Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton (1928-74) is one of the poets I learned about in a poetry class last semester. I took to her immediately.

Sexton was severely depressed following the birth of her daughter in 1953. She was institutionalized several times, and one of her therapists suggested she start writing to get her feelings out. She was part of the Confessional poetry that was gaining popularity; unlike poets of past, her “I” was certainly her, not a detached “speaker.”

Her poem today is “Portrait of an Old Woman on the College Tavern Wall.” Open up the link and read it over, or you can listen to it read.

Oh down at the tavern
the children are singing
around their round table
and around me still.
Did you hear what it said?
We know that there’s a “portrait,” from the title, and now children are singing “Did you hear what it said?” So there might be a supernatural element to this poem.
I only said
how there is a pewter urn
pinned to the tavern wall,
as old as old is able
to be and be there still.
So, clearly, there isn’t a supernatural element; these kids are referring to the speaker as “it,” as she sits in the tavern. Let’s skip ahead a little-it’s a long poem.
Across the room is a wreath
made of a corpse’s hair,
framed in glass on the wall,
as old as old is able
to be and be remembered still.
First off, Sexton is repeating “as old as old is able/ to be and be ___ still.” This gives the stanza a mirror effect, reflecting back on itself as it moves forward.

Then we have another realization: the “portrait” the title refers to may not be a portrait at all. The speaker refers to a “wreath…framed in glass on the wall.” That seems a lot more like a mirror, to me, than a portrait. It fits with the speaker’s wistful attitude, her fixation on age, and the children’s nasty jibes.

And I would, and I would but
it’s my hair in the hair wreath,
my cup pinned to the tavern wall,
my dusty face they sing beneath.
To me, it’s confirmed that she is looking in a mirror here. She says as much, that it is “her hair” and “her cup” What do you think?

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