Willie’s essay on Anne Sexton is the first of what we hope will be many contributions to our site! -Ed.
How to Help Students Feel?
I know how to teach analytical writing.
I take pride in saying this because I was terrible at it my first few years of my teaching. I’d find poems and short stories of interest to students, give those texts deep reading consideration, prep students with background knowledge catered to their better grasp of the text, assign thoughtfully-crafted questions designed to get them to take apart and find meaning.
In return, I would receive, if I was lucky, thirty dry summaries with some opinions attached.
If Anne Sexton and the Like Doesn’t Work, Try Rihanna
In fact, it wasn’t until I began teaching by starting with music videos–something they already knew how to analyze–that I could make the jump between media and truly show them what analysis is–by first feeling the importance and significance, and then moving towards talking about what we felt.
I knew this approach to the meaning-traversal of mediums well.
It was what gave me poetry for the first time.
My Discovery of Anne Sexton
I was in 9th grade. Until that point, I had been given poems by well-meaning teachers in my Appalachian Kentucky schools, teachers who basically wanted us to solve them like riddles. The poems seemed old, intentionally obfuscated, and often delicate. I enjoyed them–but I didn’t know I was supposed, or even allowed, to feel anything.
So that particular day, I was flipping through a random book after finishing an in-class assignment, and my flipping finished on Starry Night by Van Gogh. The mad burning swirls cutting across the sky and flexing their indifference caught my eye, and I stared at the painting, wanting to be lost in it, transfixed, like millions before me, an adolescent deer caught in a celestial headlight.
And then I saw the words.
On the opposite page was printed Anne Sexton’s The Starry Night.
The Starry Night
I read the words and they lulled me to sink into them.
Her cypress tree was a “drowned woman in the hot sky” and suddenly, I, too, knew that I had drowned, knew the feel of wet death running its compulsion-warm skin down the sweating back of my neck.
Her boiling stars hurt me, scared me, and dared me to put my hand in the water.
I wanted to.
The alive unseen moving serpent was swallowing up stars and then it grabbed me. I could feel her words throbbing like the winds of the painting. I could feel the threat looming behind me, its warmth whispering in my ear that I should back up and die into it because it would feel good and feel like nothing.
I wanted it.
She rushed a great beast and I felt the wind and smelled its musk as it opened me.
And there inside me was the light of the boil, the eye of the heavens, pulsing behind and beyond the classroom, the fluorescent lighting, the chatter of hillbilly classmates.
I discovered poetry.
When the Right Poem Changes your Course
I was always an avid reader, mostly of science fiction and fantasy, and I loved the ability of words to create new worlds, to construct out of nothing an entire reality.
I had even already written my first book.
But Anne Sexton’s words didn’t create a new world. They undid an existing one. They opened up reality and stretched the truth hiding under it until my body and an idea, in an infinitely small and intangible way, became one.
Somehow, poetry used words to find something that couldn’t be described with words. I remember feeling like an ant that had discovered quantum theory for a brief moment only to have it wilt away in my little ant head that is not supposed to be able to understand such things.
A Bridge from Words to–
I had always loved Starry Night because it seemed beyond what we can understand. Still, even staring at such a sublimely colorful moment as it contained, somewhere my brain was asking questions and forming thoughts–using words, as brains will do.
But poetry takes over your words and therefore the experience, leaving the subconscious to wrestle in ways that are categorically new and beyond words.
Experience and storytelling are the primary modes in which human beings understand the world. My students already understood analysis because their experience with music videos told them stories, stories that created constructs they might lay over other forms.
Poetry does so many things, and that day, Anne Sexton taught a fourteen-year-old Appalachian boy that it has the capacity to pick up where old stories left off and allow us briefly to breathe air not yet known by stories.
And none of my students, nor I, will ever adequately analyze it.
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