Thanks to Peter Gabriel, I discovered Anne Sexton; thanks to Harold Bloom, I practiced a received contempt. Sexton and Sylvia Plath, he said, “are not poets, merely case histories and hysterics. They could not write poetry that should matter to any serious reader.” Proposing that W.D. Snodgrass, John Ashbery, Mark Strand, Elizabeth Bishop, and above all James Merrill are superior shouldn’t detract from Sexton’s achievement . I’m not sure if she listened to rock ‘n’ roll, but her concision and affinity for the folktale give her strongest lyrics a performative power that her contemporaries lacked; you can read “The Ambition Bird” aloud and produce a helluva response.
So it has come to this –
insomnia at 3:15 A.M.,
the clock tolling its engine
like a frog following
a sundial yet having an electric
seizure at the quarter hour.
The business of words keeps me awake.
I am drinking cocoa,
the warm brown mama.
I would like a simple life
yet all night I am laying
poems away in a long box.
It is my immortality box,
my lay-away plan,
All night dark wings
flopping in my heart.
Each an ambition bird.
The bird wants to be dropped
from a high place like Tallahatchie Bridge.
He wants to light a kitchen match
and immolate himself.
He wants to fly into the hand of Michelangelo
and come out painted on a ceiling.
He wants to pierce the hornet’s nest
and come out with a long godhead.
He wants to take bread and wine
and bring forth a man happily floating in the Caribbean.
He wants to be pressed out like a key
so he can unlock the Magi.
He wants to take leave among strangers
passing out bits of his heart like hors d’oeuvres.
He wants to die changing his clothes
and bolt for the sun like a diamond.
He wants, I want.
Dear God, wouldn’t it be
good enough just to drink cocoa?
I must get a new bird
and a new immortality box.
There is folly enough inside this one.