Identity in the poetry of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Hayden, and Michael S. Harper
Women’s poetry and African American poetry are similar in emphasizing the significance of ‘identity’ and in addressing a larger audience beyond the identities established within the poetic paradigms. Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Hayden, and Michael S. Harper seek to address conflicts of gender and racial identities but their poetic aesthetics transcend chasms created by these social labels.
Anne Sexton’s (1928-74) poetry is concerned with the tragic isolation and the pressures of suburban housewives. Due to the intense personal note of her poems, Anne Sexton is often grouped with the Confessional poets such as Amy Lowell and Sylvia Plath. In the poem “Her Kind” she defines her alienation as witchery and explores the hideous borderline between reality and insanity. The “I” in this poem is a marginalized woman whose identity is defined by magic, physical disfigurement, and sexuality. The “I” in stanza one is the ‘witch’, the “I” in stanza two is the voice of the ‘housewife’, and the “I” in stanza three is the entertaining persona of the ‘adulteress’.
Sexton replaces her gendered dilemma with an open acceptance of evil in her self-introduction that she is a “lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind” and by negating her gendered role, “A woman like that is not a woman” (line 6). What is remarkable, however, is the gleeful way in which this admission is uttered as she firmly places her hopes in the “last bright routes” (line 17).
The “misunderstood” housewife in stanza two is the symbol of the universal drudgeries of the domesticated woman, irrespective of her national, educational, or economic background. She transforms “caves” into ‘homes’ by filling them with “skillets, carvings, shelves, closets, silks, innumerable goods” (lines 9-10), fixing suppers and “rearranging the disaligned” (line 12).
In the third stanza, the adulteress, waving her “nude arms at villages going by,” (line 16) is cheerful and harmless, unlike Plath’s madwoman in “Lady Lazarus” whose raging wish is to “eat men like air”. Her unusual zest and self-mockery make her madness less threatening, perhaps even enjoyable. She is a “survivor” who manages to live bearing ‘flames that still bite her thigh’. She declares with pride, “A woman like that is not ashamed to die” (line 21).
Sexton’s experiences and feelings are the product of a patriarchal society that oppresses women and especially women who crave for various modes of self-expression – in the case of Sexton, it is poetry. Her poems address women’s dilemma and anguish cutting across linguistic, national, class and race boundaries and her repeated reminder that “I have been her kind” reinstates the universality of female experience. The anger and the excesses that run through her poems are similar to the anger that seeps through the poetry of her other feminist contemporaries.
Many young women find inspiration in Sylvia Plath (1932-63) liberating because she vigorously and consistently resists traditional female roles. A significant poet of the post-World War II era, Plath became renowned for her bold language, startling metaphors and violent and disturbing imagery. Her intensely personal poems explore feminine identity, individual suffering and oppression, and the inevitability of death. Her semi-autobiographical poem, “Daddy” poignantly reflects her long struggle with disappointment, frustration and mental illness, and asserts a strong female identity that attempts to balance familial and career aspirations.
This poem won critical acclaim due to its intense, rhythmic language that blends terse statements, repetitive phrasing, and sudden violent images, metaphors, and declarations. Plath denounces her father’s dominance over her life. She associates him with a Nazi oppressor and compares herself to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, thus broadening the frames of oppression. Personal victimization and trauma are thus elevated to the larger narratives of racial oppression and colossal mass graves. “Daddy” records her seething anger at being reduced to the level of a doll tuned to exist according to men’s whims and fancies. In the first stanza, she compares her father’s oppressive treatment to a black shoe,
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe …. (lines 3-5)
Her angry accusation, “ You died before I had time” (line 7) reveals her longing to put an end to her disgusting relationship with her father. She calls him a “vampire” who “drank my blood” (line 72). Her bitter description of her father as the “Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal / And a head in the freakish Atlantic (lines 9-11) configures him as a colossal evil who is not restricted by geographical spaces and boundaries. This ghastly figure stretches across America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, by crushing her identity with his “boot” in her “face” (line 49) and by biting her “pretty red heart in two” (line 56).
Her phrases such as “a stake in your fat black heart” (line 76) underline what she considered the inherent evil nature of men. Throughout the poem, she uses non-human imagery to highlight her father’s inhuman nature. She calls him “a ghastly statue”, “an engine”, “brute”, “devil”, and “vampire”. She is also happy: “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two” (line 71), referring to her father and her husband with whom she had similar turbulent relationships.
