John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and other ductile conversations

Source: WIkipedia
Tracing of an engraving of the “Sosibios Vase”, a Neo-Attic (Hellenistic style of sculpture that began in the 2nd Century B.C.E.) marble volute krater (Vase used for the dilution of wine with water in Ancient Greece), signed by Sosibios (a Greek Sculptor), by John Keats, as he saw it in Henry Moses’s “A Collection of Antique Vases, Altars, Paterae” [2]

It was in May 1819 that John Keats probably wrote his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” published anonymously in the art magazine, the Annals of Fine Arts in January1820. This is a modern and original Ekphrasis based on his interpretation of a Grecian Urn. Keats, the Romantic poet, had access to prints of Grecian Urns at the office of Benjamin Robert Haydon, a British painter who specialised in grand historical pictures. His poem is also said to have been partly inspired by the Sosibios Vase [1] I revisited this poem today, since I wished to attempt an ekphrastic exercise based on a photo I took recently of a ductile cast iron trench grate. It was the word ductile that provoked me to photograph it in the first place, having had no prior knowledge of grates except that I am impressed by their solidity. I have a strong affinity for iron; my kitchen is testament to this, replete with cast iron pots, woks, griddles and skillets. 

” A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness; ” wrote John Keat in his “from Endymion” [3] I have always admired trench grates, the beauty in their form, the markings on them, delighted as I am to see many of those along the streets and avenues in Manhattan sport stamps of ‘Made in India’. This was an attempt to redeem the solidity of that which bears the tread of a million embodied souls. Trench grates are made of gray cast iron, ductile cast iron and cast aluminium. Ductile cast iron is in fact excellent in areas where there is fairly heavy load. They are able to withstand sudden shock by bending and absorbing extreme or sudden impact. They also exhibit corrosive resistance and are able to outlive the very pavements they are set into. Load strength is in the grate itself [4]. Now, an ‘Ode’ is a fairly elaborate lyric poem, with strict form and structure, exalting in praise an event or an entity. I thought of writing an Ode to the Ductile Cast Iron Grate besides an analysis of Keats’ poem.

Ductile cast iron grate


Keats created his own ode to scenes that he imagined painted on a Grecian Urn. His ode is to figures that appear immortal to him on this ancient artifact, that are in fact imprisoned in a moment. His poem isn’t like a Greek Ode, with its rigid strophe, antistrophe, and epode. In his own unique style, it is made up of five stanzas of ten lines each, employing iambic pentameter, the rhyming scheme of ABAB, with the final Miltonic Sestet (1st and 5th stanzas CDEDCE, 2nd stanza CDECED, and 3rd and 4th stanzas CDECDE) varying through the stanzas [5] The first four lines reveal an adherence to classical symmetry in poetry and the next six are of the asymmetry in Romantic Poetry. Some of the literary devices he used are syzygy, metaphor, apostrophe, rhetorical questions, paradox and alliteration. This is what Walter Jackson Bate wrote in his”The Stylistic Development of Keats”,  about Keats’ poetic style: Keats’s metre reflects a conscious development in his poetic style. The poem contains only a single instance of medial inversion (the reversal of an iamb in the middle of a line), which was common in his earlier works. However, Keats incorporates spondees in 37 of the 250 metrical feet. Caesurae are never placed before the fourth syllable in a line. The word choice represents a shift from Keats’s early reliance on Latinate polysyllabic words to shorter, Germanic words. In the second stanza, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, which emphasizes words containing the letters “p”, “b”, and “v”, uses syzygy, the repetition of a consonantal sound. The poem incorporates a complex reliance on assonance, which is found in very few English poems. Within “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, an example of this pattern can be found in line 13 (“Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d”) where the “e” of “sensual” connects with the “e” of “endear’d” and the “ea” of “ear” connects with the “ea” of “endear’d”.[1a]  I had to read this thrice to understand the meaning of medial inversion and then I pondered if Keats stuttered his way through spondees, then he may have never been able to write “Ode on a Grecian Urn” without it possibly disintegrating to pieces in his mind, what with his lungs struggling for breath and all. Is it any wonder that I chose a Ductile Iron Trench Grate for my Ekphrasis ! In any case, I do appreciate them both, the artist that builds/creates and the academic that parses it out.

