[lit-ideas] Re: Sextoniana

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  • Date: Thu, 27 Nov 2014 08:10:51 -0500

Helm writes:

"I have been unfair to Sexton, thinking of poems I didn't like.   There were
many I did like.  Here is one such from her first volume To  Bedlam and Part
Way Back.  At the time I read this I was under the  impression, as 
most readers were, that Sexton learned to write in  a mental institution.
According to Kumin that wasn't true.  She was a  poet before she got 
After typing it out and thinking about it as I typed I must  change
"like" to "sort of like."  Reading it the first time the  "Mister?" at the
end emphasizes a bit shockingly her lostness which struck me  as very
effective.  But I didn't care for her "la la la."  I  suppose that was to
signify her mental breakdown and perhaps she really did  sing "la la la" 
she was there but it doesn't seem up to the job.   Maybe there really were
four ladies over 80 in diapers but I don't see how  that adds to the poem.
They could as well have been in a hospital as a mental  institution.  
But what about the change to first person in the last stanza?  She  ends the
third stanza with "I have forgotten all the rest" but in the last  stanza
begins "they lock me in this chair at eight a.m."  Does this  signify that
she is having another episode or that she is remembering the  earlier 
so vividly that she still needs to ask "which way home . . .  Mister?" Sort 
of good but not great IMO.

Thanks to L. Helm for commentary on "Music Swims Back to me". I found  
further analysis below.
My lines proceed along Grice! When lecturing on 'and' and 'if' at Harvard,  
he introduced _publicly_ the concept of 'implicature' (Sidonius uses  
'implicatura') that he had been using informally already in Oxford for some  
years now (in his seminars). At Harvard he applies, for jocular effect, the  
concept to 'poetry': a few lines by Blake ("love that never told can be"). M. 
L.  Pratt takes on this, and considers that poets _flout_ some 'precepts' of  
efficient communication. This seems to work fine with Sexton here.
I will proceed by analysing the thing alla

Since I very much base my analysis on that, I use double quotes for the  
verbatim and append my notes to them.

"The poem", the author notes, "does  begins with its title," -- "Music 
Swims Back to me" -- (which happens to occur  in the body of the poem, unlike 
say, "Home, Sweet Home"), and the title is part  of the poem in that it 
"evoking themes of motion, fluidity, transience, return  and self", and in any 
case, since the line reappears in the body of the poem  (even if it's not the 
FIRST LINE -- as most ballad collectors would prefer)  there you go.
To say that music swims back to Grice, to Grice, who wrote on "Personal  
Identity" (and we'll see this approach is central to Sexton -- an approach to  
Grice's, or Sexton's, self in terms of memory) 
'evokes themes of motion, fluidity, transience, and self'. 
So here the title is poetic and NOT misleading, and, as in blank verse, it  
may count as part of the poem, plus the fact that the line reappears in the 
body  of the poem.
It's perhaps a SONG that swims back to Sexton, but never mind.
There is a difference between 'la la', the song, and 'music' in the  
abstract. But more of that later.

The title, the link above notes, is  interesting: "its flow of association 
swims with buoyancy, yet prospect of  drowning."
Or possibility of drowing. Cfr. Ovidio on LEANDRO, for example, on which  
operas were written, and Byron's attempt to recreate the myth by swimming 
back  as Leandro had!
"Music presently swims back to its source, the ‘self, ’ implying 
homecoming  and remembrance, yet nothing besides music is remembered."
Indeed. This is paradoxical for Grice. In his early "Personal Identity",  
not being very original, but following Locke (as Quinton will later follow  
Grice), the very self is DEFINED in terms of memory (or temporary mnemonic  
states as Grice prefers). Oddly, the example that Grice uses is
"I'm hearing a sound"
as in 
"I'm hearing the sound of music".
Here we have _music_ or song and self. Now if you
"I don't remember that song".

