Sunday, January 31, 2010

Poem(s) o'the Day: Yeats, "Leda and the Swan"; Sexton, "Housewife"

Two short poems today--and one ISN'T ANNE SEXTON??? Nah, it's my favorite W.B.Yeats poem. The Sexton one is one I used to think as a bit of a throwaway, but have since recanted. By the way-is this a good idea? Is anyone reading? Frankly, I guess I'll continue posting either way, but of course, I'm totally paranoid and wonder if this thing (the poem-a-day) seems like an exercise in narcissism, or my attempt to seem literarily-holier-than-thou.

Like I said before, I'm really doing this--at least to my conscious knowledge--as a way of blogging regularly without having to bore you with the details of my boring life. I'm not interesting, or rather, my life is not interesting. This is something I've come to realize over the past four or five months. My days are filled with the same things, placed as if on a loop. I wake up; I eat; I shower; I eat; I go to a coffeeshop; I read; I read; I read; I read; I eat; I read; I read; I booze; I sleep. That is my life. Everyday. I'm not sure if I'm dissatisfied. In all honesty, it seems there's nothing to be but content--nothing throws me on either side of the fence, I guess. In short, I have little to blog about. I don't have as much time to keep on the culture wars I'm certain are raging out there--I'm not all that current on current events, because I'm bogged down (mostly) in writing from people who've died decades ago. It's a bit tough to capture my interest these days, because everything begins to seem a bit like deja vu. I've seen or heard it before and perhaps if I tried to focus, I could appreciate it, but I'm just tired or lazy or busy. So yes. That's my apologia for the status and style of the blog at this point.


Leda and the Swan (1924)
W.B. Yeats

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
by the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
he holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
the feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
but feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
the broken wall, the burning roof and tower
and Agamemnon dead.

Being so caught up,
so mastered by the brute-blood of the air,
did she put on his knowledge with his power
before the indifferent beak could let her drop?


Anne Sexton

Some women marry houses.
It's another kind of skin; it has a heart,
a mouth, a liver and bowel movements.
The walls are permanent and pink.
See how she sits on her knees all day,
faithfully washing herself down.
Men enter by force, drawn back like Jonah
into their fleshy mothers.
A woman is her mother.
That's the main thing.


Some commentary after the jump...

I didn't realize until typing these up that both poems attempt to represent sexual violence against women--and in each case, violence that has been culturally sanctioned. Yeats's poem envisions a rape that has been appropriated for aesthetic pleasure for thousands of years; the rape of Leda is, in most artists' renderings of it, a moment of beauty. My professor (we did this poem in class last week) claims that this is Yeats's one great modernist moment (this and of course "The Second Coming"), because the final two stanzas signal a highly uncharacteristic break of form for Yeats. My prof likewise suggested that, for once, it is the content that pressures the form in the poem until it cracks, again, when Yeats generally believed that form should always master whatever content might be held within the work.

For the class, the big question was whether or not Yeats was complicit with a system of 'inevitable violence'--in the sense of violence being fated, necessarily triggered, as in "The Second Coming" when the narrator speaks the (anti-Christ) Sphinx into being. Is there the suggestion that such violence is necessary or unavoidable? So the question became--does the content (the rape) break the form, because it is a moment when Yeats recognizes the ramifications of what he's saying? This was the suggestion of our professor--and not to say I don't think that this played some role in the 'break,' but to my mind, Yeats seems entirely complicit with the rape, up until a point. The break does not occur at the moment of the rape, but rather, at the aftermath of the Trojan war and the murder of Agamemnon. Yeats, it seems, is complicit with rape *unless* it engenders atrocity, as is the case with Leda (who gives birth to both Clytemnestra and Helen of Troy). Not to mention he apparently linked the rape of Leda to the Annunciation of Mary in Christian theology, and viewed Leda as a sort of 'recipient' of a similar annunciation. This complicates things. Does he then see Mary's belly-fulla-Jesus as a sort of rape by god? Or does he see the rape of Leda as entirely appropriate, inevitable, because of the children she births-not Christs, but integral historical figures. (And then, why the break because of the war, the murder--it seems these then become 'good' historical events for Yeats, and the break in form is under the weight of powerful, rather than horrifying, history.)

And why is the rape, yet again, presented as a sort of breathtaking union? Her "terrified vague fingers" evoke a sort of virginal naivete, rather than a woman fighting for her life. Her "helpless breast" is laid out in "the feathered glory" and "that white rush"--a sort of stunning dinner platter, in some sense. Not to mention "her loosening thighs" which place agency in her body, rather than in Zeus's forcible actions used to pry open her legs. The rape is, again, at the mercy of its own aesthetic value in the eyes of the artist. Don't get me wrong--this is probably my favorite Yeats poem, and I think it's just wonderful, but I also think it should be troubled for what it does not say, even as it is appreciated for what it does.

Likewise, the Sexton poem equates a woman with her household (and later her mother), but imagines domesticated men as entering forcibly into the "fleshy" pink caverns of the home. Here, though, I see Sexton's comment as one against this sort of sanctioned violation--she questions the validity of and scratches the veneer off of the suburban dream. Though the poem is only ten lines, it boils the American Dream of her era--the permanent houses, the proper marriages, the legacy of maternal approval--down to a series of succinct, rough images. If the man is Jonah, entering into his fleshy mother, then she (wife/mother) signals both the punishment and the redemption from the god he fears. This is not to say that I believe Sexton is implicating religion in the poem--god can be anything for anyone. It can simply evoke the overarching anxiety of the man who wishes to escape into his home/wife/mother. Does this then posit the woman as agent, or as at the mercy of two battling men--she becomes the vessel for man's lesson. It's ambivalent, though of course I have my opinions, and I think what I love about this poem is its vague quality. Is it the woman or the house--which the woman ostensibly *is*--faithfully washing herself down? Both? And this statement at the end, that "a woman is her mother / that's the main thing"--is so wonderfully open for interpretation, and so fascinating to employ as contrast to Sexton's many many other mother/daughter poems.

I suppose I've blabbed enough for now.


  1. I creepily read your blog through my google reader and I appreciate it (mostly since I never would seek out poetry on my own)

  2. Jamie, I also read your updates so do not despair! Dylan Thomas once wrote that he was never able to fully appreciate a poem until he wrote it out himself (was reminded of that by your comment about realizing something that both poems had in common after typing them out). Also, I enjoyed that youtube clip of anne sexton reading and hanging out in her home.