First Draft

November 25th, 2010

“The fragmentation of the confessional self”

In confessional poetry, the self is never unified and/or absolute.The poetic “I” confesses what it needs- a moment of deep emotion, delivers its mea culpa, and then it goes on to the next confession. It is the poetic ‘I”, the “self” being represented that is inconclusive, or fragmented, for there is not a single identity that can contain it in its entirety. Michel Foucault wrote on confession that it is “a technique for producing truth”, and that “the person who articulates it: it exonerates, redeems, and purifies him; it unburdens him of his wrongs, liberates him, and promises him salvation.” I respectfully disagree. Though confession may be an attempt to regain inner peace, it often times is a torturous reminder of a burdening memory, that is no less burdening by the simple action of confessing it.

The self in confessional poetry, specifically that of Anne Sexton’s, tells us that it is not exonerated but haunted, nor redeemed but lost, neither purified but tormented. It is fragmented, inconclusive, and also multi-faceted. For instance, when it plays the role of the mother, it may choose to be the “candid mother” of “ Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward”, the “regretful mother” of “Elizabeth Gone”, or the “estranged mother” of “The Double Image”.

To Bedlam and Part Way Back captures the journey of the poetic “I” as it tries to depict itself, through stylistic choices, as unified as it can, and as fragmented as it is. These stylistic choices- composed of punctuation, rhyme structure, and stanza formation- create an intentional rhythm, a distinctive voice. By pausing unexpectedly, shifting rhythmic structures, and abruptly ending a stanza, this voice is trying to tell us through form what perhaps it cannot in content: that it is fragmented, that it needs to pause and digress while it looks to belong to a unified identity (i.e. good mother, bad mother), and that because of its inconclusive, self-searching nature, it only is capable of returning part way back.

By choosing the title To Bedlam and Partway Back , Sexton appears to be saying that she did not fully return from Bedlam. However, it is believed that Bedlam is not a place, but a state of mind. In “The Achievement of Anne Sexton”, Greg Johnson contends that: “ To Bedlam and Partway Back comprises an ordering of specific, urgent experience- the descent into madness and a partial return”. By equating Bedlam to madness, we can better understand why the poetic “I” is often disoriented, conflicted, and turbulent as it descends into madness. A partial return reveals that the poetic “I”  never fully returns to its initial point, because this would infer a conclusion, an “all the way back”, which is an impossible task for the fragmented self. Along the way, the poetic “I” confesses what it can, describes events and the people affected by them, and digresses when it has had enough.

The digressions in To Bedlam and Partway Back take on the physical form of stanzas. One can easily suspect that the poetic “I” has had enough by noticing how one stanza ends and the next one begins. If one stanza shows little connection to its predecessor, it is a deliberate attempt to change the subject. If a stanza is cut “short”, meaning that it is comparatively shorter than the rest, it is also a clue that the poetic “I” is not interested in pursuing the confession any further. However, it is worth noting that a short stanza may also serve as a literary bridge to transition us from one confession to the next. The poetic “I” produces truth by engaging in the natural flow of conversation, which often includes digressions. If the truth is confessed in a mechanical, manicured fashion, it ceases to be the truth and becomes a story. How the truth sounds ultimately determines the degree to which it is perceived as the truth, and the poetic “I” knows this. Thus, as anyone that struggles with telling the truth, the poetic “I” converses and digresses, which makes the confession sound more real and believable.

When speaking of how the truth sounds in To Bedlam and Partway Back, one must inevitably look at rhythm and how it helps shape Sexton’s “confessional voice”. Rhythm is acquired through a deliberate selection of words, often related to each other by sound. Though many of Sexton’s poems do not rhyme, they are certainly rhythmic due to her controlled surveillance over sound. In “Said the Poet to the Analyst”, Sexton uses rough-sounding words like “broken”, “unbuckled”, “clacking”, and “ridiculous” as a way of interrupting the proposed flow of soft-sounding words like “labels”, “better”, “bees”, and “things”, to name a few. There is a constant struggle, a push-and-pull effect, a give-and-take feeling, that arises from the rhythm these words produce. Patricia Meyer Spacks asks how the reader can “properly respond to lines as grotesquely uncontrolled as these’. What is the ‘proper’ (the etymological connection with the French propre ‘neat, orderly, clean’, should be noted) way to read these poems? (Spacks 186)”. Spacks notices that the lack of emotional control in Sexton’s poetry subjects the reader to a state of confusion, asking “how does one respond?”, when there is no distinctive authoritative command from Sexton, I say: keep reading. The poetic “I” may mirror its conflicted, struggling nature by way of rhythm, but the rhythm is in itself controlled and authoritative.