Keats ends his ode with the famous lines, “beauty is truth; truth, beauty – that is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know”, which according to some begs the question of the relationship between the aesthetic beauty of art and the ethical truth of poetry. Plato in his ‘The Republic’ argues that “the illusions of artwork may be so convincing that they are mistaken for the real thing, and this is potentially dangerous.” Ekphrasis, operating as writing for art, also exists in the knowledge of failure that the poet can never appropriate all of the nuances and meaning that the artist may have communicated in his/her work, and, perhaps even more dangerous, is that the poet may attribute his/her own meaning or dialogue to the work of art, which therefore may distort the viewer’s opinion of the work of art [6] Do we not all subscribe to the third century proverb “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” that first appeared printed in “Love’s Labor’s Lost by William Shakespeare” published in 1588 as,

“Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean,
Needs not the painted flourish of your praise:
Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,
Not utter’d by base sale of chapmen’s tongues.” [7]


As for authorship and how a poet construes meaning from artwork in an ekphrastic exercise, I would feel the world appears to revolve around borrowed opinions, rehashed aphorisms placed there by our own subjectivity within echo chambers. What of truth except that, like beauty, patterns of truth too are wrought about by the judgement of the eye. Each of us feels the truth a different way. Sometimes, I think the entire objective of my writing is to view the world like one would view the stars, from the equator, the tropics of Cancer or Capricorn or the poles and the truth would simply appear different each time [8] So, no, I don’t get Plato here but I do get Keats in his poem thus far. The romanticists make everything sound simply better; we appear to be in a universe of illusions, starting with the Grecian Urn.

When I revisited ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ [9][10], I was struck by the beauty of some of the lines that seemed to trigger a need to formulate my own version of an entity embodying or capturing the story engraved upon it. Is that not what the Urn does as an “unravish’d bride of quietness, a foster-child of silence and slow time, a Sylvan historian” lacking the voice and rhyme of a questioning poet who expects perhaps no answer to his rhetorical questions. 


What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?


There is passion engraved onto the Urn and the poet’s imaginings. Passion is to poetry what a tempest is to the sea, volatile and uncontrollable, yet, the Urn is enduring in a moment framed for posterity. One would wonder here, given that John Keats suffered from a lack of vitality, with his struggle with tuberculosis, if his attempts at romanticising life is exactly that, framing the ephemeral in words, whether it is a fleeting love or a blazing hatred or a stony indifference. Keats was trained as an apothecary-surgeon, as well as licensed, he wasn’t educated in the corridors of a knowledge hierarchy but I was sad to learn that the poet George Byron (commonly known as Lord Byron) once likened Keats’ poems as a form of intellectual “Onanism,” a biblically polite way of referring to the poems as a form of mental masturbation [11] I had never known of that word until today, but I am happy to feel much more respect for a medical practitioner who simply taught himself poetry, well enough to become one of Britain’s leading romantic poets, subject to scathing reviews (especially from Byron who wrote thus about Keats to his own publisher ~ I think he took the wrong line as a poet, and was spoilt by Cockneyfying, and Suburbing, and versifying Tooke’s Pantheon and Lempriere’s Dictionary ~ upon learning of Keats’ death  ) I had to bring out my dictionary to parse the criticism in his. Keats succumbed to his illness at the ripe old age of 25. Nations do tend to build themselves on the bones of the dead that were quite invisible while they were alive, it has been claimed that John Keats died of disappointment over the poor literary reception his poems received [11] but I digress from his poem.


The second stanza bears upon the fact that the scene is frozen in time on the Urn, lovers and spirits amidst sweet melodies of unknown tone, yet Keats cheats death in his poem, cheats the vagaries of aging, the crippling of disease. His lovers achieve immortality on an Urn, where beauty and youth are unchanging, akin to a living death framed in an immortal moment.


Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!


The third stanza is an allusion to the lack of vitality, the exhaustion of human love, possibly in the physical act of intercourse aimed at procreation.