"What was the name of that song?" (I think the actual title of a song  is), 
or "The song without a name", there may be a contrast between the self and  
what the self remembers and which is what constitutes the self.
"Music is both personal and public – catchy songs are often referred to as  
being ‘stuck in our head’ to the point of driving us mad, implying further 
 underlying themes of continuance, circulation and madness."
Song is perhaps more interactive, in that it involves the physical organs  
-- the mouth and hearing yourself singing, 'la la'. But then, a song can be  
catchy, stick 'in your head', but if you have some control over what you 
do, you  don't have to go on SINGING 'la la'. 
There may be an expansion here which Grice deals with, as when we say, "he  
said to himself" (silently). Does this count as an act of meaning and  
communication. Similarly, one may 'hum a song to oneself', and one may 
 (in an auditory form) the song in one's brain, and some psychologists may 
say  that EVEN THERE some physical correlate is involved (the articulations 
of the  vocal chords as you mere THINK of the sound of the song).
"Sexton opens with a commanding voice, then immediately back-peddles with a 
 question for direction: ‘Wait mister. Which was is home? ’ Power is 
quickly  negated."
Here the idea to INCLUDE the title as part of the poem provides ONE  
interpretation. If one doesn't, as I wouldn't, then the poem STARTS with no  
at all.
---- It starts with a little girl lost, 'mister, which way is home?'. The  
'wait' may trigger the implicature that something has happened before (the 
grand  statement "Music Swims Back to me") and that we may need to take back 
some steps  and reconsider.
--- Note that it's "Wait" and "_But_ wait". 
"We move blindly into figurative darkness, 
‘They turned the light out 
and the dark is moving in the corner."
"Sexton’s use of enjambment drives us forward with the fluid motion we  
expect from her title."

"In total, there are 13 lines of enjambment  in the poem and only 11 
end-stop periods."

"‘They’", and Helm makes  a point about this, too, "is a third person 
pronoun, suggesting both a personal  and impersonal collective with whom we 
cannot identify, other than to associate  negative imagery."
Indeed. In French, they distinguish between 'they' (their version) and  
'on': there are various ways of expressing impersonality. In Italian, the use 
of  'si' (they speak Italian there). So, English restricts Sexton in her 
choice of  the impersonal collective. 

"The verse line is typically childish in tone, since children are  afraid 
of darkness when parents turn out the light."
And this sort of regress seems to be a theme in the poetry -- cfr. her  
"Transformations", out of which a whole opera was composed. Based on the Tales  
by the Brothers Grimm, they never mention infancy or childhood as such, but 
 adults 'acting like children'.
"Darkness appears to move in corners through fear of evil, yet the  
‘they turned the light out’ 
can be interpreted as an adult derogatory buzz-term for loosing one’s  

Indeed: in other languages, the episode of lighting turning out can be  
explained or expressed without reference to the subject, 'they': an active  
subject (the sentence is not in the passive voice) which remains impersonal and 

"Hence, the tone is dichotomously split between child-like fear and  adult 

"Sexton further implies a dichotomous child-adult  utterer through the 
unhyphenated compound word ‘sign posts’", plus the important  deictic, "THIS" 
('this room').
‘There are no sign posts in this room, ’ A signpost denotes a figurative  
interpretation as either clues to enlightenment or an act of metaphysical  

"Literally, a sign post states the obvious – there would be no  actual sign 
posts in a room, only signs."
Grice was fascinated with sign posts, as his mentor on these matters was,  
Peirce. Grice disliked the word 'sign', but in 'sign post', it sounds  
appropriate enough. There are signs, and there are sign posts. And a sign post  
is a sign. 
Sign post may be taken as Peirce's example of an index. "The sign post  
shows that...". But signposts can mislead, or lie, or negate what they  
purportedly are being signs for.

"8 of the verse-lines begin with the conjunction ‘and’ - a child-like  way 
to narrate a story."
Initial 'and' is perhaps another matter. Cfr. Blake (Grice's favourite  
poet): "And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains  
"And" is a child-like way to narrate a story. One of Grice's maxims is 'be  
orderly', and the conjuncts are supposed to correspond with temporal  
This is para-taxis. A non-child-like way to narrate a story includes casual 
 particles, adversative particles, and so on. ("For", "Although", 
"Furthermore").  Grice deals with this under the idea of a CONVENTIONAL 
attached to  this or that 'connector' (the infamous difference between 'and' 
and 'but', for  example, which Grice thinks logically equivalent, "She was 
poor BUT she was  honest"). 
"Through this, we can assume Sexton’s character as returning to her state  
of infancy."
Indeed. Knowing about Sexton's life helps, especially the problematic  
relation with her mother (whom she loved -- she died in her fur coat) and  
daughter (who dealt at length with growing up being Anne Sexton's daughter in  
her own book). 

"An undercurrent of dementia is detected in the following: 
four ladies, over eighty, 
in diapers every one of them.
One would think 'over eighty' to IMPLICATE 'over eighty years old'. But the 
 author provides a cancellation for this on occasion.
"While ‘Mister’ and ‘they’ are sketchy, impersonal characters, these 
ladies  are described in terms of sex, number, age and ‘diaper.’"
The latter word further implies a return to infancy, although describing  
patients with toiletry aids."

