Laying poems away (PoemTalk #137)

Anne Sexton, 'The Ambition Bird'

Left to right: Ellen Berman, Anthony Rostain, Ahmad Almallah


Al Filreis was joined by Ellen Berman, Anthony Rostain, and Ahmad Almallah to talk about Anne Sexton’s poem “The Ambition Bird” (1972). Berman and Rostain are practicing psychiatrists, and Almallah is a poet whose first book, Bitter English, is being published by University of Chicago Press. A film of Sexton reading the poem — available on YouTube — is the basis of the audio we extracted and include in our audio podcast. The text of the poem is available here and here; the latter is reproduced from The Complete Poems and was grouped there under “Thirty Poems,” it being the lead-off poem in the series. The Book of Folly — surely that title picks up from the final line of our poem, thus making it in a sense a title poem — was published two years before Sexton’s death by suicide.

A New York Times review by Joyce Carol Oates of The Complete Poems written in 1981 observed that after the mid-1960s Sexton’s writing “had begun to lose its scrupulous dramatic control and [was] weakened by a poetic voice that, rarely varying from poem to poem, spoke ceaselessly of emotions and moods and ephemeral states of mind.” Berman, Rostain, and Almallah, as PoemTalk listeners will hear, take a very different approach. If an understanding of clinical depression is adjusted by a sense of the deep anger and frustration of the domestic scene of an intensely ambitious woman, then perhaps the emotional ceaselessness, figurative ephemerality, and formal scrupulous control might be seen as of a piece. And this might signal a redefinition of poetic scrupulosity. “The long box” is (to mix the metaphor) loose, its contents passing foul moods, on one hand, and, on the other, tightly structured and prepared for the ultimate statement of being.

PoemTalk was engineered and directed this time by Zach Carduner, Leah Baxter, and Mary Osunlana, and was edited as always by Zach Carduner. We are grateful for our partners at the Poetry Foundation and to Nathan and Elizabeth Leight for their ongoing general support of PoemTalk and much else that happens in and around the Wexler Studio here at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia.

Click on the image above to view the full text of the poem.