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

I think Keats simply wrote about the possibility of La petite mort or the little deathIt is an expression which means “the brief loss or weakening of consciousness” and in modern usage refers specifically to “the sensation of post orgasm as likened to death.” [12] Dr. Adrian Perkel states that: Some literature refers to this as Post-coital tristesse (PCT), the feeling of sadness, anxiety, agitation or aggression after sexual intercourse. Its name comes from New Latin postcoitalis and French tristesse, literally “sadness”. Many people with PCT may exhibit strong feelings of anxiety lasting from five minutes to two hours after coitus. The phenomenon is traced to the Greek doctor Galen, who wrote, “Every animal is sad after coitus except the human female and the rooster.” [13] I think, despite his Freudian take on La Petite Mort and a slight vilification of poets and philosophy (he may need to read this poem by Keats), Dr. Perkel tries to elucidate in addition, the neurobiological consequences of human coitus and ejaculation, in the loss of energy and potency for a man while it is a gain for a woman in terms of oxytocin, the desire to bond, the potential to reproduce. I am not sure, how the psychoanalysis of a sexually engaged homosexual couple would be viewed from the lens of the little death for that matter. I would also like to make the case for a woman, not as much post coital, but in gestating a foetus, in that, ongoing research has tested and supports the hypothesis that maternal immune systems respond to prior pregnancies as they do to macro-parasitic exposures. Simply put, pregnancy can increase production of Immunoglobulin E (IgE), an immune response more often directed towards parasite infections [14] So, the act of procreation is a little death for both, man and woman.

In the third stanza, I find, the poet has simply expressed an inner resonance in the timbre of his poem, the fever of passions, the immortality inherent in the act of defying consummation yet sadly, that immortality resides on an Urn made of clay. It is a paradox, that life begets life by foregoing it momentarily, at least in humans. In many other organisms, procreation is an affair with death, eg: the female octopus. Yet, despite everything, humans’ grander motivations appear driven through either denouncing or embracing their intrinsic biology, in the looming picture of genetic immortality. Do I digress from Keats’ “happy love! For ever panting and for ever young’ by dwelling thus on the consequences of “A burning forehead, and a parching tongue” ?


It is a different scene on the Urn that is described in the fourth stanza, of a heifer being led to a sacrificial altar that ends strangely in these lines:

And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

Scholars have analysed this, meaning to be that the narrator of the poem does not understand the motivations of the people who lead the sacrifice or the significance of an empty town. Is it denuded of people simply because of lovers that did not carry forth the societal obligation to go forth and multiply? I believe the answer is in his innocence of the worldly and material at the age of 22 when he wrote this poem, his youth of unbridled idealism, romanticism although a body afflicted, this shows in stanza five:


When old age shall this generation waste,
         Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Truly, aware of his own mortality in 1819, his growing love for Fanny Brawne, the death of his brother, [15] the lack of vitality in leading a life like his peers perhaps, what more could have engendered those lines, but a passive resignation to the futility of pursuing immortality in the material, as he attempted in the transcendental, the poetic and the idealistic. I believe the prospect of imminent death has a strange way of magnifying life, devoid of the biological impulse to genetic perpetuation, in the fear of recognising perhaps that life is solely a singular spark, gone too soon with everything that took to build it up.

I enjoyed working through this poem by Keats and the biographical sketches I referenced. My poem though, is not an ode in the strict sense, except that it seeks to exalt metal, cast with the sole purpose of being immortal. It also tries to speak of the beauty that we encounter in others, our common humanity, the people that touch us, divided as we are by the firmament or our individual selves, in words that seem to synchronise in a poetic resonance to produce something of profound beauty. Perhaps, therein lies the purpose of poetry too, a transcendental language to communicate endlessly at a universal frequency of delicate nuance in timbre. For this poem, I turned to the Romanticists, not the empiricists. Do forgive me if the science is flawed. Enjoy the poem.

Ode to a cast iron grate :
Clove hitch of water in ductile conversations ...

Yours, a vantage view of firmament
soggy in the kinship of Nimbus
that pass muster of Zeus;
a cavalcade of percussionists,
in thunderous declarations, some 
simply swollen in an aftertaste of sorrow. 

Theirs, a lexicon streaming along 
the timbre of an Aeolian Babel 
forcing in rhythmic incantations
of rain, soaking the pavement,
ingress on the iron veneer, of your
solid hand that sieves sentiment.

These, the sounds of  sky, finally
stampeding, your burnished fate
as they merge in seeking, the same 
depths, falling to the same hell or heaven ...
There was beauty in the words 
they spun in the skies.

