anne Sexton wrote a profound message that many people interpreted as a cry for help, a suicide note among others. I think, it is a poem written by someone who wishes to rethink of ambition as a feat of transcendence and yet, appears harangued from the perspective that is the norm, which is, you are awarded by that which notices you, that only, being the way to immortality. There’s this bird that wants to do the unthinkable, almost antisocial and anti-self in a way, but it involves giving up on life itself .

If I were an astrologer, I would surmise this to be an opposition between two mentoring planets, Venus and Jupiter. to be in between a debilitated Venusian proclivity to wallow in the abysmal and a Jupiterian edict to bolt out there and conquer the world. It isn’t for nothing that Venus and Jupiter are known as Mentor or Acaharya or Guru in Jyotishya or Hindu Astrology, with a decidedly opposing method of teaching lessons to those inclined to learn. For Venus, it is the decimation of illusion, exploring, recreating belief systems while for Jupiter it is the straight, wide, hopeful, ritualistic and dogmatic path. They both seek the highest truth but in decidedly different ways. For those empirically inclined, it simply means an ill performing thyroid gland or a compromised liver, but I digress from poetry 😉

There’s something beautifully vulnerable in imagining ambition the Anne Sexton way; it’s a conflict of conscience, a face off between personal philosophy and what is expected within ones social milieu , nothing a listicle for success will help solve, except for a profound introspection, which in this case the poet has clearly done in writing this brilliant piece ‘The Ambition Bird’.

Edward Hirsch included the poem ‘Wanting to Die’ in his book, ‘100 poems to break your heart’. It is essentially a preparation for suicide by Anne Sexton. I thought to add this, because it gives insight into the inner resonance of Sexton that seeps into the vein of her poetry, gives it an off colour, a shadow of death. It creates fresh perspective on her writing and why not, some are obsessed with life and others with death. The world has many sorts and a place for all.

Wanting to Die ~ Anne Sexton
Wanting to Die ~ Anne Sexton

“But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.”
I found this stanza quite intriguing because the book puts forth the view of Sexton’s biographer, who attested that Sexton wasn’t preparing to self destruct as much as she was investigating into its technique [4]. She had been inspired at the time by Arthur Miller’s new play, ‘After the Fall’, the central character of which was a self destructive sort based on his ex wife, the famous Marilyn Monroe. In the second last stanza, Sexton writes, “Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,” this alludes to the one by Sylvia Plath which had occurred a year earlier. They were apparently known to have shared quite lovingly the details of their first attempt at suicide. Further on in Hirsch’s analysis, her fixation with death, suicide particularly, is an anti poetic stance, an impulse against language. Yet, in her poem, suicides have their own language.

Eleven tercets later, her poem is alive in her wanting to die. She is unhesitant throughout the poem, logically contrived statements and arguments positing her case and yet, like in ‘The Ambition Bird’, death becomes for her an ‘almost ambition’. In the way she describes wanting to die is how she defines aspects of ambition. The bird wishes to immolate himself, the bird wishes to die changing his clothes, yet the bird wishes for immortality. The ambition here perhaps, resides in the absolute control of death.

I have attached the following resources for those of you that may be interested in listening [5] to what one BBC commentator described as the transatlantic drawl of Anne Sexton reading ‘The Ambition Bird’. Also included are links to the entire poem that can be found at the poetry foundation website and an interesting insight into it.




[4]pages 137-141; 100 poems to break your heart by Edward Hirsch

[5]A reading of the poem~