Objects Solitary and Terrible

Live or Die

by Anne Sexton
Houghton Mifflin, 90 pp., $4.00

The Lice

by W.S. Merwin
Atheneum, 80 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Reasons for Moving

by Mark Strand
Atheneum, 80 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Love Letters from Asia

by Sandra Hochman
Viking, 54 pp., $3.95

In the fourth chapter of Le Degré Zéro de L’Ecriture Roland Barthes proposes a distinction between classical language and modern language. “The economy of classical language,” he says, is “relational, which means that in it words are abstracted as much as possible in the interest of relationships.” The words do not claim any special character in their own behalf: “no word has a density by itself, it is hardly the sign of a thing, but rather the means of conveying a connexion.” In modern language the fixed relations are dissolved, and words are cast upon a new condition; they may do what they will, because they are not obliged to do anything in particular. The object of a modern poem is not to define or qualify relations already conventionally agreed, but to cause “an explosion of words.”

It is easy to think of these modern words as independent objects, discontinuous and magical. Their distinguishing mark is an assertion of presence; they are no longer content to live as neutral signs. It follows that a new sense of Nature is implied. “The interrupted flow of the new poetic language,” Barthes remarks, “initiates a discontinuous Nature, which is revealed only piecemeal.” Nature now becomes “a fragmented space, made of objects solitary and terrible, because the links between them are only potential.” It would be more accurate to say that the links between them are only virtual, or that, in any declared relation, they are arbitrary. If a writer proposes a relation between one thing and another, the only meaning to be drawn from the proposal is that it is congenial to the mind which has made it. The predicament is one of the reasons for the apocalyptic note in modern poetry.

At first sight, it is impertinent to think of these matters when we are reading Mrs. Sexton’s poems. The experiences before and beneath the poems are so dreadful that the question of the poems themselves can hardly be raised. The poetry, it may be felt, does not matter. In Live or Die many poems come from mental hospitals, suicide rooms, and the Valley of the Dolls; their mark is what Dryden somewhere calls “the sad variety of Hell.” As in All My Pretty Ones and To Bedlam and Part Way Back, the poems are seasongs, songs of drowning, hungering for land. Reading poems like “Those Times,” “Wanting to Die,” and “The Addict,” one is almost ashamed to consider, the experiences being what they are, whether the poems are good or not. Notes of rage and despair are sent to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; and here we are, reading them as if they were poems. One impertinence begets another. It seems outrageous to ask why the terrible experiences, irrefutable as they appear, have not issued in greater poems, if they were to issue in poems at all. Normally, poems are not very good because they have nothing much to report; but Mrs. Sexton has so …

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