Thursday, 13 January 2011

Two Serious Ladies

Last year at university, I was told I have an unhealthy obsession with dead writers. Specifically, I have to stop reading women who topped themselves. I managed to break this trend only slightly when I came across Jane Bowles, who did not commit suicide, but did suffer from alcoholism which resulted in her early death aged 56. She had a fascinating personal life, too, which I'll come to later. During her lifetime, she published very little - just one novel and some plays, the most famous being In the Summer House. Her single novel, therefore, has a lot of speaking up to do.

For those of you who are interested, the book I am reading in my photo is in fact Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles. I am on a ferry that is leaving the delightfully dull town of New London (we figured it was the American equivilant of Weymouth) and it is, in fact, one of the closest encounters with water I have had for a long time. The ferry was on its way to Long Island, New York, where I stayed with some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. I ate monkey-bread for the first time, fell in love (with monkey-bread) and somebody somewhere took a picture of me swimming in the ocean for the first time in about fifteen years. I have this look of unadulterated terror on my face, but I did it - thanks to the pushy nature of some seriously affluent Americans, a very large iced latte and a belief that 'no' was not an answer.

I think Jane Bowles had a great thing going with her marriage: they were both writers, they were best friends, they had no children, they travelled the world. What's the catch? They were both gay. I genuinely think this is a great idea - you get the companionship without the childbirth. I have to admit, I have no idea what their motivations actually were, but I know that they were relatively happy. Anyway, it put an interesting slant on her backstory before I started to read the book.

Sadly, I think I was more fascinated by her backstory than by the novel itself. Just before I left, this book had been reviewed well which was why I bought it. I can't find the one I originally read, but here is a brief, favourable review from The Guardian. It will tell you more of the direct plot than I can - I lent the book to a friend, and the plot didn't quite impress itself on my mind enough for me to remember it all. I remember it being an interesting travel book, though - especially for the parts of America I was visiting at the time, as New York is where the book begins. Mrs. Copperfield is a somewhat sheltered wife before her eyes are opened to the excitement (and repulsion) of underground culture. She falls in love with a prostitute and, along with her friend Christina Goering, goes through a complete transformation of character.

The humour in this book is incredibly dry and sparse - it did make me laugh, but in the way people who don't really understand Shakespeare laugh when they think they ought to. I was smiling at her cleverness, nodding knowingly at her message for women in society, but I can't genuinely say I enjoyed the novel. I despise myself for this: I really wanted to love it. Usually, I idolise 'one-book-in-a-lifetime' writers, or writers as quirky and avant garde as she is meant to be. But the pace was too slow, and many parts seemed, for me, a bit dated. I persevered, I finished it, but I don't go all gooey-eyed whenever someone mentions it.

I am not saying you shouldn't read it. In fact, this is probably one of those books my mother warned me about - I wasn't in the right frame of mind to enjoy it. People always say that when you hate a book they love, rather than admit that their darling classic might actually be a bore. But I might read this again in a few years and get more out of it, and if I do, I shall let you know.

Now then. Back to that gooey-eyedness. I'd like to talk about another serious lady, namely the only poet to ever come close to displacing Sylvia Plath as my favourite. And, as soon as I lay my hands on the book in question, I will leap into an enthusiastic introduction to her work, and why everyone should read it before she slips out of print. (Unfortunately, I'm experiencing some technical difficulties: you see, my flat is basically a messier, bookier version of Primark, so trying to find a particular book is like trying to find matching underwear in the January sales...)

And there it was, hiding in between some overdue library books. The Selected Poems of Anne Sexton probably affected my writing more than any other book I read last year. I found this battered up copy in Santa Cruz (same trip, different side) and it has been lurking around my reading pile ever since. I keep going back to it, reading it again, picking out single poems, bothering everyone I know with it. Anne Sexton is one of the most underrated and under-read poets of her time; when I realised she was nearly out of print in England I almost called the publishers in outrage. 

Her 'Love Poems' collection (which I have not read, due to my personal allergy to the term) is still available, but the complete and selected works seem to have, mysteriously, fallen by the wayside. I can't find the version I have anywhere, so I have a certain regret for the bottom-of-bag syndrome it has suffered so far. My advice would be to order it from the .com version of a well-known online retailer that I shan't endorse here, or to come into Topping's and see whether the American imports have arrived yet. We do have a copy of 'Transformations' in stock, but you can't have it - I'm buying it tomorrow.

Why do I hold her poetry in such high regard? For starters, Anne Sexton let me fall in love with rhyme again. She has the courage to use rhyme in nearly all her poems, but never in a childish or contrived way - in a beautiful, subtle and inescapable way. Her poems are the natural conclusions to themselves; you are always following her path, thinking her thoughts, and arriving at the same destination. I wouldn't advise her poems for anyone completely new to poetry, or anyone squeamish about the phrase 'confessional'. It does revolve around the themes of self-reflection, depression and female identity - extremely similar to Plath, in many ways, but at the same time distinct and seperate.

Nor would I advise it for anyone afraid of longer poems. Her themed sequences are among her best, but I know many modern readers can't give their attention to much over a page. But if your appetite is saited rather than repelled by a meaty, long-sequenced poem, then I couldn't recommend Sexton more. There is depth, there is truth - there is everything I need poetry to give me. We are constantly writing essays about how a writer has influenced us, and I always find it very hard to put into words. I think it is Sexton's honesty, along with her brave commitment to free verse, that most affected me as a writer. All I know is, when I read her poetry, my poetry listened.

I've picked a smaller poem to share with you, from her earlier collection All My Pretty Ones. I am always intrigued by ekphrasis - the process of responding to art through poetry - and here she narrates one of the most famous paintings by my beloved Van Gogh (below). I saw this painting on my trip, too, which makes it all the more special.

The Starry Night by Anne Sexton

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:

into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
no belly,
no cry.


  1. I don't mean to be flippant or ingnore the literary content of this post, but you are the one that brought up Monkey Bread...and now I can't think of anything else.

    I've read the poem four or five times now...I like it. The ending is really kinda powerful.

  2. Yes, I think it builds to a beautiful climax.

    I, too, cannot stop thinking about monkey bread. It was one of the most wonderful things I've ever eaten. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to make it. Do you know?

  3. It's like a mound of cinammon roll is painfully good.

    I know a pretty good cheat, but it would depend on you getting hold of some Pilsbury canned biscuits. Not what we'd call cookies or tea biscuits but biscuits like you'd get in the U.S. South...where I live.

    They aren't really biscuits at all...more like a flat topped roll. Anyway, peel off the biscuits from the roll, cut each one in four peices, roll those pieces into balls, roll balls in sugar/cinammon, pile 'em up in a dish, plant slices of butter all throughout and then bake it for however long the can says.

    It produces results that will certainly do.

    You can also fry those "biscuits" up like bingets or donuts.

    Good luck.