“Daddy” is replete with allusions to Hitler and Nazi Germany. “Barb wire snare,” “Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen,” “German tongue,” “Luftwaffe,” and “Neat mustache/ And your Aryan eye, bright blue” all show how Plath visualizes her father as a Nazi – extremely insensitive, ruthless and dictatorial. Her relationships with men were utter failures and her poems create and grow upon hatred, disgust, and finality. The last ten lines ending with her anguished cry, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (line 80) reveals that finally Plath is ready to get over her emotional turmoil that has haunted her for years.
Plath’s acidic comment, “the villagers never liked you” (line 77) seeks approval for her personal hatred from an entire community in the form of castration and banishment. Her pathetic plight of being a victim “scraped flat by the roller / Of wars, wars, wars” (lines 17,18) finds its counterparts in the commonality of oppression, “But the name of the town is common” (line 19). Her sarcastic observation, “Every woman adores a Fascist” (line 48) widens the scope of her personal suffering to a more common, prevalent malady which hounds women of all ages and cultures.
Robert Hayden (1913-1980) celebrates human essence through his poems which deal with African American social and political plight. His poetry passionately explores the African American pages of American history. In his poem “Frederick Douglass” he uses the distinguished abolitionist and reformer as a symbol of a specific racial oppression and also of universal commonalities. Hayden in his short poem, “Frederick Douglass” establishes literary, personal, and historical ties with the African American historical figure, Frederick Douglass. Douglass’ confession regarding his lack of identity when he declared that he knew nothing of his father’s identity makes him a true symbol of the fundamental identity crisis that plagues humankind. In his poem Hayden does not describe Douglass’ fight for freedom as something specific to the African American context; instead he perceives liberty as something as “needful to man as air” (line 2). He describes Douglass as a Negro who visions “a world / where none is lonely, none hunted, alien” (lines 8-9). Frederick Douglass, according to Hayden, should be remembered not by placing statues in specific places but by “all” who give life to his dreams by making liberty their “instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole / reflex action” (lines 4-5). He sees “love and logic” (line 10) as redemptive factors that can elevate humanity from its obsession to suppress the weak. Robert Hayden sees freedom not as the goal of a specific race but as a “beautiful, needful thing” (line 14) for all humanity.
Michael S. Harper (b. 1938) is an African American poet whose sensitive verses are concerned with the segregation of the races in America. He lived in segregated housing, which is a symbol of the intolerant paranoia of this society. Binary oppositions as white and black, master and slave make Harper sad since he believes in a holistic universe. This philosophy urges him to weave jazz and blues, ancestral kinship, history, and mythology in the fabric of his poems.
His poems articulate suffering in order to gain the resilience to survive it. His poem “American History” links the personal and the historical, pain and its expression, suffering and compassion. This short poem reinstates how social ties become continuities of humanity as they link the individual with both a personal and collective history. When he sees the “four black girls blown up / in that Alabama church” (lines 1-2) reminds him of the five hundred blacks drowned in Charleston harbor. The tragic deaths of the four black girls loom larger as the symbol of the five hundred blacks. The appalling indifference of society and its legal institutions makes him ask with despair, “Can’t find what you see / can you?” (lines 8-9). This overlapping of historical and personal possibilities adds to the complexity of this poem. Harper, through his poems, aims to affirm responsible action by narrating racist nightmares.
While the poems of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath use gender as the referential point in their search for liberating personal and social identities, Robert Hayden and Michael S.Harper identify racial conflict to envision larger emancipatory paradigms. In all the above-discussed poems, self-consciousness lead group identities to shape into universal compassion. All these poems rise above culture-specificity and discuss how battles that are fought are not merely personal or political but they are wars between indifference/hatred and care/compassion. Identities affect the way we perceive the world and instead of focusing on uniqueness, these poets engage in understanding cultural differences through cross-cultural communication. Mediation is sought through empathic listening and dialogue. Understanding the role of identity is part of understanding the complexity of conflicts and this is precisely what the poems seek to do. Civil society is a major determinant of whether identity is going to be an instigator of violence or if it is a tool for envisioning a better future. These four poets juxtapose their experiences with the American cultural fabric, its people, its history, and its paradoxes. They serve as ongoing commentaries on American life through the frames of personal experiences and inevitably the ‘I’ becomes ‘we’.
Harper, Michael. S “American History” in Images of Kin. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1970.
Hayden, Robert. “Frederick Douglass”. http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/frederick-douglass/. May 5, 2007.
Plath, Sylvia. “Daddy” in Ariel. US: HarperCollins, 2000.
Sexton, Anne. “Her Kind” in The Complete Poems. US: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981.