"Yet it fails to entirely clarify -- or as  I prefer EXPLICATE, as opposed 
to IMPLICATE -- cfr. 'explicature' -- the term  ‘turning out the light’ as 
sometimes ‘losing one’s marbles’ with age, as the two  listing commas 
present possible shifts in meaning."
four ladies, over eighty, 
There are various interpertations here alla Grice's Blake line, "Love that  
never told can be" -- and if the ambiguity is intentional, it is an  
"Perhaps there are four ladies and each lady is over eighty years  old."
This seems to be the standard interpretation of what is merely IMPLICATED  
(and thus cancellable).
"Or there are four ladies, and then there are over eighty ladies in number  
(who can tell in the dark?)".
Surely Sexton never SAID (as opposed to 'implied') 'years old'. 
"Also, there might be four ladies with a collective age of over eighty,  
making each approximately 20 years old."
And there are further implicatures if one takes the etymology of 'lady'  
literally, as _I_ should.
"We are quickly then distracted with a sudden outburst of singing," and the 
 title of the poem or key word to the poem:
‘La la la, Oh music swims back to me 
Helms writes that he "didn't care for her 'la la la'", but there may be a  
note on historical music here. Recall the way 
do re mi fa sol la si
were instituted. La is not just la. It's "A", in musical notation.
Ut queant laxīs    resonāre fībrīs
Mīra  gestõrum    famulī tuõrum,
Solve pollūtī     labiī reātum,
Sancte Iõhannēs.

and I can feel the tune they played 
the night they left me 
in this private institution on a hill.’"
"they" played. It was a tune and a song. We have a strong ability to  
recognise a SONG out of the tune ("Name that tune"). Then there are tunes that  
are not songs that we can also 'feel': Colonel Bogey, for example. 

"We sing along breathlessly through Sexton’s strongest and longest  point 
of enjambment."

"Through the childish, ambient protection of  song,"
or tune
la la la 
imagine Colonel Bogey not being whistled but la-la-laed.
our utterere "reccounts her first night ‘in this private institution on a  

"Retirement homes are not usually referred to as private  institutions ‘on 
a hill’. Mental institutions usually are."
So, even if as Helm notes, Sexton was a poet BEFORE getting to a mental  
institution, and Helm provides this poem as evidence of this, the poem is 
ABOUT  her first night in a 'mental' institution (Helm above: "At the time I 
read this  I was under the impression, as apparentlymost readers were, that 
Sexton learned  to write in a mental institution. According to Kumin that 
wasn't true.  She  was a poet before she got there," as "Music Swims Back to 
testifies or  illustrates).
The visual imagery of this line throws up an almost unavoidable exclamation 
 mark! Atop its hill, the institution is elevated, pronounced,  

"Sexton plays on our cultural pre-suppositions, pointing a  dramatic 
verse-line finger up towards the stereotypical hammer-horror mental  ward."

"Out of reach, but not out of sight, the unconscious looms  shadow-like 
over, rather than behind, its conscious suburban demographic."
--- This is an interesting idea of SUB-urbia! 

"Stanza one’s  climactic revelation suspends us between stanzas with the 
technical grip of a  cliff-hanging horror film."

"The following stanza represents a shift in  consciousness, yet Sexton’s 
character remains in the same crazy clutch."
‘Imagine it. A radio playing / and everyone here was crazy’ 
commands stanza two, echoing the directness of the poem’s opening ‘Wait  
"It is as though we’re looking back over our shoulder to previously issued  
Or savouring their implicatures.
"The theme of return is played out again, anchoring us back in from  
unstable imagery. Here, we have music returning, or ‘playing’ the way children  
play, and the direct use of the word ‘crazy’."
But then cfr. the use of 'mental' in 'mental' institution. Language, being  
the epitome of rationality, as Grice notes, may encounter this or that 
problem  in describing the irrational. Cfr. Dodds, The Greeks and the 
"And yet, this crazy mise-en-scène isn’t concrete, since we are being told  
to imagine it. Sexton uses a period rather than a colon, semi-colon or 
comma  after ‘Imagine it.’ and so she’s not directly instructing us to imagine  
anything, just ‘it.’ hinting at a mental lacuna."

