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The Awful Rowing Toward God by Anne Sexton

The Awful Rowing Toward God

by Anne Sexton

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In even a brief encounter with famous feminist writers, Anne Sexton's name is always one to pop up. Lumped into the same list as Virginia Wolf and Sylvia Plath, she is considered a genius and someone to laud. I don't. I didn't enjoy these poems at all. Angsty and needlessly neurotic, they hold no clear theme or idea other than her own self-centeredness. True, she struggled with depression and mental illness in a time when mental illness was not understood or socially spoken about. True, she was a writer during a time when all writers were suppose to be emo and existential. But her work doesn't seem to hold meaning. It's just a jumble of disconnected words, as if she intentionally trying to be deep. But trying to be deep is different than being deep. I did think it interesting how she referenced Søren Kierkegaard more than once. An intriguing choice. Granted, he was heavily influential in philosophy, psychology, and religious - all of which Sexton had personal experience with - but it is still choice I wish to understand more. But unless she left some other written words about it, I doubt I will ever understand her thinking. Particular because I find her words overly-dramatic and ego-centric. Clearly, Sexton is not my cup of tea – but I am not surprised by this in the least. ( )
  empress8411 | Nov 5, 2015 |
I actually read this in paperback, but it's nice to see the picture. :) ( )
  tercat | Nov 19, 2013 |
This is the full book of Sexton's poetry I've read. The poems I've come across in anthologies never grabbed me enough to seek out a book of hers. I admit that knowing about her mental illness and suicide wasn't exactly encouraging either. And then there's the fact that this book has God in the title. Religious poetry often bores me or leaves me wondering if I'm missing something because I am not steeped in Christianity.

But I do enjoy Hopkins' "Terrible Sonnets" and the earlier poems in this volume struck me as having a similar tenor, the tension of someone who believes but feels alienated is palpable. The book moves from the painful rowing to a final card game with God.

Other reviews of this book indicated it's one of her least successful. But I found the poems complex and her gathering of religious associations (primarily Catholic but also with Hopkins' desire to include all of creation) and the tension between them fascinating.

The collection is uneven and a few I found outright flat (Mothers, Doctors, Words, The Saints Come Marching In). I'm inclined to judge it, though, by those that delighted or fascinated me: Rowing; The Witch's Life; Riding the Elevator into the Sky; The Fallen Angels; The Sickness Unto Death; Welcome Morning; Jesus, the Actor, Plays the Holy Ghost; The God Monger; The Big Heart; The Rowing Endeth.

From "Jesus, the Actor, Plays the Holy Ghost":

Oh, mother,
marry me,
before the gulls take me out the door.
Will I marry the dark earth,
the thief of the daylight?
Will I marry a tree
and only wave my hands at you
from your front yard?
Oh, mother,
oh, mother,
you marry me,
save me from the cockroach,
weave me into the sun.

It could be that my enthusiastic reception of this volume is influenced by the poor poetry I've been reading lately. Even the decent poetry simply is not reaching for anything big, is not going for anything as enormous and tricky as spiritual resolution. So while her poetry in this volume may not have the same power as her earlier work, she is at least still rowing big and worthwhile waters. ( )
  jppoetryreader | Jul 20, 2012 |
I've never understood the comparison of Anne Sexton to Sylvia Plath. Both women were complex and troubled; both killed themselves but each lived her life uniquely and each has left behind her own unique voice.

Sexton I've always considered more wantonly playful and blatantly sexual.
  PoetSphinx | Feb 16, 2008 |
Stark, brutally honest poetry. As Schmidt says, she came before Plath, but ended up seeming to be the derivative one. ( )
  Poemblaze | Aug 7, 2006 |
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