Anne Sexton, “Rowing,” from The Awful Rowing Toward God, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975†
It is tedious to discuss how and why Anne Sexton is enshrined (entrapped) by the label confessional. Let us acknowledge that “confession” also means a declaration of faith, as Augustine reminds us in his conversion narrative, Confessions. Sexton hoped to awaken her readers spiritually, and she prophesied her poetry would be seen as mystical. Her spiritual adviser, a priest, once told her, “God is in your typewriter.”
Her last and finest book, The Awful Rowing Toward God, offers an inclusio presenting God as an island to whom Sexton rows. I would like to consider the opening poem, “Rowing,” as an example of radically condensed classical structure with both expected and surprising turns.
Like Paradise Lost and the Greek and Roman epics it emulates, Sexton’s poem begins with a declaration of subject, hers in a single line constructed of two repeated words: “A story! a story!” She may be encouraging herself for the task, entreating God to inspire the telling at a pace God sees fit, or both. Or is it two parallel stories—autobiographical and parabolic—for which she prepares us? The parenthetical in the next line suggests hesitancy. Augustine first presents his stumbling block as his own selfishness; Malcolm X, racism; and Sexton, consumerism.
Next in the epic form is creation. Sexton details her own birth and maturation with characteristic images of suburban environs, which also reflect the larger society’s growing obsession with production and material gain. Throughout this section, she repeats “then,” which is conventional in a chronological story and reinforces the enthusiasm of the storyteller. A quiet and expected “but” in line 12 confirms her distance from this world of conformity.
Following a final demonstrative illustration of her difference is an interruptive—“touch is all.” In contrast to the uncertain parenthetical in line 2, this assertion expresses confidence in essential human affection. Despite the “voices of [her] education,” as D.H. Lawrence termed it, she has grown. She anticipates our surprise at her unlikely survival and twice reinforces the contrast with “but.” In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo warns against these overdetermining conjunctions, those that announce the turn in argument rather than allow the reader to consider relationships between ideas for herself. However, through variation Sexton manipulates syntax to complicate the progression of her story rather than simplify it.
The surprise turn is the use of “and” before “God was there like an island I had not rowed to” in line 24. Her thriving is a reversal of her expectations, but God’s existence is not. Therefore, her next repetition of “I grew” is prefaced by “and.” Although she is “ignorant of Him,” she is given the physical (implied spiritual) means to reach him. She follows the path of material pursuit (rubies) and domesticity (tomatoes), and (again “and”) she is able to continue her quest. The blinking and rolling sea—the primeval sea? the sea of fluctuating mental states?—causes her to return in line 34 to “but,” the signifier of the appearance of her unlikely progress. Sexton prophesies that she will not transcend her domestic difficulties, but she will find a lifting of her madness through her own action, her own opening toward God.
The reader takes a necessary half breath after “rat” in line 41 before the assurance of God’s accepting gesture, which many Christians call grace. (Most of the book’s later poems are decidedly Christian in context.) That half-breath is a different kind of turn, one in which both poet and reader must hang in the interstice, waiting for the new direction. There’s a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets through. (This assertion, that what appears a defect is a necessary part of the whole, is likely a Buddhist aphorism.) Every turn or conversion is a necessary deconversion from other possibilities, a turn against. In contrast to the gnawing rat is the embracing God. A period, instead of coordination, stands between them. Rower and reader have to wait a beat.
As a kind of moral epilogue, the last stanza changes tone while enacting the present and absent flow of narrative, writer and audience, proposed at the poem’s start. The African aphorism, which would seem to seal the poem’s conclusion, is followed by a rejection of closure, another crack through which to describe her perseverance.
In The Awful Rowing Toward God’s final poem, “The Rowing Endeth,” Sexton reaches the Island (capitalized now) and plays a rigged game of poker with God. But that is another poem to consider at another time. In “Rowing,” a tragic-comic blend of authentic seeking and wistful doubt is navigated by the use (and absence) of coordinating conjunctions, guiding us through her turns in tropes and interpretations. Conversion narrative and epic structures combine with very contemporary details to retell an old story of spiritual struggle.
Martha Serpas has published two collections of poetry, Côte Blanche and The Dirty Side of the Storm. She co-produced Veins in the Gulf, a documentary about Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands, is a hospital trauma chaplain, and teaches at the University of Houston.
† As we were unable to attain reprint permissions or find a link to an accurate online version of the poem, we offer a citation in lieu of the poem itself. We encourage interested readers to consult the print version.