How rhythm exerts its authority is mainly achieved through punctuation; an unexpected period may shock us, while a stanza without commas may leave us out of breath. In “You, Doctor Martin”, Sexton chooses to begin every sentence in the middle of the verse:

What large children we are

here. All over I grow most tall

in the best ward. Your business is people,

you call at the madhouse, an oracular

eye in your nest. Out in the hall

the intercom pages you. You twist in the pull

of the foxy children who fall

In this particular poem, we have periods that repeatedly force us to pause, challenging our natural instincts to pause at the end of every verse. The rhythm of this poem emphasizes the middle rhyme, rather than the final rhyme of each verse. By following an idea as it begins and ends half way through a verse, we can assume that the poetic “I” is interested in the half way point of “things”. This being the case, we can draw an immediate connection with the “Partway Back” of the title, the partial return of the self from madness, and the hard sounds that interrupt an otherwise easy-going flow.

In “Ringing The Bells”, the poetic “I” uses a completely different strategy by scarcely using any commas, which would normally allow us to pause and catch a breath. This poem resonates with Patricia Meyer Spacks’ suggestion of the uncontrolled verse, and hence the uncontrolled emotion of the poetic “I” in an unstoppable outburst:

And this is the way they ring

the bells in Bedlam

and this is the bell-lady

who comes each Tuesday morning

to give us a music lesson

and because the attendants make you go

and because we mind by instinct, (…)

Uncontrolled emotion is also expressed in “Her Kind”, where the complete opposite takes place. Commas are abundant in the middle as well as the end the every verse, suggesting an obvious concern with pausing continuously, with holding back, while every comma separates a new confession:

I have gone out, a possessed witch,

haunting the black air, braver at night;

dreaming evil, I have done my hitch

over the plain houses, light by light:

lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.

This evidences uncontrolled emotion because with the abundance of commas, there also lies the abundance of confessions that, instead of waiting for a new stanza to come to light, closely follow one another, providing little room for recovery on the part of the reader. After all, a comma does not have the forgetful preamble of a period.

Alongside the manipulation of punctuation, the poetic “I” uses time tenses in order to confess what it needs. By folding time onto itself, the conversation remains on-going and limitless. Past and present are often interchangeable, aiding the delivery of confession by providing a neutral platform of mea culpas that stem from the past, the present, or both. “Her Kind” is a great example of the ambivalent relationship between past and present, where Sexton reflects on what she has been, and then compares it to what she is accused of being in her present. This allows the poetic “I” to envelope itself around a universal, unified identity, which is what the fragmented self wants but cannot be. While time may be a unifiable artifact -past, present, and future all become past- the self, though it may appear unified at specific time locations, is not. As explained by A. Alvarez: “confessional–or ‘extremist’–poetry is simultaneously a poetry of its particular time and place and an expression of alienated individuality.” In other words, confessional poetry captures the self remembering, or revisiting, a certain time and place as it alienates itself for the sake of that specific memory. I would argue that as each confession takes place, each occupying an exclusive place within the self’s  memory, they give rise to alienated individuality. I would disagree with Alvarez’s suggestion that both processes- the revisiting of memory through confession and the confection of alienated individuality- happen simultaneously. Furthermore, that it is this alienated individuality, a perception of the self at a particular time and place, what causes the self to be represented at extreme ends of identity, what fragments it. What I mean by this, simply, is that we are never always good or always bad, and that a confession renders us as either, for it is subject to a specific time and place. These two can be manipulated to resonate particularity, or in Sexton’s case, generality, but the self remains alienated by representation.

We have looked at how the poetic “I” represents itself as “fragmented” in To Bedlam and Partway Back through stylistic choices, but perhaps the easiest way of proving this is by looking at the content itself.

Bibliography

Alvarez, A. Beyond All this Fiddle Essays 1955-1967. California: A Lane Publishing, 1968. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Publishings, 1990. Print.

Johnson, Greg. “The achievement of Anne Sexton.” Hollins Critic 21.3 (1984): Academic OneFile. Web. 24 Nov. 2010.

Sexton, Anne. To Bedlam and Part Way Back. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999. Print.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. On 45 Mercy Street. Ed. J.D. McClatchy. Bloomington IN:, 1978. Print.

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