Those chinks in your armour, allow
passage to the sea, past your
mortified malleable melancholy.
Sentiment you say, stretched to loop
myriad clove hitches of water,
that cavort through gaps of passion, 

recessed into dark relief, your
piped soliloquies to the sea
spiriting ductile conversations ...
Your form will outlast the tread 
of a million embodied souls,
on the cast of your immortal rigor.

You, a Grecian aulist !
Does it matter what the clouds
sorrowed for? Does it matter
what they thundered at? 
They play you like reeds, seeking
the harmony of the sea.

You, the connoisseur of love !
Swallowing serenades, coursing 
in rivulets of emotion, foisted 
by sentinels of burgeoning passions, 
gurgling through you to an ocean 
which seems only to rise, in love or tears.

Notes:

Aulist ~ An Aulist is one who plays the Aulos, an ancient Greek wind instrument, often translated as “flute” or “double flute”, it was usually a double-reeded instrument, and its sound was more akin to that of the bagpipes (Wikipedia)

Cumulonimbus clouds are also called thunderheads. Thunderheads produce rain, thunder, and lightning.

Aeolus ~ Greek God of wind

Zeus ~ Greek God of sky and thunder, king of the Gods

Literary devices (Source~https://literarydevices.net/)

Alliteration ~ Alliteration involves the repetition in two or more nearby words of initial consonant sounds not necessarily the consonant letters; “heart high-sorrowful,” in the third stanza
Apostrophe ~ An apostrophe is a poetic phrase addressed to a subject who is either dead or absent, or to an inanimate object or abstract idea; “O Attic shape!’ in the last stanza, refers to its neo-attic style of sculpture

Metaphor ~ a comparison between two unlike things without the use of like or as;  “unravish’d bride of quietness,” he calls the urn in the first line of the first stanza

Paradox ~ self contradictory statements or phrases with an underlying logic to them; “Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss”, as in the second stanza

Rhetorical questions ~ A question asked for effect or emphasis and where no real answer is expected; “What men or gods are these?” in the first stanza

Syzygy ~ In poetry, consonantal or phonetic syzygy is similar to the effect of alliteration, where one consonant is used repeatedly throughout a passage, but not necessarily at the beginning of each word (Wikipedia)  In the 2nd stanza, there is an emphasis on the letters ‘p’, ‘b’ and ‘v’ 

References:

[1]~https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ode_on_a_Grecian_Urn#cite_note-8

[1a]~Bate, Walter Jackson. The Stylistic Development of Keats. New York: Humanities Press, 1962 [1]

[2]~https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sosibios_Vase

[3]~https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44469/endymion-56d2239287ca5

[4]~https://www.barrycraft.com/trench_grates.html

[5]~https://poemanalysis.com/john-keats/ode-on-a-grecian-urn/

[6]~https://theydidnotexpectthis.weebly.com/ekphrasis.html

[7]~https://literarydevices.net/beauty-is-in-the-eyes-of-the-beholder/

[8]~http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/legal-information/120-observational-astronomy/stargazing/how-the-motion-of-the-earth-affects-our-view/732-do-we-see-the-same-stars-from-above-and-below-the-equator-beginner

[9]Ode on a Grecian Urn, Original Poem ~https://www.bartleby.com/101/625.html

[10]~https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44477/ode-on-a-grecian-urn

[11]~https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/column-poet-john-keats-met-early-end

[12]~https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_petite_mort

[13]~https://www.therapyroute.com/article/the-curious-case-of-la-petite-mort-by-a-perkel

[14]~https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28712140/

[15]~https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Keats/The-year-1819

On Emily Dickinson ~ Poetic rapture like a river flows

Emily Dickinson was described thus in an obituary for her by a dear friend : “A Damascus blade gleaming and glancing in the sun was her wit. Her swift poetic rapture was like the long glistening note of a bird one hears in the June woods at high noon, but can never see” [1]

It is the month of June and like summer, it describes simply this poet I have come to admire for her free spirit, her eccentricities, her reclusiveness, skepticism, heretical beliefs, obsession with death, all that shines through her unorthodox poetry that is without precedent and sets none either, a poet who remained original, prolific and unpublished during life except for ten poems. Now, there’s a lot amiss in this oft repeated picture of an artist, unsung except in death, but this is not always why an artist engages in the flow of art, it is simply to corral the psyche’s exhaustible attentions towards something that produces profound meaning simply in expression. For an architect like Zaha Hadid, it meant pursuing her own creative genius while being on the edge as a woman architect [2], for Emily Dickinson, it was seeking flow in the lyrical construction of words.