The 'it' can be merely grammatical, but surely this is an implicature. The  
'it' can ALWAYS receive a literal interpretation. Cfr. 'It made it very  
difficult'. "Make what?" "It". "What is it?", asked the bird. "It depends".  
"Well, usually, it's a worm for me" (Adapted from "Alice in Wonderland").
"Stanza two is replete with sensual imagery, arresting connotative verbs  
and nouns, fluid senses, sharp textures, musical sounds and overwhelming  
Grice was fascinated with synaesthesia, in that he wrote "Some remarks  
about the senses" taking into serious consideration Aristotle's and Urmson's  
idea that the senses are _five_.
‘music pours over the sense’, ‘music sees more than I.’ 
"The latter suggests both confusion and clarity."
Cfr. "Music remembers more than I". If with Grice we define the self in  
terms of memories, the utterance becomes charmingly paradoxical in terms of  
implicatures that are cancellable. 
"The tone is almost orgasmic. Imagery from stanza one flows back as she  
remembers her ‘first night here’ - the institution becomes present, immediate 
 and inclusive."

"For the first time, Sexton commits to violent metaphors: 
‘strangled cold of November’, ‘stars strapped in the sky’, 
(as a patient is strapped in the chair)
‘moon too bright / forking through the bars to stick me with a singing in  
the head.’ 
"Each metaphor conveys a repressed unconscious memory rising to its  
conscious surface."
And a metaphor is an implicature, always, due to a category mistake.  
Grice's example, "You're the cream in my coffee". And perhaps the KEYWORD on 
poet's repertory of tropes. Grice had a polemic with Davidson on this. For  
Davidson, metaphors have to be taken literally AS FALSEHOODS. For Grice, 
the  implicature trumps the explicature. 

"Psychologically, the music is linked with violent acts that Sexton’s  
character has possibly repressed since they prove too traumatic, as in the  
metaphorical too bright moon."
"In remembering and vocalising the music, her unconscious activities rise  
with it, fragmented and partial."
"Sexton affirms her psychological connection with the final line, ‘I have  
forgotten all the rest.’"
"Using well-known Freudian theory, it is simple and satisfying to  
understand the poem’s axis: Music constantly returns because it has replaced  
suppressed memories too traumatic to remember."
"However, as we’ve read, slippage occurs through a series of displaced  
violent associations."
"This way, Sexton implements psychology accurately, but also poetically, in 
 revealing the possible causes of our character’s madness and subsequent  
"The ‘strangled cold’ implies attempted suicide or successful murder 
during  the month of November."

"Down the left-hand side of this stanza we can  see a total of five ‘I’s, 
forming a column of isolation."

"The isolated  ‘I’ is locked ‘in this chair at 8am.’"

"presenting a repetitive return to  consciousness and madness in stanza 
three’s opening."

"From lines two to  nine, Sexton repeats key phrases from stanzas one and 
"Everything returns, encircles and closes in with heightened drama: ‘and  
there are no signs to tell the way, ’, ‘the radio beating to itself’, ‘the 
song  that remembers more than I.’"
"Notice how Sexton’s singing, ‘Oh, la la la, ’ is now situated on the  
right-hand side of the poem as opposed to the left."

"Its mirror image  creates an elliptical effect, containing the poem’s body 
within its own  figurative chair."
"Even the poem’s title is repeated, “music swims back to me”."
"Crucially Sexton writes “The night I came, I danced a circle / and was not 
 afraid” reiterating line three of stanza two “I liked it and danced in a  
"The poem is dancing with Sexton in a circle they cannot  escape."

"The poem ends with ‘Mister? ’ returning full-circle to its  opening."

"This is not an exit but an open-ended question, tying us in to  the poem’s 

"Does Anne Sexton’s Mister exist?"

"Did  he exist at all or did we/she simply imagine him?"

"This one word calls  into question the entire poem’s existence – is 
anything that Sexton mentions  throughout her verse real or is it a figment of 
her character’s insanity?  Through Sexton’s brilliant use of language, 
imagery, form, punctuation and  psychological mechanisms, she draws us into her 
fluid, unstable institution of  uncertainty and loss of self."

Wait Mister.  Which way is home?
They turned the light  out
and the dark is moving in the corner.
There are no sign posts in this  room,
four ladies, over eighty,
in diapers every one of them.
La la la,  Oh music swims back to me
and I can feel the tune they played
the night  they left me
in this private institution on a hill.

Imagine it.   A radio playing
and everyone here was crazy.
I like it and danced in a  circle.
music pours over the sense
and in a funny way
music sees more  than I.
I mean it remembers better;
remembers the first night here.
It  was the strangled cold of November;
even the stars were strapped in the  sky
and that moon too bright
forking through the bars to stick me
with  a singing in the head.
I have forgotten all the rest.

They lock me in  this chair at eight a.m.
and there are no signs to tell the way,
just the  radio beating to itself 
and the song that remembers
more than I.   Oh, la la la,
this music swims back to me.
The night I came I danced a  circle
And was not afraid.

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