Tuesday’s Teacher: Anne Sexton for her poem “Her Kind.”
Comprised of three stanzas, Anne Sexton introduces us to three different types of women — or perhaps three different versions of women encapsulated in one. The narrator of the poem concedes, “I have been her kind,” to all three of these representations of women. In fact we have all been “her kind,” since society allows only these three representations of the feminine outcast. When we don’t behave as we should, according to the prescribed rules of femininity, we become witches, whores, unnatural mothers. Anne Sexton was not only a feminist in her time — a time when it was more of an insult than it is today — but she also suffered from nervous breakdowns, which coupled with her feminist ideas placed her in the confined box of outcast — an unnatural woman.
The first stanza introduces us to the “witch.” She is possessed, twelve-fingered, she haunts, goes out at night and dreams of evil. She’s unnatural and does not fit the criteria of womanhood — soft, obedient, pure — like society expected of women.
The second stanza introduces to another woman she has been and is a seemingly natural place for all women: that of mother and wife. She goes into a cave — somewhere dark yet warm, a place of confinement, which she is expected to make a home of. As is required, she fills it with cooking material so she can bake for the “worms and elves,” her family — husband and kids. Referring to them as bugs and elves, implies that she is not perhaps fond of caring and cooking and cleaning for them — sacrificing for them. In this, she is also an outcast — shunned for being an unnatural mother and wife. As a woman — she should love her family, love to give up her self and her desires for them. There’s something wrong with her if she isn’t –but Sexton argues that this doesn’t make her different — she just “misunderstood.” She has been here — has “been her kind,” and so have we.
The third stanza delves into another representation of womankind — the whore with her “nude” arms, or perhaps the shunned and misunderstood woman being driven to an asylum for the different and unnatural. She is tortured for her difference:
your flames still bite my thigh and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like this has been burned at the stake for her witchery; she has been pulled and stretched by torture devices intended to encourage a confession of her”difference.” Whereas society denigrates, labels and continues to shun and misunderstand this woman, Sexton celebrates her. She is different; she see the world through different eyes, and she is “not ashamed to die” because she has lived her life on her terms. Society may not agree with it, but she doesn’t care. Carried out of town or to an asylum, or to jail, she “waves at the villages” flaunting her “nude” arms, which should be as confined to invisibility as her true nature.
She has been this woman, and she doesn’t care what society thinks of her. She celebrates her difference and her “unnatural” ability in conforming to the world’s view of women. If we live our lives as we see fit, in spite of the backlash we may receive from others, then we live and die with pride. There is nothing noble in conforming.
What about you? Have you ever gone beyond the prescribed notions of womanhood, motherhood, sisterhood, wife-hood? What kind of reception did you receive?