The only residential building by Zaha Hadid, seen along the Highline, Chelsea, Manhattan. The Metropolitan Museum in New York cited her “unconventional buildings that seem to defy the logic of construction”; Architect Sean Griffiths characterised Hadid’s work as “an empty vessel that sucks in whatever ideology might be in proximity to it”, (Source~Wikipedia). I somehow felt that Dickinson’s peers described her the same way, since she followed no established principles of poesy and indulged in no flaccid platitudes of the status quo nor conformed adequately to ‘correct’ her mistakes.

Now, a scholar might argue she is difficult to read, but her artistry was signaled only as an afterthought in discovery of her poems and correspondence; during her lifetime it was scarcely within the public eye as much as it was conduit for her own channeling. I would argue that Emily Dickinson found creative expression through a deliberate state of flow, of the focus of limited attention where we are known to be able to process only 60 bits of information per second. It was psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who introduced the concept of ‘flow theory’ in the 1970s based on his research examining the involvement of people in activities that did not engender money nor fame. He noted that it wasn’t relaxation or the absence of stress that provided for enjoyment, but intense activities involving focused attention which in fact induced pleasure, a state he termed ‘flow’ because during his research, people illustrated their intense experiences using the metaphor of being carried by a current like a river flows [3].

It would be a disservice to label Dickinson anything other than a poet who writes on everything

Yesterday was covered in all sorts of passage; goodbye to a friend, news of death, 11 miles of walking over a little island and grass covered railway tracks and then, a wonderful dinner we made the effort to prepare despite how exhausted we were when we returned home. I had a thousand themes for poems seeking expression and a mercurial overflow is difficult to channel when one is physically tired. So I actually surprised myself and binge watched the entire Netflix Regency Era drama ‘Bridgerton’. I very rarely watch television but this drama was like a Hungarian Dobos torte, figuratively speaking and in the end, I had had too much dessert 🙂 Is it any wonder I chose to read Emily Dickinson this morning, as much as in abject remorse for not posting to my blog per schedule as for trying to focus on one theme at a time, for my own state of flow. I excerpted two of the poems mentioned in the book, as they showcase the recurrent theme of Dickinson’s poetry, in death, entombment (poem 448) and she has a stoic insight on time in the poem numbered 861 [4]

Early morning reading
Emily Dickinson ~100 essential modern poem by women; Edited by Joseph Parisi and Kathleen Welton

There is something about being obsessed with death, it took me long many years to learn to feel as much sadness and sympathy for the bereaved as it caused me distress to feel the loss of those that actually died, in their loss of time, experience and life. I am not certain if this is the quizzical attitude of Dickinson towards death [5] but it is the eternal question in mine. Like hers, every poem is an expression that I know to describe death or life, express it in the logical scientism of the day but like life itself, it is difficult to understand.

Let me expressly get back to my writing. I hope you enjoy these poems of Emily Dickinson as much as I enjoyed writing about her today among other things.

Emily Dickinson ~ 100 essential modern poem by women; Edited by Joseph Parisi and Kathleen Welton

References:

[1]Susan Dickinson, for The Springfield Republican, Years and Hours, Vol. II, 473 ~https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/emily-dickinson/biography/special-topics/emily-dickinson-and-death/

[2]~https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaha_Hadid

[3]~https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/flow-theory

[4]Emily Dickinson, page 15, 100 essential modern poem by women; Edited by Joseph Parisi and Kathleen Welton

[5]~https://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_7_No_4_April_2017/15.pdf

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.

Birdhouse

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.

References:
[1]~https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/148744/the-ambition-bird-5c11322239c2b


[2]Podcast~https://www.poetryfoundation.org/…/laying-poems-away-a…
sexton

[3]https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/anne-sexton

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

[5]A reading of the poem~https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOLAHtI8yVE